Having established himself as the premiere writer of “conspiracy in high places” thrillers in 1996 with his first novel, Absolute Power, which was made into a hit movie starring Clint Eastwood, David Baldacci has now written over 20 novels and remains the master of that subgenre. In The Innocent, the author remains at the top of his game.
Baldacci’s success lies in an ability to build plots and create characters that in lesser hands would seem like the fringe conspiracy theorist’s best bad dream. But Baldacci makes the story and the characters seem all too plausible and, seemingly, with some kind of prescience, topical and ripped from the headlines.
Will Robie is a case in point. He is a veteran assassin for a shady, unnamed U.S. Government agency and he roams the world at his master’s bidding eliminating targets as ordered with deadly efficiency. It’s a character and plot that would require the mainstream reader to suspend belief and accept them as entertainment, but with the recent dearth of assassinations of Al-Qaida leaders, Iranian nuclear scientists, etcetera, they become realistic. Baldacci is a master at this kind of story.
Fresh from two assignments to eliminate, presumably, just such enemies of America abroad, Robie is now on a mission closer to home in and around the nation’s capital. Armed with a dossier of the intended enemy’s photo, address, and biography of daily movements and habits, he has developed a plan approved by his handler and supported by backup personnel who make sure the needed weapons, information, and support services are readily at hand.
He doesn’t need to know the sins of the person, great or small. Robie leaves passing judgment to his superiors. He is only the executioner. Cold blooded and unemotional. He has operated this way for over a decade, and though oft times the condemned is an enemy of notorious reputation, just as often they are unknown to the world at large as a threat. Robie just dispatches them as efficiently as a lethal injection and as detached and dispassionate as a high-powered bullet fired on a battlefield.
Until now. With the voice of his handler guiding his every step and watching, from a distance, his back, Robie gains entry to the apartment building with the ease of a cat burglar. He makes child’s play of the locks to the apartment. He sneaks undetected to the victims bedroom, he IDs the target and then, silenced pistol at hand and aimed, he hesitates. He’s not quite sure why he hesitates in the completion of this execution. Is it because the condemned is a woman? But he has had to execute women before. Did he suddenly develop a conscious? He believes in his mission, however, as distasteful and non-P.C.as it may play out to the media. Is it the unusual anxiety of his handler? But he has been on tense assignments before when his was the only cool hand on site.
Perhaps it is the unlikely location of the enemy in a quiet Washington D.C. suburb that wouldn’t seem the hideout of a public enemy. Perhaps it is the child, obviously the woman’s son, in bed with the target. But he still could have soundlessly dispatched her to oblivion and the child is young enough to where he would soon forget and heal from the trauma. Nonetheless, for the first time ever, Robie hesitates. His handler frantically calling for him to complete the assignment, urges him on in a near-panicked voice, but still Robie hesitates and then the child awakens and the intended victim stirs. Robie does the unthinkable–if hesitating is unthinkable, then this action is doubly so. He attempts to save the condemned, but her reprieve is short-lived as a sniper’s bullet pierces the window killing her and the child with one high velocity round.
Robie knows that the killing is not finished in this room on this night. Having hesitated, having failed in the mission, his value to his handler and his employer is as worthless as his actions a few minutes earlier. But, Robie has the advantage of knowing what comes next. He knows where his handler and the support team will set up in order to eliminate the liability he has become to them. So, he outguesses them, being far superior to them in tactics of escaping the scene of an assassination. Then he once again does the unthinkable. He rescues the victim’s other child, a baby still in diapers, from the apartment and leaves the child in a carrier at the door of another resident. Then, he evades his now would-be killers and executes his escape plan, which is not even known to his handlers.
As he makes his way to a second rate bus station to flea the city for New York, and then out of the country, Robie watches everything and everyone since he knows his hunters are deadly and efficient. As he boards a midnight bus with tickets bought anonymously as an exodus and a hedge against just such a failure of plans, he is vigilant as he must be to survive. As a man enters the bus just as it pulls out of the station, Robie identifies him as a man just like himself; a stone killer, a professional executioner. But amazingly, the killer doesn’t come for him. The killer starts to act against a young teenage girl a few rows in front of Robie and for the third time this evening, inside this hour, Robie once again displays, incongruously, his humanity. He saves the girl by killing the killer and then escapes the bus. But as the unlikely pair make their escape, the bus explodes.
Robie is convinced that his employer and handler could not have known his escape plan or anticipated his route. Therefore the girl, Julie, must be the target. Now, tasked with running for his life, and with Julie as a hindrance to that task he finds himself in the unfamiliar spot of being a protector. He is doubly tasked with saving his life and Julie’s as he sets out to investigate why his intended victim was marked for assassination and why Julie is on the run from a hit squad that seems just as determined as his former employers. As the bodies stack up, both from Julie’s pursuers and his own, and as he quickly learns that he can’t trust anyone–either from his government or the criminal world where Julie’s parents lived–he slowly uncovers sins and subterfuge at every turn and rising to the top of the government.
Baldacci has crafted a clever plot that takes the usual twists and turns with expected red herrings and dead ends. In his hands these aren’t simply plot devices but the tools for exposing the dangers confronting 21st century warriors of terrorism and law enforcement agencies in a world where the criminals can afford to not just “buy a cop,” but buy an agency. Baldacci makes both the good guys and the bad guys living breathing people and the hurdles they all strive to overcome are as up to date as tomorrow’s headlines. His dialog is succinct, direct, and hard-edged. His sense of place as complete as a tour guide’s, the tension is a taut and beautifully maintained as a tightrope walkers, and the narration is top drawer. Baldacci is and continues to be one of the top hitters in the thriller genre working today.
The Innocent by David Baldacci, Grand Central Publishing, 422 pages, $27.99, ISBN:9780446572996 Review copy provided by Grand Central Publishing through NetGalley.com