Jeffrey Friedberg’s novels never disappoint me. While I’m not a big reader of thrillers, now and then I find an author who knows how to entertain me so well I can’t put his books down. This third novel, Red, White, and Dead Again: The Nuclear Armageddon Conspiracy (Volume One) by Friedberg, a sequel to Red, White, and Dead brings back Detective Jack Vane, my favorite detective since Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot bit the dust. I don’t imagine they would have approved of Jack’s methods, but Jack lives in the 21st Century, when anything seems possible, and especially in the American Southwest.
This time, Jack is on the trail of discovering the secret plans to a weapon of mass destruction that was developed alongside the atom bomb — a “super bomb” or “hell bomb” that is 1,000 times more powerful than the hydrogen bomb, which is itself 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb. In other words, this hell bomb is one million times worse than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Now that’s scary! And the plans for this hell bomb have long been lost or hidden, and numerous people want them found, and they think Jack is the man to do it.
I don’t know how even to begin to describe all the plot twists and turns in this book, but I love that many of the characters from Friedberg’s previous books return, including the Fat Man Yaakov Irgun, Jack’s sort of employer — who has secrets from his past that are revealed in this volume. Also returning are Tiffany Chablis, who owns a delivery company and has a crush on Jack, and Little Boy, Jack’s Native American friend who learns he has an interesting link in his past that connects him to the mysterious super bomb. Of course, a whole cast of colorful new characters are introduced, beginning with Mafia Baroness Sophia Gambeno-Lanskie and her Amazonian daughters. There’s an old Native American woman with a past of her own who is still surprisingly agile when action is called for, and a nerdy park ranger obsessed with the past. How all of these characters are involved in either planning for or stopping a plan for world domination with the super bomb will keep the reader flipping pages and holding his breath.
But Friedberg does more than write thrillers. When I could stop reading, I found myself running to the Internet to look up the atom bomb and other historical details in the novel. Friedberg expertly blends in history with the plot until readers begin wondering, “What is fact and what is fiction?” Despite the somewhat exaggerated “thriller” world that Friedberg creates, he does it so well that suspension of disbelief happens effortlessly for the reader who begins to believe in conspiracies and mystical moments and enjoys it all the way to the last page.
As in his previous novels, Friedberg also sets the story in the American Southwest. This time, he gives his readers an extra treat by including photos of many of the places mentioned in the novels. These photos help add to the overall effect of fiction feeling like history. Friedberg has obviously thoroughly researched Santa Fe’s history and specifically the many buildings he mentions and for which he provides photographs. Photos include: The Kill Box at 109 East Palace Road, Santa Fe, which was the 1945 Headquarters of the A-Bomb Project; Atomic Bomb Creator Oppenheimer’s Office; several photos of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as well as the Sandia Casino Hotel, and the Sena Plaza. These photos really made me appreciate and visualize the novel’s locations since I have never been to Santa Fe. Most of the photos are in the back of the book, so I encourage readers to look at them as they read without sneaking a peek at how the novel ends.
And the novel is so funny! I laughed more times than I could ever count. Friedberg is a master at creating witty dialogue. Humphrey Bogart would not be able to compete with the witty manner in which Jack Vane and his fellow characters can deliver their lines — in fact, this book would make a great movie, an incredible blockbuster summer movie, and unlike most of those films, it would have some depth to it as well. Here are a few quick examples of the humorous dialogue. The first is Jack’s conversation with the Fat Man Yaakov Irgun:
“Let me ask you something, Yaakov. You’re, like 180 years old or something, right?”
“I’m a robust seventy-nine.
“At this point in life, why do you still do this…job? What do you want?”
“Power. It’s what I live for.”
“You have power. What’s the point of more power?”
“The point of power is power.”
“What about friends?”
“I don’t need friends, Jack — what I need is enemies. Get off my back. You don’t need to know anything personal about me.”
The second occurs at the end of Jack’s conversation with the Mafia Baroness Sophia when she tells Jack she wants him to find the plans for the super bomb:
“Oh, he knew that we would want the design for ourselves, of course. But he’s gambling on you winning — not us. Funny, right?”
“But what if I do destroy it? Then what?”
“Then, Jack — you don’t get paid.”
“And you would be killed all kinds of dead.”
“That’s badder, Sophia.”
She stared at him silently, her eyes too narrow.
She leaned forward, and he prepared for the slap because he’d used her first name.
She said, “Jack, would you like to see all my tattoos privately somewhere?”
I wish I could quote more, including some of the fast-paced action scenes that made Red, White, and Dead Again: The Nuclear Armageddon Conspiracy end all too quickly for me, but readers will just have to enjoy this book for themselves. I don’t think anyone who loves a good read and intelligent, witty writing will be disappointed. I can’t wait for the next book and the opportunity to return to Friedberg’s conspiracy ridden, action-packed Southwest again.
(Reviewed by Tyler Tichelaar for Reader Views )