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A MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

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There’s probably a PhD somewhere waiting for the person who writes a thesis on the ratio of fictional female FBI agents to their male counterparts, then setting this against the equation among real-life graduates of Quantico. In the world of crime fiction, there is certainly equal opportunity. The most celebrated is probably the indominatable Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris) but many others run her close, including Alex Morse (Greg Iles), Smokey Barratt (Cody McFadyen), Kathryn Dance (Jeffery Deaver), Kimberley Quincy (Lisa Gardner) and Lacey Sherlock (Cathrine Coulter). David Baldacci has bought into the idea with his Agent Atlee Pine, who he introduced in Long Road To Mercy (2018). That title is something of a pun because Atlee Pine’s twin sister was abducted one mysterious night thirty years earlier and her name – you’ve guessed it – is Mercy.

AMTM coverAtlee Pine has anger management issues, and A Minute To Midnight begins as she is put on gardening leave for kicking the you-know-what out of a child rapist. She decides to use this enforced leisure time in another attempt to find out what happened on the fateful night when her sister was abducted and she was left with a fractured skull. Accompanied by her admin assistant Carol Blum, she revisits the scene of the trauma, the modest town of Andersonville, Georgia. Tumbleweed is the word that first comes to mind about Andersonville, but it scrapes a living from tourists wishing to visit the remains of the Confederate prisoner of war camp which, in its mere fourteen months of existence, caged over thirty thousand Union prisoners of whom nearly thirteen thousand were to perish from wounds, disease and malnutrition.

The house where Pine, Mercy and their parents lived is now little more than a tumbledown shack lived in by a shambolic old man, and revisiting her childhood bedroom brings the agent emotional grief but no further clues as to what happened that night. Why was she spared and Mercy taken? Or was it the other way round? Were her parents drunk and drugged out of their minds downstairs while the abductor did his business?

David BaldacciA series of apparently motiveless murders in Andersonville diverts Pine from the search for her own personal truth, and she is soon enlisted to help the understaffed and under-resourced local cops. The first murder victims – a man and a woman – are killed elsewhere but then delivered to Andersonville bedecked as bride and groom respectively. When it turns out that they were both involved in the porn industry, what first appears to be a significant lead runs into a brick wall.

Pine’s personal quest is ever present, and Baldacci weaves this thread into the fabric of the search for the present day serial killer. For my taste there are rather too many occasions where the narrative is propped up by the investigators explaining things to each other, but this is a cleverly written thriller by a master craftsman in the genre. The Andersonville killings are solved, and Atlee Pine is subject to some uncomfortable revelations about her own back-story, but this is not the end of the matter. David Baldacci clearly has more secrets up his sleeve as an addictive series begins to take shape. A Minute To Midnight is published by Macmillan and is out on 14th November.

For more on books by David Baldacci click here.

 

 

KEEP YOU CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Steph Maddox is something of an Alpha female. She has punched her way through the law enforcement glass ceiling during her training at the legendary Virginia military training base known as Quantico, and now she is a senior operative at the HQ of The Federal Bureau of Investigation which, as the organisation’s website tells us, helpfully, is:

“… located between 9th and 10th Streets in northwest Washington, D.C. The closest Metro subway stops are Federal Triangle on the Orange/Blue lines, Gallery Place/Chinatown and Metro Center on the Red line, and Archives/Navy Memorial on the Yellow and Green lines.”

The site goes on to offer a very individual kind of day out:

“The FBI Experience is a self-guided tour at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Open to the public, visits may be requested up to five months in advance of, but no later than four weeks prior to the desired visit date.”

KYC coverFor Agent Maddox, however, The FBI Experience is something other than a theme park visit. Gender equality has come at a price, and she is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion by many of her male colleagues, particularly as she is – and feel free to use the ‘woke’ description of your choice – a single mother, lone parent or head of a one-parent family. The blunt truth is that Steph has brought up Zachary largely on her own from day one. Not only that, but she has steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of his father.

Zachary is a walking embodiment of a male teenager. Monosyllabic, tech-savvy, frequently tongue-tied and often a recluse in his bedroom. As mums do, Steph is casually going through the things on his clothing shelves when her hand touches something which makes her recoil in horror. No, not a particularly nasty piece of unwashed personal attire, but the cold, brutal steel of a Glock 26 pistol – a compact version of her own official firearm.

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To say that Steph is now unsettled is a massive understatement. Choosing a rather more indirect route to confronting Zach about her discovery, she also learns that the boy is on the mailing list of a known terrorist organisation, the Freedom Solidarity Movement. Her anxiety deepens when Scott, a fellow agent and former boyfriend, reveals that Zachary is a person of interest.

karen-clevelandKaren Cleveland, to say the very least, knows of what she writes. She is a former CIA analyst herself, and her experience translates into a swiftly moving and convincing narrative. Steph Maddox is torn between fighting her son’s corner – he is innocent, surely? – and preventing a major terrorist assassination attempt. As in the real world of political and military intelligence gathering, nothing is what it seems, and no-one is above suspicion.

The tension of the plot is wound higher and higher until, like an over-stretched guitar string, you know it’s going to snap. When it does, the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Cleveland (right) , however, is not just a one-trick pony. Her account of Steph struggling to be a decent mother, despite the dramatic chaos of her professional life, is perceptive and moving. Keep You Close is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

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