Macmillan, 400 pages, £18.99
Guess they can be made to take the rap for anything. In David Baldacci’s latest page-turner — “The Forgotten” — the arch-enemy is a former hedge fund manager. He is now a slave trader and remains just as blasé about how the monies are made. In Obama’s America, ex-bankers just don’t seem to be mending their ways and seeking redemption.
But don’t expect Baldacci to spend time on character exposition and fix a bead as to why this particular banker chose slave trading for a career change. Indeed, the character makes an appearance at only about the halfway mark with all of the action taking place in Paradise, a rich man’s haven off the Florida coast. Retirees of some means also call it home as do many an illegal who occupy Paradise’s nether realms. Paradise, for sure, is certainly not what it seems and even disused oil rigs off the coast are used for the banker’s nefarious purposes.
As is Baldacci’s norm, the early pages rack up the body count, including the aunt of John Puller, a United States Army CID who is skilled in most of the combat techniques known to man. Puller lands up in Paradise to spend some quality time with his aunt but finds that she has died in what the local police claim to be accidental drowning.
Sure, he has his doubts and they only keep growing when the aunt’s neighbours keep getting popped off or meet with dire accidents. There are a few other skirmishes that Puller finds himself in, courtesy of Paradise’s assorted street punks. Despite the relentless action, Puller’s even got time to engage with a love interest, and a one-star general at that. It also helps that she is a crack shot, which comes in handy closer to the denouement.
There is also a parallel thread in the plot line, in the form of Mecho, a brooding hulk who has a few choice scores to settle with the erstwhile banker for his foray into human trafficking. But there is little by way of a back story in fleshing out the character beyond waxing descriptive on the skills he brings when taking out an opponent.
Baldacci sets a consistent pace for the most part, though it wanes significantly when the action shifts to the romantic entanglements. The dialogue turns clunky at times, and one gets the impression Baldacci is more in his comfort zone when dealing with the twists and turns in the corridors of Washington power politics and basing his characters on those that occupy those floors.
Baldacci errs by offering too wide a hook for his plot. Sure, one always needs to suspend belief when immersing in potboilers, but this one requires a total absence of it. How can it be otherwise when the whole focus of “The Forgotten” is human cargo being brought in large numbers on to beaches in the US? Sure, it happens on remote beaches and in the dead of night, but still there is something to be said for plausibility.
The book also suffers because its main characters seem nothing more than cardboard cut-outs. Puller is one-dimensional and one gets the feeling that the track with the dead aunt is tacked on only to get him into a Florida setting. In comparison, Mecho does exhibit a bit of angst and anger, but never enough to engage the reader to invest more in the character. Others come in, spout their lines and then make an exit stage left. It tells in the plotting and nearly sinks the whole endeavour.
By all measures, this is less than a middling book in the author’s oeuvre. It should sell well, yes, but will not have the strong legs that some of Baldacci’s enduring titles — “Absolute Power” for one — had.
Baldacci is better off heading back to Washington. He seems have to let the sun and humidity get to him in Florida. The search for Paradise often does that.