David Baldacci’s new bestseller-to-be is a good example of a certain type of commercially successful novel. Its hero is a warrior and patriot who does battle against the forces of evil. Although often outnumbered by his enemies, and face-to-face with death, he never surrenders. Combat aside, he loves children, honors his father — himself a great warrior in his day — and sometimes dallies with women, but only if they leave him no choice. The book is a fantasy, a prose cartoon, but if you buy into its highly improbable plot, it’s readable enough and at times even exciting.
Baldacci’s hero, John Puller, was introduced in last year’s bestseller, “Zero Day.” The most interesting thing about him is how much he resembles Lee Child’s hero, Jack Reacher. Beyond their similar names, both are huge men: Puller is “almost six feet four” and weighs about 232 pounds, and Reacher is 6-5and 250. Both men learned the killing arts in the U.S. military: Reacher retired after a dozen years as a military policeman, and Puller, an Army Ranger and combat veteran, is still active as an agent of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Reacher hitchhikes around Middle America confronting crime; Puller travels via rental cars and thus far has fought evildoers in West Virginia and the Florida panhandle. I have no idea if these resemblances are coincidence or not, but it must be said that Child’s novels are more crisply written and somewhat more attuned to reality.
In “The Forgotten,” Puller goes to Paradise, Fla., to see his aged aunt, only to find her recently dead. The local police say her death was accidental, but Puller suspects murder. He encounters two local cops. One is a dolt who wants to arrest him; the other is a sexpot who invites him up to her apartment for a romp, but the good soldier turns her down.
However, Puller has another, more clever woman in his life. Her name is Julie Carson , and she’s a “one-star” (brigadier) general at the Pentagon. When Puller calls her for information, she insists on hurrying down to Paradise for a week of R&R.
One night Julie unexpectedly arrives at Puller’s hotel room wearing a dress that “stopped about mid-thigh.” Soon he realizes that the general “was gazing not at his face, but at a spot lower.” Soon she is “naked, helpless, and literally in his hands. . . . Her moans were becoming more rapid.” But, not to worry, she tells him, “I don’t do this sort of thing lightly.” We are thus assured that the general is a good girl after all. Later, when they find themselves surrounded by killers on a beach, she proves to be as skilled with a Glock as she is with an M11.
Meanwhile, Baldacci has a second, more interesting plot in progress. It involves a mysterious giant named Mecho, a man even bigger than Puller. When first seen, he’s a prisoner of men who abduct people and sell them into slavery. But he escapes and later turns up as part of a crew doing yard work at the oceanfront mansion of a zillionaire named Peter Lampert. Lampert runs a worldwide operation that kidnaps and enslaves poor people. The women are forced into prostitution; the men become drug mules or laborers. These slaves (the “forgotten” of the book’s title) never try to escape because they’ve been promised that if they do their captors will return to their home towns and kill their families.
Mecho’s hunger for revenge against Lampert leads to an alliance with Puller and the formidable Gen. Carson. Soon this trio is confronting wave after wave of well-armed soldiers. Amid the cliches, canned sentiments and predictable confrontations, something of interest now and then intervenes. Some of the shootouts are nicely staged, and near the end, two characters surprise us by being something other than what we expected. Ultimately, the good folks are bloody but unbowed, and the evil ones get their just deserts. Which, of course, is as it should be. Particularly with Christmas at hand.
There’s this, too, to be said for such bestsellers: Publishers have been known to use some fraction of their profits to support the work of writers who produce less commercial but far more interesting novels. And that, too, is as it should be.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By David Baldacci
Grand Central. 424 pp. $27.99