Monday, May 26, 2008
THE WHOLE TRUTH
By David Baldacci
Grand Central. 401 pp. $26.99.
With his new thriller, David Baldacci moves from D.C.-centered dramas to the international stage, with a globe-trotting hero and heroine in a desperate race to prevent World War III. Given the high-stakes action, shadowy government agencies and neo-Cold War backdrop, it is tempting to liken "The Whole Truth" to the works of Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum, but another comparison seems more apt: Fleming. Ian Fleming.
Shaw, the hero, calls to mind the rougher film incarnations of James Bond (think Connery or Craig): 6-foot-5 and "ruggedly handsome," with "magnetic blue eyes" and battle scars courtesy of a "KGB butcher." He works for a secret international law enforcement agency -- "sort of like Interpol on steroids" -- and if he doesn't have a license to kill, he at least gets to lay some pretty serious hurt on the bad guys. References to Bond are more direct elsewhere: Baldacci describes the heroine, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katie James, as looking like "Shirley Eaton, the Goldfinger girl," and later, the book's arch-villain, billionaire Nicolas Creel, echoes that movie's most famous lines when he explains: "I didn't bring you here for a lecture. I brought you here to die."
As a villain, Creel would do Fleming proud, even if he's aiming for world manipulation rather than world domination. Owner of the "largest defense conglomerate in the world," Creel has seen profits slipping, so he hires a perception management firm to create a war -- not some "Wag the Dog" film reels but a real international crisis and a renewed Cold War ethic built on the fear of "mutually assured destruction."
The opening salvo in Creel's plan is a simple video clip posted on the Internet in which a man named Konstantin details how his family had been tortured by secret Russian Federation police. The footage is a fake -- Konstantin is a Latvian actor hired for the job -- but one of the book's points is that the truth hardly matters: "What had started as a digital raindrop in the Internet ocean quickly exploded into a pixel-and-byte tsunami the size of a continent," with e-mail messages, blogs and chat rooms the first step toward mainstream media coverage and international outcries for justice. A couple of high-profile murders committed by Creel's men point more fingers toward the Russians, and as one British agent stresses, "A brooding, hunted Russian Bear is dangerous to everyone." Unless you're a defense contractor, that is.
The book aims for insight about what the truth is -- how it's constructed, twisted and used. Baldacci discusses the history of "perception management," including references to Department of Defense strategies and speculations about the role of perception management firms in the Persian Gulf wars. While the novel unfolds to some extreme ends -- Russia and China on the brink of war -- the steps that lead to that crisis will seem plausible to readers familiar with politicians who prefer spin to candor, with news media more interested in ratings than reporting and with an American public often too apathetic to care. "Verify?" Creel asks at one point. "In this day and age? Who cares about verifying anything? It's all about speed. Who gets there first defines the truth."
Aside from this darkly accusatory assessment of today's media and politics, "The Whole Truth" proves a little hit or miss. Shaw and James, of course, are the only two people capable of saving the world -- with a little help from the FBI, MI5 and (a hometown touch) the administrators at St. Albans School. The action moves swiftly and suspensefully: Hand-to-hand combat, high-tech gunplay, car chases and more are played out against exotic locales. Baldacci also manages to give his characters internal conflicts to match the external dangers they face. In each case, notions of personal love and loss drive the plot in ever-accelerating ways.
But too often Shaw's superhuman prowess seems, well, superhuman, and James acts less like a seasoned journalist than a schoolgirl reporter fumbling through her first assignments. Some of the pair's narrow escapes stretch the limits of logic and probability. Baldacci's writing is occasionally uneven, too. Consider: "It would perhaps take a bit of luck, but even billionaire merchants of death were entitled to good fortune sometimes." Or: "Their tearful faces and crushed hearts made a stunned world reach a level of apoplectic fury that had been seen very few times in history."
Still, the book's stylistic and structural weaknesses likely won't matter much -- and here's where Fleming comes into play again. Rereading some of the Bond stories recently, I was surprised by the clunky prose, wooden dialogue and paper-thin characters.
Baldacci, too, may have a cartoonish character here, an implausible plot point there and a few bad patches of prose in between, but it's easy to forgive and even forget such missteps when you're in the hands of an exciting storyteller. In "The Whole Truth," Baldacci pushes his plot ahead at such a blistering pace that most readers won't notice or care where it creaks and shimmies.
Patrick Anderson's weekly review will appear Wednesday.