In this spiffy new thriller, information about a scuzzy politician’s missing daughter turns up just as he’s about to be picked for his party’s presidential nomination. But the least interesting character in “The Short Drop” is the candidate himself, Vice President Benjamin Lombard. He’s a one-dimensional cynic who’s running for president because “when else in human history could someone ascend bloodlessly to become the most powerful man in the world? It was the chance to be a civilized god.” Publicly, Lombard mouths trite platitudes about his vision for America even as he removes a Secret Service agent from his detail because the agent is taller than he is.
Matthew FitzSimmons’s far more complicated and appealingly flawed hero is Gibson Vaughn, a childhood friend of Lombard’s daughter, Suzanne, who vanished 10 years earlier at the age of 14. The son of Lombard’s former chief of staff, Gibson was never a suspect in the disappearance because he was in jail at the time. He had hacked into Lombard’s computer and planted false evidence that the then-senator was guilty of campaign-finance fraud.
Now, Gibson is 28 and, understandably, a mess. An ex-Marine — his enlistment was a condition for avoiding a long prison term — he’s a low-level IT guy living in a Virginia apartment with an “interior design courtesy of Franz Kafka.” Jenn Charles, the young security-firm operative who helps recruit Gibson for a special project, is put off at first by his hostile demeanor. But she soon gives in to his “rough-around-the-edges charm” and pale green eyes, and so will plenty of readers.
The project Gibson is all but blackmailed into taking on is following new evidence that may finally uncover Suzanne’s fate. Was she kidnapped and killed by a psychopathic pedophile, as the police believe? And how will this affect the presidential campaign? Will reopening the case bring the distraught dad even more sympathy during the presidential campaign? That’s what’s on the minds of Lombard and his single-minded staff.
Gibson is brought in because he loved Suzanne in a big-brotherly way and because the new evidence consists of an email from someone who claims to know what became of the teen after she was last seen on security camera tape from a Pennsylvania gas station. One of FitzSimmons’s many skills is making the ins and outs of Internet technology more or less comprehensible for techno-klutzy readers, a true public service.
There’s a good bit of police-procedural following of leads, but what makes a thriller a thriller is putting good people in jeopardy, and FitzSimmons has come up with a doozy of a sociopath to track and finally terrorize Gibson and his cohorts. Fred Tinsley had been a sniper in Sarajevo, Bosnia, who once spent days lying in raw sewage waiting to take a shot at one of Milosevic’s killers. Now he’s a gun for hire, and the big question is who hired him and why.
Among the many suspects are the creepy head of an international security firm called Cold Harbor, the former head of Ben Lombard’s Senate security team, a wealthy grand dame of Georgetown and, of course, Ben Lombard himself. He’s such a thorough-going, god-awful Frank Underwood type that nothing he does surprises us after a while. His worst outrage is something most readers will see coming, but it’s still fittingly ghastly and plausible.
“The Short Drop” may not be an attention-grabbing title. But when I came upon what that phrase means, I nearly jumped out of my chair. Stand forewarned.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Matthew FitzSimmons
Thomas & Mercer. 395 pp. $24.95