Newest Review: ... giant of a man. On the strength of the letter from Washington, Harms embarks on an appeal against his sentence. An ex- police officer turne... more
The Truth May be Simple, But Justice Is Complicated
The Simple Truth - David Baldacci
Member Name: Hishyeness
The Simple Truth - David Baldacci
Advantages: A fun, fast-paced political/legal thriller that keeps you on your toes.
Disadvantages: Some of the characters behave inconsistently and come across as caricature.
It's been a while since I have read a political or legal thriller worthy of the genre, particularly since John Grisham's output has become so formulaic and predictable in recent years. At a recent kid's birthday party, a friend overheard my less than complimentary remarks about Grisham's latest work and suggested that I check out David Baldacci instead.
He was so keen to get me started that he loaned me a second-hand copy of one of the writer's earlier novels. Set free from the sense of entitlement often engendered by a book's price tag or created by a much-hyped author's pedigree, I got stuck in straight away despite the fact that I had two other novels on the go.
"The Simple Truth" is the fourth novel from prolific American author David Baldacci, whose 1996 debut "Absolute Power" was later made into a Hollywood film starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman. The book was first published in the USA by Warner Books in 1998 (the UK rights are owned by Pan Macmillan) and the paperback edition which is the subject of this review runs to around 500 pages. It is currently available new from Amazon for £5.46 (reduced from its £6.99) RRP, but you can get an excellent second hand copy for around £3.75 from www.greenmetropolis.com.
Rufus Harms, a Vietnam draftee, is serving time in the stockade at Fort Jackson for the brutal murder of a young girl. When an automatically generated letter from the US Army is accidentally sent to his brother, fresh light is cast on the events of the fateful evening that led to his incarceration. In a bid to win his freedom and to be exonerated for a crime he believes he is not responsible for, Harms files an appeal with the highest court in the land - the United States Supreme Court.
The appeal is intercepted by the brilliant, high-flying and workaholic Supreme Court clerk Michael Fiske, who, stunned by its contents - and the nature of the allegations it makes against some very powerful people - fatefully decides to investigate Harms' claims to ensure that there is some factual basis to them - but crucially, he does this before the appeal is entered into the official record.
His well-meaning actions - ostensibly to ensure that the venerable institution of America's highest court is protected from unnecessary controversy - lead to dramatic and unforeseen consequences that ultimately draw his estranged brother, John Fiske, DC Detective Buford Chandler, FBI Special Agent Warren McKenna and the Supreme Court Justices themselves into a sordid web of intrigue.
The first few chapters set the scene by introducing us - one by one - to a few of the main characters. The book jumps back and forth between characters at the start as the separate strands are established, but all of these threads are necessary to weave the complex and intricate story that follows.
Baldacci has a descriptive style that is fairly matter of fact. He manages to paint vivid pictures of people and places without being too flowery or engaging in unnecessary waffle. There is an economy to his writing that makes his storytelling punchy and compelling, and keeps the plot moving at a fair old clip. His characters are given just enough depth for you to be able to understand and empathise with them, but although the inner demons that drive them are hinted at - and in one or two cases more fully explored - you don't really get to know them.
Without giving too much away, Baldacci does a very good job of exploring the tensions and dependencies between the family members at the core of the story - Michael and John Fiske, and to a lesser extent, their father Ed. Although the broken relationships between them are principally used to drive certain plot elements, the story is enriched as a result of it.
However, the author doesn't do quite as well in describing the main female characters, two of which are central to the story. The first is Sarah Evans, a close colleague of Michael Fiske and senior clerk for Justice Elizabeth Knight. Evans comes across as conflicted and confused, and it is very difficult at times to get to grips with the reasons she acts the way she does. Some of her actions and motivations seem inconsistent, but as noted previously, this is a fast-paced page-turner of a thriller, so Baldacci does the minimum to keep her credible.
The other female lead, Justice Knight, is the only female member of the Supreme Court, and although Baldacci doesn't fall into the cliché of portraying her as a feminist (indeed he is at pains to ensure the reader knows her exasperation with the media assumption that she will always support a woman in a case) he finds it difficult to strike a balance between an ambitious, power-hungry politico on the one hand and a caring, down to earth maternal type on the other.
I found the book difficult to put down once I got into the guts of the story. The plot developments are seemingly easy to see a mile off, but just when you get comfortable and smug about where the story is headed, along comes a slight twist which - to the author's credit - is believably delivered. I have seen many a tale come a cropper due to plot manipulations that lack any sort of credibility, so it is refreshing to read a writer who does it well.
At five hundred pages, "The Simple Truth" is a substantial read and, generally speaking, there is little in it that qualifies as unnecessary padding. Even in the places where it slows down for a bit of introspection and character development, the extra narrative is clearly justified by later developments. My one criticism is that some of the villains of the piece - especially those in military uniform - do come across as somewhat clichéd and stereotypical (all brawn and no brain) and can be unintentionally amusing more than menacing.
As an interesting aside, the book also takes a fascinating look at the inner workings of the Supreme Court, and although it is a work of fiction, much of it is based on fact, and as such, is an education in of itself. Despite the fact that, as a lawyer myself, I am well aware that law and justice can often be mutually exclusive, I was still surprised by how overtly political the voting system adopted by the Supreme Court can be.
Kid's birthday parties rarely yield such gems. Usually, all I have to take home with me is a child complaining of stomach-ache and yet more sugar to take home in a party bag. Instead, I ended up with a fun, thought-provoking and fast paced read that offers surprising depth underneath the cut and thrust of its central story.
I finished this book in around three days and was disappointed when it ended. Although "The Simple Truth" is a stand-alone novel, one or two of the characters - especially John Fiske - are interesting enough to warrant further development. I will keep a beady eye on developments to see if David Baldacci obliges some time in the future.
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: An excellent enjoyable and worthwhile read.