By David Baldacci
Grand Central, $29, 432 pages
There is a haunting quality about an execution style shooting outside the FBI building in Washington. You can visualize the late J. Edgar Hoover licking his chops as the plot plunges into murder, suicide and spies.
David Baldacci is master of this kind of thriller which has a colorful cast of agents, one of whom sees murder in blue. Veteran agent Amos Decker suffers from a brain trauma caused on a football field which is called hyperthemesia, and he is also coping with a strange malady that causes him to see death in shades of blue ranging from ethereally bright to midnight. So he is admirably qualified as a member of the team investigating the strange case of Walter Dabney.
Dabny was a wealthy and successful government consultant with a happy marriage and four daughters. And on the day that Decker encounters him, Dabney is walking toward the FBI biding when he shoots a woman walking behind him and then shoots himself. Decker sees it all. In blue of course. And the Dabney case is frustrating because there seems to be no reason for his becoming a murderer and a suicide. The woman he shot was a substitute school teacher with an apparently innocent record.
It is a complicated plot spattered with violence and frustration especially for Decker because of its lack of solid clues. Except they discover that Dabney is dying of cancer and had only months to live and that one of his family had gambling debts of 10 million dollars. The lawmen deduce Dabney was a spy and possibly had been a spy for a long time. At this point an agent of the Defense Intelligence Agency becomes part of the team and she adds her own brand of tough color to the scene.
The secrets of Walter Dabney prove to be a closely woven web that involves national security and a looming threat to the nation. Hoover probably would have loved it. And the Dabney family is at the heart of the secrets — the lovely Mrs. Dabney and her lovely home turn out to be something else entirely and even cost the life of her faithful housekeeper. There is a nice touch in the mystery the dolls. Each of the Dabney daughters has a beloved doll that is preserved in their childhood rooms and each doll contains a secret.
The perfect family, as usual, is a grim mixture of lies and hypocrisy and the irony of it all is that Walter Dabney was very much what he seemed to be, but he was swallowed up in the swamp of espionage and savagery. It is the kind of case that Decker likes despite the fact he is still consumed by grief over the memories of his slaughtered family and his own frailties. He longs for his memories yet is afraid of what will happen if he ever returns to normal psychological life. The importance of the work is stressed by a special visit to the White House and what sounds like a rather pompous lecture from the president himself on the peril the nation faces if the case is not resolved and the spies unmasked and captured.
There is a little romance involving the tortured Decker and Jamison, a down-to-earth young FBI agent who protects him from himself as well as his enemies. The denouement is particularly explosive as might be expected and there is a poignant scene in a cemetery when the sad story of the Dabneys is at last revealed — and it is sad because they were in many respects a happy family except they succumbed to the kind of temptation that leads to death. Equally mysterious but far more ruthless is the life and times of Anne Berkshire, the school teacher murdered by Dabney, who proves to have a lurid history made even less excusable by her use of a dying child and his book to provide a channel of information.
Mr. Baldacci has come up with another winner of a thriller and the reader can expect to hear more about the agent who sees everything in blue.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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