The Fix



Title:                      The Fix

Author:                David Baldacci

Baldacci, David (2017). The Fix. New York: Grand Central Publishing

LCCN:    2017931418

PS3552.A446 F59 2017

LC Subjects

Notes

  • Sequel to: The Last Mile.

Date Posted:      June 19, 2017

Reviewed by: Toni V. Sweeney[1]

“Those readers thinking they can outguess the author will find their abilities tested . . . ”

On an early morning in Washington, DC, a horrific scene is played out directly in front of what should have been one of the safest places on earth. Across the street from the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a man shoots a woman, then kills himself.

As far as the authorities can tell, the two were strangers. It seems a random murder followed by suicide and eventually the case would’ve been closed as such, except for two very important points:

The man had several classified government contracts, and Amos Decker witnessed the deaths.

Left with synesthesia after a traumatic head injury during his days as an NFL player, Decker also is stricken with perfect recall. He considers neither anything but a curse, for the two afflictions not only changed his personality but also his outlook on life, even as they make him the ultimate investigative agent. Called the “man who can’t forget,” Decker goes through life remembering everything, and at the top of the list are the murders of his wife and daughter two years before, continuing to haunt him every day of his life.

It’s because he can’t forget that Decker comes to believe Walter Dabney didn’t simply choose Anne Berkshire, a complete stranger, as his partner in death. There has to be something more. At this point, he simply isn’t certain what that something is.

Meeting Dabney’s widow and his daughters doesn’t help. They, as well as his co-workers, say everyone liked Walter. He was a good guy, an American success story. To the cynic, that means the dead man undoubtedly had enemies. The problem is Walter Dabney was a good guy, and there’s nothing to prove otherwise . . . until Harper Brown enters the scene.

The agent of the Defense Intelligence Agency orders Decker to back off and leave the investigation to her agency—which makes him more determined to continue. A couple of attempts on his life go a long way to persuading Harper to join forces instead of shouldering him aside.

Soon Brown, Decker, and his team are mired in contradictions and more confusion about Walter Dabney and his relationship with Berkshire, a substitute teacher who lived in a million dollar condo, drove a luxury car, and doesn’t seem to have existed prior to ten years ago.

All Decker has is his infallible memory, replaying the scene before the FBI building again and again, like a slide show viewing each picture, seeking that one detail giving him the answer overlaid as they are with the memory of his own loss. He sympathizes with Dabney’s family even as he considers them suspects, however far-fetched that may be.

“He could imagine the passage of time. He could imagine the lessening of grief, of loss. But he could not imagine that lessening happening to him.  All he had to do was reach back into his perfect memory and there it would all be, the discovery of the bodies, in their full hellish glory, with not a single impression or observation subtracted from the evaluation or diminished by the passage of time.”

All Decker has as a clue is a statement made by both the victim and her killer to different people: That one can know someone a long, long time and suddenly discover he doesn’t know him at all.

He’s certain if he can discover the identity of the persons they spoke of, he’ll find the catalyst for the crime.

His discovery of why Walter Dabney killed Anne Berkshire and then chose to take his own life is a shocking revelation of the act of a loving husband, father, and a thoroughly honorable man.

In a convolution of twists and turns, with the reason for the tragedy always remaining just out of reach, David Baldacci has written another thoroughly entertaining entry in this thriller series. Engaging characters and the use of the protagonist’s affliction create an imaginative if sympathetic effect. The end will come as a surprise. Those readers thinking they can outguess the author will find their abilities tested as they follow Amos Decker to the surprising conclusion of The Fix.

[1] Toni V. Sweeny, New York Journal of Books, downloaded June 19, 2017. Toni V. Sweeney is the author of The Adventures of Sinbad and The Kan Ingan Archives series and also writes under the pseudonym Icy Snow Blackstone.

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Red Sparrow


Title:                      Red Sparrow

Author:                Jason Matthews

Matthews, Jason (2013). Red Sparrow: A Novel. New York: Scribner

LCCN:    2012031933

PS3613.A8484 R43 2013

Date Posted:      January 3, 2017

Review by Charles Cumming[1]

The undisputed master of spy fiction, John le Carré, worked for British intelligence for several years before the international success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[2], allowed him to retire from the secret world to become a full-time writer.

Le Carré’s real-life experience as a spy is not unique in the genre, at least in its British incarnation. John Buchan, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and, of course, Ian Fleming all served as intelligence officers in the first half of the 20th century. More recently, a number of spy novels have been written by Stella Rimington, the director of MI5 from 1992 to 1996.

Things are rather different on the American side of the pond. With the exception of Charles McCarry, there hasn’t been a first-rate American spy novelist who claims to have worked as an intelligence officer before turning his hand to fiction.

Until now, that is. Jason Matthews is a 33-year veteran of the C.I.A. who, according to the press release in front of me, “served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national-security intelligence.” Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut.

The novel pits an ambitious, hotheaded rookie spook, Nathaniel Nash, against a gorgeous Russian intelligence officer named Dominika Egorova. The plot, which swings convincingly between Moscow, Helsinki, Athens and Washington, begins with echoes of Fleming’s From Russia With Love[3]— an attractive Soviet “sparrow” is used to compromise a randy Western spy—and ends with an extended homage to the denouement of le Carré’s “Smiley’s People.”

What distinguishes Red Sparrow from so many of its ilk is not merely Matthews’ skill as a writer. He is smart and fluent, with a terrific ear for dialogue and a gift for quick, effective characterization. Here he describes a Russian spy chief:

“He looked to be 50 years old, with a red-veined tetrahedron for a nose. His eyes were dull and watery, his teeth corrugated and stained, and he slouched with the familiar casual authority honed on the razor strop of decades of Soviet officialdom. His tie was askew, his suit was a washed-out brown that recalled low tide at the beach.”

As you might expect, the author also possesses an extraordinarily deep knowledge of his subject. I have rarely encountered a nonfiction title, much less a novel, so rich in what would once have been regarded as classified information. From dead drops to honey traps, trunk escapes to burst transmissions, Matthews offers the reader a primer in 21st-century spying. His former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their trade­craft. The author’s unrelentingly bleak depiction of the post-Soviet espiocracy also rings depressingly true.

This is not to say that Red Sparrow is perfect. I think it was a mistake to give Vladimir Putin a walk-on part, and some of the character names (Korchnoi, Ustinov, Delon) are oddly chosen, given their real-life antecedents. Perhaps in homage to the culinary spymaster Len Deighton, Matthews has chosen to end each chapter, save the last one, with a recipe. The technique is charming at first, but it has the effect of undermining whatever suspense the author has built up in the preceding pages.

These are minor faults, however. Although Matthews may have a rose-tinted view of the C.I.A., he is terrifically good on the turf wars and enervating bureaucracy of espionage. There are several digs at the F.B.I.—including an operation in Finland botched by the excitable feds—which his former colleagues will doubtless cheer to the rafters.

A 33-year career as an intelligence officer would make Matthews, at a conservative estimate, a novelist in his mid-50s. That’s late to be getting into the writing game (although Raymond Chandler did publish The Big Sleep at the age of 51). Red Sparrow sometimes feels like a novel written by a man in a hurry, an impassioned former spook desperate to download everything he knows and feels about Russia and the murky world of spying. Does that mean Red Sparrow is a one-off and that Matthews will now disappear into the shadows? I certainly hope not.

[1] Charles Cumming, “Spy vs. Spy,” in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times (May 31, 2013). Charles Cumming’s  novel, A Foreign Country, is available in paperback. A version of this review appears in print on June 2, 2013, on Page BR51 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Spy vs. Spy.

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Fleming, Ian (1957, 1981). From Russia with Love. Geneva: Edito-Service