Review: THE GUILTY and END GAME by David Baldacci (Grand Central / Macmillan)

BaldacciD-WR4-Guilty

The fourth and fifth Robie & Reel novels see a shift in the series style

Will Robie is the government’s most professional, disciplined, and lethal assassin. He infiltrates the most hostile countries in the world, defeats our enemies’ advanced security measures, and eliminates threats before they ever reach our shores.

But now, his skills have left him. Sent overseas on a critical assignment, he fails, unable to pull the trigger. Absent his talents, Robie is a man without a mission, and without a purpose.

To recover what he has lost, Robie must confront what he has tried to forget for over twenty years: his own past.

Will Robie escaped his small Gulf Coast hometown of Cantrell, Mississippi, after high school, severing all personal ties, and never looked back. Not once. Not until the unimaginable occurs. His father, Dan Robie, has been arrested and charged with murder.
Father and son haven’t spoken or seen each other since the day Robie left town. In that time, Dan Robie–a local attorney and pillar of the community – has been elected town judge. Despite this, most of Cantrell is aligned against Dan. His guilt is assumed.

To make matters worse, Dan has refused to do anything to defend himself. When Robie tries to help, his father responds only with anger and defiance. Could Dan really be guilty?

I’m definitely a fan of Baldacci’s novels. After the Camel Club series ended, the author’s novels featuring Will Robie and Jessica Reel quickly became my favourites. However, these last two installments — while enjoyable and engaging thrillers in their own right — didn’t quite rise to the quality I have come to expect from the author. Nevertheless, they are well-written novels, and I was kept entertained and invested in the story.

Robie’s need to sort out issues with his family and past are an interesting premise — after all, how does the government’s most efficient killer go home? (If you want a very different approach to the premise, I’d highly recommend the excellent movie Grosse Point Blank.) Baldacci kind of just drops this need into the early stages of the novel, in a way that I didn’t find quite as logical as I’d expect. Regardless, I got over that pretty much right away.

Upon his arrival in Cantrell, Robie realizes that not much has changed in his hometown. It is still a hive of lightning-fast gossip, rivalries and memories. His father, the judge, has been arrested for murder, much to Robie’s surprise. There is little love lost between the son and the abusive father — who haven’t seen each other for decades, following Robie’s disappearance at 18. Frequently, after reading their exchanges, I mutter an exasperated “Men!” — they are clearly unable to communicate their feelings properly, and resort to posturing and aggressive questioning. So, yes. Maybe Robie does have some issues to deal with.

Blue Man, Robie’s superior at the CIA, gives him leave to investigate what’s really going on in Cantrell — Robie is never convinced that his father did kill the man in question, and so decides to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, he is reunited with old friends, confronts new antagonists, and unravels plenty of the town’s secrets (not all of them well-hidden).  Despite growing up in Cantrell, he’s basically a stranger, now — and many in the small town don’t like strangers. Naturally, some of them make very bad decisions, thinking they can take on someone like Robie. Eventually, Jessica Reel joins him and together they attempt to figure out just what is going on in the town.

Baldacci weaves an interesting mystery. There were some surprises, a few red herrings, and a fair bit of action. Like all of the author’s novels, they are well-paced but still substantial — the same premise in the hands of many other authors would be over far quicker, with fewer twists and turns. This, I think, is what really brings me back to the author’s work: that he writes such substantial thrillers. True, sometimes the decisions made for the plot are a little odd (or, at least, not where I would have taken things), but that doesn’t mean the books aren’t engaging and enjoyable.

As I mentioned at the top, The Guilty wasn’t as good as I remember the previous three novels in the series being. Still, relatively speaking, this is a solid thriller and mystery.

BaldacciD-WR4-EndGame

As soon as I finished The Guilty, I moved right on to End Game. Here’s the synopsis…

Will Robie and Jessica Reel are two of the most lethal people alive. They’re the ones the government calls in when the utmost secrecy is required to take out those who plot violence and mass destruction against the United States. And through every mission, one man has always had their backs: their handler, code-named Blue Man.

But now, Blue Man is missing.

Last seen in rural Colorado, Blue Man had taken a rare vacation to go fly fishing in his hometown when he disappeared off the grid. With no communications since, the team can’t help but fear the worst.

Sent to investigate, Robie and Reel arrive in the small town of Grand to discover that it has its own share of problems. A stagnant local economy and a woefully understaffed police force have made this small community a magnet for crime, drugs, and a growing number of militant fringe groups.

But lying in wait in Grand is an even more insidious and sweeping threat, one that may shake the very foundations of America. And when Robie and Reel find themselves up against an adversary with superior firepower and a home-court advantage, they’ll be lucky if they make it out alive, with or without Blue Man…

Once again, Robie and Reel are tasked with playing detective. We’re now a few months after the events of The Guilty, and Robie and Reel are physically healed and mended, but still struggling with the psychological fallout of their trip down south. There are also strains within their relationship, too — this is something I felt Baldacci didn’t develop as well as he could have (and indeed has, in the past). The two protagonists are chaffing at each other’s presence almost the entire novel. A fair bit of the novel focuses on this, but it never felt overdone, nor did it feel unrealistic (just rather sudden).

End Game takes the characters to another new location: this time, Colorado, intent on discovering what has happened to their boss, Blue Man. They learn more about their superior’s past, his upbringing and the tragedy in his youth that left him an orphan. Grand, Colorado has the feel of the Wild West — the majority of locals are packing heat, there are skinheads, white supremacists, possibly drug runners, and more factions operating in the sparsely-populated area.

With only two locals cops, too, there isn’t much law-and-order oversight. Given this situation, and the fact that the Blue Man seems to have stumbled onto some kind of conspiracy before he disappeared, Robie and Reel have their work cut out for them. With various forces operating against them, our two heroes end up in a lot of… scrapes. A lot of confrontations. In fact, this novel has perhaps the highest bodycount of any in the series. I was quite surprised by this, to be honest.

As with The Guilty, I didn’t find this novel as good as the first three in the series. It seemed like Baldacci was trying to pack in a lot of plot, which is usually a great thing (as I mentioned earlier, I find Baldacci’s novels to be some of the most substantial thrillers publishing today). For the most part, he pulls it off. It did feel a little busy, though. But, by the end of the novel, everything is pulled together in a pretty interesting way. The author manages to get in a fair amount of social commentary into the story — including the disconnected, solipsistic nature of some of the 1%; legalization of marijuana in Colorado; the devastating impact of the illegal drug trade; the pernicious effect and growth of white supremacist movements in America. Sometimes, though, the plot seemed to serve the commentary, rather than the other way around. (I may just have been feeling picky at the time — I certainly had no difficulty picking up the novel and reading well into the night.)

Baldacci does a good job in this novel, too, of examining the long-term impact — psychological and physical — of working in the jobs that Robie and Reel do. We get plenty of evidence of their incredible prowess and skills, but Baldacci doesn’t skip the character-work. I enjoyed End Game more than The Guilty.

I hope there are more novels in the series. I also really must catch up on Baldacci’s Amos Decker series (which began with the excellent The Memory Man). I’ll hopefully get around to those in the near future.

If you’re a fan of Baldacci’s work, then I’d still recommend these two you. Just with the caveat that they’re not quite as good as his previous output.

*

The Guilty and End Game are published in North America by Grand Central Publishing, and in the UK by Pan Macmillan.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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