Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Brad Meltzer is back on track

The Inner Circle
by Brad Meltzer

When Brad Meltzer is at his best, there are few better. His novel, The Zero Game, blew me away. Blew. Me. Away. Unfortunately, subsequent novels have been increasingly weak. I’m happy to report that that trend stops here. It’s not a perfect novel, but with The Inner Circle, Brad is moving back in the right direction. It has flaws, but the one undeniable fact is that I had an absolute blast reading it.

In the past, Meltzer has placed his political thrillers in every corner of government. This time the focus is, surprisingly enough, on the National Archives. After a brief, tense scene between the President of the United States and an unnamed archivist, Chapter 1 introduces us to our protagonist. Beecher White is a 30-year-old archivist who loves his work. He’s likeable, but a bit dull. A colleague jokes, “You’re like Indiana Jones, but just the professor part.” His personal life hasn’t been great of late, but perhaps things are about to turn around because this is the day he reunites with his high school crush, Clementine Kaye. She’s visiting the archives in hopes of learning something important about her own history.

Before addressing her question, however, Beecher is trying to impress with a behind-the-scenes tour. In an attempt to help, a friend in security lets them into the President’s secure reading room less than an hour before he’s due to arrive. While there, a minor mishap causes the discovery of a secret hiding place and a very old book that appears to have belonged to George Washington. There’s no time to consider the ramifications before they have to hustle out prior to the President’s arrival, concealed book in hand. And they’re off to the races from there, because moments later the President is sent back to the White House early and the helpful security guard is wheeled out on a stretcher with a sheet over his face. How did he die? And is it because someone knew he’d been in that reading room?

In true Meltzer fashion, the plot is convoluted. I was loving the story, but as I read, certain details began to sound familiar. A quick check confirmed my suspicion. This book links tangentially to another in the Meltzerverse. He has brought back Nico Hadrian, first introduced in The Book of Fate. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it. This is not a sequel, and everything you need to know is exposited gracefully. I don’t really want to get much more into the plot, because the pleasure of a book like this is in the twists, turns, and surprises along the way. All of the above were plentiful, and I found this to be a fun, fast-paced read.

That doesn’t mean I turned off my inner critic entirely, however, and as much as I enjoyed this novel, I think there was a little sloppiness to the storytelling. There were a couple of instances where someone knew something they really shouldn’t have. Nothing too important, but it was sloppy. Additionally, three-quarters of the way through the novel, Meltzer suddenly starts giving readers answers to question by introducing flashback chapters with headings like “Twenty-six years ago Journey, Ohio” or “Four months ago St. Elizabeths Hospital.” It simply isn’t elegant storytelling. I still feel there must have been a more graceful way to tell the tale without those late-in-the-game flashbacks, but regardless, they got the job done.

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it’s clearly also the opening for a sequel, or even a series. Despite my minor complaints, I will be looking forward happily to the continued exploits of Beecher White. In fact, I think I’ll drop by the National Archives the next time I fly home. I never before realized what a hotbed of excitement it is!

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