Tuesday, April 12, 2011

David Baldacci enters “Chuck” territory

The Sixth Man
by David Baldacci

Okay, not to be overly simplistic, but David Baldacci’s latest thriller featuring former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell does have a plot highly reminiscent of the television show “Chuck,” though certainly not a similar tone. No, there’s no “Intersect” computer imbedded in anyone’s brain, but there is a defense contractor running what’s called the E-Program. As the novel opens, the contractor, Peter Bunting, is seeking an individual who can be the next “Analyst.”

The Analyst is the person tasked with watching the “Wall,” a six by eight foot screen on which flowed “information on suspicious activities being carried out by either Americans or foreigners operating domestically.” It’s a “compilation of top secret communications, all of colossal importance. And on it poured, from all corners of the globe, delivered en masse in high definition. If it were an Xbox or a PS3 game it would be the most exciting difficult one ever created. But there was nothing made up about it. Here real people lived and real people died, every second of every day.”

The idea is that our intelligence network is too spread out and diversified, and that in order to truly get the Big Picture, one individual needs to be able to process every scrap of data we collect. It’s a staggering job that literally brings brilliant men to their knees. Obviously it’s not a job for the average Joe, but a few extraordinary individuals can utilize 90-some percent of their brain, rather than the paltry ten percent most of us access. And all of this is exposited in a brief prologue.

Next, we’re with series protagonists King and Maxwell as they touch down in Maine. They’ve been called up for an investigative job. Ted Bergin, an old friend and law professor of Sean’s is defending the serial killer Edgar Roy, and he seems to believe there’s more to this open-and-shut case than meets the eye. He’s brought in reinforcements. Alas, they arrive too late. En route to their first meeting with Bergin, they come across a stalled vehicle. Inside they find Bergin’s body with a bullet to the brain. The question is: what do these two plotlines have to do with each other?

So begins a novel more packed with action than with plot. There is plot, but it’s not terribly complex or sophisticated. Some stuff happens, more stuff happens, and there’s a lot of traveling up and down the eastern seaboard. Baldacci gets some stuff right. He’s good at gracefully expositing what’s come before, and he can write a tight, tense scene. However, after four previous novels with these protagonists, I was really shocked at how one-dimensional the characters felt. King and Maxwell are at a pivotal point in their personal and professional lives. I was astounded by just how uninvested I was.

It’s not that this is a terrible novel, but there isn’t a whole lot of substance to it. If you’ve been following the series you’re going to want to read this one. Otherwise, I simply wouldn’t bother.

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