It’s always a pleasure to read one of bestselling author David Baldacci’s novels and that’s true of his latest John Puller novel, The Escape. I know I can count on Mr. Baldacci to bring me a complex, well-researched fast-paced thriller with characters whose brains I’d love to pick over dinner some night. Did I mention I’m a fan? I should also mention that I had not read the first two John Puller novels, Zero Day and The Forgotten; however, I had no problem reading this one as a stand-alone. Of course, the whole Puller family now fascinates me so I’m going to have to correct that little problem. It was equally a pleasure to get to speak with Mr. Baldacci about this novel and excerpts from that conversation appear below the review. Last but definitely not least, he has provided us with a copy of The Escape to award in a giveaway one of you will win – how’s that for a holiday gift?
A Little Background: John Puller comes from a military family. His father, a retired general, has advanced Alzheimer’s disease and has reached the stage at which he no longer recognizes John as his son. John, like his father and his brother, is a career military officer. He’s a combat veteran who served as a special agent in the U.S. Army while his older brother, Robert, served in the Air Force and went on to work with STRATCOM, the country’s computerized security systems. John investigates military crimes and gets called in on some of the most difficult crimes facing the country, but this time it’s personal.
Robert was convicted of treason by a military court a few years ago and sentenced to life in DB, a maximum security military prison near Leavenworth, Kansas. It occurred while John was out of the country and was a done deal by the time he returned. Although he has an extremely hard time believing Robert could do the things he was accused of, the evidence seems iron-clad so John has had to learn to live with it. He’s just glad his dad isn’t aware enough to know what’s going on because the shame would be more than he could bear.
What John is not prepared for is the phone call he gets telling him that Robert has somehow broken out of DB, killing a man in the process, all of which should have been impossible given DB’s supposed invulnerability. What is even more puzzling is that several top military honchos want John to investigate the case and bring his brother in. By all the regulations he knows, he should be the last person to be brought onto this case. Even more suspicious is the way they’re handling their request/orders to him – it’s all much too cloak and dagger. Still he has his marching orders and he will do his job. At least he will do his best to bring his brother back alive, which others involved in the manhunt won’t be likely to care about.
While investigating at DB, things begin to not make sense in a number of suspicious ways. John smells a very big rat or several at work behind his brother’s break-out. And then evidence begins to conveniently disappear or be destroyed. Stories don’t add up in odd ways that might not be obvious to someone who isn’t as highly skilled in reading people as John’s innate senses allow him to be.
And then he becomes saddled with a partner. John prefers to work alone, always. He probably wouldn’t have been open to working with any partner but Veronica Knox is an INSCOM (intelligence) agent and he knows she has to have her own agenda in working on this case. How is he supposed to trust a partner who lies for a living?
“Puller was driving and Knox sat beside him staring moodily out the window.
‘How did you think of the manner in which the neck was broken?’ she asked, turning to him. ‘A horizontal break? You showed the ME how it could be done.’
‘The snap-crackle-pop. At least that’s what we call it. It’s a technique they teach in the Rangers and the Marine Corps. It’s used to quickly kill, typically perimeter security of a target you’re trying to take….’
‘But they don’t teach that in the Air Force?’
‘I don’t know what they teach in the Air Force other than to tell their people not to jump out of a perfectly good plane. They leave that to us grunts toting rifles and eighty-pound rucks.’
‘Okay, but did you by chance teach your brother the maneuver?’
Now Puller glanced at her. ‘Are you interrogating me?’
‘No, just asking a simple question.’
‘I don’t remember. That’s my simple answer.’
She glanced once more out the window. ‘Looks like a storm is rolling in,’ she observed.
‘Then maybe we can have another blackout and another prison escape,’ retorted Puller.
She shot him a glance. ‘Don’t even joke about something like that.’”
But then people connected with the case begin dying and it gradually becomes clear that someone wants Robert dead, and may have the same plans for John and maybe even Knox. What the hell is going on? Who’s involved and how high up the chain does this nest of snakes go? John is determined to find out even if it kills him.
I love that David Baldacci’s female characters are strong, vibrant women who kick butt equally as well as his male characters. John Puller is an honest man doing his best to work within a system that is quite frankly very dishonest a lot of the time – expediency and power seem to rule as much as justice. Veronica Knox – can she be trusted? I’m not going to say; however, I will say that she’s one hell of a fun character and I spent most of the novel hoping she would turn out to be a good guy instead of a villain. Then there’s Robert. Did he do what he was accused of or was he framed? He’s certainly brilliant, with a Geek’s ability to hyper focus and make huge logic jumps. He could have been ripe for a set-up he’d never see coming; however, Robert could also have done it, given all the evidence against him. I’ll never tell.
David Baldacci really knows how to keep my head spinning like a top. The twists and turns in The Escape had me biting my nails and wondering what could possibly go wrong next. Luckily I don’t yell at the walls but internally I was constantly shouting inane things like, “No, no, no – don’t go into that alley,” or whispering silently, “Don’t trust that one as far as you can throw him.” Of course, luckily for us, somehow our hero managed to work on this case quite well despite my meddling interference although he wouldn’t have been in half as much danger if he’d listened to me a few times. All kidding aside, I loved The Escape and could not put it down. Chalk up another night of sleep to an excellent roller coaster ride of a thriller! I highly recommend it but then you probably already figured that out.
Recently David Baldacci had a conversation with several book reviewers, including me. Below are excerpts from that conversation about The Escape:
Q: In The Escape, John Puller is investigating his own brother’s escape from a federal prison. This theme of family and loyalty is one you keep coming back to, and I’m wondering what about that theme interests you.
A: I think family dynamics are universal, and they always interest me. We are all families. It’s not like you pick your family; they are who they are. There are a lot of challenges. They’re endlessly fascinating because of that. A family dynamic like the one in The Escape, with the Puller brothers and their father, allows me to connect on a human level with the readers. I can’t really do that through plot but I can do it through family dynamics.
Q: Before you wrote 30 novels, you were a lawyer. How much influence did that career have on your current one?
A: I tend to think writers and lawyers have a lot of the same attributes. [Working in the law] teaches you discipline in working on big projects for long periods of time. All of my tools were my brain and the words I could put down on paper or speak before the court. A lot of published writers have benefitted from my work because I have rewritten a lot of publishing contracts over the years to make them better for writers.
Q: In a prison your freedoms are taken away, but there’s juxtaposition with the Puller brothers’ father having Alzheimer’s, which is another way personal liberties are taken away by nature. Did you find it a challenge to add that element of family turmoil into the book?
A: I have siblings and I think many families have been touched by people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Puller Senior is living in a prison, although it doesn’t have bars. It happens to be in his mind. That’s something affecting him, obviously. At some point he won’t even know it’s happening anymore. Then the pain of what he’s going through falls to his two sons, who know vividly and markedly what he’s going through. They see a father who led men into combat, who was as strong as they come, who was decisive. He may not have been the greatest father in the world because of the career path he chose and the amount of time he had to devote to that, but this is the man they love and respect, and whose expectations they’ve probably never been able to live up to…It’s really hard to grow up with a father who’s done as much as John Puller Senior has done. I just love how all those dynamics worked out on the page.
Q: How do you set your story? Are you a plotter with an outline or a “pant-ser” writing with the flow?
A: I don’t do major outlines for my novels. I’ve always thought, if I wrote from an outline, it would read to everyone like I had done that – where everything is neatly tied together and flows in just the right way. Life is not like that. A lot of what I do is sort of seat of my pants. I do get into the story and have a character flow in my head, and I have plot ideas in my head. But, I just sit down in front of my computer or a legal pad and just let it fly, and see if it works. Some days I think I’m going in one direction but I happen to go in another because it feels right. My instincts over the years have served me well. I really just like to innovate and be creative while I’m sitting in front of the screen, and let the words pop out of me. I’ve always thought the subconscious is just another way of saying things you’ve been thinking about a long time at a certain level, and they bubble to the surface. And that’s the way I write. I do little mini-outlines to make sure I get all the points in there…but for the broader strokes, all of it’s in my head and I just play around with it to see where it takes me.
Can’t wait to read it?
The Escape was published on November 18, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). That’s means reading it is just a click away…
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One lucky reader will win a finished hardcover copy of The Escape by David Baldacci!
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