There’s a mixture of fantasy and grim reality in the novels by David Baldacci that feature CIA assassins Will Robie and Jessica Reel. The fantasy is in his two protagonists, good people who do bad things in the name of protecting the United States from enemies, real or imagined.
Grand Central Publishing ($28)
They are invulnerable: Superman and Superwoman without supernatural powers, who may be injured but will always survive and beat the bad guys. They accomplish improbable feats by a combination of physical endurance discipline and intellectual acuity. They are respected even by their enemies, but are not aided in their perils, by their boss — the corrupt yet fearful head of the CIA, Evan Tucker.
With the acquiescence of the U.S. president and his national security adviser, a plot is hatched to assassinate the North Korean president and replace him with a general who has been bought by the United States. At least one British intelligence officer is in on the deal as well.
The grim reality comes in the author’s depictions of prison life, on two sides of the globe. In Alabama, Earl Fontaine, an unrepentant murderer, has been transferred from death row to a prison hospital because he is terminally ill with cancer. In pain and misery, he continues to plot evil deeds, with the aid of a neo-Nazi group in his hometown.
Day-to-day life in the hospital ward, horrific conditions in the North Korean prison camps, a CIA “training facility” called the Burning Box and the inner workings of the vigilante group are all painted in revolting detail, from concentration camp brutality in North Korea to waterboarding in the United States. Many scenes in this tale would be unreadable, were it not for Mr. Baldacci’s brilliant use of language, his vivid supporting characters and numerous sudden and unexpected plot twists. There’s the question of who Mr. Baldacci’s titular target is meant to be. Is it the North Korean president, whose assassination attempt is thwarted early on, or the fictionalized American president, after the tables have been reversed?
Might it be the object (unidentified until later in the story) of Earl Fontaine’s malicious venom? Or is it Will and Jessica themselves, who come into the line of fire not only from North Koreans seeking revenge but from higher-ups in their own organization, who want to use them as scapegoats?
The plot does not quite hold together. Some issues are never resolved. Episodes are too fragmented. Robie and Reel go from one impossible escapade to another, saving vulnerable victims and using their own moral and logistical judgments even when their decisions may involve — to Tucker’s dismay — acting against specific orders from above.
The dying Alabama prisoner, his right-wing extremist cohorts, the White House inner circle, the North Koreans trapped in a world of hopeless violence and desolation, each have a story line of their own, although the strands do come together — sort of — and by the end it hardly matters. The author doesn’t let the action sag at any point.
Beyond the predictable terrors of the North Korean prison camps, there are interesting insights when the author shows us how Americans appear from the North Korean point of view. Even more horrifying than the squalor and brutality is the way we see the North Korean people raised to shun tenderness, love or any other feelings that we consider human.
They grow up unsocialized, except for compulsory allegiance to their Supreme leader and they are rewarded for turning on each other so that they will be less likely to turn on their leaders. Out of all this emerges the novel’s most interesting figure, Yie Chung-Cha. Raised in one of the most brutal camps and forced to commits unspeakable acts in order to survive, she has become a strongwoman and spy for her government — a formidable counterpart to Robie and Reel — almost but not quite devoid of human emotion.
In Comrade Yie, Mr. Baldacci has created one of his most memorable characters, a many-sided woman unlike anyone most of us will ever have encountered. If she’s not quite believable, she is totally compelling in her fictional reality. Compared with Chung-Cha, Will and Jessica fade into comic book one-dimensionality.
The author begins to flesh out Jessica Reel for us, giving more of her backstory than he has divulged in any previous installment. Will Robie remains the enigma he always has been, although he becomes more human in his developing personal relationship with Jessica, and with a teenage girl named Julie, whom he has saved (though the details from previous episodes are not made clear to a first-time reader) and who takes on increased importance in the present story.
Will’s backstory, perhaps, will surface in a future Robie and Reel novel.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.