Fish out of water

Fish out of water

End Game starts like a military masala thriller. Will Robie, expert covert assassin, is using the latest military technology to assassinate 17 terrorists in London. In the meantime, Jessica Reel, the sole survivor of her unit, is decimating 50-plus enemy soldiers in the Middle East. You'd expect more of the same, given the title of the book. But then the story shifts suddenly.

Robie and Reel's boss, Blue Man, is missing after he went on a vacation in his home town. The home town is in rural America, complete with Blue Man's old-time girlfriend, neighbours, and friends. All these people are unaware of his actual status in the government. When Robie and Reel arrive there, they also discover the town has several cults and gangs - a bunch of skinhead neo-Nazis, a group that calls itself the Apostles, and so on, which are too much for local law enforcement to handle. They also figure out that just before Blue Man disappeared, he'd heard rumours about some people taken prisoners, being carried around in a van.

It looks like the disappearance is unlinked to his current role, but caused by the local problems in the town. But which one of them?

Baldacci throws his pull-no-punches assassins into a situation where traditionally a detective would have been. In doing this, he's following the template set by Lee Child - Robie and Reel are the military assassin equivalents of Jack Reacher's Military Policeman. This strategy has further implications - Reacher, a policeman, is completely comfortable in the role of the detective looking for clues, whereas Robie and Reel are maladjusted to civilian life. Again and again, they struggle to understand clues and connect the dots. They're only in their element when there's a clear enemy and they are to use weapons and fighting skills to defeat them.

The comparisons to Reacher are even more apt when you consider the theme and setting. Small-town America is not bucolic and innocent. There are good guys, sure, but there are just as many bad guys. Hidden resentments simmer under the surface. People make money through varieties of shady schemes. Murders, kidnappings and conspiracies mar the open spaces and beauty of the countryside. People are more worried about saving their own lives than in rising up against crimes in the neighbourhood. Most importantly, the villains are everyday types with hidden lives - the local businessman, the 'zamindar' for want of a better word, the town idiot, or some stereotype. There's a darkness to the world, and American society is now capable of destroying itself, thank you - it doesn't need the insidious foreigner anymore.

But Baldacci goes a few steps further. The out-there stereotypes in this book are so far out there that the place doesn't even seem normal anymore. So many cults all together? Legal marijuana farm? Rebuilt missile silos? An unbelievably rich (but puerile) businessman running casino-themed birthday parties? Rocket launcher weapons and mad-max-style forts and armoured vehicles? And on top of this, two world-class assassins going around killing at least two dozen people in the course of a week? This feels more like a cartoon.

Baldacci also struggles to create a convincing chain of events and clues that unravel the mystery. Several pieces feel very contrived. For example, an important clue is a sheet of paper on which is drawn a man with a circle above him. This paper is hidden and is eventually found by Robie and Reel - as intended. It takes 50-odd more pages before it's revealed to be a drawing of 'Atlas'. If the clue giver had the time to draw this thing, he definitely had the time to write the word along with (or instead of it). Why not do the simple thing? Similarly, we have a character who improbably wears a latex mask to become a different person, and no one realises it.

After all this over-the-top plot, the final reveal feels so mundane that it isn't worth it - but then we have a climactic fight right out of a Mithun-da movie where everyone really close to the recurring characters survives and nearly everyone else dies. We needed to justify adding superhuman assassins to the plot, after all.

Strictly only for die-hard fans of Baldacci or the series. Baldacci is heading towards making this a Reacher clone, and this is a bad direction for it, considering the scope of the universe that these two well-developed characters inhabit. If only he'd pit them against an enemy worthy of their time.

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