Book Review: Target: Alex Cross

In this thriller, ever-bigger explosions occur when Alex Cross comes across his biggest challenge yet...

Target: Alex Cross, James Patterson

James Patterson is today credited with over a hundred best-selling novels, selling a mind-boggling 300 million copies altogether. Many of these are written with co-authors as varied as Ashwin Sanghi and Bill Clinton. But the Alex Cross series of books is written by Patterson alone, and generally considered the best of his work. In Target: Alex Cross, the 24th novel in the series, Patterson brings Alex Cross face to face with possibly the biggest challenge of his career, with the fate of the entire country resting on his shoulders.

Cross is well prepared. He started off as a policeman, moved to the FBI, and is now a consultant criminal psychologist. Commensurate with his rise in the ranks, the cases have been getting bigger. Target: Alex Cross begins with the assassination of a US senator as she is stepping out of her home. The operation is meticulously planned by a professional assassin, imported into the country expressly for the purpose. Cross’s wife, Bree Stone (who’s also the chief of detectives) is tasked with solving the case. Cross himself, as a consultant, is only peripherally involved.

But this was just the beginning. Half a dozen other assassins are on the way on further assignments in the USA, and they’re converging on their targets — all highly placed politicians. Patterson has a lot of fun building up all these people with their quirky methods of training and killing. So you have one old couple who could be your next-door neighbours, but specialise in long-distance kills. One assassin gets his adrenaline rush by challenging random physically fit people to deadly duels in isolated spots. Another gets his fun from inventing new murderous devices that can’t be spotted by metal detectors. And so on.

The chapters chronicling their progress across America go on rather too long, but soon enough, they’re in place and strike with deadly accuracy. Not all the killers get away successfully, but the mastermind behind it all has hidden themselves well. And this is where Alex Cross comes into the larger picture: can even he figure out the larger conspiracy behind this sudden rash of political killings?

As is the trend with recurring detective heroes, Cross’s personal circumstances take up a prominent place in the book. He’s had a long career in the previous instalments of the series. Along the way, he’s lost wives and family, gained friends, and made enemies. Bree, his wife, is involved in the mystery by focusing on the first senator’s murder, but the other family members are more or less there to provide background colour. There are longer-running partnerships and rivalries with other enforcement agencies for additional flavour. A regular reader of Alex Cross is likely to enjoy all these little nods to continuity, although a newcomer to the series can pick up this book and like it well enough. There are teasers to a new case in the making, in the epilogue to the book, preparing readers for what is to come next.

Alex Cross is one of the more successful recurring heroes, and Patterson gets full credit for pulling off an engaging, twisty instalment to the series. It is a difficult job to keep creating tension in a series like this when we know that the hero will come through. The usual way forward is to keep raising the stakes as we go — making bigger metaphorical explosions every time. One is reminded of Tom Clancy’s protagonist Jack Ryan, who went from being a CIA analyst all the way up to president of the USA as he progressed through his adventures. Cross doesn’t go up quite so far here, but the scale of the plots he faces, do. His initial cases were standard serial killers. Now he’s up to solving impossibly large-scale political assassinations. Not that we’re complaining — but we are curious to see where he goes next.

A similar problem comes with creating a bad guy for each instalment. Cross is so successful that he doesn’t have any recurring villains at this point. The Cold War era is over, so no USSR is available. Terrorists are old school. Serial killers have been done already. Patterson goes ahead and creates a villain out of today’s economic anxieties about capitalism and currency, but it doesn’t quite ring true. On this score, we are complaining — because the villain seems kind of bolted on to the plot and not integral to it.

The best part of the book is undoubtedly following the cast of assassins around as they wreak their havoc. One feels that this could even have been a book featuring just them, and it would have worked fine. But one way or another, James Patterson keeps us hooked to the plot, turning page after page, with his smooth writing. And that’s an achievement.

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