Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Bricklayer by Noah Boyd

Lee Child spawned a new type of protag when he introduced former military cop Jack Reacher. Well, new but old. With roots in Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Reacher is the contemporary drifter hero, a guy not really tied to law enforcement, but out to do justice nonetheless. Of course, that justice has some strange definitions. Lately, we’ve seen Matt Hilton with his ex-British Army “problem solver,” Joe Hunter, and even Child’s younger brother, Andrew Grant, with his renegade MI6 op, David Trevellyan, emerge as the modern cowboy, the one writing his own rules because the system’s rules just don’t work.

Which brings us to newcomer Noah Boyd’s The Bricklayer (Morrow). In it, a clever killer has set up a plot to frame the FBI for slayings he commits in the name of a bogus terrorist organization, the “Rubaco Pentad.” A reporter who blew the lid off corruption in the Bureau’s Los Angeles office is murdered. Then, when the FBI attempts to pay the Pentad extortion money, the agent sent on that errand is also done in. Another one disappears, apparently part of this growing conspiracy to disgrace the Bureau.

What’s a beleaguered FBI director to do?

In Boyd’s tale, he rehires an agent who had been fired for his inability to respect authority. Steve Vail was canned not for political reasons, but because he preferred to see a cop-killer go to prison rather than take down a superior so obviously guilty of manufacturing evidence. Vail has since found employment as a Chicago bricklayer, a job that requires little supervision or human interaction. However, he is lured back to the Bureau by an attractive former colleague, now the FBI’s deputy assistant director, Kate Bannon.

Vail soon begins to justify his rehiring. But he isn’t satisfied with his success. He hates loose ends. Rather than congratulate himself on solving a case when everything falls into place, he pulls on the investigative strands that remain unconnected. His wariness keeps him from being killed when the Pentad demands a nearly impossible money drop in an abandoned L.A. subway tunnel. Thinking three steps ahead of his foes, Vail realizes they’ve booby-trapped the drop.

In the wake of his survival, Vail looks more closely at who might stand behind this escalating mayhem and apparent revenge. There’s a lot of pesky evidence leading to the involvement of that missing FBI agent. Yes, the agent is now dead, an apparent suicide. Vail, though, doesn’t like that solution.

“Too neat,” he says.

Author Boyd flirts with giving Vail superhuman intellect, but manages to balance his aptitude by simply making him shy of accolades. While the rest of the Bureau’s L.A. field office is celebrating what they think is the end of the Pentad case, Vail is still asking himself the meaning of one unaccounted-for piece of the puzzle.

Thanks to Bannon’s presence here, Vail is not just another lone wolf outsmarting a stupid bureaucracy. Even a rival admits to Vail that the FBI is a bit rigid in its thinking. With Bannon, this is a double-edged sword. Vail’s loose-cannon approach to the case is something she admires, but it also underscores trust issues that infuriate her. At one point, Vail is even fired and wanted by the cops for theft.

And let’s be honest, it’s not like Vail is invincible. Escaping death by the slimmest of margins quite often hurts like a mother, and both Vail and Bannon come out of the experience physically scarred.

There are certainly weaknesses in The Bricklayer. The presence of Assistant U.S. Attorney Tie Delson is somewhat annoying, as she throws herself at Vail, kind of like the office coworker who can’t hide her crush on the new guy. Her ardor for Vail is eventually explained, but it strains the story in places.

Still, the person behind the Pentad is one of the more clever villains I’ve seen in a long time. He’s not really all that brilliant, but he is just smart enough to anticipate what the FBI will do next, and foil its efforts. Eventually, even Vail makes mistakes. Indeed, there’s a place in this tale where he should have been killed.

Boyd’s writing is solidly paced with few, if any, inconsistencies. Probably his greatest strength is in conveying through his writing the action and tension of a Jason Bourne movie or Casino Royale. Taut, rapid-fire and relentless.

READ MORE:Ex-FBI Agent Paul Lindsay Lays the Bricks for a Successful Writing Career,” by Jim Sullivan (Boston Herald).

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