A tip on getting the most out of one of David Baldacci’s Will Robie novels: just let go and enjoy the ride. As with all thrillers, the secret is to suspend one’s disbelief from the outset, rather in the way we approach a ghost story. The best analogy to End Game I can think of is a white-knuckle ride. So strap yourself in and hang on tight – there are thrills and spills from start to finish.
For the uninitiated, we’d better explain who, or rather what, Will Robie is, because what he does for a living utterly defines him. He’s a US government full-time assassin, an accredited hit man who travels the globe to eliminate enemies of the west, intent on terrorist attacks and mass murder. He is not without self-awareness; he knows that he’s probably been psychologically messed up by his job. But he is supremely self-sufficient: ‘His stone-cold rule was to rely on himself and no-one else. He was the one who would die if everything went to s***.’
We get Robie’s measure in the first dozen or so pages of End Game. We find him landing at Heathrow Airport en route from Washington to Oxford Circus tube station. British and American secret services have uncovered a terrifying plot to detonate a cobalt bomb in the underground during rush hour. A cobalt bomb is a crude nuclear device: around 200,000 people in Oxford Circus station and on the streets above would be annihilated. Hundreds of buildings would be destroyed and central London rendered uninhabitable for centuries.
And this plot is merely a dress rehearsal. If successful, the terrorists plan a much larger atrocity in the USA. The authorities don’t want the public to learn of the planned attack: they fear mass panic. So Robie has been dispatched to take the terror cell out, single handed, in total secrecy. It’s hardly a spoiler to say he succeeds – he’s all done and dusted by the end of chapter two and on his way home, mission accomplished. Quite an opening to quite a book.
Will Robie may prefer to operate single-handedly but there’s a surprise in store for him when he returns to the US – in the shape of Jessica Peel, a formidably efficient special forces sniper. She and Robie are paired by the secret service to go on an undercover mission together. Robie’s boss, handler and mentor known by the code name Blue Man, has inexplicably vanished. He disappeared a few days earlier while on a fly-fishing holiday in his home state, Colorado. Robie and Peel are sent to find him – and if that means bending some rules and breaking some necks in the process, so be it.
We quickly learn that the assassin and the sniper ‘have history’. They’ve worked together before and it’s obvious some kind of romance blossomed. But only for a while: it’s clear they parted on bad terms and both are uncomfortable at having to work together again. But they are professionals and determined to find Blue Man. A fascinating and uneasy partnership commences.
Peel is as defined by her job as Robie is by his. She takes immense pride in her skills as a crack shot; Baldacci writes absorbingly of what it is to be a long-range sniper. Shooters don’t just need state-of-the-art equipment; they must have nerves of ice and absolute physical control to suppress the slightest tremor when squeezing the trigger. Targets may be more than a mile distant and even though travelling at supersonic speed, it can take up to ten seconds for the bullet to reach its mark. Peel has many ‘scalps’ to her belt and it’s arguable who has killed more – her or Robie.
Both will certainly need all their lethal skills as they head into the Colorado wilderness in search of Blue Man. Standing in their way are sinister cliques including semi-deranged survivalists, neo-Nazis, and skinheads. A woefully understaffed local police offer only limited backup.
Baldacci’s plot never slows for a moment. As Richard says – a real rollercoaster of a book.