The Last Mile
A novel by David Baldacci
Book review by Jules Brenner
Grand Central, released 4/19/16, 432 pp., $29.00
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In Baldacci's first Amos Decker novel, "Memory Man," his hero went through a tragedy of terrible loss only to be compensated later with a second trauma that some might think evens things out for the miserable football player. Six foot five and nearly 400 pounds with an appetite to match, the gift happened during an NFL game when a hit in the head left him with something called hyperthymesia. Pretty much, it's the opposite brain malfunction from amnesia. Amos Decker has a perfect memory.

In Baldacci's dramatic and suspenseful followup fantasy, suggestive of some surreal TV series that have attracted strong followings of late, the two events were like a chemistry test with an almost benevolent outcome pertaining to crime and punishment. It turned him into a private investigator with his first case being to find the man who killed his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in a home invasion twenty years ago.

Employing his mind alteration, he had solved the case and assisted the FBI in sending Melvin Mars, a star running back with the Longhorns at the U of Texas, to Death Row. Coincidental? Baldacci is only getting started with what he wants us to believe.

Linebacker Decker has a vivid memory of the game in which the elite Melvin Mars showed him that he was a far lesser athlete. It was later when he learned that Melvin had lost his parents under circumstances similar to his own. But, now, though the clues and the evidence all made a case against Mars, and with execution imminent, Decker is having second thoughts.

Just when another death row inmate from another state confesses to Mars' crime, giving the old football star a last-minute reprieve.

Stepping into this saga is Special Agent Ross Bogart of the FBI contacting Decker to join his new unit to chase down selected cold cases. The idea is to bring together citizen specialists with a field agent for a different approach toward solving crimes. Having seen Decker in action during the last case, he wants the skillful PI to join a clinical psychologist, a journalist and an agent to pursue other unsolveds.

After locking horns with the intractable agent Milligan and succeeding in having the unit focus on the Mars mess, Decker's demonstration of remarkable insight and investigative strategy make him the undisputed leader of the unit.

One of the attributes of this opening is Baldacci's clarity, economy of characters and the promise of something rather novel in the remaining several hundred pages that will feature a man with a perfect memory solving a unique mystery. Alas, Balducci is more promise than delivery in introducing compelling elements but can't seem to fully utilize the memory capability as integral to plot developments. Instead, he wears down that initial fascination with more detail and repetition than necessary.

Acordingly, Decker's demonstration of amazing mental agility at the start dissipates in the second act. The resolution, when it finally comes, I found inadequtely concocted and resting on amateur psychology. Even more bothersome was the use of "effed up" from the mouth of a killer as though Baldacci was writing for a juvenile audience. (His kids?)

Having said all that, I confess that Baldacci's writing struck me as having improved from the last novel of his that I read. Because of that and the hooks in the first act, despite wild presumptions of the plot and dilution of the fascination, Decker & Co. carried me to the last page.

Judging by Baldacci's status on best seller lists, it's hardly likely that my carps will have any effect on his books' popularity.

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