James O. Born's first three books --- WALKING MONEY, SHOCK WAVE and
ESCAPE CLAUSE --- featured Bill Tasker, a believable Florida
Department of Law Enforcement agent in a series informed by Born's
own FDLE experiences and the two-legged fauna that haunt the dark
edges of the South Florida underworld. But none of Born's prior
works (as uniformly great as they are) will prepare readers for
FIELD OF FIRE, wherein Born breaks his own mold and begins again,
with spectacular results.
FIELD OF FIRE is a bit disconcerting at first, but in a good, even
excellent, way. The source of initial unease is Alex "Rocket"
Duarte, a South Florida ATF agent who doesn't drink or smoke and
will carry a firearm only with the greatest reluctance. Duarte is
inordinately good looking but extremely slow on the uptake with the
ladies, independent but living with his parents; he is a bit
unsettling at first, but ultimately believable, given that to some
degree we all know people like this. Duarte is like a character
encountered in some wonderful collaboration between T. Jefferson
Parker and Elmore Leonard.
The story is set against the insane backdrop of Broward County, in
the streets, alleys and shops that are blocks removed from the sand
and sun and frat-boy conviviality that deceptively rules the
beachfront property. Duarte, gradually reacclimating himself to
South Florida after a military tour of Bosnia, is hunting Alberto
Salez, a gunrunner who is inordinately lucky and, unbeknownst to
Duarte, as coldly vicious and homicidal as one can imagine. Duarte
is also unaware that Mike Garretti, an explosives expert with an
odd, unexpected tie to Duarte, is after Salez as well.
When one of Garretti's explosive efforts to eliminate Salez goes
horribly wrong, the U.S. Attorney's office gets involved in the
persona of Caren Larson, who has been dispatched by her Washington
boss to see if there is any connection between the South Florida
bombing and similar incidents in Virginia and Seattle. Larson is
immediately attracted to Duarte; her gentle persistence, matched
against his snail-like uptake, makes for some interesting reading
as the two of them gradually uncover a scheme that leads somewhat
uncomfortably back to one of them.
While the plot is more than enough to keep the pages turning, it is
Born's ability to create off-the-wall yet believable characters
that makes the book worth reading. Perhaps the main one of these is
Duarte's father, a plumber who dispatches quiet, terse wisdom
across the dinner table and who ultimately provides the key that
Duarte and Larson need to blow their case open.
It is Duarte, however, who is the star of FIELD OF FIRE, and his
instinct on when to follow and when to ignore the rules makes for
intriguing reading. Similarly, Garretti, while no angel, is not all
bad here either, and the rough and uneasy similarity between
Garretti and Duarte creates some interesting, if unusual,
chemistry. The result is a novel that, with Born's already
impressive backlist, exponentially will increase his presence on
the A-list of thriller fans everywhere.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011