Fans of Brad Meltzer’s political thrillers will rejoice with the publication of THE INNER CIRCLE. In addition to being a word craftsman of the highest order --- and if you dispute that, let me ask you: How many U.S. Presidents have you written speeches for? --- Meltzer is, from all appearances, an extremely humble individual, quick to give credit where credit is due. So it is that he gives President George H.W. Bush kudos for the inspiration that drove the writing of his latest novel, which is sure to take its proper place among the more interesting of his works of the past several years.
"At stake is a secret that has been held close for two decades and a clandestine organization that has existed almost as long as our nation."
One of Meltzer’s strengths throughout his literary career has been his ability to take topics that are not ordinarily considered grist for plots or conversation and make them compelling and informative. He does this with THE INNER CIRCLE, which is set primarily within the National Archives. By the time you are done reading this book, you will know substantially more about this institution and feel as if it is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The story is told through the voice of Beecher White, an archivist who spends his days doing what individuals in his profession do in what is arguably the most important collection of documents in the modern world. Beecher is not an especially interesting person, at least on the surface. When women ask where all the decent guys have gone, they usually are overlooking men like Beecher; indeed, he is, as they say, between romantic situations as the novel begins. It is that state of affairs that makes him emotionally vulnerable when Clementine Kaye, his middle-school crush, appears out of nowhere to ask for his assistance in locating her father, long-lost and presumed dead. Beecher does what any guy would do; he not only agrees to help, he also tries to impress the erstwhile love of his life by showing her the special room where his boss --- the President --- reviews historic documents. That’s all it takes to upset the apple cart, or in this case, a coffee cup, which in turn leads to the discovery of a hitherto unknown book belonging to George Washington.
In a matter of minutes, a friend and colleague of Beecher’s is dead, and he is suddenly caught between two (possibly more) groups who either want him on their side or dead. At stake is a secret that has been held close for two decades and a clandestine organization that has existed almost as long as our nation. Beecher is uncertain as to which side is which, or who is among his circle of acquaintances. He’s only sure of one thing. And, of course, he’s wrong. As Beecher races from the National Archives to a quiet private hospital, and then to an amazing storage facility located within the mountains of Pennsylvania, he soon realizes that the only place he will find the ultimate answer he is seeking is within the halls of the White House itself. However, it may not be the answer he would prefer to get.
THE INNER CIRCLE stands quite well on its own, though its somewhat enigmatic conclusion lends itself to --- and possibly begs for --- a sequel. But follow-up or not, it’s nice to see Meltzer back doing what he does best.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011