David Baldacci’s latest novel is the fifth to feature the self-named Camel Club, which resides in the heart of Washington, D.C. Its leader is John Carr, aka Oliver Stone, a man with a secretive past who has done more than his share to serve his country. He is a former assassin and super-spy who has been through countless dangerous missions on behalf of the US and knows how to take care of himself and spot potential threats.
At the start of HELL’S CORNER, Stone is taken by the Secret Service to the White House for a face-to-face clandestine meeting with President Brennan, who calls upon him to take on a mission that involves infiltrating international drug cartels with bases in both Central America and Russia. Because of Stone’s experience with Russia during the Cold War, and based on the fact that the post-9/11 CIA is comprised of mostly twenty-somethings, the President needs someone with his understanding of the trenches of espionage. But Stone is more than just a spy coming in from the cold, and his intuition tells him there may be an ulterior purpose to this mission.
Stone can’t say no to the President, especially since he was responsible for eliminating two of his former allies --- Carter Gray and Roger Simpson --- in a prior Camel Club novel. Even though these two prominent Americans were caught on the wrong side of the fence, Stone still experiences guilt over taking down Brennan’s friends and feels that participation in this mission would be a slate-cleaning act of penance that could also cost him his life. The mission never takes off as Brennan and the U.S. intelligence community have their attention refocused on an alleged terrorist attack that takes place in Lafayette Park.
Lafayette Park is in the shadow of the White House and Pennsylvania Avenue in an area that D.C. residents refer to as Hell’s Corner. It is also where Stone and other members of the Camel Club resided during their years of government protest. Gunfire and an explosion in the park raise the antennas of Homeland Security, the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, NIC, CIA and even the U.K.’s MI6. The public relations mess and massive red tape that will surely follow is something that Stone is tasked with cutting through. He is teamed with MI6 Agent Mary Chapman, the goddaughter of intelligence employee James McElroy and an ally from his past. Stone and Chapman view the videotapes of the explosion --- which he himself was present for --- and begin to analyze the pedestrians who were in the area.
Stone is approached by the other members of the Camel Club --- Annabelle Conroy, Reuben Rhodes, Caleb Shaw, Harry Finn and FBI Agent Alex Ford --- as they all offer their support. He turns them down out of respect for the secret mission he has been tasked with and also for their own safety. As he and Chapman follow lead after lead, they start to realize that the explosion of the bomb may have been unintentional, and the Yemeni Terrorist group that immediately takes credit for the bombing and shooting may only be a ruse. But who was the intended target of this attack? If they can determine this, they might be able to reverse engineer the actual people behind the plot.
This is easier said than done. As Baldacci deftly peels back layer by layer of this intricate plot, readers are taken through the frenetic paces of seeing each lead and potential suspect eliminated or wiped out before Stone and Chapman can get the information they need. They eventually realize that the detonation of the bomb may have been just a trial run to see if nanotechnology could actually change the molecular make-up of the weapon that would allow for it to escape even the detection of bomb-sniffing canines. Who could be behind this biological weapon delivery system, and could this signify a new way for the enemies of the U.S. to get to us, thwarting all of the defense systems currently in place?
Stone knows that this threat is more than he and Chapman can handle on their own, and they find they can’t trust even their own leaders, who keep them in the dark time after time regarding information they need to effectively run their case. The Camel Club --- in addition to Stone’s sometime ally, Joe Knox --- are called into action in a race against time as they know the next attack will be much bigger and could pose a threat to national security that dwarfs 9/11 in scope and terror. The plot moves at a breakneck pace and leads to a final showdown at the place where John Carr’s career started --- Murder Mountain --- the secret training center of the Triple Six Division of the CIA, which has turned out the best killers to ever walk the planet.
HELL’S CORNER is David Baldacci at his best and features writing and plotting that only a master at the peak of his talent could accomplish. It literally will have readers at a loss of breath as every chapter seems to hold a surprising plot twist that even the shrewdest mystery fan will not see coming. Baldacci has created something that not many writers attempt --- a contemporary thriller packed with relevant and well-researched plot elements, combined with a whodunit style of murder mystery where every character and storyline is a potential clue or red herring. I highly recommend this novel and anxiously await what Baldacci will do next to top this thrill ride.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011