King and Maxwell, by David Baldacci. Grand Central Publishing; Hachette Book Group. 2013. p523. $10
I’m probably guilty of generalizing too often, though in this case my generalization may actually be safe. I may be one of a mere handful of people who had never read a David Baldacci book. He even visited one of the community colleges I’m employed by and I neglected to go listen to him speak. Well, frankly, that was stupid. Stupid, and not really characteristic of me. I usually go in for a reading by an author. Any author, too. I go simply as I might learn one thing, or if I’m lucky, two things. I’ve invited a few authors to visit my university. Neither the authors nor their agents have replied to my emails. I might not have the necessary credentials after my name, like “Student Government President.”
King and Maxwell, an eponym for the book’s characters, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. You may have heard of them; TNT had a one-season series named for the crime-fighting investigative duo. Rebecca Romijn (Maxwell) and Jon Tenney (King) starred as former Secret Service agents-turned-private investigators. The nice deviation from the norm was Maxwell played the “heavy,” the “muscle,” the “punch-first, shoot-if-necessary, then choke-the-information-from” part of the team. King was the more leveled-headed of the two. Both were equally trained and intelligent; each had their own specialties. Maxwell was trained in hand-to-hand combat and weapons. King’s specialty lies in psychological training; reading body language, asking questions, paying attention to behavior. I enjoyed the show. The characters in the novel were accurately portrayed on the TNT series.
King and Maxwell was a great read, one of the best, most fun novels I’ve read since perhaps “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” by Lawrence Block. Baldacci clearly knows how to draw characters, build elaborate plots, and pace action. If you are a writer looking for a good example of these three characteristics of a good crime novel or suspense fiction, my recommendation is to buy this book and read. I pick on James Patterson frequently. He says his books are “unputdownable.” King and Maxwell was certainly unputdownable. I find Patterson’s books “unbuyable,” in comparison. If you like Patterson’s books and you have yet to read a King and Maxwell adventure, then stop reading Patterson and do yourself a favor and read #6 in the King and Maxwell series.
Yes, thankfully, there are five other King and Maxwell novels to read. Thus, once you finish King and Maxwell five more books await. I bought Simple Genius today (#3 in the series.) It was the only K-M book on the shelf at my sort-of local bookstore. My local bookstore is about 50 miles away. I also bought another Baldacci book, The Collectors. The Collecters is #2 in a 5-book series featuring a group calling themselves The Camel Club. Why “Camel Club” I have no idea; my local bookstore had books #2-5 on the shelf, so I bought #2. And, I don’t want to use Wikipedia to sort out the details. I figure I’ll read #2 and the characters will explain in some fashion how the name evolved. The first book in the series is actually entitled, “The Camel Club.” I suspect the answer might lie within.
I’m not going to go into much plot for King and Maxwell. I want to explain more about what I found so enthralling about this particular book, but I need to give some background. The story begins with a fellow driving a truck through rural Afghanistan to an appointed destination to deliver some heavy stuff. The fellow doesn’t really know what he is transporting and he doesn’t really care, except that if things go sour he is expected to blow himself up. Circumstances do go sour really fast but he elects not to blow himself up. However, now he finds himself stuck in northern Afghanistan, his contacts have closed ranks on him, and he is an American with as many options as one might find in the gap between a rock and a hard place. He does have a cell phone, though, and manages to send a text message to the a person in the United States.
The email ends up in the inbox of the fellows teenage son. Now, one might be tempted to think the son would be happy to hear from his dad. The problem is the Army had visited the son the day before to let the boy and his stepmom know his father had been “killed in action” and his body was not recoverable. Was the email really from his dad, or from someone else? Was his dad really dead? And, if his dad was really alive, then what is going on?
Enter King and Maxwell. The son, Tyler, hires King and Maxwell to sort out the convoluted stories provided by the military, the strange behavior of his stepmom, and figure out, if this person is his father, how to get him safely home. Yeah, not a trip to the grocery store at all.
Authors that do their homework I really appreciate. There are some things I look forward to, like the use of geography – people, places, things, and ideas and their location. Baldacci had me locked-in after the first chapter. The novel begins in Afghanistan, we aren’t told specifically where, but that is fine. We also learn the father, Sam, speaks a little Pashto and Dari. Pashto is the official language of Afghanistan, and is a pretty useful language throughout southern Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, some locations in Iran, and some in India. After Sam’s delivery goes awry he mulls getting out of country. We can piece together his location by the evidence he provides us.
“To the north were three of the stan countries [Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan], to the west was Iran, and to the east and south was Pakistan.” (31)
A little later we learn he arrives in Kabul after a few hours of travel. Travel in Afghanistan is not great; a few hours of travel might get one 150 miles or so. Few roads are more than gravel tracks.
Using the map above we can roughly figure out Sam is probably east of Herat and travels east several miles to eventually reach Kabul. We might also guess he may have started in either Ghor or Bamyan province. The first time I had heard of the Taliban was when they destroyed the UNESCO World Heritage site in Bamyan. Bamyan is home, er..was home to the Bamyan Buddhas, 160ft tall buddhas carved into a sandstone escarpment about 500 A.D. In 2001 the Taliban blew up the statues. I felt like the world was in trouble about that point because these fanatics were going around blowing up non-Islamic religious sites, shutting down movies theaters, destroying books and music, and attacking women in the streets for not being covered. The warning signs were there, if anyone was paying attention. Really.
Baldacci set the proverbial hook for me within the first 24 pages. The circumstances of the action coupled with the geography captivated me like the aroma of one of my apple pies right before it’s exit from a hot oven. Not only do the events force you to turn the pages, but the changing geography forces the reader to follow along; “where is Sam going? Where is he going now? How is he going to get there?” These leading questions, rapidly changing events, and changing geographies literally pull the reader from page to page to page, and from chapter to chapter, and before long you’re 100 pages in and its 90 minutes past your bedtime. King and Maxwell is definitely one of those sinister books begging the reader to “read another page. Come on…just one more page. Let’s do another chapter. Just one more chapter. It’s only a few pages. Then, you can go to sleep.”
Google and Google Earth recently developed an app allowing users to build a virtual Google Earth tour. Tour Builder allows anyone to map a set of points related to a topic, and turn those points into a tour, a path, in Google Earth. For instance, I charted Sam Tyler’s escape from Afghanistan into India using Tour Builder. If you’d like to see it, here is the link: King & Maxwell tour. I don’t see a way to embed the tour into a website but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before that capability is made available.
Authors who use their novels to provide some accurate history and geography do all readers a service. As an educator of students from high school to adults back in college I can say unequivocally U.S. citizens have horrible geography skills. I have read a few authors, though, who clearly have no sense of geography, or use geography poorly in their novels. With the presence of the internet today, and apps like Google Earth, Google Maps, and online map collections such as the Perry-Castaneda Map Library at the University of Texas, or the Library of Congress Map Collection, few excuses for bad geography exist today.
“Wingo had read Rudyard Kipling, who had described the Khyber Pass as a “sword cut through the mountains”.” (149)
Even older literature delves into geography, and Sam Wingo exposes some of his education by drawing on his knowledge of Kipling. Sam Wingo also has some experience in Afghanistan, and has traveled to the Wagah Border Center before.
“Wingo had been to this border before. The crossing was right down the middle of the village of Wagah. It had been split in half when demarcation took place in 1947, creating the country of Pakistan from land that had formerly been part of India.” (151)
Baldacci hints at a turbulent world circa 1947. The British Empire was collapsing, a process accelerated by the end of World War Two. India, under British rule, included territory from which Pakistan and Bangladesh would later be created. But, it is also helpful to remember some countries of the Middle East were created around 1947. Israel, for example, was created in 1948; Lebanon was created in 1943. But, I digress.
Later in the book, geography becomes more centered in and around Washington, D.C., Fairfax, Virginia, and Rappahannock County, Virgina.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the software technology inherent in many news cars and trucks today looms large in this story. While the details might seem a little far-fetched, one doesn’t need a fantastic imagination to consider one day these events might possible play out. If you really want to read some books detailing a ‘worst-case’ scenario which could happen in the near future, read Daniel Suarez‘s Daemon and sequel, Freedom. After reading those, you’ll want to hole up in Appalachians or Cascades and never touch technology again.
That won’t work for long. Technology will always find you. After all, smart-drones are on the horizon.