By Lee Lipps

Last Man Standing is a very good novel for about 300 pages. Unfortunately, those good pages are not consecutive and the novel is nearly 550 pages long. One of the major criteria I use to rate novels is, “Did I learn anything?” The only thing I learned from Baldacci’s latest is that more writers need to resist the pressures from their publishers to crank out a book a year. As plots go, the initial premise has promise, but the sub-plots are substandard, the climax un-credible, and the denouement downright absurd. And I’m generally a fan of Baldacci’s!

Web London is the iconic, macho leader of the FBI’s most macho, elitist group, the Hostage Rescue Team, or HRT. Though the bullet-disfigured protagonist is legendary for countless heroic feats throughout his career, all his fellow HRTers, his superiors, his friends, the media, and maybe even god herself instantly turn on him when he freezes leading a raid on a drug operation and the other six members of his crew are massacred in a techno-trap ambush. A perfectly logical reaction.

London knows not why he froze, but suspects it has to do with a small boy he passed in the alley on the way to the target of the raid. The boy, who happens to be the nephew of the terrifying drug kingpin, Big F, mysteriously disappears immediately following the massacre. This triggers an obsessive, homicidal search for the boy by Big F, one of the few fully developed characters in the book. At the same time London sets out to clear his good name, his reputation, and his standing in HRT by setting out on his own obsessive search for both the little boy and the perpetrators of the massacre/ambush. He ingeniously adds insubordination and a televised temper tantrum to help bolster his credibility.

From here the plot gets silly, far-fetched and, in parts, irrelevant. Baldacci fecklessly throws in splatterings of psychiatric therapy, duplicitous FBI supervisors, hypnosis, deserted-child syndrome, abused child syndrome, recovered memory syndrome, bodyguarding, haunting visions about a young boy long dead, a non-reciprocal love interest, and a touch of paranoia. Yet despite all that, you have a hero at book’s end that Baldacci imbues with insight and powers of deduction to rival Sherlock Holmes himself.

London ends up in the rolling Virginia countryside, guarding a rich couple that owns a massive horse breeding estate. Not just any couple mind you, but the very parents of the long dead young boy haunting his vision. This setting is irrelevant to plot furtherance or resolution but it does serve as a vehicle for Baldacci to give us long passages of information about horseback riding, horse breeding, and Virginia topography-all subjects I know little about. I still know little. But when Baldacci gives the equine-challenged London the near paranormal ability to read the bumps on a thoroughbred’s back to confirm the identity of the plot’s evil mastermind, I knew this book was destined to end up near the bottom of this year’s ratings.

To be fair, Baldacci shows occasional flashes of his brilliance as a writer. His dialogue is as crisp as ever and perhaps more clever than previous novels. There is a new twinge of irony in many exchanges. For the few he takes time to develop, Baldacci’s characterization is better than ever. Big F, Paulie Romano, Antoine Peebles and Clyde Macy are effectively drawn, and I’d sure like to see more of Harry Sullivan, Web London’s incarcerated, scam artist father. The rest of his characters, especially the females, are one-dimensional but that’s not a fatal flaw for Baldacci and his particular genre.

Finally, Baldacci’s voice is richer, more complex, and more mature; his narrative abilities superb. For sure, Baldacci writes compellingly enough to make you keep reading. In the case of Last Man Standing, I’m not sure that was a wise move on the author’s part.

By Lee Lipps
Just an average guy who likes to read