While I'll admit that I haven't read everything that the prolific Mr. Baldacci has published in recent years, I'm pleased to say that The Innocent is the strongest novel I've seen from him in quite some time. It was a book that I didn't want to put down until I'd read it all.
The novel opens with Will Robie. We learn that he is "an inch over six feet and a rock-solid one hundred and eighty pounds", that he is one day shy of his 40th birthday, and that he is a professional killer. But this is no thug off the street; this is a man with a rich interior life, a moral center, and more than a little going on upstairs. Therefore, it's not too surprising when we soon learn that Robie is employed by an unnamed federal agency to carry out "sanctioned assassinations." In his own words:
"Sometimes he went after people intent on global menace, like Rivera or Talal, or sometimes he simply went after a problem. You could take your pick of labels, but in the end, they all meant the same thing. His employer decided who among the living and breathing would qualify as a target. And then they turned to men like Robie to end the living and breathing part. It made the world better, was the justification."
Except this time, he's being sent after a different type of target--a woman, an American, a mother. At the crucial moment, Robie refuses to fire. It doesn't smell right. Someone finishes the job with a long-range sniper shot, and it looks like they'll finish Robie as well if he doesn't run.
Elsewhere, we meet the wise-beyond-her-14-years Julie Getty. She's been in and out of the foster care system, and she's in the process of escaping her latest "caregivers." Julie has parents that she loves and who love her, but who are engaged in an ongoing battle with addiction. Returning to her parents' home illicitly, Julie is just in time to see the two of them murdered in cold blood. She is a witness, so she too is on the run.
Julie and Robie arrive at the same escape route, a late night bus from DC to NY. Each notes the other, and when things get ugly fast, it's not clear which of them was the target of the violence. Nonetheless, these two characters form an unlikely alliance as they attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding them.
When it comes to a Baldacci novel, plot is front and center, and I thought this one was deftly handled. The pacing was excellent, and my interest in the story being told never flagged for a moment. I'll admit that I DID suspect the ultimate bad guy, but I didn't have a clue as to the whys and wherefores. The story was suspenseful and unfolded beautifully. It all made sense and held together well in the end. As a native Washingtonian, I won't say that the novel was hugely evocative, but the DC setting was handled reasonably well. Mr. Baldacci seems to have a good feel for the workings of the town. Additionally, Robie and Julie made appealing and well-fleshed protagonists. One of the things I liked best about this novel is that it is a stand alone, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see these characters again. The door is left open for sequels or a continuing series.
All and all, I found The Innocent to be a very successful entertainment. More like this, please, Mr. Baldacci! And I'm left pondering who among the characters really was the eponymous "innocent" of the title.