Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Big Troubles in a Small Town

By Jim Napier
With 32 novels contained in eight series, plus another 11 standalones and two collections of short stories, David Baldacci can reasonably lay claim to being one of the most prolific—and successful—crime writers alive today. His books have sold more than 130 million copies, and many have been adapted for film or television. Looking at his work, one cannot fail to be impressed by the prodigious breadth of it all.

One Good Deed (Grand Central), released earlier this year in paperback, falls (so far) into the standalone category. Set in 1949, it follows the travails of Aloysius Archer, a veteran of the wartime conflict in Italy who later served time for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he finds himself in a threadbare suit and fraying shirt, and with little in the way of money, hoping to rebuild his life. His destination is someplace—a nowhere place—called Poca City. It had been picked by someone in the Department of Prisons; seven hours away by bus from where he had served time, yet not quite offering the promise of the more glamorous cities further on, on America’s West Coast. Archer doesn’t much care. Bent by his war experiences and life behind bars, the lofty visions of Archer’s youth have given way to the more practical goal of just getting by.

But luck, it seems, is on his side. Soon after arriving in Poca City Archer meets a local high-flyer named Hank Pittleman, who sizes Archer up and offers him a hundred dollars—big money for the day, and for an ex-con—to recover a car that Pittleman says is owed to him as collateral for a loan that had gone unpaid. He shows Archer a promissory note signed by one Lucas Tuttle, a local farmer; it identifies the car and lists its license plate. Archer asks a few questions and then accepts the job.

The next day, Archer meets with his probation officer, the person who will largely determine his fate for the next three years. Ernestine Crabtree is very businesslike, and Archer notes, not unattractive either. She has misgivings about his new job, but says she’ll go along with it so long as Archer adheres to all the rules governing his probation. It’s only later that Archer learns Ernestine Crabtree’s father had killed three people in Texas a dozen years earlier.

After spending the night in his hotel room, Archer sets out on foot to find Lucas Tuttle and earn his money. When he arrives, he knocks on the farmhouse door and is greeted by the barrels of a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. At this point the reader begins to more fully appreciate the subtle nuances that govern small-town life. Archer will have to work harder than he’d imagined just to survive.

One Good Deed is the engrossing account of a basically decent man who finds himself in troubles not of his own making, and who strives to do the right thing, realizing all the while that accomplishing that goal may come at great risk, and even greater cost. Baldacci’s tale is credible, and his writing convincing, steeped in the language of its era. In the end, the author spins a layered story of a time and way of life that mercifully has passed us by, wrapped up in the saga of a man with a talent for getting into things over his head. If this were a classic yarn lifted from the Greeks, no doubt there would be an over-arching theme or moral at the end; but being thoroughly American, it merely offers hope of a better day.

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Since 2005 Jim Napier’s book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in the spring of 2017, and the second entry in that series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2020.

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