Read: June 2014
Author: David Baldacci
Pages: 434 (hardcover)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
“John Puller is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. His father was an Army fighting legend, and his brother is serving a life sentence for treason in a federal military prison. Puller has an indomitable spirit and an unstoppable drive to find the truth.
“Now, Puller is called out on a case in a remote, rural area in West Virginia coal country far from any military outpost. Someone has stumbled onto a brutal crime scene, a family slaughtered. The local homicide detective, a headstrong woman with personal demons of her own, joins forces with Puller in the investigation. As Puller digs through deception after deception, he realizes that absolutely nothing he’s seen in this small town, and no one in it, are what they seem. Facing a potential conspiracy that reaches far beyond the hills of West Virginia, he is one man on the hunt for justice against an overwhelming force.” – from the author’s website.
I’ve always been a fan of David Baldacci. So I was extremely excited to start the John Puller Series. I can say I enjoyed that the writer makes John Puller more than just a grunt turned investigator. Truth be told, John Puller never should have been a grunt. Whether we attribute it to his military pedigree or some other inherent trait, he’s smarter than the average bear. His father was apparently a bear on the battlefield, respected and feared. However, he has a genius brother. It’s not too farfetched to say that he is brilliant in his own right and a strange amalgamation of the two strong men. However, I will agree with Elle Tea and request that if the writer is going to write a defect, let it be a true, valid defect that causes him to be more human than superhuman.
Before someone has a myocardial infarction. What I’m saying is, Mr. Baldacci tried to make Puller vulnerable by having PTSD. I’m not saying that every person who suffers from PTSD is a basket case. As with anything, everyone deals with things in their own way. The fact that Puller has nightmares and he “calmly” awakens , refocuses and gets down to business is admirable, but possibly unrealistic. There is also the self-flogging over the tripwire incident. I think that holds true to form, if you are “excellent” at your job and you would have seen such things in a combat situation, then it’s kinda hard to take screw up like this, despite you being able to recover and still save the day. He lost a step with no longer being in combat situations and that’s realistic. I think the true defect, which is not his own, is that he has a highly dysfunctional family. His father, is a dementia ridden ex-General who’s grasp on reality slips here and there and often reflects his father’s mean streak that would make any child resentful. The other chink in his armor would be his federally incarcerated brother, Robert “Bobby” Puller. While we are not clued into his treasonous acts, there is still palpable tension between himself and John that could be a result of said acts or just plain sibling rivalry on steroids.
While Puller’s faults are flawed, his strengths make me adore him. He’s a military man, through and through. He takes his oath and responsibilities to heart. What many grunts think can be expressly seen through Puller’s perspective, despite his pedigree. He’s a hardworking man who only wants to do the best he can for his country and in his role. He is a soldier’s soldier, willing to lay down his life for his comrades and takes it hard when he is unable to bring everyone home alive and questions his failure in this. He doesn’t mince words and he definitely doesn’t pull any punches with the locals or even the brass he has to deal with. I love that while he doesn’t mince words, his words are measured for maximum effect. Despite his superman persona, I love John Puller.
As for the plot. . . we bring Puller into the middle of nowhere, Podunk, West Virginia to investigate a case solo. Odd and I understand it was necessary due to other forces at play behind the scene in the story. I also understand that he must be fluent and capable to handle any facet of the investigation from crime scene processing, analysis and investigation. However, it did feel a little C.S.I. (pick a version) where the technician is also the investigator, interrogator and arresting officer. In reality, that’s complete and utter garbage (at least for local law enforcement). But if it’s the Army way, I’ll go with it. I did feel that Mr. Baldacci worked extremely hard to keep us at bay from what was happening and why. I’m usually pretty good at discerning who the culprits are and why. However, the ending was out of left field for me and left me feeling, deflated. Even in the end I was say…what? Really? Oh, come on man!
For the supporting cast, I won’t spend very much time on them because there are numerous unimportant characters. In addition, I found most of them to be annoying with the exception of the drunken brother, Randy Cole and the incarcerated Bobby. So, onward to the annoying people. We’ll start with local law enforcement Samantha Cole. Simply, she is the hick cop whose qualifications as an investigator is that she graduated the state police academy. From what I’ve seen of her, that qualification is not sufficient. While she is not a damsel in distress, she does tend to be a bit naïve or worse, just plain hick stupid. I expect her to not only give us a geological insight to the area, but to understand the people she serves better and to be able to assist Puller beyond being the goofy and hostile sidekick. There were these telltale headaches that she gets that are never explained, which lead me down the path of thinking that she may have an environmentally generated disease that could be cause of the mystery surrounding the town. However, this was a cast off by Mr. Baldacci as a red herring and I’m not rewarded for my deductive efforts. Cole is also a member of a dysfunctional family mainly as the result of she and her siblings finding themselves to be orphans within the last five years. I don’t mind the psychological trauma, but their behavior is more juvenile than that of people in their late 20s to mid-to-late 30s.
Sam’s sister, Jean, is a royal beotch. Every family has one, so why wouldn’t Cole? While she is financial smart, Jean is emotionally stunted. She is that sister, mother and wife who believes everything is about her and everyone else be damned. Never mind her daughter has an eating disorder, that her brother resents her and she and her sister couldn’t be further apart, she wants what she wants. In this case, she wants wants everyone falling at her feet and possibly a little piece of the hunky John Puller. I found myself rolling my eyes with every scene she was in.
Randy, Sam’s brother, is a drunk who is left flailing about after his parent’s death. The intense headaches and general bad attitude lead us to believe that he’s acting like a brat and is just a drunk. I feel that the headaches are probably more than what they seem and most definitely a result of the pollutants in the air and water around them. His knowledge comes in handy during the investigation, but beyond that, we do not get very much interaction from Randy. All I can do is shrug at this because I do not believe any more would have been value added to the novel.
Bobby, ex-Air Force, court-marshalled Bobby, could be a favorite of mine. He’s stoic and you can start to glean where John gets some of his intellectual acumen from. I feel like his discomfort with John’s visits to the prison is a fair depiction of someone in his situation. He may have felt justified in whatever actions he took that landed him in his current living situation, but he is also ashamed to have to see his younger brother under the circumstances. I don’t believe it was clear about the length of time Bobby was imprisoned, but his knowledge in his area of expertise comes in handy despite his dormancy.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. However, there are things I do believe could have been better. We could have done without the obligatory, boy meets girl and they kinda have thing for each other. The awkward flirting or invitation is painful and needless. Let them get down to the business of work. It’s not to say that people who work together won’t be attracted, but let them be professional enough to leave there libidos at home. While I like to be rewarded with my investigative skills, I did enjoy that I didn’t see the actual issue and resolution coming. However, I did think that the reason the events occurred and the resolution were a bit too pat. I’m looking forward to the second installment of the series.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: John Puller.
Lady Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
Well, I’ll preface my review by saying that I don’t typically read military-oriented thrillers like this. I’m the product of two proud members of the USAF, so a good chunk of my life was spent on military bases surrounded by all things Air Force, so I had enough of the military to last a lifetime.
As this novel goes, I can say it has an excellent pace. The chapters move along swiftly, and there is always something going on, be it action or dialogue.
I can completely understand where BillMo and Ms. Em are coming from when they say that Puller himself is hard to understand, though I’ll give him a bit of a pass for being what they’ve dubbed “too military.” Coming from a military family, I know that there’s not really such a thing, from the military service member’s perspective, as “too military.” It’s not a career, it’s a life – not just for the service member, but also for their spouse and children. From the moment you sign up for the service, you are, as my father once explained to a Wee Tea, a tool of the government, a weapon that they train and shelter and provide for, an extension of and representative for Uncle Sam. Your entire life revolves around what you do for a living; your friends are probably all in the same branch, you go to the same officer’s clubs and / or barbecues, your kids go to the same schools as other military brats, your spouses all attend the same functions. You’re inundated with all things military; it’s all tidy and controlled and completely mad – but in the end, those who serve typically do so willingly and love it. My father, who ended up being welcomed into the arms of the good ol’ U.S. of A. with a ticket to Vietnam, continued to serve for decades afterwards, eventually retired, and to this day talks about his military career as the best time of his life. They live and breathe and bleed this stuff, so to be “too military” in my mind is civilian-speak for “military.”
But the Ladies are right on the whole – Puller is hard to empathize with. He’s stiff, and his dialogue – which is supposed to be laconic – comes across instead as mechanical. It’s really impossible to discuss him at all without repeating the most common term used to describe him during our monthly meeting: super soldier. He is a giant beast of a man, and he knows everything about everything – forensics, weapons, women, pathology, you name it, he knows it. Except bombs, of course. He’s got a brother who’s got that subject locked down (no pun intended).
As everyone knows by now, I really love “grey” characters, and Puller is definitely not written to be anything but a white knight in shining armor. Every opportunity is taken to make sure that he looks good – all while carefully ensuring that he himself never says anything about his own attractiveness, intellect, or skill.; this character building is instead forced upon the supporting cast, who comment on his good looks, physique, and uncommonly sharp mind. They defer to him in all things; he’s got everyone from the local police chief to the Pentagon looking at him for answers and assurance, and it is just too much. Really. He does everything but sh*t gold.
Even the weaknesses that are tossed in seem to have been added merely to show how that much greater than the common man John Puller actually is. His brother, Bobby, is in jail for treason, but they still seem to get along smashingly without ever actually discussing just what it is that Bobby did. His father, John Sr., was a jerk to his family but the military community hails him as a hero – but those things are in the past, since, at the time of the novel, he’s also dying of Alzheimer‘s; this whole arc seems to be tossed in to show how forgiving John Jr. can be – he visits his mean old man and puts on a sad charade for him, wherein Jr. pretends to be all of the people Sr. mistakes him for… and isn’t your heart just melting?
But my biggest contention with John Puller (Jr.) himself is the whole PTSD story arc. He is written as having served in Afghanistan, which has contributed to – or is the cause of – this alleged PTSD from which he is (not) suffering. And I add “(not)” because Puller is such a bad ass that even PTSD doesn’t bring him low – he simply works it out while he’s asleep, then he wakes up and goes on about the whole tricky business of living as the most perfect man in the world. Yes, John Puller’s PTSD manifests itself as… (drum roll)… bad dreams; bad dreams which, I might add, have no affect on his waking life and to which he never – even in his own mind – alludes. As I explained during our book club meeting, I would have had a thousand times more respect for Puller as a character and Baldacci as an author if that story arc had been built upon a more realistic foundation. PTSD isn’t a joke, it’s a serious condition and one that has a horrible stigma attached to it in both civilian and military eyes. I would have loved to have seen Puller’s PTSD manifest itself in a way that betrayed him as a real human: if you’re going to dedicate half a chapter to a friggin’ tripwire, make it be because it sets off his PTSD – and let him have some serious PTSD, let him rage about that stupid tripwire in his hotel room alone, let him lose himself in flashbacks and all of the unchecked emotions that being on the front can leave behind – let it not be about that stupid tripwire but about the repressed memories that failing to see the tripwire brings to the fore of our super soldier’s mind. Show PTSD as it is, a condition that often ruins minds, destroys careers, and consumes lives… Show it as it is, as a real condition that can afflict even the most super-duperest of soldiers – and then show him dealing with it. He doesn’t have to talk about it – but he can think about it. We’re in his head half the time anyway, reading his thoughts, knowing what he knows and judging as he judges… so let us see what no one else sees. Let us see the man behind the stoic Uncle Sam mask. Give us the cracks in his otherwise perfectly solid foundation.
If Baldacci had done that, I might have loved Puller for it. But he didn’t. And I don’t.
The rest of the characters are really just there, as I said earlier, to showcase the awesomeness that is John Puller; the homosexual military character is there to show how tolerant Puller is, the arrogant rich guy is there to show how patient Puller can be, the forensics and I.T. guys are there so Puller can show how much he knows about their fields. But I had a real problem with the way the women were presented in this novel. Every single female* was attractive, in a position of some sort of power, and went completely stone-cold stupid once the John Puller Show rolled into town. Sam(antha) Cole functioned perfectly well prior to Puller’s arrival – she became the head law enforcement officer in a town full of good ol’ boys, so she must have known something about, say, enforcing the law prior to his arrival, yes? But once he arrives she is reduced to a puddle of wide, terrified eyes, sultry kisses, and bumbling mistakes. And the General (whose name I didn’t even bother to remember or write down) was a joke. This non-com strolls into her office at the bloody Pentagon, flinging accusations at her and doing everything except calling her an idiot to her face, and at no point does she pull rank. She mentions, rather off-handedly, that she had to fight twice as hard as a man to get to her position… and then she lets this guy just steamroll her. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with how that would have been handled in a fun place I call The Real World, I would like to draw your attention to A Few Good Men, wherein an officer (an officer, mind you, and not an enlisted man like Puller) makes a statement that a superior officer finds disagreeable and then follows it up with a requisition request – and he gets a swift and harsh reminder of who he is and who he’s talking to. I don’t care what branch of the military you’re in, if you’re a woman and you’re top brass in the U.S. military, you no doubt had to fight and claw your way to get to that position, and you’re not going to let some non-com bully their way through your staff, strut into your office, and talk to you like you’re back in boot camp. And you’re certainly not going to bump into him a few days later, flirt with him, and then compliment how attractive he looks in his dress uniform. What the what?!
So, my final assessment is this: if you’re in the mood for a thriller about a giant man with ties to the Army who’s smarter than the average bear, check out Jack Reacher. But if you’re just looking for something to kill some time while you’re waiting for the next installment in the Reacher series, then John Puller’s your man.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: Actually nobody… but if I had to pick one, I suppose I’d go for Robert (Bobby) Puller – not because I’m plotting any sort of treason, but because his overall attitude, or what little of it that we actually see, makes sense to me. Bobby has accepted his fate and seems to be facing it with dark humor rather than bitterness. Plus, being from an Air Force family, I have no choice (quite possibly on pain of death) but to back the USAF guy who has been left to tread water in this sea of Army grunts. 🙂
Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
* There was only one female in the whole novel who didn’t serve as a potential love interest for our protagonist – she was elderly, and he still came swooping in to rescue her.
I’m terribly ashamed to admit that I didn’t actually finish this selection – though I did make it through almost 90%. The pace was quite good, with short chapters that contained plenty of action, but overall I just had a hard time relating to or empathizing with any of the characters, and the storyline wasn’t intriguing enough to make up for the lack of personality in any of the people depicted.
John Puller, Jr., himself was very difficult for me to understand. He came across as pompous and arrogant with a bit of a god complex, and his super-duper crime-fighting decisions were hard for me to follow. For example, he frequently withheld information from his local contact, police chief Samantha Cole, but he would just as frequently make “judgment calls” later on that resulted in him sharing this same information with minor male characters – and at least once this was done in Cole’s presence. Another issue I had in relating to him was his patriotism, which seemed a bit over-the-top, much in the same way that Captain America can send even the most red-white-and-blue eyes rolling. I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Puller yelled, “Yo Joe!” before every action scene.
A story arc was added that includes an ailing father, no doubt to garner more sympathy for poor Puller, but I also completely disagreed with how he treated said father; I “get” that John Sr. was a bit of a jerk to his family in the day, but by the time of this book, Senior is a very ill man who is slowly succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s – if nothing else, Junior should be able to see that he’s gotten the only sort of vengeance he will probably ever achieve against his father. Instead, this character, who is presented as being so noble and honorable to everyone else, can’t bring himself to simply be compassionate to his own flesh and blood.
The cast of supporting characters was dominated by men who had purpose – some were competent and formidable, others were there for entertainment, a few were added for a bit of mystery… but the female characters were a stark contrast. Not a single woman in this novel had any purpose other than to be attractive or to prove that, despite his own assessment that he is not particularly good looking, Puller is, in fact, quite a catch – there isn’t a single female character that doesn’t end up panting at his heels at some point. Even Sam Cole, who could have been a great civilian partner for our giant musclebound military hero, turned into a blubbering mess around Puller; from the midpoint forward, every time John even looked at her, she was described as looking anxious or frightened.
And let me just add one more thing: Puller’s reaction to having saved a character after having missed seeing a bit of tripwire really hammered the nails into this book’s coffin for me. It was like Puller became obsessed about it, making a huge deal about not having seen this tiny metal thread in the woods under cover of complete darkness. He saved a life – but that wasn’t enough, oh no, because the Great Puller made a mistake, and in Baldacci’s world, there isn’t room for a hero like Puller to go around being anything other than the perfect, abnormally huge, humble, woman-magnet super soldier.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: Sadly enough, the only character I could find to relate to at all was at the very beginning: the mailman, Howard Reed. About him it is said that, “He had cursed when he’d picked up his load of mail and seen it. A signature meant he had to actually interact with another human being.”
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
The Divine Ms. Em:
My initial impression of the book was that it was mildly entertaining; however, as I progressed through the story, I found more things about this novel that I didn’t care for than those I did, so much so that I had a really difficult time finishing it at all.
I really wanted to like John Puller, but I believe the author simply didn’t develop our hero enough to make him seem real. He comes across as ultra-military, ultra-career, with very little personality of his own.
Another big disappointment for me was the cast of female characters. All of the women Baldacci bothered to insert into the Puller Show ended up relying on some big brave man (usually Puller, naturally) to come along and save them. Even Sam Cole, the “tough” local police chief, ends up as nothing more than a potential love interest, inviting our protagonist to spend the night with her after only a few days – but rather than calling a spade a spade and demoting Cole from “quasi-tough-girl” to “official romantic escapade,” Baldacci uses that entire scene as a way to show readers yet another wonderful Puller quality: rather than succumbing to the Siren’s call, our super soldier reveals himself to be the perfect career-minded gentleman, spurning her advances and citing the fact that he is there to do a job (I’d like to add that a tumble in the sack might be just the thing to dislodge the stick that the Army shoved way, way up his butt).
There were long periods of the story itself that I found to be quite dull. And the ending… (sigh)… More time was spent leading up to the finale, hunkered in a bunker doing nothing at all, so after all the build-up, the ending just landed with a thud.
Overall, I’ll say that it wasn’t awful, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are other authors within this genre that handle this sort of storyline better and with a touch more originality than what was presented here.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: I had a really hard time relating to anyone at all. If backed into a corner, I guess I’d say I identified most with Sam Cole, only because she did try to do the right thing and her primary focus was her family and the town in which she lived.
Ms. Em read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.