DOWNFALL


By Jeff Abbott

Grand Central Publishing ($27.00)

ISBN-13: 978-1-4555-2843-1

Reviewed by Sam Waas

DOWNFALL is the third novel of Mr. Jeff Abbott's Sam Capra series.

Sam is an ex-CIA operative who was shafted in a back-door deal brokered in upper CIA echelons and forced to resign. He was then recruited by a highly secret but benevolent worldwide anti-crime organization, the Round Table. The Round Table looks after its members and protects those whom it feels deserving. Opposed to the Round Table's positive goals is a shady international cadre, the Nine Suns.

Capra was rewarded for his staunch CIA record by the Round Table, given ownership of numerous bars and taverns worldwide, which provide his income and base of influence. And, of course, handy venues for the novels.

One bar is in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and it is there that Sam encounters a group of "contractors" attempting to kidnap a young woman who's come to the bar to seek help and refuge. The venture turns sour for the invaders. One is killed in a fight with Sam and the others flee, but without their intended victim.

Sam soon learns that the kidnapping was instituted by a mysterious figure who calls himself Belial. Belial is revealed as the mastermind of a group of international criminals that deals in influence and corruption, engineering the death or defeat of their targets (hence the novel's DOWNFALL title).

I'm not certain why these super-secret and pervasive organizations exist within the Sam Capra universe. The story itself has plenty of vigor and the plot is nicely drawn, making these international groups for good or bad a little superfluous, somewhat reminiscent of comic book stories, not the realistic world that Capra lives within.

It's also unclear whether Capra, whom we're told is very bright, is even aware initially of the arcane connotation of the name "Belial." This is only one aspect of the novel that I found difficult to accept. Another is Sam's age, only mid-twenties but already a Harvard grad and an accomplished ex-CIA operative, trained extensively and experienced in the more "dark arts" of such an organization. He's said to be a quick study, but not something I garnered from reading the book, as Sam misses plenty of obvious clues, goes off half-cocked much of the time, and seems to have trouble with basic English grammar, as is obvious from his faulty first-person narrative.

"Oh," you say, "that's just the author's mistake." True. But if you, as a writer, create a brilliant Ivy League alumnus, you're also mandated to ensure that this character speaks the part with the precision incumbent upon such an education.

This isn't meant as a natty sort of sidebar quibble, either. The author must establish believable characters, create fictional human beings who are consistent and whose personalities and quirks are not fanciful. Unless, of course, DOWNFALL is meant as a spoof, but I doubt that.

The story line is a good one, intelligent and nicely complex, the sort of twists and turns we all expect from a mystery thriller. I just wish it were better presented. And to put my finger on a specific problem, I'd select dialogue.

Good dialogue is essential to any modern novel, and more critical, perhaps, for crime or thriller fiction. So long as it's not overdone, we enjoy the snappy come-back, the various flavors of phraseology and diction that each character brings to the table.

Unfortunately, most characters in this novel speak with one voice. That is, everyone uses the same carefully complete sentences in long paragraphs, even when there is tension or anger between the speakers. The villain will describe his goals at length, and Sam (or whomever) will politely wait until he's done, then refute with equally long and measured replies. And so it goes, back and forth, in ponderous (for an action thriller) phrases that tend to put an anchor chain around the pacing of the book. Things drag to a screeching halt while motives and counter-measures are explained ad infinitum. And sadly, ad nauseum. Were this a stodgy, ornate Victorian-era mystery, such dialogue could be excused. But it's clearly inappropriate for a hotly-paced modern story.

The principal characters also lack distinctive "sounds" in their dialogue. None of them has unique slang, brevity, variation of sentence structure, or word choice to distinguish one from another. And yes, this is one of the more difficult aspects of fiction, to provide each character a certain vocabulary and syntax when speaking. But it's absolutely necessary if the author intends upon creating a character in whom the reader can invest.

The result is a hesitant rhythm in the book, where entire sections are mired in lifeless and uselessly overdrawn dialogue. And this "particular fault" (as Hamlet says) affects the entire structure of the novel, impairing what should be a fun, entertaining thriller.

Fans of Mr. Abbott and the Sam Capra series will probably enjoy this new novel. I found it hesitant and awkward in pacing, but otherwise a good read, well plotted and innovative in concept. I'll give DOWNFALL a qualified acceptance.

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