"Almost heaven,/West Virginia/Blue Ridge Mountains/Shenandoah River--/Life is old there/Older than the trees/Younger than the mountains/Blowin' like the breeze//Country Roads, take me home/To the place I belong", crooned John Denver in one of his best-known songs. Cut from the lyrical picture painted in 1971 by the late Denver to the West Virginia rural county Drake where the unrestrained exploitation of the coal reserves and the consequent pollution has spawned not just cancer of the body but of the soul in David Baldacci's latest thriller Zero Day (Pan Books, 2011, Rs 350).
It is when a colonel attached to the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency is found murdered along with his family in Drake County that Warrant Officer John Puller of the US Army CID is sent to investigate. Puller, the son of one of America's legendary generals, finds that nothing is as simple as it seems and that what Walt Kelly's comic-strip character Pogo said on an Earth Day poster in 1970 ("We have seen the enemy and he is us") holds good in the 9/11 era, the Patriot Act notwithstanding. In his mission to uncover the uncomfortable truth and pre-empt nuclear catastrophe, Puller is helped only by the local police sergeant Samantha Cole.in a county where the mining magnate Trent calls the shots and not just metaphorically.
Zero Day is vintage Baldacci and very much in tune with his first bestseller Absolute Power where the President of the United States and his secret-service agents are involved in an attempt to cover up the accidental death of his mistress to an extent where those who come too close to uncovering the truth are eliminated. Absolute Power was made into a movie starring two actors who excel in playing the role of the ultimate non-conformist mavericks, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman. In the world of Baldacci, the real strength of America is not in its manipulative leaders or their malleable mandarins but in junior officers like Puller and Sergeant Cole who do their job of uncovering the most inconvenient truths despite all the pressures brought to bear on them. That over 110 million copies of Baldacci's 21 novels have been printed in 45 languages in 80 countries clearly indicates that the author's message resonates almost all over the world.
Baldacci lives in Virginia and is familiar with the terrain and the topography. Baldacci writes about places he has seen, and mountains and streams he has negotiated, a la that best-known writer of westerns, Louis L'Amour, who once quipped, "When I write about a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink." Again, in The Sixth Man, Baldacci sets the action in Maine, a state his second cousin John Baldacci was governor of from 2003 to 2011. David Baldacci believes in the pristine purity of nature but without making a song and dance of it like John Denver. In novels like Zero Day, Baldacci seems to be echoing what Bishop Heber wrote almost 190 years ago in his famous hymn which went, "Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile", but with a few honorable exceptions like John Puller. Zero Day is the first John Puller novel and unlikely to be the last, going by the ending where, job done and the community saved, the protagonist takes off on his well-earned leave in his Malibu, accompanied by his pet cat AWOL (the acronym for Absent Without Official Leave). AWOL and Puller will be back on duty when their country needs them.