Holy cow! Baldacci actually stole a brilliant character from a competitor author and made it work…sort of. With his latest thriller, author David Baldacci introduces a new hero John Puller, who appears to be modeled precisely on the Reacher “prototype” made famous by author Lee Child. Both Jack Reacher and John Puller (“reacher” and “puller”?) are essentially army cops—Reacher is a former M.P. (military police) and Puller an Army warrant officer. Both are big, brawny, silent, loner types who carry a lot of internal baggage but not much else. Both end up in hairy situations that rapidly evolve into huge conspiracies, and both invariably team up—temporarily–with cool kick-ass female cops/FBI/sheriffs. Neither have the time nor, it would seem, the inclination, for a serious relationship with anyone or anything.
There are differences, to be sure. Reacher carries his toothbrush around with him and has no place to call home, while Puller—still active military—has a cat waiting for him back in his minimalist apartment, whenever he drops by for a shower and change of uniforms. More importantly, Puller has a father—a former highly-decorated general slowly dying of Alzheimers—and a brilliant older brother serving a life sentence for some undefined act of treason. But in mode of action, Reacher and Puller are carbon copies, which makes for a rather disconcerting read by someone–like me–who has enjoyed all of the novels of both authors.
In a nutshell, Puller gets deployed to a tiny and dying coal town in West Virginia where a visiting Defense Intelligence colonel and his entire family were murdered. Puller is sent in solo, with no back up, and is told that the case is important and unusual, but is given no further information or instruction. Several more bodies are discovered and his only ally in the investigation is a lady cop related by marriage to the wealthy and despised owner of the coal company that is slowly killing the town and who is Puller’s first suspect. Many characters of varying degrees of believability are introduced to the plot, which unfortunately remains rather opaque throughout much of the novel, but which is finally and dramatically unveiled near the end and then solved in typical big-bang fashion by Baldacci’s hero.
While Baldacci’s writing is always fast-paced, exciting, and filled with lots of political, intelligence, military, and technical savvy, it still falls short of the nuanced ambience of the Jack Reacher novels. The plot of Zero Day, as with many of Baldacci’s books, is just shy of implausible but a fun read for all that.