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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

November 3, 2012

Book Review: The Accomplice

TheAccomplice
One of my many, minor vices is the thriller/mystery novel genre. Turning the dial back to the 5th grade, I remember reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and shattering the "Book It" records for my classroom. If memory serves me correctly, this also sparked a lifelong fascination with Pizza Hut pizzas.

More recently, the works of Brad Metzler and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Kostova, Dan Brown, and Ken Follett, have all captured some of my early forays into reading. Each author spins a yarn that can rival the latest blockbuster movie, while most importantly leaving me unable to put the book down. Having read Charles Robbins' debut novel The Accomplice (Publisher: St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books; On Sale: Sept. 4, 2012 ; Cost: $24.99), I'm pleased to have discovered an author with a similar gift.

For those outside the I-495 Beltway (that is to say the honest people of our great and blessed land), Charles Robbins is a former Congressional staffer and communications director for the late Sen. Arlen Specter's ill-fated 1996 Presidential bid. His novel explores "what happens when ambition and power meet in the midst of a world filled with ruthless characters willing to do whatever it takes to win" - which basically means sex scandals, corrupt politicians, and backstabbing campaign operatives. Hope and change, indeed.

Being somewhat of a very minor, ex-politico, the subject matter was intriguing from my first glance at the press release. Political types tend to be a fairly incestuous brood, and no matter what one's scruples, it seems that everyone loves a good political sex scandal. Just ask Mark Sanford.

Robbins captures this appeal to the prurient interest in a way that is eminently consistent with good storytelling and political intrigue. From clandestine meetings with vulnerable campaign volunteers (p.113), to cozy luncheons with the candidate's wife (p.241) (Which, incidentally, takes place at Piccola Italia restaurant in downtown Manchester, NH - home to the best broccoli, chicken and penne I've ever eaten), Robbins takes readers into the seedy underbelly of major political campaigns where ethics and idealism meet realpolitick.

The plot is, of course, much more interesting than salaciousness for its own sake. Drawing from his political background and his bygone days as a print newsman, Robbins' tale is also rich in the details of internal, campaign subterfuge, pitting the objectives of campaign bosses against the pseudo-power of local party elites (p.259). By the time Robbins winds up his thriller, a murder and a financial scandal have embroiled the once idealistic staffer who serves as the novel's the main character.

Naturally, I realize that the plot summary above (which purposefully tries to obscure anything that might give away the ending and any important subplots) does a supreme injustice to the actual writing and the work itself. This highlights, I think, a basic tension in the mystery/thriller genre itself - whether a work is defined by its plot or by its pace. The former requires a great deal of focus on the events of the novel and the characters that appear front and center throughout. Novels defined by their pace, on the other hand, tend to move confidently ahead, pulling readers to the next line, paragraph, and page almost involuntarily. These are the kinds of books that you can read into the wee small hours of the morning and never miss that the world has long been fast asleep.

It should be obvious that Robbins' work hails from the clan of books defined by their pace. Those seeking exquisite prose would do well never to open any book in this genre but this is particularly true of Robbins' debut piece. The language is coarse yet purposeful. Almost utilitarian. As if the words themselves are a hinderance to the story being told in the mind's eye.

Robbins' idea is not to wow readers with his doubtless, ample Princeton vocabulary. The goal is to suck readers into the abyss of campaign life and the ethical dilemmas, or lack thereof, facing all those who dare to enter Roosevelt's arena. This makes it very easy to become absorbed in the story and to stalk the dank hotel rooms of the campaign trail along with Henry Hatten.

In all, the novel is a timely release, particularly with the election taking place today. For the political junkies and mystery enthusiasts among us, Robbins' tale will fit nicely into a fall reading list. My view from the cheap seats is that it's an excellent read from an engaging, new author. Here's hoping Mr. Robbins' first work is not his last.

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