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Books review: What to read in November

BY James Walton

3rd Nov 2022 Book Reviews

Books review: What to read in November

A classic American detective thriller ticks all the boxes and Downtown Abbey's Hugh Bonneville meets a president in our top November reads

Long Shadows by David Baldacci

A detective's board with clues, hand prints, photos and red string piecing evidence togetherEven though David Baldacci sticks to the detective novel's tried and tested conventions, he still manages to pull off several surprising twists

Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to fiction, I’m all in favour of sensitive renderings of one woman’s journey into something or other; one man’s anguished struggles to understand himself; thoughtful if largely plot-free mediations on today’s world.

Nonetheless, there are times when nothing hits the spot like a no-frills, foot-to-the-floor American thriller of the kind that David Baldacci has been producing for 26 years.

Sure enough, his new one doesn’t disappoint. The main character is FBI operative Amos Decker, who loves life and would rather play by the rules than get results. I am, of course, only kidding.

Even by thriller-protagonist standards, Decker is fantastically world-weary, and his wildly unorthodox methods mean that his exasperated bosses alternate between wanting to sack him and being forced to admit that “the man got the job done” (this is the seventh novel he’s featured in, but by regularly reminding us of Decker’s past, Baldacci ensures that it works as a stand-alone).

Here, Decker heads to Florida to investigate the murder of a judge and her bodyguard—and to give us American-thriller fans exactly what we want all over again.

"There are times when nothing hits the spot like a no-frills, foot-to-the-floor American thriller"

In a series of lean, short chapters, he and his latest long-suffering partner follow any number of leads in order to discover that nothing is as it seems.

Their interviewees are briskly but tellingly described (“Jerome Drake was a soft-spoken, morose-looking fellow”; “Gloria Chase was a knockout in her mid-thirties”). The dialogue is unfailingly taut.

On the whole, if anybody appears a likely suspect, it won’t be long before they’re killed too.

And yet, despite sticking so closely to the trusty methods of his genre, Baldacci always keeps us guessing, dropping in twists at just the right moment and serving up a plot that’s both spectacularly tangled and satisfyingly coherent.

So quickly do the pages turn, in fact, that it takes a while to notice how vivid all of the many characters are, and how neatly Baldacci creates a sense of place with his unflattering portrait of Florida.

Long Shadows, in short, confirms the huge amount of entertainment to be had from spending a few hours in the hands of an old pro.


Long Shadows - (Amazon, available now)

Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru by Hugh Bonneville

President Barack Obama fist bumps child while sitting on sofa in White HouseCredit: The White House, CC BY-ND 2.0. Barack Obama replies to a very important letter in Hugh Bonneville's new memoir

Two of the biggest British screen hits of recent times—Downton Abbey and the Paddington films—have a couple of obvious things in common: bags of charm and Hugh Bonneville.

Reading Playing under the Piano, it’s clear that these are closely related. Bonneville tells of his life with appealing modesty and, while it’s not exactly unusual for actors to stress how lucky they’ve been, he really seems to mean it.

His big break, for instance, came while touring Europe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

By complete chance, one performance in Florence was attended by Jonathan Lynn, best-known for co-writing Yes Minister but at the time directing plays at the National Theatre. Lynn was impressed enough to get the 22-year-old Hugh a National audition—after which his professional life hasn’t done much in the way of looking back.

“Had Jonathan Lynn not chosen Florence for a long weekend in the autumn of 1986, would I have played Henry Brown in the Paddington films?” Bonneville wonders. “Or been asked to write this book?”

Once his theatrical career takes off, he gives us plenty of backstage gossip, including a rather hair-raising anecdote about Judi Dench’s taste for rudery. He does the same after landing a lead part in a new country-house TV drama that even its own executive producer didn’t think would last more than seven episodes.

Instead, as we know, Downton Abbey became a global smash, so much so that in 2012 Bonneville was invited to the White House as part of a delegation of famous Brits.

Following a State Department lunch hosted by Hillary Clinton, he found himself preparing to meet President Obama—and on a mission for his son Felix…

"He gives us plenty of backstage gossip, including a rather hair-raising anecdote about Judi Dench’s taste for rudery"

“That evening we joined a line to shake hands with the President and the First Lady.

Just before we’d left for the trip, Felix, then aged ten, had thrust a letter into my hands. ‘Will you give this to Mr Obama?’

It asked two specific questions, about the President’s views on the police being armed and what he felt about the potential effects of violent video games on children.

‘If you could get back to me,’ Felix’s letter concluded, ‘that would be hugely appreciated. It’s OK if you don’t reply – I’m only 10.’

‘Right, well. Um . . . ’ I said.

‘Just make sure you give it to the President.’

I didn’t tell him this was about as likely as him getting the raise in pocket money he’d been campaigning for, but I said I’d do my best.

So, during lunch at the State Department I asked what the protocol was on such things. If I were to reach for something in my inside pocket on being introduced to the President, would I immediately sense four red dots on my forehead? My lunch companion assured me it would be fine and the President wouldn’t mind in the least.

It was my turn next, as the line of guests in black tie moved into the Blue Room.

‘Oooh look, he’s taller than on the telly,’ I thought.

"Felix, then aged ten, had thrust a letter into my hands. ‘Will you give this to Mr Obama?’"

The President’s handshake was firm, his smile efficient. I asked if he watched Downton Abbey with the First Lady, as we’d heard she liked the show. He replied that he was currently glued to Homeland but maybe some time he’d get to a Downton Abbey box set on Air Force One.

It was my cue to move on. Carpe diem, I told myself.

‘Mr President, my son would never forgive me if I didn’t at least give you this.’

I pulled the envelope from my inside pocket. No red dots on my forehead. His smile was broad now.

‘Tell you what, let’s get a photograph, so you can prove you did.’

A turn to the photographer. The handover of the envelope. Click.

The dinner was memorable. The President remarked in his speech that the last time there were this many Brits in the White House, they burned it down, in 1814. Next day we boarded the plane home.

Some weeks later a letter arrived in a cream envelope. ‘Dear Felix, thank you for your thoughtful letter,’ it began. ‘It was a pleasure to meet your Dad this spring, and I appreciate hearing from you . . . ’

The letter went on to commend Felix for addressing the challenges of the age as his generation had an important role to play in shaping the future. It finished by urging him to improve the lives of others. And below the text, the unmistakable signature of Barack Obama.

‘Felix,’ I said, choking up, ‘that is from the President of the United States of America.’

‘I know,’ said the ten-year-old, ‘but he hasn’t answered my questions.’


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