There's a funny bit in the great new Pixar movie, "The Incredibles," about villains who pause to explain their plans for world domination and give the superhero time and opportunity to foil it. That's just one of the many, many cliches David Baldacci serves up unabashedly and without a trace of irony in "Hour Game."
In "Hour Game," his 10th novel, the best-selling author manages to top himself once again-but that's not a good thing. A sequel to what used to be his most ridiculous thriller, "Split Second," this new offering is a textbook case in what can happen to a pretty good writer who is too successful too early and has to put out a book a year to keep his Brand Name going.
Baldacci showed a lot of promise a decade ago with "Absolute Power" and "Total Control," which dished Washington insider stuff with good mysteries. "Absolute Power" was a smash, not just because of its high-concept plot of a murderous president but also because of some good characters with intriguing relationships.
However, any reader looking for characters as unique as thief Luther Whitney and his daughter Kate in "Hour Game" will be sorely disappointed.
Former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell have set up a private investigation firm in the small town of Wrightsburg, Va. The two are polar opposites in personality, something we are constantly reminded of by their bickering and jabs. In true potboiler style, of course, this means they're really very close.
But sleepy Wrightsburg is about to be rudely shaken awake by a serial killer cutting a swath through its residents at a frightening rate.
The first victim is a young woman who is shotto death, then buried with a Zodiac watch on her arm left sticking out of the ground.
When two high school students are shot while having sex in a car, it takes an awful long time for our two investigative geniuses to make the connection to Son of Sam and conclude that someone is paying gruesome homage to America's most infamous killers. Baldacci's odd tendency toward arch euphemism also robs the scene of any power.
Despite the local police chief's request for help, they turm to another case that involves a paying client. King and Maxwell are investigating a case for a defense lawyer who insists that, despite a mountain of evidence, his stereotypical white trash client is innocent of stealing from his wealthy employers, the Battles.
The Battles are an Old Money family with enough twists and kinks to make Tennessee Williams blanch. No Southern Gothic cliche goes unmined here.
As the body count rises and a confusing array of suspects and possible motives present themselves, the two cases - in true Hardy Boys fashion - finally are linked.
Baldacci tries to tap into a couple of currently popular trends. "Hour Game" boasts endless "CSI"-like autopsy scenes (the beautiful medical examiner turns out to be one of King's old flames), and it seems to imitate James Patterson in both subject matter and shortness of chapters. Nothing, however, can camouflage the novel's lack of credibility or common sense.
The final twist is completely off the wall. King presents to the guilty party a head-spinning lecture on "deduction" that requires wild leaps in logic and near-omniscience to untangle. The scene is more like something from a "Naked Gun" movie than of Hercule Poirot.
Baldacci has written silly thrillers before. But even fluff like "Last Man Standing" had a breezy pace that made them easy to take and a kind of guilty-pleasure fun in seeing what goofy thing was going to happen next.
"Hour Game," though, is talky, confusing, muddled and far too long. To borrow another serial killer cliche, perhaps this is Baldacci's cry for help. Maybe this is his note in lipstick on the mirror saying, "Edit me before I publish again."