Spencerville, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1994, 639 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60245-0

Ten, maybe fifteen years after the fact, it’s obvious that the end of the Cold War has been a disaster for thriller authors. No longer could they rely on their favourite Soviet villains as convenient plot devices to rile up their audience. Columbian drug lords, Russian mafioso and right-wing militia groups kinda did the trick until everyone re-discovered Islamic fundamentalism, but for a while the American thriller has in serious trouble.

And so it’s not difficult for bestselling thriller writer Nelson DeMille to create a convincing character in Keith Landry, a freshly-retired master spy at loose ends after being taken off the global chessboard as part of the “peace dividend”. Looking for something to do, he travels from Washington to his old hometown of Spencerville (after an absence of twenty-five years) and starts puttering around his parent’s farm while they live the easy life in Florida. But they say you can never go home again, and in Landry’s case that’s truer than usual: For he’s sharing the small town with an old flame and her husband, a man who uses his job as the sheriff to do terrible, terrible things.

The most interesting thing about Spencerville is how much of a romance it is. Yes, it’s coming from an author who specializes in suspense novels. Yes, it’s a cheerfully macho story of good versus evil. Sure, it’s got pages and pages of detail about spycraft, guns and torture. But at its heart, it’s the story of a romantic relationship and all the obstacles in the way of this union. While the book’s protagonist is Keith Landry, you could make the argument that the true hero is Annie Prentis. Add the despicable (boo, hiss) Cliff Baxter to the mix and you’ve got a classic love triangle.

A love triangle that deals in automatic weapons, dirty tricks and dripping violence, mind you: It doesn’t take fifty pages for major characters to start pointing guns toward each other: Even before Keith’s arrival, Cliff is depicted as a wife abuser who may be running out of time. Add to that the rampant police corruption and Spencerville starts looking more and more like a lawless town in a western epic, waiting for a no-name man to take down the rot.

There are many pleasures in Spencerville and not the least of them is seeing a covert operative apply his skill to a town in mid-western America. As Landry finds out, the basics of overthrowing a corrupt police work aren’t terribly different from operating in Eastern Europe. In return, reading about small-town policemen trying to impress a man used to the KGB’s methods is rather amusing.

But the comedy soon turns to drama as the emotional stakes are driven even higher. Romance blooms, and so does the antagonist’s madness. By the time the book is midway through, well, there isn’t much doubt in how the book will end.

Which makes the book’s latter half even more disappointing. At more than 600 pages, Spencerville is far too long for what it has to say. The last hundred pages are especially tedious, as the resolution is obvious and extra obstacles are placed in the way just for the sake of further obstacles. The contrast with DeMille’s fast prose and his tepid pacing becomes increasingly uncomfortable and the book’s impact suffers because of it. But then again, this is neither the first nor the last work from this author to suffer from drawn-out endings. (See his latter Plum Island, etc.)

Overall, though, Spencerville is an unusual and slick thriller, with just enough off-beat elements to make it stand out in its field. Overlong but never less than interesting, it’s a really good choice for DeMille fans and general thriller readers, with some cross-over potential for romance readers. If nothing else, it’s a way of showing that there’s no need to time-travel to 1980s Moscow to find good suspense, even as the genre’s favourite playgrounds have been closed.

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