The General’s Daughter, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1992, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36480-0

I don’t remember much from the 1999 film THE GENERAL’S DAUTHER, and it’s just as well: If my memories are correct, the film adaptation of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 novel is quite different from the novel, presenting a different culprit, extra action scenes, an exploitative rape scene and a suicide that doesn’t happen in the novel. It’s no surprise if my expectations going in this book were low.

But not that low. If you take a look at DeMille’s entire oeuvre (and I’m still working my way though it myself), you will find success after success —and this despite an overall propensity toward books that are two hundred pages too long. From his fantastic 1978 debut (By The Rivers of Babylon, well worth reading even today), he has delivered the goods as a professional writer should. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has also developed a distinctive style depending on witty first-person narration and technical details that are as delicious as they’re cleverly integrated in the flow of the action. The General’s Daughter is no exception, and even represents a minor masterpiece of the genre.

It stars Paul Brenner, a military undercover investigator. As a member of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), it’s his job to catch the no-gooders in the army’s half-million-people pay roster. On a summer night as he’s stationed in Fort Hadley, Georgia, he’s summoned from another case to investigate a fresh murder on the base. But the victim is not just another soldier. Captain Ann Campbell is a top-ranked military officer, a West Point graduate, a recruitment-poster girl and, most importantly, the commanding general’s daughter. Finding her murderer becomes essential, but as the clock ticks against Brenner (until the FBI takes over the investigation), more and more suspects start coming out of the woodwork.

As he’ll soon discover, this murder ends up being a gateway to the discovery of a massive corruption scandal implicating most of the senior cadre at Fort Hadley. No one really want Brenner to get to the end of this affair, because most have an interest in silencing everything. If you have read other novels by DeMille, you know how convoluted his plots can become and this one is even more complex than most. So it’s somewhat heartening to find out that “complex” doesn’t mean “complicated” when there’s such a comfortable storyteller at the helm. Brenner’s narration is impeccable, a mix of cynical humor and false tough-guy impassivity against the horror of murder. The biggest difference between novel and movie may just be the first-person narration, considerably more affecting than just an objective description of events. In the context of DeMille’s body of work, one has to note that The General’s Daughter‘s Brenner acts as a precursor to Plum Island‘s John Coffey, sharing much of the background, quips and sarcastic attitude of the latter character.

The rest of the book is just as good: Great dialogue between Brenner and the other characters. Excellent procedural material, with enough details to keep nerds such as myself interested in the mechanical aspects of an investigation. The writing is skillful, even drawing considerable sympathy from a difficult scene that, in the film, seemed gratuitous and self-indulgent. I was particularly impressed by the way Brenner desperately tries to maintain a still upper lip in the face of terrible revelations; this is not quite a reliable narrator, because he doesn’t want to explore what he thinks. Similar deceptions abound when dealing with his personal life. All good stuff.

There’s also plenty of good material in what DeMille has to say about the tensions between the military frame of mind and the baser demands of civilian life, to say nothing about the type of gross criminal activity that Brenner has to face every day on his job. On the other hand, some may feel that the novel, as a whole, is a touch misogynist. I’m not so sure, but it definitely exploits the tension generated by womens’ increasingly important role in the US armed forces.

All in all, a good and solid book by one of the better thriller writers out there. It’s not very different from DeMille’s other books, and yet it’s original (and well-developed) enough to keep our interest throughout. Superior procedural murder mystery; above-average summer beach reading.

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