Avon, 2000, 466 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109802-7
At first glance, there really isn’t much to distinguish Free Fall from dozens of other run-of-the-mill thrillers. Here’s a presidential campaign; here’s a young woman targeted by a conspiracy; here’s a renegade policeman who breaks all the rules; here’s a top-secret document that contains explosive secrets. No, Free Fall isn’t particularly original: from crooked politicians to evil henchmen, it uses stock elements from Central Plotting.
But why be original when you can be good?
The magic words on the cover are “Kyle Mills”: While I haven’t been enthusiastic about any of his books (Heck, I felt so indifferent about his Burn Factor that I filed it in my library without reviewing it), there’s a better-than-average quality to his work that’s hard to dismiss. Rising Phoenix had a fascinating premise about poisoning America’s drug supply, while Storming Heaven involved a conspiracy from a sect that was not called Scientology. But those starting points were backed-up by a solid execution, most notably in the characterization of series protagonist Mark Beamon. While the only distinctive thing about Free Fall‘s premise may be the MacGuffin (Hoover’s secret FBI files), Beamon is back here in a third instalment that builds upon the strengths and consequences of his previous adventures.
I know that I’ve been hard on some thriller authors for endlessly recycling their heroes in adventure after adventure. Most of the time, there is a solid basis to that complaint: All too often, the authors reset all or part of their universe from one book from another, trying to leech off their protagonist’s popularity without dealing with the consequences of their actions. But Mills won’t have it like that: The consequences of Storming Heaven are a big part in Free Fall‘s setup as Beamon starts this novel under the glare of public scrutiny (including the federal government) for his role in the leak of dozens of very damaging telephone conversations. His reputation at the bureau both destroyed and enhanced thanks to the events of the previous novel. Part of the fun in Free Fall is seeing him exploit and suffer from his fame. Now that’s how to continue a series.
Mills’ typical gift for characterization and his keen sense of politics also help him flesh out the essential dynamics of the novel to a better extent than many of his colleagues: Beamon is exceptional as a series hero, believably intuitive and clever enough to think his way out of trouble with a certain hangdog style. Meanwhile, Free Fall earns the distinction of portraying a corrupt politician in a way that almost seems refreshing. As a third-party presidential candidate, it’s easy to guess that David Hallorin is a bad guy (it almost always ends up that way in American political fiction), but Mills is frighteningly good in portraying the mechanics of demagoguery: Hallorin’s official speeches and policies don’t sound bad at all. Even better: The last few pages of Free Fall are a neat little trick of political complexity, pitting unpleasant characters against each other not in order to secure a win, but to balance out the evils in the hope that everything will hold together just a bit longer. For those who think that “final solutions” (often in the form of a bullet) are an overused tool of suspense novels, this is nothing short of a lovely cap to a satisfying novel.
But more than individual coups, it’s the way that Free Fall is put together, often surprising and keeping us off-balance, that makes it all worthwhile. There are coincidences, stereotypes, abrupt reversals, conventional mechanics and overused ideas, but they’re put together and tweaked just so that they appear almost afresh. The dialogues alone are better than average. It also helps that Mills’ own pet obsessions are featured in the novel: A rock climber himself, Mills has included a number of mountaineering scenes in Free Fall and if it’s often difficult to visualize the mountaineering action, it’s described with such crackling passion that even the fuzziness doesn’t matter.
Written like a rocket, with enough suspense both visceral and intellectual, Free Fall is enough to make me wonder why I haven’t looked for any of Mills’ last few novels. While it doesn’t carry with itself the electric shock of a thriller packed with innovations, it’s more than able to play with preexisting conventions. Don’t be surprised to find yourself reading it after hours.