Review: The Guilty by David Baldacci

The fourth full-length book in David Baldacci’s Will Robie series (begun with 2012’s The Innocent), The Guilty is another tremendous entry in the best-selling thrillermaster’s increasingly impressive resume. Robie, a black ops CIA sniper, accidentally shoots a child while assassinating a corrupt foreign leader overseas. When he freezes on his next op, unable to pull the trigger, Robie’s handler pulls him out of the field and gives him an opportunity to get his head right. Meanwhile, Robie’s father has been arrested for murder in the small Gulf Coast town of Cantrell, Mississippi, a place Will left immediately after high school and never looked back.

davidNow forced to confront his painful past – much of which stems from his strained relationship with his father – Robie returns to Cantrell in an effort to resolve the wounds of his past and get his professional mojo back. But the Cantrell he returns to is vastly different than the one he’d left. His father, once a second-rate lawyer, is now the county judge and living in a massive mansion with his new wife and child, a shift that drew the elder Robie more than his share of enemies in the town. The man he is accused of killing, a shifty lowlife character named Sherman Clancy, saw his once-dismal financial fortunes skyrocket and then plummet back to earth for mysterious reasons in the years between Will’s departure and Clancy’s murder. A new preacher has also arrived in town, with his three rebellious daughters seemingly neck-deep in the mystery that entangles Robie’s father. And a lingering wound is opened up by the absence of the blue-blood family whose daughter Will had loved years ago, until her apparent choice to not leave town together after high school graduation fueled his decision to turn his back on Cantrell for good.

All these elements and more play into a multi-layered conspiracy tale that, despite the Grisham-esque backdrop of a legal mystery set in small-town Mississippi, quickly explodes into full-Baldacci thriller territory. Eventually joined by his professional partner Jessica Reel (first introduced in the second book in the series, 2013’s The Hit) and aided by allies new and old alike, Robie must unravel a web of dark secrets, painful memories, and decades-old deceptions – including some tied to those closest to him – in order to not only free his father but also to stop a rampantly escalating body count that threatens to claim the lives of those who Will cares most about.

While most of the characters are well-realized, it is the relationships that truly stand out. Among the most noteworthy is the rapport between Robie and Reel, with the professional and personal trust and respect that the two share for one another – having risked it all for each other several times before – feeling believable and compelling, not to mention being the source of a fair amount of witty banter. The tense dynamic between Robie and his father is palpable as well, and their shifting relationship – and how they both deal with the wounds of the past – is one of the book’s highlights.

The mystery itself is a labyrinthine journey full of dead ends and surprising turns, with new reveals doled out at regular intervals as the story builds to its shocking conclusion, a spectacular double-twist climax that will leave even the most jaded thriller readers impressed. A thoroughly satisfying denouement follows, with resolutions that feel natural and cheer-worthy without being overly contrived or convenient.

After reading the back-cover marketing copy for The Guilty, this reviewer was expecting a more legal-thriller angle to the story, with a premise seemingly closer to the recent Robert Duvall/Robert Downey Jr. film The Judge than to any of Will Robie’s previous adventures. But yet again, Baldacci has showcased his veteran thriller chops and provided a spectacular curve ball from those expectations in this new book. Despite a federal conspiracy or an international plot not threatening his homeland in his latest outing, Robie shines in what is likely his most personal adventure yet, offering an up-close perspective of the pain, heartache, and struggles of the very-human protagonist in ways not often explored with professional assassins. And though Robie may have lost his mojo in the book’s opening pages, the author never came close to losing his. With fully-realized character arcs and a twist-laden plot that would make Hitchcock proud, Baldacci’s latest is a fantastic thrill-ride for series fans and newcomers alike.