The just-published “Guardian of Lies” (William Morrow) is the tenth novel Steve Martini has written about the San Diego attorney Paul Madriani, but this is no ordinary legal drama.
The writer has shifted gears in a big way, moving his wry hero out of the courtroom and into the center of a breathless high-stakes thriller in the Lee Child vein.
The book alternates first-person sections featuring Madriani with omniscient narrator chapters in which we see a much bigger picture — involving nuclear terrorism — that gets scarier with each page that is turned.
As a newcomer to Martini, I appreciated the fact that “Guardian of Lies” works as a stand-alone experience.
The book has all of the elements of a good thriller — a wonderful protagonist, a terrifying villain (a hitman known as the “Mexecutioner”), lots of unexpected humor, and an author who clearly knows how things work in the world of politics and law.
The story opens with a contract killing in San Diego — that scary “button man” referred to above is sent to murder a rich San Diego man who might have vital information that could threaten a coalition of drug dealers and terrorists. The target has been keeping a Costa Rican woman named Katia under virtual house arrest — she may be the source of the photographs everyone is looking for.
In a terrific opening, Katia plots her escape from the house just as the legendary assassin — Liquida — is creeping in to kill her rich jailer. Katia sneaks out without crossing Liquida’s path but soon finds herself as the top suspect in the murder.
After this tightly focused opening, the book expands to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Latin America as is becomes clear that the mystery surrounding Katia has global implications.
Martini shows a respect for the work of the FBI that is rare in crime fiction and movies. One of the strongest characters in the novel is the FBI’s executive assistant director for the National Security Branch — Zeb Thorpe — who has to cope with D.C. politics as well as security issues. When we meet Zeb, he’s in the middle of helping to confirm a new FBI director and is sick of the whole scene:
“As far as Thorpe was concerned, the political parties that occupied the House and the Senate reminded him of two retarded Siamese gorillas sharing the same brain. Together with their feeders and handlers on Wall Street, they’d spent a decade toying with the national economy, trying to get everybody in the country into houses they couldn’t afford. When this set fire to the national economy, crashing markets, destroying whole industries, and generally torching the entire circus, they’d tripled the national debt in order to smother the flames with money.”
Getting out of the courtroom has freed Martini to give us a thriller with broad implications and a very high entertainment quotient.