Sparky but overcrowded successor to the memorable Harbor (2004) can’t decide if it’s primarily a Washington novel or an espionage-oriented work refracting America’s global reach.
Capt. Mary Goodwin’s F-16 is patrolling the skies over D.C. when a malfunction forces her to eject, landing in a tree. The 32-year-old pilot has been used as a guinea pig in a secret Pentagon project to prevent suicide attacks. Her crash was directed from the ground, but the project’s overseer, Will Holmes, green-lighted it too soon. Interest in the crash is slight at the Washington Spectator (read Post), whose top brass are preoccupied with getting beaten to the scoop on another story by the paper’s arch rival. But veteran night editor Stanley Belson smells a good story and has protégée Vera Hastings investigate. Mary and Vera are strong, unconventional women with fascinating pasts—their ferreting would make a fine novel in itself. But there is more, much more. The Spectator newsroom hums with politicking and scuttlebutt, while in the background looms star editor/author Don Grady (stand-in for Bob Woodward), symbol of insider arrogance in a novel that affirms humility as the ultimate virtue. Oddly, considering that Adams is a former Post reporter, the newspaper material—particularly the excessive amount of it devoted to Grady and his wife, alcoholic columnist Mabel Cannon—is less alive than the chapters that take place overseas. Two sections set in Iran show Hoseyn, a defecting nuclear scientist and one of Holmes’ assets, faking his suicide and getting whisked away to Dubai. In another long passage, a bombing run executed by Mary and her devoted wingman in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths. Throughout these portions, the action is riveting, the angles it’s viewed from are different, and ironies salt the narrative; only the burned-out Holmes is a cliché of espionage fiction.
Adams remains an enormously stimulating writer; greater artistic discipline could put her over the top.