Keating’s (Murderer’s Row, 2015, etc.) latest in his thriller series finds combat-trained pastor Stephen Grant immersed in murder, espionage, and counterfeit wines.
After dropping $405,000 on four bottles of wine, Larry Banner’s worried they might be fakes so good they fooled a master sommelier and wine columnist. He gets in touch with Lutheran pastor Stephen Grant, his best student back when Banner schooled CIA operatives in wine and poker. Grant, a former SEAL as well, has an old CIA partner/lover who can help (while keeping mum to preserve Banner’s rep)—Paige Caldwell, now running her own security firm. The FBI is concurrently working the murder of restaurateur/retired Fed Kenneth Osborne and wife, Barbara, whose Osborne Tavern featured one of New York’s most celebrated wine lists. Agents Trent Nguyen and Rich Noack, aware that Osborne had trouble with counterfeit wines, believe the crime scene was staged to look like a robbery by professionals who were after something else. Eventually there’s murder on Caldwell and Grant’s side of the investigation, too, accompanied by explosive strikes against wine-storing facilities. A tie to the ex-agents’ decades-old case has Grant still blaming himself for a thief who got away. But he hopes to ensnare the guilty party this time around, and the upcoming WineCon could be a gathering of both wineries and potential murderers. The recurring protagonist shares the spotlight with many characters who appeared in preceding novels. This narrative approach, however, proves beneficial. To begin with, the story, though boasting the series’ now-prerequisite action sequences, shifts most of its attention to the mystery. Keating establishes genuine suspects: seems all winemakers, from the respected to the dubious, are under attack, so those culpable aren’t easily detectable. Grant undoubtedly shines in confrontations with baddies as well as lighter subplots: scenes behind the pulpit and his visible awkwardness whenever Caldwell and his wife, Jennifer, are together. But it’s the search for killers that makes the biggest impact, and the pastor can’t take full credit; it’s a team effort, with characters (i.e., Grant’s old CIA pals) that are just as essential.
A first-rate mystery makes this a series standout, even if the titular protagonist splits his hero status with others.