For crime fiction readers who like to keep their categories straight, Ridley Pearson (Undercurrents, Probable Cause) poses a problem. Can there be such a thing as a thinking person’s Robert Ludlum?
Perhaps so. Judging by Hard Fall, Pearson has all the elements of an intellectually satisfying thriller well in hand. A shadowy group of European- based ecoterrorists calling themselves Der Grund (”the ground”) has been putting bombs in airplanes to save the environment. When a corpse turns up inside a flight simulator at the Duhning factory in Seattle, agent Cameron Daggett of the FBI counterterrorism squad senses that Der Grund might be making a move. Next thing you know, a Duhning 959-600 cargo plane plummets to earth at Los Angeles International Airport. Daggett just knows there’s a connection. Ever since his parents died and his son, Duncan, was paralyzed when EuroTours flight 1023 was sabotaged 16,000 feet over the German countryside, the FBI man has been on a personal crusade.
But not, to come to the point, all by himself. To wrest jurisdiction on the case from rival federal investigators, Daggett needs firm proof that the crash was no accident — an intricate task involving piecing together evidence from autopsy reports, cockpit voice recorders, explosives and electronics experts. Pearson has done his research, and manages to pack a terrific amount of information into an ingenious story line without letting up on the suspense.
On the domestic front, Daggett’s lover, Carrie, has grown tired of his workaholic habits, his son is becoming sullen about his dad’s broken promises, and even the baby-sitter has started to complain. ”Separating his two worlds — his professional life and his private life — was a barrier of classified information. He had grown to resent it….he had changed from a perfectly normal human being into an enigma. No one fully knew him. Not Carrie. Not Duncan. He wasn’t sure he knew himself any longer. His emotions had become classified.”
Meanwhile, Daggett’s nemesis, the mad bomber, isn’t doing much better. Pushed over the edge by the shock of a stillborn, monstrous child and the subsequent suicide of his wife, Anthony Kort has declared war upon chemical manufacturers. While Daggett and his pals in forensics are busy picking Kort’s fingerprints off bars of soap, typing his blood from the saliva on cigarette butts, analyzing the tire treads on his rental cars, and distributing his video-enhanced photo from sea to shining sea, the terrorist stays busy counterstalking the FBI agent, in whose briefcase he hopes to find information that will help him bring off the fiendish crime that will crown his notorious career.
Once the two halves of the plot come together, narrative subtlety vanishes and Hollywood conventions take over — requiring things like hand-to-hand combat in subway tunnels and on airport runways. Skillful entertainment all the same. B+