Thrillers are a tough sale these days. Commando adventures into hostile territory exposing vast conspiracies are more common than vampires and zombies combined, to judge by the bargain bin at your local Barnes & Noble. Nonetheless, James Rollins does something that I never would've given anyone short odds on: He keeps it fresh and interesting.
His new book, Blood Line, is the latest in his Sigma Force series. Sigma Force is the go-out-and-shoot-people wing of DARPA, which you may know as the mad scientists the United States employs to look at the laws of science, piss themselves laughing, then do the opposite in the name of national security. This time around, Commander Gray Pierce leaves his Alzheimer's-ridden father to take a rag-tag team into the mountains of Afghanistan and beyond in an effort to find the President's kidnapped and pregnant daughter.
Sounds simple, right? John McClain could take care of this in time to open Christmas presents. However, what is really going on is an age-old plot by a worldwide conspiracy called the Guild to secure the secret of immortality. The secret was taken by one of the nine founders of the Knights Templar in 1022 from a 500-year-old Arab man.
You might have started a round of uncontrollable eye rolling when I mentioned the Templars. Don't feel bad; so did I. The historical order is one of the go-to groups that hacks use when they need a cabal with built-in paper cred. Dan Brown used them in the Da Vinci Code, and that alone is proof that they should never be mentioned again.
Rollins adds something damned compelling to the tired cliché, though. Did you know the Templars were founded by nine members, all related through blood or marriage? We know the names of eight of them, but the ninth is lost. Rollins opens up that tiny quirk of record into a blockbuster of feminine power, ancient science, and Earth-shattering prophecy. Within the first pages he has you locked in.
"We are genetically wired to search for patterns," said Rollins via e-mail. "So when it comes to the complexity of the world, we look to make sense of it all, to search for the hidden hand behind actions and events. This gives birth to conspiracy theories and the belief in shadowy forces manipulating events. Couple that with the opaque and esoteric nature of politics, banking and religious organizations, it's not hard to believe that such a hidden hand exists. And for that matter, who is to say they're not right?"
Another tired plot device that Rollins manages to master back into a driving and salable story trope is throwing a dog into the mix. By far the best character and most brilliantly conceived character in the book is Captain Tucker Wayne, a rogue U.S. agent with an uncanny ability to work with his trained army canine, Kane.
Wayne is unstable, vicious, utterly dedicated to the welfare of his companion, and is still haunted by dreams of the loss of Abel, Kane's brother. In the ruins of a man, though, there are still aspirations to greatness that make him a flawed but incredible antihero. Kane himself more than holds up his end of the team, serving as soldier, spy, medic and chaplain as the need arises. Both are gifts of characters in an already rich landscape of pulp heroes and science villains.
"About a year and half ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a USO tour of authors to military bases in Iraq and Kuwait," said Rollins. "There, I saw several of these war dogs in action. I was also able to meet and talk to a veterinary school classmate of mine who works with the veterinary corps out in Iraq. After that encounter, it got me thinking about writing this book, of honoring these unique war heroes on the page."
Badass dogs in the service of war are nothing new. For instance, there was a bull terrier named Sallie that served as mascot of the 11th Pennsylvanian Infantry in the Civil War. She earned herself a spot in history by holding vigil over the bodies of slain Union soldiers in the midst of a firefight, ensuring that they could be found and buried. She did that for three days.
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When she was finally shot in 1865, they stopped an entire battle to bury her. A statue of Sallie was included in a memorial to the regiment at the insistence of the surviving members, and kicked off a movement to replace the bald eagle with the bull terrier as the symbol of America that lasted well into the twentieth century.
That unique connection between soldier and dog is something that Rollins does so well you could argue that Tucker and Kane are the true stars of Blood Line.
"What I liked best about exploring this pair's unique relationship is a phrase commonly used by military war dog handlers -- 'It runs down the lead' -- describing how the emotions of the pair became shared over time, binding them together as firmly as any leash," said Rollins. "And it's that bond and ability for the two to operate as one that I wanted to explore in this novel."
James Rollins will be at Murder by the Book tonight at 6:30 p.m. to sign copies and discuss Blood Line.