This is the first thriller I’ve read by David Baldacci and it’s clear he deserves his bestseller status. He’s a pro. The story is fluid, he’s got a pretty good ear for dialogue, and he weaves multiple story lines to generate a bigger bang. I bought it in an airport facing a long delay to my flight, and The Target did the trick.
For any thriller or espionage writer these days, authenticity is required, and Baldacci is a meticulous researcher. That comes through in The Target. His imagined politics and details around the CIA feel credible; Baldacci’s on comfortable ground here and the reader trusts him.
There are a few passages of clunky exposition or writersplaining – sometimes after a dramatic or action-fueled turn, the characters fill each other in on their respective backstories, instead of waiting until they head for safety. But for the most part, Baldacci keeps the yarn spinning.
I did have some qualms. First, his famous research is not failproof. The Target is ostensibly about a pair of CIA assassins, Will Robie and Jessica Reel; this book is midway through a series featuring Robie. But the story’s heart is around a North Korean agent, Yie Chung-sha.
Baldacci does a good job imagining her life in Pyongyang, but his focus is really on the concentration camps in which Chung-sha emerges.
Sometimes he goes OTT: while all the horrors of the camp he documents are true, or at least corroborate with real-life reports, he conflates every sadism into one person’s experience.
That’s okay, writers have that license, and anyway, Baldacci’s outrage about North Korea’s slave society is a fair target – but he’s heavy-handed. What he’s better at is conveying the paranoia and fear there without making Chung-sha into an automaton. Indeed, she’s the most interesting character in the book.
But he has a few odd slipups. He refers to won and renminbi in plural as wons and renminbis, which no one else does, ever. (Maybe the publisher insisted on this for its U.S. audience?) When young Chung-sha encounters a dog, she tries to befriend it, only to have a guard shoot it: a minor scene that Baldacci uses to deepen our sympathy for Chung-sha, but he completely misses the reality that either she or the guard would have killed that stray for dinner. And while he takes his time building up the realism around the story, he then casually inserts a North Korean defector straight into a sensitive, dangerous exfil operation. I didn’t buy that.
Most bizarrely, when the CIA agents discuss Kim Jong-un, Baldacci has them refer to him as “Un”. This is like referring to Lyndon Johnson as “Baines”. If the CIA really does use this nomenclature, it is so unusual that Baldacci should have mentioned it in one of his writesplaining moments, because it’s a jarring error.
These are quibbles that perhaps most readers wouldn’t notice. The main problem with The Target is its heroes, Robie and Reel, are bland and interchangeable. They’re likeable, and Baldacci gives them good dialogue, but at the end of the day, they’re just a male and female version of the same thing. Although one sideline in the plot goes into Reel’s childhood, Baldacci could have written it for Robie and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
The Target ends up relying on Chung-sha to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately she’s interesting – and badass.