The Last Mile by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
I had an interesting conversation with my dear friend and former colleague, Ellen Krueger, over Memorial Day weekend. Ellen is an extraordinary media teacher at Millburn High School, who manages each year to come up with themes to stretch the imaginations of her students as they explore the art of film. She excitedly explained that starting in the fall, her students would examine how film makers (including directors, set designers, composers, screen play writers, costume and scenery directors, etc.) come together as a team to tell a story. That is the essence of all great fiction; how does the story get delivered to the audience in a meaningful way that engages our attention and leaves us thinking about the story and its characters long after we have finished reading, listening to, or viewing a piece.
That brings me to author David Baldacci who is one of the best story tellers of our time. He may not be the most gifted writer as far as the use of language is concerned, but his stories never fail to engage the reader from page one, and so it is with his newest novel, The Last Mile, which is the second book in the series which began with Memory Man.
“Mars was officially Prisoner 7-4-7, like the plane. The guards at the death row prison from which he'd been brought called him 'Jumbo' because of it. And while he wasn't huge, he wasn't small either. Most folks would look up to him, if only because they had to. Six-two, plus three-quarters of an inch tacked on for good measure.” (p. 1) This quote introduces the reader to one of the main characters in The Last Mile, Melvin Mars, who has been wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents, and has been sitting a death row for twenty years, waiting to be executed or exonerated.
Beginning a story on death row intrigues instantly because the reader is aware of the clock ticking for an inmate who faces what few of us confront in our lifetimes. While most of us don't have an inkling as to when our time on Earth will run out, the death row inmate certainly does, once all appeals have been exhausted. Therefore, we are caught in the horror of the time crunch as the inmate deals with his impending doom.
So, it's a great beginning. Just as Mars is to be marched into the execution chamber, several sober looking men come to see him, and one of them announces, “There's been an unexpected development in your case. The execution has been called off.” (p. 9) And this, of course, is where the story really takes off.
Baldacci now introduces his protagonist from Memory Man, a fascinating, overwhelmingly huge man named Amos Decker, who has been hired to serve on the FBI Special Task Force. Decker, who had participated in exactly one play in professional football before getting his bell rung so severely that it changed his brain forever, has a rare condition that allows him to remember everything that has ever happened in his life. Every experience is imprinted into his brain, which makes him a dazzling asset for an organization like the FBI.
On his way to FBI headquarters, Decker, a former detective, hears a story on the radio that captures his attention. “It had been a last-second Christmas present, the announcer said. The man's name was Melvin Mars. And he had been convicted over twenty years ago of killing his parents. Now, all of his appeals had been denied and the state of Texas was ready to take the man's life as punishment for his crimes. But startling new evidence had emerged, the announcer said. A prisoner in Alabama had confessed to the crime and had allegedly offered up details that only the real killer could have known.” (p. 17)
Decker is intrigued by this story for two reasons. First, as a player for Ohio State, Decker had played in a grueling game against the Heisman Trophy finalist, Melvin Mars, who had been a star running back for the University of Texas. Due to Mars scoring four touchdowns in the game, Ohio lost a chance at the national championship. After Mars' arrest twenty years ago, his name had faded from the national scene and Decker hadn't thought about him much.
But Mars and Decker have something more important in common than a college football game. One day Decker had come home from work to find his wife, little girl, and brother-in-law murdered, and he set to work on bringing to justice the bastard who had taken out his family. Hearing that Mars potentially had been imprisoned unjustly for the murder of his family, Decker decides that he must investigate the details of this perplexing case.
Decker's intensity and motivation allow him to convince his colleagues that they must take on the Mars case and see if the confession made by Charles Montgomery, another death row inmate, is a righteous one, and why Montgomery has chosen to confess in the last possible hour. From the moment the FBI team begins to investigate, the plot takes twists that lead Decker and company to events that had occurred in Mississippi in the 1960s, involving church bombings and the hatred that cost so many their lives during the early days of the Civil Rights movement.
Decker and Mars are two damaged men who have suffered the worst losses life can throw one's way. They are essentially emotionally void, trying to find solid ground on which to move their shattered lives forward. The best part of The Last Mile is the development of the bond between Mars and Decker, which advances the plot to its thrilling denouement. As Decker learns the truth about Mars' past, his parents, and what had happened on the night of their deaths, he empathizes and helps his former football opponent in another kind of game changer.
Decker's past, his mental condition, and his body image combine to make him a memorable, sympathetic, and fascinating character, one whom Baldacci fans are going to want to read more about in future novels. David Baldacci has delivered another page turner based on a story in which the reader will invest.