By David Baldacci
ISBN 9 781 509 874460
Pan Macmillan (2019)
I really enjoy a good thriller, but with so many good writers working in the field, many start to blend together. Baldacci has avoided that fate for “A Minute to Midnight”, largely through the distinctive and empathetic lead character, and how she’s dealing with her past. Atlee Pine is an ongoing character, and I think most readers will want to find out what happens to her next. She’s certainly memorable.
Like many other fictional lawmen and women, Atlee Pine is motivated in part by a traumatic event in her past. When she was six, her twin sister was abducted, and Atlee assaulted and left for dead. Her sister was never found, her parents’ marriage shattered; ultimately Atlee’s entire life was shaped by that night. What sets Atlee apart is how central that story is to this novel. Often, a backstory is simply a mechanism to explain the intensity of a character’s commitment to solving crimes, or their problems forming relationships.
Here, however, Atlee actively sets out to solve the case, utilising the skills she’s developed as an extremely effective FBI agent. For me, this made the investigation more compelling and Atlee more empathetic. Despite it being a cold case, the personal connection to Atlee gives it a sense of genuine urgency and has readers feeling that the stakes are high.
Atlee also becomes involved in a murder investigation in the small town from which her sister was abducted. This is primarily accidental; she just happens to be there, and the sheriff isn’t too proud to seize on some expert help. This investigation gives the plot some of its momentum; in fact, this element builds to a breakneck pace until the novel is almost unputdownable. Unfortunately, for me at least, it was also the element that had the least credibility. I couldn’t quite get on board with the motivation around one murder in particular.
However, the emotional core of this thriller is Atlee’s search for her sister – or at least for some answers. Part way through the novel I started to have some thoughts about this, and was right about at least one major revelation. It appears I’ll have to wait for the next novel to find out about others. Although Atlee finds a lot of answers, she also finds some new questions. Most readers will absolutely empathise with Atlee’s emotions; her sense of loss, her anger at her parents, her desperate need for answers (even if they’re not the answers she might want).
This is the second Atlee Pine novel. I haven’t read the first, but didn’t feel that I was suffering from that. If there is recapping, it’s done so smoothly that it isn’t obvious – this novel reads perfectly well as a first meeting with Atlee. However, not everything is resolved and unless you’re prepared for that, you might feel a little cheated, in part because Baldacci gets readers to engage so strongly with Atlee and her problems.
This is an excellent, highly readable thriller. It uses enough tropes of the genre for thriller readers to feel comfortable, but doesn’t ever feel clichéd. Atlee and her attempt to use her FBI experience to resolve her personal mystery make the novel more memorable than average. I really enjoyed reading this and will be keeping an eye out for the next Atlee Pine novel.
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading A Minute to Midnight thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia. You can read their comments below, or contribute to the discussion by leaving your own feedback.