Sunday, May 20, 2018
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'Camel Club' is gripping, scary page-turner

THE CAMEL CLUB. By David Baldacci. Warner Books. 435 pages. $25.95.

Sometimes genre writers run out of steam, their current bestsellers carried on the backs of their earlier works. That's not the case with David Baldacci.

His newest novel, The Camel Club, is an original, effervescent thriller. It hinges on the corruption of the politically ambitious who are undone by a gang of cranky old geezers. It is spiced with the kind of delicious details that have become Baldacci trademarks; here the subjects are as disparate as the martial arts and the history of the Library of Congress.

The Camel Club has four members with an interest in conspiracy theories, government, and current events. The club celebrates camels, member Oliver Stone says, because they "have great stamina. They never give up."

For Reuben Rhodes, another member, it memorializes a 1920s club of the same name whose members vowed "to oppose Prohibition to the last drop of whiskey."

Stone is the assumed name of a former U.S. government killer who escaped that same government's efforts to do him in. He tends a historic black cemetery, mourns a missing daughter and dead wife, and keeps a tent with other protesters on the mall outside the White House. "I WANT THE TRUTH," his sign reads.

Caleb Shaw, medium-sized, paunchy, and eccentric, affects 19th century menswear. Though he has doctorates in political science and 18th century literature, his peculiarities bar him from mainstream academia. He works in special collections at the Library of Congress.

Rhodes, 60-ish, is tall and strapping and usually wearing beat-up jeans, flannel shirt, and rundown mocs. He is a West Point graduate who won every possible medal in Vietnam, then followed the trail of protest, dropping out, and drug addiction. He loads trucks at a warehouse.

Completing the "ragtag regiment" is Milton Farb, a paranoid suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder who recites strings of numbers amid grunts and whistles in his campus get-up of khakis, backpack, and wire-framed glasses. He lives off proceeds from an appearance on Jeopardy.

One foggy night the four head out to Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River for a Camel Club meeting. Stone proposes that they do something, say take down Carter Gray, the nation's intelligence czar. Stone thinks the man is evil, and it turns out he has reason to know.

But before a vote is taken, they hear people approaching and scurry into the brush, from which they see a murder set up to appear as a suicide.

When the killers leave, the geriatrics close in. They escape as the killers return to put dirt on the victim's shoes, their flight easily audible. A two-way chase ensues: The killers for the witnesses, and the club members, with the help of a friendly Secret Service agent, for perps and motives.

The plot, driven by international chicanery for both noble and crass causes, runs from the Middle East to North Korea and into the depths of the Homeland Security system where, because information is centralized, it is easily changed and deleted for political purposes. If 25 Muslims are dead in a successful effort to kidnap the U.S. president, should we bomb Damascus? Or is there more to it? Who is masterminding foul deeds? And why?

Baldacci, via The Camel Club, adroitly illustrates how leaders distort political reality for their own ends without regard for consequences. And how just a few determined people can stop them in their tracks.

The result is page-turning fiction that grips and scares, and offers plenty to think about later.

Eileen Foley is a former Blade associate editor.

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