- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010

THE BRICKLAYER

By Noah Boyd

William Morrow, $24.99, 390 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

After FBI Special Agent Paul Lindsay published his first novel, “Witness to the Truth,” in 1992, his bosses began to think of him as a renegade. And it didn’t help his career when, the next year, he was quoted in Vanity Fair impugning the character of FBI Director William Sessions. Now retired and the author of six previous novels, Mr. Lindsay has written his latest thriller under the alias Noah Boyd.

The bricklayer of the title is Steve Vail, a former special agent who resigned rather than rat out a colleague. It didn’t matter that the colleague was himself a rat: Steve Vail is one of those Adamic American anti-heroes who live by their own moral code, don’t play well with others, have abrasive personalities and a well-defined set of values that don’t necessarily jibe with the go-along-to-get-along Weltanschauung common to most bureaucracies, federal and otherwise.

And since the alias dictum, Mr. Boyd’s real-life Department of Justice experience has given him a lot of fodder when it comes to federal bureaucracies; he skewers the FBI’s all too often turgid and careerist management upper echelons with well-aimed bolt after bolt.

When Deputy Assistant Director Kate Bannon, herself something of a maverick, is asked by the Bureau’s director, Bob Lasker, about the method by which she picked a crew of G-men to work a particularly sensitive case, she tells him matter-of-factly, “I went purely for obedience. … I wanted agents who above all else could keep their mouths shut.”

“In today’s bureau? Please tell me how to accomplish that.”

Indeed, Mr. Boyd’s fictional director is fully aware that when it comes to leaks, the real-world FBI is just as sievelike as the real world Congress.

DAD Bannon’s solution: “I picked only the most serious climbers.”

“Climbers” was a term street agents used to stereotype the most serious promotion seekers. “I told them if they did a good job their name would be put on the priority list, but if this leaked out in any fashion whether it was their doing or not, they’d seen their last promotion.” (Note to Sens. Leahy, Rockefeller and Reid, and Rep. Waxman: Try this tactic with your staffs.)

The sensitive case DAD Bannon is working on entails multiple murders, extortion and a crew of nasty and very well-informed malefactors. Indeed, the bad guys stay way ahead of the Feds … until Ms. Bannon convinces Steve Vail, who is living in Chicago and working as a bricklayer, a trade he learned from his father, to come back and take the case on.

As Mr. Boyd has drawn him, Steve Vail is everything an FBI special agent should be, and more: diligent, hardworking, fast on his feet, a masterful tactical thinker, a warrior’s warrior and a perfect human specimen who can deflect the advances of a luscious assistant U.S. Attorney with poise and grace. He is a dogged investigator who understands that it’s important to have friends in low places - like the ubiquitous FBI technician Tom Demick, invisible to the “suits” but an invaluable source of information and assistance when the chips are down.

He even knows just how to make local law enforcement love him. Indeed, all he has to do is ask and cops not only cooperate with this exceptional G-man, they do it happily. They even help him cut corners. Whoa - talk about suspension of disbelief. But then, Steve Vail just about always gets it right, whether he’s disarming a Claymore mine, luring a bad guy into doing something stupid or “playing” a bureaucrat deputy FBI director - finessing him out of the action by sending him on a wild goose chase.

In fact, this extraordinary flawlessness becomes the character’s paramount defect - one that I hope Mr. Boyd will correct in future Bricklayer novels. Because as written, Steve Vail is, well, just too perfect. He almost never makes a mistake. When he fires one round at a target it is the absolute precise “side of the head just above the ear” kill shot that is guaranteed to drop the bad guy like the sack of … potatoes that he is. He even knows when to carry a Halligan Tool. It becomes irritating; irksome: Steve Vail is virtually impervious to Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame. I mean, even Batman and Sherlock Holmes screw up once in a while.

This is all the more distressing because the great majority of Mr. Boyd’s book makes for entertaining reading. His depiction of violence is nicely underwritten, giving us loads of menace but very little of the Hollywood gore common to “mental floss” action thrillers. He builds the relationship between Steve Vail and Kate Bannon as flawlessly as Steve Vail lays bricks:

“When he applied mortar, it was always the exact amount needed, never dropping any, never needing to add any. The flow never interrupted.” Much the same can be said for the way Mr. Boyd cements the bond between his two protagonists.

Mr. Boyd’s dialogue is taut, consistent and believable: “I can handle it,” says DAD Kate Bannon.

“You probably can, but I don’t want to be there if you can’t. You told me I do this because I’m built for it.”

“Am I that big a liability?”

“For me, everyone’s a liability.”

And there are in this book, many of the sorts of truths that are obvious to streetwise cops and oblivious to desk jockeys. For example, Mr. Boyd understands - unlike some real-world law enforcement panjandrums, that “Technology, while providing remarkable advantages to law enforcement, had a crippling side. It could make investigators lazy, keeping them from remaining flexible. Vail was worried that the agents surveilling him were finding it much easier to track him through the GPS monitors in the major-case room than trying to follow him through the dark, irregular terrain. And those were the kinds of vulnerabilities that the [bad guys] understood and exploited.” Amen.

Steve Vail likewise understands - contrary to all too many alleged leaders in today’s rush-to-judgment society - that in the investigator’s trade, assumptions can be dangerous. As he puts it, “Why be in a hurry to make assumptions? Let’s just keep following the yellow brick road until we find the guy behind the curtain.” Amen again.

Bottom line: Positives outnumber negatives. I for one will be waiting to see what’s beyond the next curve on Steve Vail and Kate Bannon’s yellow brick road as they search for those guys behind the curtains.

Washington writer John Weisman’s short CIA fiction “Father’s Day” will be published in this spring’s “Agents of Treachery.” He can be reached at aresddog@gmail.com.

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