- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

By Steve Martini
William Morrow, $26.99, 448 pages

There are certain elements common to virtually all the books we know as “beach books,” the best-selling thrillers that folks just HAVE to read during their down time. We’re talking here about the sorts of compulsive page-turners that keep readers up at night and publishers happy. Element One is a compelling, engaging flesh-and-blood hero. Element Two is a truly nasty villain. Element Three is that the hero’s got to be sucked into a situation that has cosmic consequences if said hero doesn’t succeed. The best of these books also weave together a plot that is both timely and scary. This allows readers to suspend disbelief more easily. And they are also written by individuals — not assembled by committees, hired ghosts, “co-writers” or packagers.

Here’s good news: Steve Martini’s latest novel, “Guardian of Lies” more than satisfies all these requirements. His hero and narrator, Paul Madriani, is a San Diego criminal lawyer. Madriani isn’t one of those cardboard superhuman heroes. In fact, Mr. Martini trips him up so many times in so many delicious ways that one often wonders whether or not he actually is going to prevail.

The situation over which Mr. Madriani, his partner Harry Hinds and his investigator Herman Diggs must triumph is a tantalizing souffle whisked together by Mr. Martini. The major ingredients include two relics of the Cold War. One is a Small Atomic Demolition Munition known as a SADM (pronounced like the late and unlamented Iraqi dictator), and the other is the SADM’s guardian, an Old Soviet Soldier named Yakov Nitikin.

To these, Mr. Martini adds the FARC, Colombia’s largest narcoterror organization, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist named Alim Afundi, a take-no-prisoners San Diego prosecutor known as the Death Dwarf and a hapless but gorgeous Costa Rican twentysomething named Katia Solaz. Also in the mix are Fidel Castro, the FBI, in the person of the perpetually harried Zeb Thorpe, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, a Machiavellian Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general named James Rhytag, Washington’s secret FISA court — the court that provides warrants for surveillance in national security cases — and in minor supporting roles the White House and the CIA.

To this rich batter, Mr. Martini adds one of the better villains in recent thrillerdom. A modern-day Hispanic Moriarty, this nameless professional killer is known in street legend as the Mexecutioner. To the motorbike-riding, Mac-10-toting “concrete cowboys” of Mexico’s drug cartels and violent crime gangs, “the Mexecutioner was not only real, they knew him by a different name for the soundless way he took his victims, and always at night. He was like the mountain of water rising from the darkness, washing the victim from a tranquil beach, a kind of unexpected rough wave — ‘muerte liquida,’ ‘liquid death.’”

Mr. Martini is a facile writer who understands that readers like to unpeel characters like onions, not learn their backstories in huge unwieldy gobs of leaden prose. Mr. Martini also understands that, just as in real life, heroes make mistakes — sometimes huge mistakes. And that Murphy’s Law (“what can go wrong will go wrong”) applies to fiction just the way it does in real life. He has also done enough research so that his fictional plot is overlaid atop a real-world canvas. The Iranians, for example, are even now active in South America, where they have forged alliances with America’s adversaries. Cuba is actively pursuing anti-U.S. covert action programs. This veneer of realism provides contrapuntal verisimilitude to the fiction.

In a nutshell (and without giving anything away), Paul Madriani and Katia Solaz meet by chance in a supermarket and he gives her his business card. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Solaz is accused of a double murder. Paul Madriani becomes her defense attorney. His courtroom opponent is “Larry Templeton, aka ‘the Death Dwarf,’… the most deft death-penalty prosecutor in the DA’s office, perhaps the state.”

As Paul Madriani puts it, “I have lost track of the number of capital cases he has won, lacking enough fingers and toes to count them all. That a wing of the death house at San Quentin has not yet been named for him is itself an injustice.” Mr. Martini writes at a level that is almost on a par with Don Westlake or Robert B. Parker. At a meeting in the Death Dwarf’s office, Paul Madriani is surprised by the presence of Kim Howard, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of California.” She gives me a smile, then quickly frisks me up and down with her eyes, the kind of appraisal you might expect if you were dead but had somehow misplaced your grave.”

The judge handling the Solaz murder case “is tall and angular. He sits bolt upright in his chair behind the desk, sharp-angled beak nose, narrow face, and bald head. [Judge] Quinn has always reminded me of the eagle on the great seal.”

Mr. Martini also has a flair for the kind of narrative that can make readers smile. To harried G-Man Thorpe, “the political parties that occupied the House and the Senate reminded him of two retarded Siamese gorillas sharing the same brain. Together with their feeders and handlers on Wall Street, they’d spent a decade toying with the national economy, trying to get everyone in the country into houses they couldn’t afford. When this set fire to the national economy … they tripled the national debt in order to smother the flames with money…. In his more sanguine moments, Thorpe was beginning to wonder why there wasn’t a hunting season on members of Congress.” Amen, Mr. Martini.

Indeed, in one of the more encouraging aspects of thrillerdom, Mr. Martini actually casts the FBI in a positive light. It is refreshing to come upon denizens of the J. Edgar Hoover Building who think the way effective, imaginative law-enforcement personnel should. The final third of Mr. Martini’s book is a compelling “tick-tock” race against the clock. He juggles FBI SWAT teams, U.S. Department of Energy NEST teams, the Border Patrol, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the California Highway Patrol, local cops from San Diego, as well as Alim Afundi’s terrorist cohorts and Senor Liquida with no loss of pace or suspense.

And he also guarantees at least one and probably more sequels because very much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s nefarious Professor Moriarty, the Mexecutioner lives on to fight another day. As Mr. Martini notes ominously, Senor Liquida has “a very long memory.”

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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