- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2011

By William G. Tapply
Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95, 320 pages

One of the most chilling aspects of this fascinating political thriller is that it carries a warning about the extent to which the clandestine power of government can be used if the political prestige of the president is at stake. The point is made that certain operatives won’t stop at anything, even murder.

This is the final book by William Tapply, and it underscores the writing discipline that he demonstrated in the course of dozens of mysteries. This might stand as an epitaph the author could be proud of, with its smoothly constructed pyramid of plotting and its sensitive characterization. It also carries a shock impact because of the cold-eyed assessment of what may happen in the most remote corridors of power where prowls a worried president.

In this case, the problem arises from the presidential nomination of state Judge Thomas Larrigan to become a member of the Supreme Court. Larrigan is delighted, but the process of his selection involves an investigation of his past that he knows will control his destiny and his life. The system of vetting crucial appointees, Mr. Tapply writes, “had always been there.”

He asserts that it had been brought to public attention in the Nixon scandal and refined in subsequent administrations. But in this book, the vetting of Judge Larrigan takes on a far more sinister edge. A fictional entity known as “Shadowland” controls the process and is activated in an e-mail sent by Pat Brody, a high level presidential adviser, to an agent known only as “Blackhole.”

The plot further darkens when Larrigan contacts Eddy Moran, an old friend and fellow warrior from Vietnam days. Moran is a loyal friend, and there isn’t anything he won’t do for money - like checking out a young woman called Bunny whom they had both known in Vietnam, and trying to find a Vietnamese woman called Li An. Bunny and Li An are the possessors of photographs that could ruin Larrigan’s brilliant future on the bench. Moreover, the secrets held by Bunny and Li An would certainly demolish him politically.

Within this story, Mr. Tapply smoothly interweaves the subplot of Jessie Church, a former law officer who had played such a major role in bringing down a pedophile that she is on the run from him for the rest of her life, despite the fact that he is in prison. Jessie is his prey and her fear is that there is nothing she can do that will protect her from the vengeance of the monster behind bars. The twist in the tale is that Jessie is the daughter of Li An, born in the days when her mother was a teenage prostitute, living with an American officer who pauses in his brutality toward her to marry her.

It isn’t too difficult to guess who the father is, or why the only solution is murder. There is a neat complication in the fact that a ghost writer is helping Li An - a former movie star now dying of an incurable disease - write her autobiography. It reveals the horrifying truth about Thomas Larrigan’s military career in Vietnam, including how he lost an eye when Li An thrust a broom into it to protect herself and her baby from a beating. His account of losing the eye in combat won him a medal.

Mr. Tapply has left as his legacy a suspense story so skilfully welded together and so close to reality that it is hard to put down. Most of the characters are ruthless, especially those near the center of power. The fate of Larrigan is carried out according to the orders of the agents of Shadowland, directed by Brody, and it is his responsibility to keep the president out of trouble no matter the cost.

Averting disasters was what Pat Brody had been hired to do and Shadowland was how he did it. Brody didn’t know who worked for Shadowland and didn’t want to know. He communicated with its agents from his basement office at the White House only through the anonymity of cyberspace and they were free to use any method that promised to work.

“Whatever they did, they did OYO ‘on your own.’ Nothing could be traced back to the White House. He didn’t want to know what they did or how they did it. And if Brody didn’t know, there was no way the President could know.” And it was symbolic of the man and the system he worked for that Brody always kept in mind that part of his job description read, “[Screw] up and your head rolls.” As long as the president remains untainted.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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