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The Art of Murder
For more than 25 years, David Morrell has been one of America's most reliable creators of high-speed, high-energy novels of action and suspense. His very first novel, First Blood, established his mastery of the form and remains one of the more durable cultural artifacts of the Vietnam era. Readers familiar only with the film adaptation (and its execrable sequel, Rambo) should give the book a try. Unlike either of the movies, it is the real, unadulterated thing.
Echoes of First Blood find their way into Morrell's 15th and latest novel, Burnt Sienna, which features Chase Malone, a world-famous artist who bears a slight, but crucial, resemblance to John Rambo. Like Rambo, Chase is a highly trained former soldier who has done his best to put the military life behind him. Like Rambo, Chase finds himself victimized by outside forces, forces that leave him no alternative but to resurrect his buried skills and go, unwillingly, to war.
It all begins when Derek Belasar, billionaire arms dealer and world-class psychopath, "offers" Chase a commission: to paint two portraits of his ravishingly beautiful wife, the eponymous Sienna Belasar. Chase refuses, for reasons of his own, and trouble follows. Belasar, who never takes no for an answer, responds by attacking Chase at a number of vulnerable points. He bulldozes Chase's beachfront home in Cozumel, shuts down his principal New York City art gallery, even purchases -- and closes -- his favorite restaurant. As Chase, pushed to the wall, prepares to push back, fate intervenes in the form of Jeb Wainwright, a former fellow soldier who is now an agent for the CIA.
Jeb tells Chase a disturbing story. According to CIA sources, Derek Belasar has been married three times previously. All three of his wives met with fatal "accidents" shortly after having their portraits painted by well-known artists. Convinced that Sienna Belasar is slated to become victim number four, a reluctant Chase Malone -- who has already developed an obsessive fascination with Sienna's photographed images -- accepts the commission, travels to Belasar's weapons testing center outside Nice, and becomes, in effect, a de facto CIA operative. Once installed in Belasar's domain, he begins to gather data on his new employer's business dealings. At the same time, he looks for an opportunity to save Sienna's life.
Chase, of course, completes the process of falling in love with Sienna, who has no idea that she is married to a latter-day Bluebeard. Eventually, the two of them escape together in a stolen helicopter, with an enraged Derek Belasar hot on their heels. What follows is a skillfully plotted, furiously paced chase novel filled with hairbreadth escapes, violent encounters, and mysterious betrayals. Ultimately, their circuitous journey ends where it began: in the Belasar compound near Nice. There, in a bloody, thoroughly satisfying denouement, Chase Malone the artist yields to Chase Malone the soldier as he and his opponent wage a small-scale war, using Derek Belasar's own supply of highly refined, state-of-the-art weapons.
Morrell is an established master of this sort of story, and BURNT SIENNA provides a generous display of his characteristic virtues: the narrative energy, the explosive bursts of action, the big, cinematic effects. On the down side, some of Morrell's besetting faults are also on display: the occasional stretches of stiff, unidiomatic dialogue; the Dean Koontz-like habit of belaboring the obvious; the tendency to create characters through broad, melodramatic strokes. In Burnt Sienna, the major casualty of this latter tendency is Derek Belasar, who, for all his florid, fire-breathing monstrousness, never quite comes alive. Belasar, in fact, would be perfectly cast as the heavy in a James Bond film: Dr. No on steroids.
Problems like these keep Burnt Sienna from achieving the level of John Le Carre's The Night Manager, a novel to which it bears some striking similarities. But viewed on its own straightforward terms, Morrell's latest is a surefire, made-to-order crowd pleaser and should have the author's considerable following lining up to buy. Whatever its limitations, Burnt Sienna is a viscerally exciting narrative that is, by the end, surprisingly touching, surprisingly effective in its understated portrayal of obsessive -- and enduring -- love. Morrell may not be John Le Carré, but he is a consummate professional who always provides a compelling, high-adrenaline experience. So strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. A good time is almost guaranteed.