Steve Martini hits a home run in a big way with Critical Mass, his new legal and political thriller, which takes on an international conspiracy and a nuclear arsenal. With his legal thrillers such as Undue Influence and The List climbing the bestseller lists, Martini rarely if ever misses the mark. One of the hallmarks of his novels is how world issues impact the individual (usually a lawyer), and in Martini's world, lawyers are always seeking some kind of escape from the injustices of life. Martini is such a master storyteller that he manages to make the universal personal. Critical Mass is the engaging story of one woman's struggle to come to terms with the vagaries of law and justice.
Martini throws us into a mystery in the opening of Critical Mass. A father and son are piloting a boat in the treacherous Pacific at the border of international waterways. As they fight the elements just to survive, a Russian ship looks like it's about to plow right into them when the big waves hit. Instead the Russian ship goes down, and what pops up onto the deck of the American boat may be something deadly. After this tantalizing tease, we get to the meat of the tale.
Attorney Jocelyn "Joss" Cole has moved to a lovely but isolated spot among the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington in order to escape the bustle and nastiness of Los Angeles. She is barely making ends meet with her small-time and slow-paying local clients when a man walks into her office and literally changes her life. Dean Belden is both handsome and rich,butfor the nearly broke Joss it's the rich part that counts. He hires her to represent his interests locally as he sets up a branch of his electronics company on the island of Friday Harbor. Not only will Joss get a healthy retainer for her services but her hourly charges triple for this new client. He is a bit of a mystery man, and when he calls her, worried about a subpoena, Joss wonders if Belden is packing more than circuits in his operation. But on some level, she's falling for Belden, and when he picks her up in his private plane, she knows that he's the stuff of romance fiction and too good to be true.
But other storms are brewing on the horizon. Gideon Van Ry, a Dutchman who is the inspector for an international antiterrorist group, discovers a discrepancy in some journals about nuclear materials, so he jets to the source of the problem, a warehouse in Sverdlovsk that handles weapons storage for the new Russia. It turns out that, in all the black-marketeering of post-Soviet times, one minor official has been selling the evil stuff to someone and it just might be a bizarre underground militia bent on anarchy in the U.S. Flashing back to the States, the curveball hits us as we meet various characters harboring both real and imagined gripes with the government at home, and gradually the threads of Martini's narrative weave together in one twisting and turning tapestry of high-stakes thrills. As Joss gets closer to the secrets that haunt Dean Belden, and as Gideon tracks those who wish to destroy America, Critical Mass reaches, well...critical mass.
This is one of those hot novels that brings the world into the main character's backyard, and Joss Cole is up for the fight. She's the real hero of this novel, despite the heroics and sacrifices of those around her; I'd compare her favorably with Clarice Starling in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, although Joss definitely is chasing down not psycho killers but the sanest of men with the insanest of plans. Great fun and tense reading, Critical Mass is Martini at his best. Highly recommended.
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror and suspense novels, including The Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story "I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes" can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11.