Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Gravetapping DROPSHOT by Jack M. Bickham by Ben Boulden


by Ben Boulden

Posted: 09 Sep 2015 06:00 AM PDT
Dropshot is Jack Bickham’s second novel featuring Brad Smith. It was published in 1990 by Tor, and it is one of the best titles in the series. It opens with Brad in a crazy grief; his wife, Danisa, died in a plane crash, and Brad has little to live for. He is doing leather work trying to forget, struggling to keep sanity enough to muddle through his zombie-like days. On an October afternoon he receives an invitation to Al Hesser’s Tennis College in St. Maarten—free room and board with no strings attached. Brad files it in the “too hard” category, and immediately throws it out. 

A few days later Collie Davis, Brad’s CIA contact, arrives in Richardson. Collie wants Brad to accept the invitation and snoop around the resort. Brad rejects the idea outright. As he does again when his old friend and doubles partner Pat Reilly asks Brad to accompany him to the island. A decision Brad later regrets because Pat dies in a suspicious scuba accident after sending Brad a desperate letter and a signature card for bank safe deposit box. Brad goes to St. Maarten—off the radar of both the CIA and the tennis resort—to investigate Pat’s death. What he finds is much larger and more dangerous than he expected.

Dropshot is a clever, twisty suspense novel. One of its major themes is death. Brad’s wife is only one of the ghosts, and there are some powerful moments. An example is an early scene when two tennis hackers are preparing for a charity tournament, and one of the men tells Brad his wife died of cancer—

“There are times like that when you want to say you notice. I’ve never known how to say it in a way that will make sense. We walk around, making our social noises, and occasionally someone opens the shutters over his eyes and we see that glimpse, that we share something crucial. But it always seems to come out wrong, and everyone ends up being embarrassed, or mystified. And so we don’t try to say it.”   

It is also a novel of recovery. The investigation breaks Brad’s grief, and a new woman enters his life. But most importantly it is exciting, suspenseful, and exotic. There are a handful of distasteful villains including Sylvester—who acts as Brad’s Moriarty in three of the novels. There are also several well-designed characters; a predatory nymph, an overextended resort owner, an angry teenager whose body as outgrown his emotions, a gambling computer programmer. The plot is devised perfectly. There are seemingly small, almost inconsequential moments that payoff big in later chapters. 

Dropshot is a cold war novel and it has held up well since its publication 25 years ago. The reason has less to do with the plot and setting than it does with Brad Smith’s narration. He is sympathetic, tough when he needs to be, and a proclaimed coward. He has a realistic view of the CIA—a necessary evil—and he is likable as hell.          

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