Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Camel Club by David Baldacci




(Mildly Recommended)




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David Baldacci delivers predictable reading in his new novel, The Camel Club. Using even greater complexity and sensationalism than in his earlier novels, Baldacci presents an improbable and unlikely situation, full of confusing and undeveloped characters. Several characters are motivated by revenge, but what motivates most characters remains a mystery throughout the novel. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, pp. 22-27:


Oliver Stone got out of the taxi.

Before driving off, the cabby said with a snort, “In my book you’re still a bum no matter how fancy you talk.”

Stone gazed after the departing car. He’d long since stopped re­sponding to such comments. People would think what they wanted to. Besides, he did look like a bum.

He walked toward a small park next to the Georgetown Waterfront Complex and glanced down at the brownish waters of the Potomac River as they licked up against the seawall. Some very enterprising graffiti artists, who obviously didn’t mind working with water right under their butts, had elaborately painted the concrete barrier.

A little earlier there would have been traffic racing along the ele­vated Whitehurst Freeway that ran behind Stone. And a jet-fueled nightlife would have blared away near the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Georgetown had many tony places that promised good times for those with lots of ready cash or at least passable credit, neither of which Stone possessed. However, at this late hour most rev­elers had called it a night. Washington was, above all, an early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise sort of town.

The Potomac River was also quiet tonight. The police boat that reg­ularly patrolled the waters must have headed south toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That was very good, Stone thought. Thank­fully, he didn’t pass any police officers on land either. This was a free country, but somewhat less free for a man who lived in a cemetery, wore clothes only a couple of levels above rags and was out after dark in an affluent area.

Stone walked along the waterfront, skirted the Francis Scott Key Park, trudged under the Francis Scott Key Bridge and finally passed a memorial to the famous composer. A bit of overkill, Stone thought, for a fellow who had written song lyrics no one could remember. The sky was an inky black with splashes of clouds and dots of stars; and, with the recently reinstated curfew at nearby Reagan National Air­port, there were no aircraft exhaust streams to mar its beauty. How­ever, Stone could feel the thick ground fog rolling in. Soon, he would be lucky to see a foot in front of him. He was drawing near to a gaudily painted building owned by one of the local rowing clubs when a famil­iar voice called to him from the darkness.

“Oliver, is that you?”

“Yes, Caleb. Are the others here?”

A medium-sized fellow with a bit of a paunch came into Stone’s line of sight. Caleb Shaw was dressed in a suit of clothes from the nine­teenth century, complete with a bowler hat that covered his short, graying hair; an old-fashioned watch graced the front of his wool vest. He wore his sideburns long, and a small, well-groomed mustache hov­ered over his lip.

“Reuben’s here, but he’s, uh, relieving himself. I haven’t seen Milton yet,” Caleb added.

Stone sighed. “Not a surprise. Milton is brilliant but absentminded as always.”

When Reuben joined them, he didn’t look well. Reuben Rhodes stood over six foot four and was a very powerfully built man of about sixty with a longish mass of curly dark hair dappled with gray and a matching short, thick beard. He was dressed in dirty jeans and a flan­nel shirt, with frayed moccasins on his feet. He was pressing one of his hands into his side. Reuben was prone to kidney stones.

“You should go to the clinic, Reuben,” Stone implored.

The big man scowled. “I don’t like people poking around inside me; had enough of that in the army. So I’ll suffer in silence and in privacy if you don’t mind.”

As they were speaking, Milton Farb joined them. He stopped, pecked the dirt with his right foot three times, then with his left two times and finished this off with a series of whistles and grunts. Then he recited a string of numbers that obviously had great significance for him.

The other three waited patiently until he finished. They all knew if they interrupted their companion in the midst of his obsessive-compulsive ritual, he would have to start again, and it was getting rather late.

“Hello, Milton,” Stone said after the grunts and whistles had ceased. Milton Farb looked up from the dirt and smiled. He had a leather backpack over his shoulder and was dressed in a colorful sweater and crisp-pressed khaki pants. He was five foot eleven and thin with wire-rim glasses. He wore his graying sandy-blond hair on the long side, which made him resemble an aging hippie. However, there was an impish look in his twinkling eyes that made him appear younger than he was.

Milton patted his backpack. “I have some good stuff, Oliver.”

“Well, let’s get going,” said Reuben, who was still holding his side. “I’ve got the early shift at the loading dock tomorrow.” As the four headed off, Reuben drew next to Stone and slipped some money into his friend’s shirt pocket.

“You don’t have to do that, Reuben,” Stone protested. “I have the stipend from the church.”

“Right! I know they don’t pay much to pull weeds and polish tomb­stones, especially when they throw in a roof over your head.”

“Yes, but it’s not like you have much to spare yourself.”

“You did the same for me for many a year when I couldn’t pay any­one to hire me.” He then added gruffly, “Look at us. What a ragtag regiment we are. When the hell did we get so old and pathetic?”

Caleb laughed, although Milton looked stunned for a moment until he realized Reuben was joking.

“Old age always sneaks up on one, but once it’s fully present, the ef­fects are hardly subtle,” Stone commented dryly. As they walked along, Stone studied each of his companions, men he’d known for years and who’d been with him through both good and bad times.

Reuben had graduated from West Point and served three distin­guished tours in Vietnam, earning virtually every medal and commen­dation the military could confer. After that, he’d been assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency, essentially the military counterpart of the CIA. However, he eventually quit the DIA and became a vocal protester of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. When the country quit caring about that “little skirmish” in Southeast Asia, Reuben found himself a man without a cause. He lived in England for a time before returning to the States. After that, heavy doses of drugs and burned bridges left him with few options in life. He’d been fortu­nate to run into Oliver Stone, who helped turn his life around. Reuben was currently on the payroll of a warehouse company, where he un­loaded trucks, exercising his muscles instead of his mind.

Caleb Shaw held twin doctorates in political science and eighteenth-century literature, though his bohemian nature found comfort in the fashions of the nineteenth century. Like Reuben, he’d been an active protester during Vietnam, where he lost his brother. Caleb had also been a strident voice against the administration during Watergate, when the nation lost the last vestiges of its political innocence. Despite his academic prowess, his eccentricities had long since banished him from the mainstream of scholarship. He currently worked in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. His membership in the organization he was meeting with tonight had not been included on his résumé when he sought the position. Federal authorities frowned on people who affiliated with conspiracy-theory groups that held their meetings in the middle of the night.

Milton Farb probably possessed more sheer brilliance than the other members put together, even if he often forgot to eat, thought that Paris Hilton was a place to stay in France and believed that so long as he possessed an ATM card that he also had money. A child prodigy, he had the innate capacity to add enormous numbers in his head and a pure photographic memory—he could read or see something once and never forget it. His parents had worked in a traveling carnival, and Milton became a very popular sideshow, adding numbers in his head faster than someone else could on a calculator, and reciting, back, without faltering, the exact text of any book shown him.

Years later, after completing graduate school in record time, he was employed at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. The only things that had prevented him from having a successful life were his worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and a strong para­noia complex, both problems probably caused by his unorthodox childhood on the carnival circuit. Unfortunately these twin demons tended to erupt at inappropriate times. After sending a threatening let­ter to the president of the United States decades ago and being investi­gated by the Secret Service, his NIH career quickly came to an end.

Stone first met Milton in a mental health facility where Stone worked as an orderly and Milton was a patient. While he was hospitalized Mil­ton’s parents died and left their son penniless. Stone, who’d come to know of Milton’s extraordinary intellectual ability, persuaded his des­titute friend to try out for, of all things,Jeopardy! Milton qualified for the show, and, his OCD and other issues temporarily kept in check with medication, he went on to defeat all corners and earn a small for­tune. He now had a thriving business designing corporate Web sites.

They headed down closer to the water where there was an old aban­doned junkyard. At a spot nearby there was a great clump of ragged bushes, half in the water. From this hiding place the four managed to pull out a long, crusted rowboat that hardly looked seaworthy. Un­daunted by this, they tugged off their socks and shoes and stuffed them in their bags, carried the boat down to the water and climbed in. They took turns at the oars, with big Reuben pulling the longest and hardest.

There was a cooling breeze on the water, and the lights of George­town and, farther south, Washington were inviting, though fading with the encroaching fog. There was much to like about the place, Stone thought as he sat in the bow of the little vessel. Yes, much to like, but more to loathe.

“The police boat’s up near the 14th Street Bridge,” Caleb reported. “They’re on a new schedule. And they’ve got Homeland Security chopper patrols circling the Mall monuments every two hours again. It was on the alert e-mail at the library today.”

“The threat level was elevated this morning,” Reuben informed them. “Friends of mine in the know say it’s all bulishit campaign pos­turing; President Brennan waving the flag.”

Stone turned around and stared at Milton, who sat impassively in the stern.

“You’re unusually quiet tonight, Milton. Everything all right?”

Milton looked at him shyly. “I made a friend.” They all stared at him curiously. “A female friend,” he added.

Reuben slapped Milton on the shoulder. “You old dog you.”

“That’s wonderful,” Stone said. “Where did you meet her?”

“At the anxiety clinic. She’s a patient too.”

“I see,” Stone said, turning back around.

“That’s very nice, I’m sure,” Caleb added diplomatically.

They moved slowly under the Key Bridge, keeping to the middle of the channel, and then followed the curve of the river south. Stone took comfort that the thickening fog made them practically invisible from shore. Federal authorities didn’t tolerate trespassers very well. Stone watched as land came into view. “A little to the right, Reuben.”

“Next time let’s just meet in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It re­quires much less sweat on my part,” the big man complained as he huffed and puffed on the oars.

The boat made its way around the western side of the island and into a small strip of water known appropriately as Little Channel. It was so isolated here that it seemed impossible that they’d glimpsed the U.S. Capitol dome just minutes ago.

Reaching shore, they climbed out and hauled the boat up into the bushes. As the men trudged single file through the woods toward the main trail, Oliver Stone carried an extra spring in his step. He had a lot he wanted to accomplish tonight.


Those readers who enjoy Baldacci’s thrillers will find much to like in The Camel Club. The plot moves quickly, and there’s an intensity that Baldacci tweaks from chapter to chapter. If you pick up The Camel Club as a junk reading escape, you won’t be disappointed.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


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