The Protector

Reviewed: February 17, 2005
By: David Morrell
Publisher: Warner Books
482 pages, $10.99

There seems to be a current trend in thrillers towards stories about bodyguards. David Morrell's Protector is the second one I've run across in recent months. Whether this trend will match the vogue in "forensic" detective work remains to be seen, but there are some similarities in the two mystery/thriller sub-genres that are worth noting.

Both types of stories go into a lot of detail about how things work and how things are destroyed. In a recent Kathy Reichs novel we got to read how to search for human remains in a septic tank, for instance. In Protector we get all sorts of information about how to survive a high speed chase, and how to remain anonymous while on the run. These stories focus on process in the same way that Tom Clancy zeroes in on hardware in his blockbuster novels.

Morrell is an odd case, a Canadian born and raised scholar who moved to the United States to spend an academic career teaching American literature. In his spare time he wandered into the crafting of thrillers, and his novel, First Blood, was the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies. The book was much more of a character study than the movies might indicate, but it also marked a major shift in the amount of on-stage mayhem that such books contained.

His later novels were more labyrinthine in their plotting, and sometimes wove in and around each other, with characters crossing over or linking up.

While he's worked in a number of genres, most of his work could be said to be thriller oriented, with some other element mixed in. Morrell himself refers to his work as "action novels", and there's certainly lots of that in them. Quite a few have dealt with agents and secret organizations.

The Protector doesn't. The man known as Cavanaugh is exactly what the book's title states, a member of a business called Protective Services that makes its living protecting people.

Daniel Prescott is just another client, a scientist who has invented something that everyone wants and who is afraid for his life. Protecting him is just another job, only it isn't.

After a rousing opening in which Cavanaugh effortlessly prevents an assassination in front of the Lincoln Centre (he wasn't on the case; he just didn't like the way that guy wore his watch) he allows himself to he hired to cover what seems to be an easy assignment.

There is a tradition in thrillers in which some inexperienced victim gets his entire support system stripped away from him, finds himself with every man's hand against him. and has to rise to the occasion. It's called the paranoid thriller. The things I have just described don't usually happen to someone like Cavanaugh (unless, like Ludlum's Jason Bourne, he happens to have amnesia). A person like Prescott is the more logical candidate for that sort of a story.

Morrell has taken that entire line of plotting and turned it end for end here. The experienced operative becomes the patsy who has to rebuild himself in order to succeed, while the apparently helpless nerd turns out to be so far from helpless that you almost have to admire him for what he accomplishes.

Prescott has his own escape plan. All he needs needs is an excellent bit of distraction to make it work. Wiping out Protective Services, burning it to the ground, is just a slight of hand trick in his overall scheme.

One of Presott's other little tricks is that he has developed a gas which inspires absolute fear in anyone who gets a whiff of it. We knew this because of the seven page prologue to the main story. Cavanaugh, normally calm in a crisis, has no idea why he is suddenly experiencing panic attacks. It is probably the presence of his wife which enables him to overcome his fear and act as he normally would in spite of it.

The opening gambit in Presott's disappearing act leaves Cavanaugh wounded, alone, and on the run, having to seek the assistance of his wife, one person who he has tried to keep at arm's length from his job and having to blow all the protection that he has placed around his real identity in order to avoid reprisals.

Not only that, but he eventually has to decide that his natural instinct to protect life is something he's going to have to compromise for a bit if he is ever to solve the mystery of Daniel Prescott and be able to bring him to justice.

The combination of those elements makes for quite a story.