Keith Raffel, as he will tell you, has lived in two worlds (actually three, as we will get to in a moment). One was in Silicon Valley, where he worked for a high-tech firm and later was instrumental in setting up another company that was a pioneer in the field of "cloud" computing. His first two novels, DOT DEAD and SMASHER, were heavily informed by those experiences. Raffel's second world is one in which he lived decades ago, a continent across and a world away from Northern California, when he worked in Washington, D.C. for the Senate Intelligence Committee at the elbow of such luminaries as Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy and a gentleman named Joseph Biden.
It is this experience that provides the grist for DROP BY DROP, Raffel's latest novel (and an eBook original), which in turn is a manifestation of his third world, where he is one of our smartest contemporary thriller authors.
DROP BY DROP leaves Silicon Valley behind for the academia of Washington, D.C., though it is a precipitous journey for Sam Rockman. A professor at Stanford University, Rockman is content in his job and marriage until a horrific airport bombing leaves him a widower. He wants nothing more or less than revenge upon those who took his wife from him, and when he receives an offer to work for the minority chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he jumps at the chance. The mood of the country matches Rockman's, and there is a movement afoot for a Constitutional amendment to enable the current president, a war hero, to stay in office for a third term to handle the crises at hand.
There is also a legislative move afoot to permit the CIA to operate within the United States. Rockman has the opportunity to assist in shepherding this legislation through the Senate, despite the reluctance of his boss to take so strong a step. When nuclear materials, ostensibly stolen from Russia, are strewn across Interstate 95 in Florida, the call for action becomes even stronger. The fact that Rockman, in spite of himself, is also becoming attracted to Cecilia Plant, his counterpart in the opposing political party, only further complicates matters. Yet Rockman, revenge-minded as he is, finds that things aren't entirely adding up in Washington, especially when top-secret files wind up on his doorstep. And when he and Plant travel to Russia to determine how the nuclear materials unleashed in Florida were stolen, they leave with more questions than they started with.
Meanwhile, the country marches toward major changes that could affect it far beyond the current crisis. Rockman is faced with a choice: Should he go with the flow, which may well provide him with the revenge he seeks? Or should be stand athwart history yelling halt? A series of explosive events mark the book's conclusion, making it one of this year's more interesting offerings in the thriller genre.
DROP BY DROP, as with Raffel's previous novels, offers a generous mix of interesting characters and complex, smartly-navigated plotting that result in a fast-paced read and satisfying ending. With regard to the characters, Plant almost steals the book from Rockman; if Raffel would see fit to bring her back in a future work, I certainly wouldn't object. Those who loved Raffel's prior excursions into Silicon Valley will find his treatment of Washington, D.C. enjoyable and worthwhile as well.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub