Three of Kay David's works have earned a place on my keeper shelf, all of them set in unusual…and unusually rugged…locales. From Obsession, set in Bolivia with its lovely scenery and its corrupt government, to The Ends of the Earth which takes place in bleak and impoverished Patagonia, and including The Man from High Mountain, set in the west Texas hills, the setting shapes and strengthens the drama. In her latest book, The Negotiator, David uses the hero's dangerous profession to bring the same sort of tension to her work. She succeeds, though perhaps not quite as thoroughly as in the earlier books.
Jennifer Barclay is a fourth grade teacher who is happily living a highly structured life. Jennifer's father was Navy Special Ops. His assignments took him away from home frequently, to destinations he never talked about, for uncertain periods of time. Even worse, when he was home, he was a bullying tyrant who tormented Jennifer, her mother, and her older brother, Danny. Jennifer left home at 17 and set about constructing her present tidy little life.
The negotiator of the title is Beck Winters. Before he trained as a negotiator, Beck spent five years as a point man for his Florida panhandle SWAT team, the first-in in a hostage situation. After a disastrous ending to a hostage incident, Beck was ready to resign. Instead, his lieutenant persuaded him to train for the negotiator position.
Beck and Jennifer meet when Jennifer is held hostage in her classroom, along with more than dozen children and a member of the school board. In a scenario familiar to anyone who watches the evening news, a school maintenance worker, fired from his job by the board member, has come back asking to be rehired…to get his repossessed truck back…to avoid having to go to a shelter…even Howard French is unsure what he can accomplish by holding 15 people hostage.
Howard refuses to talk to Beck on the telephone, and Jennifer ends up the intermediary, relaying messages between Howard and the SWAT team. As she does, she builds up an image of Beck as a kindly, middle-aged man. When the incident comes to its tragic end and she meets him, she is shocked to find him younger, larger, and more unsettling than she had imagined. He, in turn, had envisioned Jennifer as a calm matron in her forties, based on her sensible behavior during the siege. Instead she is young, single, and pretty, with sad eyes.
Standing in the way of the pull these two feel is Jennifer's wariness. Her parents' marriage was highly dysfunctional, and her father's behavior taught her to fear and distrust men. Even when Jennifer's attraction to Beck starts to overcome her dread of entanglement, his membership in a SWAT team, with all the uncertainty which that involves, evokes memories of life with her father and puts the brakes on their relationship. The result is a romance with a very real - and convincing - hurdle to surmount.
Besides the interest provided by Beck's occupation, David's secondary characters are well-developed personalities in their own right and act to flesh out the characters of the two principals. On Beck's side, the pressure he feels is exacerbated by his conflict with his squad's new marksman. Paradoxically, when his lieutenant urges him…orders him…to take a vacation, that triggers a different anxiety.
Besides the not-unsympathetic portrayal of the disastrously insensitive board member, David also shows us the complexity of Jennifer's relationship with her Alzheimer-stricken mother. Despite the fact that her mother rarely recognizes her, Jennifer continues to visit her regularly and draws comfort from those visits, a fact that I found emotionally convincing. Her mother's nurse, Wanda, is Jennifer's best friend and an unfailing source of good advice. A little too unfailing, I thought - Wanda's track record of saying exactly the right thing at the right time was just a little too good to be true.
Even though the Florida panhandle is deficient in rugged terrain and Wanda was a bit too idealized, The Negotiator is still well worth the reading. I rate it a solid four hearts.
--Nancy J. Silberstein