THROWBACK THURSDAY: Balefire by Kenneth Goddard (Corgi, 1982)
When I reviewed Balefire by Kenneth Goddard back in late 1983 I said that it was a “gripping thriller, guaranteed to keep you reading furiously right up to the last page”. Now coming back to it 36 years later, I am surprised how good it is in comparison to most modern bloated, action thrillers.
Set in the days leading up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, it details a terrorist plot to take down the police force of a small city, Huntington Beach, on the southern coast of California. The attack is intended to destroy the police force and turn the local citizens against it. However, it gradually becomes clear that the attack is just part of a bigger plan.
When I first reviewed it, I said that “Goddard has contrived a surefire plot about a terrorist on the loose in America and plotting destruction. He squeezes the maximum amount of suspense and tension from his material by eking out the details bit by bit, so that at any time the reader only knows slightly more about what is happening than the local police force. The suspense is maintained throughout by switching the perspective from the terrorist to the unsuspecting police officers and their families, and back again, as the terrorist mercilessly tracks them down”.
“Goddard tightens the screws on his reader’s nerves with some very graphic descriptions of violence. Although Balefire is full of violent action, none of it is gratuitous or overdone, and all of it is feasibly executed.”
“Goddard’s experience as a forensic scientist and criminologist has given him considerable insight into the workings and politics of a local police force. It enables him to convincingly describe both the details of police work and the officers who perform it.”
“Goddard has clearly demonstrated in his first novel that he already has the skills and the crisp writing style needed to become a gripping and entertaining thriller writer.”
On re-reading it I was struck by how good the action scenes were. Goddard knows how to describe violence and he creates well-choreographed and exciting shoot-outs and fights.
The central male characters are very good, but the secondary characters tend towards to caricature, especially the sleazy journalist and the attention-seeking female Councilperson. Generally, the female characters are not as well developed, although some of them prove to be the equal of their male partners.
Showing its age, Goddard frequently makes the point in Balefire that the American public and their police forces were not prepared for terrorism and did not know how to deal with a professional terrorist. Interestingly the racial and political background of the terrorists is never explicitly stated, other than some vague references to the Middle East.
Overall Balefire has held up very well and I found it as exciting and gripping as I did when I first read it many years ago. The only false note, was the rape of a teenage girl, which was written in a manner that I don’t think would be acceptable today.
Balefire was a very impressive debut, however, Goddard never really built on the success of his first novel. His second novel, The Alchemist, was a bit of a mess and after another novel, he developed a series of books about an US Fish and Wildlife Special Agent, Henry Lightstone, which were well received. He also wrote a tie-in book to the CSI television show. In 1998 he wrote First Evidence, which combined scientific forensic detail with the secret arrival of extraterrestrials, a sort of CSI meets the X Files! It was actually very good, although Goddard was not able to carry that standard through to the second book in the series, Outer Perimeter. After that point Goddard seems to have moved away from mainstream thriller writing.
I still see second hand copies of Balefire around and it is also available on Kindle. It is well worthwhile checking out.