David Baldacci

Zero Day

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Zero Day Summary

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David Baldacci’s thriller novel Zero Day is the first of the John Puller series. Published in 2011, it introduces this protagonist, an Army detective, as he tries to solve the vicious murders of a family in a small town. The novel is written in short, choppy sentences that are meant to simulate building action, but are viewed by many readers as distracting. The main character is often unfavorably compared by other readers to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

John Puller is a large, tough man, whose peak physical fitness is matched only by his intellectual superiority to everyone around him. The product of a renowned military family, John is the son of General Puller, who is now retired and suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the brother of Robert Puller, a top-level nuclear secrets officer who has recently been convicted of treason and is in military prison.

John is a former Army Ranger who served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—and who earned many medals and awards for his excellent service. Although he wasn’t completely scarred by his experiences, John still sleeps very lightly and only while clutching a gun. After his last deployment, John transferred to the US Army’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID). In effect, he is a detective who works to solve military crimes. Instead of fighting on the warfront, he is engaged in colder but no less deadly battles.

Because of his uncanny instincts and his smarts, John Puller is universally acknowledged to be one of the best officers in the CID. That’s why he gets the case that’s been confusing everyone who has come across it. In the very small West Virginia town of Drake, there have been four brutal murders: a colonel, his wife, and their two teenage kids were killed in a particularly gruesome way. Drake is a coal-mining town where most people know each other and where life is usually quiet. The horrible deaths come out of nowhere—but what is even more surprising is how little national attention is being paid to the story. Not only that, but instead of sending tons of special agents to investigate, CID only sends Puller.

In Drake, Puller meets police sergeant Samantha Cole. She is tough and sassy, and knows her way around the town well enough to come up with a list of suspects and explain the power structures to Puller. Moreover, she is very attractive and clearly finds Puller appealing as well. Still, when she offers to have a no-strings affair with him while he is in town, Puller refuses—he likes her too much to treat her that way.

As soon as Puller and Cole start digging around for clues, three more people—the neighbors of the murdered family—also end up dead. The messy killings seem to point to terrorism, a suggestion that is bolstered by evidence provided by Joe Mason from Homeland Security about picking up Al Qaeda chatter in West Virginia.

But this turns out to be a red herring. Puller and Cole discover a big concrete dome just outside of town—a dome that turns out to be an abandoned government building from the Cold War. Inside is a sealed but poorly guarded cache of plutonium and uranium. It turns out that Joe Mason has been working with some locals to steal these chemicals in order to sell them on the black market. When the original family and their neighbors realized that someone was trying to access these chemicals, the bad guys had to cover their tracks by killing them. In order to throw suspicion in a different direction, they made the murders extra grisly, and Joe Mason created the fake Al Qaeda distraction to make it seem like terrorism.

During the novel’s climax, Puller and Cole are forced to go to the bunker where the bad guys have rigged a nuclear bomb that would destroy a huge chunk of the country and kill millions of people. Although he has never had any training or knowledge regarding nuclear weapons, Puller is authorized by the Army to defuse the bomb, relying solely on over-the-phone instructions from his imprisoned brother. Puller manages to disarm the bomb in time to prevent it from going off, but suffers severe radiation burns. Cole is also exposed to massive amounts of radiation and dies in the process.