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Onyx reviews: Eclipse by Richard North Patterson

There are run-of-the-mill legal thrillers and then there are legal thrillers that tackle enormous subjects that stretch beyond the confines of the American legal system onto the world stage. Richard North Patterson's Eclipse has such scope and ambition.

Bobby Okari is the son of a village chief of the Asari tribe from Luandia, a West African nation very much like Nigeria. Okari was educated in America, but returned to his homeland with his American girlfriend to raise awareness of how his country is being ravaged because of its rich oil reserve. The world is a junkie for oil and Luandia is the criminal syndicate that peddles what everyone needs. The cost of this illicit drug for Luandia includes ecological disasters and an exploited populace. The proceeds never trickle down to the poorest people, including the Asari.

A quote attributed to Winston Churchill says that nations do not have morals, only interests. Luandia is corrupt at every level, from the megalomaniac dictator, General Savior Karama, to his top general Okimbo on down. Nobody can be trusted. In the post-9/11 world, Al Queda agents are perceived hiding behind every tree, especially in the neighboring Muslim nations to the north.

PetroGlobal, the American company with the contract to drill for and export oil in Luandia, has to play the corruption game to keep its monopoly intact. Even the American ambassador and the State Department understand that doing business in lawless Luandia requires moral blindness. Other countries, including China, are willing to step into the void that would be left if PetroGlobal were ousted.

The Luandian government doesn't appreciate the attention Okari is attracting, but they can't afford to turn him into a martyr. When three oil workers are lynched, the blame is laid at his feet. The pending trial is for the world's benefit, and Karama's intentions for the trial violate just about every international law in existence. Okari's execution at the end of the farcical process is a foregone conclusion unless something drastic happens. This is a country, after all, where an entire village can be massacred (during the eponymous eclipse) without the rest of the world realizing it or the rest of the nation acknowledging that it ever happened.

Patterson paints Okari with the same brush as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela, but he allows readers to entertain the possibility that he may have eschewed his pacifist ways. Other factions in the country aren't afraid of using violence to create a new status quo. An entire sub-economy exists independent of the government based on oil that is pilfered from PetroGlobal's pipelines and shipped overseas.

Marissa Brand, now Okari's wife, re-establishes contact with her old friend and former classmate Damon Pierce, a San Francisco lawyer who has just wrapped up another case: his divorce. Pierce's affections toward Marissa were unrequited, but they have maintained an epistolary relationship over the years. She adopted Luandian citizenship and is fully supportive of her husband's cause, but she is human and susceptible to Pierce's charms.

It takes a clever man to figure out how an American lawyer can intercede in a foreign trial, especially one in a corrupt country like Luandia where kidnappings and murder are part of everyday life. Pierce, who has extensive human rights trial experience, fits the bill. On his first fact-finding trip to Luandia, however, he gets a crash course in the country's dangers, especially for foreigners. People who plan to make trouble for the regime typically disappear. Sometimes their bodies are found, but it's a big country. Simply getting from the airport to his downtown hotel is a military exercise. He is appalled by the conditions of Okari's imprisonment, but has no leverage to change the situation.

To say that Pierce is conflicted is an understatement. He wants to save the leader of a peaceful freedom movement whose issues are supported, albeit passively, by much of the world. On the other hand, being reunited with Marissa stirs up feelings. If he fails to win Okari's freedom, his old flame will be a free woman. Okari doesn't help his own cause. His idealism causes him to turn down deals that would secure his release but would require him to abandon his movement and turn his back on everything he stands for. In a complicated world like this one, there are no easy answers, and Patterson doesn't wave any magic wands to get his characters out of trouble.

Writing a political novel laden with contemporary issues can be a daunting task, because there may be a temptation to get heavy-handed or preachy. Getting inside the convoluted intricacies of a quagmire like Luandia is also a yeoman's job, and Patterson handles these challenges admirably. He has Nigeria as his model, and a real-life case for inspiration—the trial and hanging of environmental and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in the early 1990s. Interestingly, the fears expressed by some characters over the possible global impact of turmoil in Luandia on oil prices resonate strongly with the current financial situation.

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