Chicago lawyer Ronald H. Balson tries to do a lot with his second novel, “Saving Sophie.”
He personifies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Sophie, the 6-year-old daughter of an American Jewish father and Palestinian Muslim mother who is abducted to live with her grandparents in Hebron.
He criticizes the hypocrisy and exploitation of college athletics.
He attacks the greed of the superwealthy and the power of the Russian mob.
He develops the relationship of Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart, the lead characters of his debut novel, “Once We Were Brothers.”
He does all of that and more amid what should be an edge-of-your-seat, race-against-time thriller about a terrorist attack, but instead of a spy thriller a la James Bond, Balson gives us a spy melodrama like the less successful episodes of “Homeland.” The first clue that it could go wrong comes when Balson uses “occluding” in the book’s opening sentence.
Driving the story is the embezzlement of $88 million through a misdirected wire transfer during the sale of up-from-the-streets business mogul Victor Kelsen’s company. The lawyer handling the closing, Jack Sommers, disappears when the money vanishes, and Balson makes no secret of Sommers’ role in the theft. The mysteries are why he did it, where the money went, who’s behind the crime, and whether it has anything to do with a biological terrorist attack being planned by Jack’s former father-in-law, Hebron physician Arif al-Zahani.
Kelsen sues Sommers’ law firm, which brings in Lockhart as its attorney, keeping her busy in Chicago after her boyfriend, Taggart, is hired by the same firm and then by the CIA to look for Sommers, who runs into an old friend and finds new romance while hiding in Hawaii.
A beautiful intelligence analyst working for the State Department (maybe) adds personal complications while providing extensive exposition of the history and the hopes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Balson throws in a point-shaving scheme during the NCAA basketball tournament in a story as overcomplicated as the terrorist plot of the Sons of Canaan, whose results could never equal the effort.
Balson tells a good story; he just tries to tell too many of them at once.