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[Jon Land and Jeff Ayers writing as A. J. Landau]

While writing “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote coined the phrase “the nonfiction novel.” Well, for evidence that times change, look no further than the terrifyingly real thriller LEAVE NO TRACE (Minotaur, 352 pages, $28.00) which might well be described accurately as “fictional true crime.” And in this case that crime is the attempted destruction of America as we know it.

If you’ve been following the headlines and (objective) news reporting, you know that plot is potentially already in the works, thanks to the cult-like MAGA movement and its personal Svengali Donald Trump, who has made no secret of his autocratic intentions should he prevail in November of 2024. In the dark, quasi-fictional vision of author A. J. Landau (a pseudonym for bestselling author Jon Land writing with book maven Jeff Ayers), a plot to overthrow the U.S. government begins with devastating attacks launched against national symbols across the country, starting with the Statue of Liberty.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you want to press restart on ours or any country, you begin by laying waste to the icons that define it. To that extent, Landau’s dual villains represent an accurate depiction of the rampant ultra-nationalist mindset roiling the United States today. General Archibald Terrell earned the nickname “General Terror” by being merciless to his own troops as well as the enemy abroad. And his counterpart, who calls himself “Jeremiah,” is a reactionary who blames the government for the misery visited upon him and his family. Together, they’ve hatched a scheme to throw the country into the chaos and topple the government, beginning with the destruction of our most cherished sites as a precursor to unleashing a superweapon destined to kill ten million Americans.

“This country is sick,” Terrell tells a room-full of supporters in a dank and dingy meeting hall. “This country is hurting. We’ve got ourselves two choices in that regard. One is to watch it die. The other is to give it the CPR it so desperately needs.”

Standing against Terrell and Jeremiah, fortunately enough, is an equally committed pair of heroes. Michael Walker, who lost a foot and a wife on Mount Rainier in his last violent encounter, works for the ISB, the investigative arm of the park service. He joins forces with the FBI’s Gina Delgado, second in command of the New York field office, on the site of the ravaged Statue of Liberty before jetting off to Independence Hall, the Gateway Arch, and more sites the insurrectionists have targeted. All building toward an explosive climax in which maelstroms of violence with the highest stakes imaginable erupt in two different locations to determine our country’s fate.

[Jon Land (left) and Jeff Ayers writing as A. J. Landau]

In doing so, LEAVE NO TRACE may well be at the forefront of a new pop culture cautionary wave. I recently saw a theatrical preview of the movie “Civil War,” which centers on a second armed conflict between American antagonists not necessarily drawn on geographical lines. Indeed, we have entered an era where the clash of opposing ideals and values have reached the proverbial point of no return. It’s hard to say whether we’ve crossed the Rubicon yet, but we’re getting close.

If January 6 wasn’t warning enough about what is to come in the event we don’t watch our own backs, then LEAVE NO TRACE should be. Stitched in a truly nightmarish fabric, the book is a tapestry of terror that unfolds at a blisteringly breathless pace. This is fiction writing, thriller or otherwise, at its absolute best, scaring us with the singularity of its foresight while leaving us with the stark reality that it’s our task to determine the composition of the real final chapter. A searing, seminal masterpiece that cries instant classic in its certain climb up the bestseller lists.

Reviewed by Mark Taggert

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