It's a solar eclipse, the type that turns day into night. It's also the perfect time for Bobby Okari, the fictional leader of the non-violent Asari freedom movement in the West African nation of Luandia, to spring into action.
Time for him to stage a daytime demonstration against his country's corrupt and brutal government, in defiance of the ban on nighttime protests.
Sadly, this turns into a different kind of eclipse, an obliteration of a village. Goro is burned to the ground, its young girls raped, its citizens slaughtered, their bodies thrown into ditches and Okari left hanging alive, from a ceiling fan.
"What you see is the eclipse of the Asari movement -- the consequence to those who follow Bobby Okari into the ... house of murder and sedition," the lead butcher announces. "This will happen in every village where people gather in his name."
Out of this darkness emerge the three main characters, a strange sort of idealism-fueled love triangle: Okari, the principled leader willing to give his life to the cause; his wife Marissa, faithful to her husband's ideals but strangely drawn to her American friend; and the American, Damon Pierce, a California attorney with an all-too-comfortable life, but also guided by his own idealism after his marriage ends.
You almost can guess where this plot is headed. After the eclipse, Okari is imprisoned, charged with murdering three oil-company workers. Pierce has the chance to go to Luandia to represent Okari, to argue that Okari's sadistic jailer conspired to lynch the three workers, using their murders as a pretext to stage the massacre and arrest Bobby Okari.
The powerful eclipse metaphor serves as the subtext for this gripping novel, another Richard North Patterson foray abroad into age-old cultural and political battles best understood by looking into the humans who fight to the death in these conflicts.
Patterson does what he does best. He's written a readable, engaging novel, with characters you care about -- some nuanced, others, like Bobby Okari, almost stick-figure heroes -- while still trying to educate us about the horrors of the real world.
As Patterson has written in the afterword, this novel was inspired by real events in Nigeria about 15 years ago, when an environmental and human-rights activist was hanged by a brutal and corrupt dictator.
The author has created his own characters, but the themes and corrupt practices are the same -- environmental despoliation, oil company excesses and human slaughters.
"As for the characters other than Bobby Okari, I researched the challenges they would face, then proceeded to invent these people from scratch," he explains. "I hope that the result, while fiction, contributes to most readers' understanding of the conflict between human rights and the geopolitics of oil in an important area of the developing world."
Oil is a key player here.
"In Luandia, oil blackens everything it touches," he writes. "It fouls the hands of the ruling class that misappropriates its profits. It stains the ambitions of the young, who in their desperation will pick up a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner to grab their pitiful share of the riches. It elevates the powerful and drowns the weak. And it degrades the character of our people, unleashing greed, envy, dishonesty and corruption. Oil is dirty -- as dirty as the slave trade and the craven Luandians who helped the British sell our ancestors."
Patterson weaves a fairly involved plot that sometimes bogs down a bit with a multitude of characters representing so many military, political and oil-connected factions.
Sometimes, the line between good and evil, between morality and expediency, gets a bit blurred.
As one character says, "The age-old question is whether men refrain from evil out of a higher morality, or only when they fear the consequences. Luandia supports the skeptics' answer."
Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.
By Richard North Patterson
369 pages, $26