A Hefty Thriller from Patterson and Clinton

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By the time I got to reading “The President Is Missing,” the highly marketed thriller about a super-cyberattack on the United States, it had been in bookstores for a while and selling at a typically phenomenal rate, due in no small part to the fact that it was “a novel by Bill Clinton and James Patterson,” bearing the imprints of two publishing giants, Little, Brown and Company and Alfred A. Knopf.

All those names gave the book a heft that thrillers don’t usually have. I know a little bit about that since I’ve been a major consumer of novels in that genre for a long time, ever since I gave up Westerns in high school. Patterson, after all, gave up a career in advertising to become arguably the best best-selling author of many-genred fiction since they started keeping score and running New York Times best-seller lists.

And there’s Bill Clinton who is, well, Bill Clinton, although, just because the word president is in the title doesn’t make the book a work of nonfiction. It remains a novel, a work of fiction, but just seeing the words Bill Clinton and president on the same book cover can give readers of a progressive bent a little frisson of nostalgia, while keeping Trump followers from taking a look even if it was on the 90-percent-off table.

Adding to the heft was the fact that its official length is 513 pages (the large print is probably considerably more). Truth be told, I’ve cut down my Patterson intake by a lot in recent years. It’s just too damn hard to keep up with the Floridian, who churns out books by partnering with co-authors at a remarkable rate.

I liked — and still do — the Alex Cross books, which feature D.C. cop and FBI agent Alex Cross, with growing kids, a tough-cop best friend and a cranky but wise grandmother named Nana Mama, especially early on in such books as “Along Came a Spider” and “Kiss the Girls.”

That aside, I was leery of tackling “The President Is Missing,” or at least not eager to do so. And even if I was eager, my wife, an avid Patterson fan, had gotten to “President” first, so I had to wait.

When you read a book and under what conditions sometimes matters. By the time my wife reluctantly closed the last pages, we — the readers and the nation — were at the beginning of President Donald Trump’s wonderful as well as disastrous and astonishing European adventure, the aftermath of which we are still sorting out.

I could swear that the experience of reading “The President is Missing” under those conditions fulfilled the adage that books — like plays, poems, films and all stories — are creative forms that are living things. They morph like Jello, like blackjack if it were played with Silly Putty.

First of all, I’d have to say, this is one of the best — maybe the best — Patterson novel I’ve read. This has to do with, I’m sure, the Patterson-Clinton partnership itself, which lends considerable plausibility to an implausible tale.

President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a heroic military veteran battling a potentially life-threatening disease (and still in deep mourning after his beloved wife succumbs to the ravages of cancer), must find a way to foil a plan to activate a cyber bug that will essentially leave the U.S. defenseless. He has only days to stop this cyberattack, surrounded by the Secret Service and his (almost trusted) inner circle while fending off domestic political foes.

An enemy — be it a foreign regime, a known super cyberterrorist or a mole in his inner circle — must be identified and stopped, and a virus must be deactivated. What does this president do? Well, he disappears off the grid, while all hell breaks loose on the surface and the threat creeps ever closer to reality. Tick-tock, tick-tock, a technique that Patterson has always used to excruciating effect.

All sorts of characters appear: the chancellor of Germany (not Merkel), an Israeli prime minister, the terrorist mastermind behind the attack, an ambitious vice president, a beloved daughter, a highly efficient chief of staff, a Bach-loving and lethal assassin, a digital whiz who holds the key to the virus, a shootout at a Washington Nationals game, a desperate race to foil the virus, the mole and, yes, there are Russians aplenty.

As I read the book over several days, it became impossible to ignore the contretemps in the real world and real time. As President Trump lashed out at NATO, walked with the queen of England and told stories that bordered on fiction and flew to Helsinki and confused “would” with “wouldn’t,” you couldn’t help but pay attention, one eye on the virus and the Dark Ages plot, the other on, oh, just about everything else. Sometimes it felt that the facts were just an eyelash from fiction, and the fiction seemed awful real.

The book opens with a mock impeachment trial of Duncan for his relations with a terrorist leader who holds the key (and probably the password) to the lethal virus, who knows. The trial feels real, but then, given that President Clinton went through just such a trial, this is as it should be.

You can pretty much tell where the contributions of each authors fell. Patterson was never much for political thrillers, but rather favored political plots and serial killers. Clinton, it’s obvious, lent his expertise on the political and governmental processes, and details from the swamp. Taken together, the gifts of both men make the result a major upgrade in the fiction of politics and paranoia, and action thrillers, even with progressive-flavored speeches on race, unity, health care and international relations.

In the end, Patterson’s familiar use of ever shorter chapters ratchets up the suspense that keeps you going to the last word.

One more thing. It turns out that …

Not going there.

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