Friday, 8 June 2018

A Presidential Race Against Time

James Patterson teams up with Bill Clinton in what might be this year's summer
blockbuster read

first published in The Star, 08 June 2018

I checked the cover, wondering if I was seeing things. Bill Clinton and James Patterson, teaming up on something titled The President Is Missing?

With recent headlines in mind, I thought, no sh*t, Sherlock.

But no, it's not non-fiction. Patterson's latest thriller (and my first Patterson novel), which he teams up with a former US president to write, explores a horrific 21st-century possibility: a crippling cyber attack that will plunge the United States back into the dark ages.

The US president in this novel, set against our current geopolitical climate, is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a veteran of the First Gulf War (1990-1991) who lost his wife to cancer and is plagued by a potentially life-threatening disease. Faithful to his wife, patriotic, reticent when it counts, brave (recklessly so at times), he seems a far cry from the real-life incumbent.

When we first meet him, President Duncan is staring down the House Select Committee in a hearing. On his orders, the CIA and US Special Forces thwarted an attempt by pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists to kill a "most dangerous and prolific" cyber terrorist, whom he later contacted for as-yet unspecified reasons. He tells the committee nothing they want to hear, and risks impeachment by doing so. It doesn't help that a CIA operative was killed.

Later, an informant manages to meet Duncan, promising to reveal how to stop the threat, for a price. Against better judgement and the advice of his staff and doctor, he sneaks off to the rendezvous point where he and his contact – the informant's partner, a young Ukrainian maths prodigy – are ambushed, and the informant is killed.

A race against time ensues as Duncan and the Ukrainian kid go on the run, while Duncan's inner circle scrambles to keep things under control in his absence. The president's medical condition lurks in the background, threatening to succeed where the assailants failed.

In the middle of all this, a scheme is being hatched in the White House by the vice-president and the Speaker of the House. We also follow a female assassin codenamed Bach as she and her own team pursue the fleeing duo. Her distinguishing traits include giving her favourite weapon a name, apparent vegetarianism, and a habit of listening to classical music by one particular composer.

As one might expect of Patterson's oeuvre, the plot is straightforward, the pages turn quickly, chapters are short and numerous, and we get to know more about the characters and the world they inhabit than we need to. Not much suspension of disbelief is required, either. Except for descriptions of senate hearings, the presidential speech, and the workings in Washington DC and the White House, Clinton's presence here seems barely visible.

My biggest problem with this novel is too much exposition. Though things start off slow and begin to rev up around page 100, the pacing is bogged down in places by chunks of characterisation and figurative language. It feels as if a film is being storyboarded for a production crew. And is that flashback of how he met his wife even necessary?

Ultimately, these disposable details add little to the enjoyment of the story. One feels almost no urgency to retain whatever clues that might be hidden inside recollections of the past, Duncan's glowing assessments of his confidants, and the odd social commentary enabled by convenient scenes such as one of him interacting with a homeless war veteran and another of a black man being restrained by cops.

As a result, one's impatient gaze trails along the pages as it races towards the denouement, disregarding the challenge to piece together those clues and beat the authors to the big reveal. That is, if one can or bothers to. It turned out fine because I didn't see the ending coming, which made the reading experience a little better.

And is it odd that among the overly fleshed-out characters, I found the assassin to be the most compelling? She seems like the authors' favourite. Compared with the others, Bach has a more convincing backstory that unfolds more naturally, each revelation leading one to wish to learn more. She is bound to haunt the reader, albeit briefly, after the book ends; the others barely register.

I dove into this book with zero expectations and despite my misgivings (Bill Clinton, really?), I wasn't too disappointed. The premise is realistic enough and I like how it's plotted. Though the writing isn't hot (after escaping death, Duncan declares "But until we're dead, we're alive" – ugh), it serves its purpose.

Fans of Patterson and this genre will feel right at home with this novel, not just to pass the time but also as a timely balm for those yearning for a better president, government and nation.

The President Is Missing
Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Grand Central Publishing (2018)
513 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5387-1385-3


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