Sunday, May 24, 2009

By David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, $27.99, 449 pages

Dan Cox, codename: Wolfman, is the incumbent president of the United States and running for re-election with wife Jane at his side. Popular with the American public, he is 25 points ahead of his opponent in the polls and coasting toward a landslide victory. The campaign is running so smoothly that the first lady even has time to host a birthday party for her 12-year-old niece, Willa Dutton, at Camp David. Everything is perfect, until it falls apart.

After the Duttons have returned to their suburban Washington home, Willa is kidnapped and her mother killed. Dissatisfied with the way the FBI is handling the investigation, the first lady hires two former Secret Service agents, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, to conduct a parallel investigation. Mrs. Cox knows Sean from the years the president was a senator and “rescued” by the agent from a potentially career-ending indiscretion.

Mr. Baldacci’s books are jigsaw puzzles of intersecting events, not simple whodunits. “First Family” is no exception. The story line jumps from Washington to Georgia to Alabama to Tennessee and back. At approximately the same time Willa is taken, a Georgia woman, Diane Wohl, also is kidnapped. Her abductor is Vietnam veteran Sam Quarry. He takes her to an abandoned coal mine he owns in Alabama where his son and co-conspirator also brings the first lady’s niece. Another plot strand is the murder of Michelle Maxwell’s mother in Tennessee and, to complicate things even further, Jane Cox seems to be working to undermine the case, despite having hired her own investigators. We have dysfunctional families, infidelity, recovered memories and obstruction of justice.

The characters are skillfully drawn. Sam Quarry, for example, is a killer with two distinct personalities. He hates and loves with equal intensity. He seeks revenge for past wrongs committed against him, condoning kidnapping and murder as he plots even more mayhem. At the same time, he lives a life of open repentance for the injustices and cruelties perpetrated against blacks and Native Americans by his ancestors. He cares for an old member of the Koasati Indian tribe on his property, and he wills the land to his black housekeeper Ruth Ann and her young son, Gabriel. Every night, he goes to a local hospital to visit his daughter, Tippi, where she lies in a permanent vegetative state. He reads to her from Jane Austen and plays a recording of her mother Cameron’s voice.

“He was now sixty-two years old with a cap of thick snowy hair that seemed even whiter because of his sun-beaten skin. Long boned and strongly built with a big, commanding voice, he was an outdoorsman both by choice and necessity. He made his living off the land but also enjoyed the rustic trappings of the hunter, fisherman, and amateur horticulturist. It was just who he was; a man of the earth, he liked to say.”

The female investigator, Michelle, is also well portrayed. Crack shot, strong and faithful to ingrained principles, she grieves her mother’s death and suffers the reintroduction of memories brought back during the investigation of her murder.

“‘Childhood, Tennessee,’” she began. She was six years old again and living in Tennessee with her mother and father. Her dad was a police officer on the way up; her mom, was, well, her mom. Her four older brothers had grown and gone. It was just little Michelle left at home. With them.”

Some characters, such as President Dan Cox, are emphasized by remaining in the shadows. Off campaigning, entertaining contributors, basking in the glory of political popularity, he exists in an alternative universe. One of the best visuals in the novel is when an angry Jane Cox hurls a golf ball he is autographing for a VIP into the Oval Office portrait of Thomas Jefferson, denting his canvas eye socket. The president calmly retrieves the ball while ushering the startled visitor from the room.

David Baldacci has written 18 books, most of which are concerned with the corruption of power. The author is one of the lawyer-turned-writer group such as Scott Turow and John Grisham who have found that billable hours are not nearly as lucrative as writing best-selling novels. The greatest weakness in his work is that the reader is often hard put to follow all the plots and subplots he weaves together; yet he writes a good, enjoyable book, modeling many of his events on recent headlines or National Enquirer articles. While, for example, we don’t need to read fiction today to meet libidinous politicians and their protecting wives, it’s always fun to run into their fictional images and see that famous authors also recognize the danger of undisciplined actions.

In his body of work, the author often spotlights flawed humanity. His Camel Club novels are a good case in point. He does this again with Sam Quarry, for whom one has great sympathy and understanding despite the dastardliness of his proposed deeds. The reader feels no contempt for the man when it is noted that, “As he flew along he thought that there was only one thing more terrible than dying alone, and that was dying unfinished. He would not die unfinished.”

Mr. Baldacci has the distinction of having authored 16 New York Times best-sellers. “First Family” is the 17th. It undoubtedly will not be the last. The book makes for a good summer read and, since the media is in the pocket of the current administration, may be the only chance one gets in the near future to actually read about some political chicanery in the present tense.

Katie Wendy is a writer living in Boca Raton, Fla.

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