By Sarah Weinman, Bloomberg
FROM the book industry’s perspective, the existence of The President Is Missing makes perfect sense.
James Patterson sells more copies of his thrillers than anyone else right now — 300 million total, according to 2014 data — in large part because he and his coterie of writers produce more of them than anyone.
Bill Clinton spent his spare time as the 42nd president of the United States reading and recommending his favorite writers in the genre, from Harlan Coben to Michael Connelly to Walter Mosley, all of whom (and many more) have helpfully endorsed this book.
When their mutual literary agent, Washington-based lawyer and power broker Robert Barnett, suggested the two team up for their own thriller, one that would combine Clinton’s insider Oval Office knowledge with Patterson’s page-turner success, the commercial prospects were obvious.
Clinton is the Talent. Patterson is the Author. David Ellis, the Illinois appellate court judge and Rod Blagojevich impeachment prosecutor who side hustles as a pretty good thriller-writer in his own right, is the Writer. (He is acknowledged up front for having “stuck with us through the research, our first and second outlines and the many, many drafts.”)
Billed as “the publishing event of the year,” this 500-page doorstop has required an unprecedented double-colophon collaboration, mashing up Patterson’s longtime publisher (Little, Brown) with Clinton’s (Knopf Doubleday). The back-end headaches — according to several sources, Knopf spearheaded the publicity while Little, Brown oversaw marketing, sales, and shipping — hardly mattered when selling out a 1.2 million-copy opening print run seemed a sure thing. In any event, it would make this one of the largest, if not the largest, releases of 2018.
In other words, The President Is Missing should be perfectly engineered to be the Big Beach Read of the Summer. The experience of reading the book, however, proves far less interesting than the experience of understanding why it exists in the first place. The attempt to combine the hallmark economy of a James Patterson novel with Bill Clinton’s overly verbose style creates a strange sensation, as if you were driving a Porsche 911 whose engine had been secretly replaced with one from a Ford Taurus.
I’ll try to convey a sense of the story. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan — yes, the same beats and syllables as one William Jefferson Clinton — begins as a hostile witness practicing his Congressional testimony, refusing to say exactly why he might be on the telephone with Suliman Cindoruk, the world’s most-wanted terrorist. There is talk of impeachment and a long rant about media privacy invasion that plays like a two-decade-old festering wound.
We are then introduced to a beautiful, classical music-loving assassin (code name: Bach), who totes a pistol named Anna Magdalena. Duncan goes on the run, hiding from his White House handlers as well as would-be hit men, while reminiscing about his late wife Rachel Carson. In the meantime, he plots how to overcome his predicament: Can he trust his vice-president, Kathy Brandt? Or his chief of staff, Carolyn Brock? And with names so similar, can you keep track of which one is which?
Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say the climax is very exciting. But there are 60 pages left in the book, and this is a James Patterson production with Bill Clinton taking center stage, so it cannot possibly be over. There are stirring speeches about needing to preserve democracy unless “the well of trust runs completely dry.” You know the drill.
Could I put The President Is Missing down? Of course not, except when I absolutely had to. James Patterson has spent more than 25 years, since Along Came a Spider, the first Alex Cross novel, vaulted him from disappointing mid-list crime writer to mega-bestselling name, to perfecting his brand. Every word, every sentence, is designed for forward momentum, whether or not those words or sentences are actually good.
But after turning the final, 513th page, I felt a void. However entertaining the book is, it cannot distract from a central problem, in my mind: What to do with Bill Clinton in the #MeToo era. When he was pressed on his behavior, especially toward Monica Lewinsky, by Today show interviewer Craig Melvin, Clinton seemed gripped by a greater compulsion than exists in his co-written novel. He wagged his finger. His eyes bulged and his voice rose. He started on defense and grew more agitated.
Sitting beside him, James Patterson blinked, again and again. Like a man who thought he knew what he had signed up for, but discomfited nonetheless. It was more compelling theater than anything found in the pages of The President Is Missing.
Sarah Weinman’s forthcoming book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, will be out in September.