This is a novel that continually defies expectations – all presented in chapters so short you could read one during a yawn
Over the past three years, Bill Clinton and James Patterson have developed a bankable formula: In their previous thriller, a US president went missing. In their new thriller, a president’s daughter goes missing.
If this keeps up, someday we’ll have to read a thriller about the president’s lost cat, his missing keys, an errant sock.
And why not? The President Is Missing was the bestselling novel of 2018, demonstrating that, as in politics, nothing sells like name recognition. Tellingly, The President’s Daughter opens with a shout-out to Washington super-agent Robert Barnett, who convinced these two American brands they could cash in yet again. It’s the economy, stupid.
Readers expecting a sequel, though, will discover that this new novel offers an entirely different cast of characters. The President Is Missing gave us President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a former Gulf War hero who battles a dastardly terrorist. But The President’s Daughter gives us President Matthew Keating, a former Navy SEAL hero who battles a dastardly terrorist. It’s a change as startling as the shift from tan to beige.
With this brave and monogamous hero, Clinton has once again revealed such a naked fantasy version of himself that you almost feel embarrassed for the man. And that’s pretty much where the revelations peter out. The publishers claim that Clinton has contributed information that could be provided only by a former president – or, I would add, by somebody who’s watched an episode of Homeland. Readers will discover such top-secret intel as this: “Since FDR agreed back in 1945 to provide military assistance to Saudi Arabia, that rich and troubling place has been one of our biggest interests in the Middle East.” Shhhhhh.
The cynical cliches about Washington bureaucracy laced through The President’s Daughter weren’t even fresh in the previous century when Clinton was lying to the American people about “that woman.” And after four years of President Donald Trump’s fascistic assaults on journalists, the novel’s smears against the free press suggest that Clinton still isn’t willing to put the country before his own stale grudges.
But it would be unfair to say that there’s no suspense in The President’s Daughter. Again and again, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering, “Can this story get any sillier?” In that respect, this is a novel that continually defies expectations – all presented in chapters so short you could read one during a yawn.
At the opening, President Keating sits in the White House situation room watching a high-stakes military operation 5,000 miles away. SEAL Team Six has just landed in Libya to track down and kill Asim Al-Asheed, the world’s most vicious killer. Two earlier missions failed to capture this fiend who once burned a caged family alive and nailed a US soldier to a tree, but now the intelligence is rock solid. The SEALs creep silently across the desert. They spot Al-Asheed’s house through their night-vision goggles. They raise their MK 13 Remington bolt-action rifles and slip into the building. Back in Washington, the generals lean toward the video screen squinting at the ghostly images about to fire…
And then President Keating tells us how he was elected to represent Texas’s 7th Congressional District, how he got picked to run as vice president, and later how he moved into the Oval Office when the former president died. He even takes a moment to explain the order of presidential succession, because when SEALs are just seconds away from killing the most wanted terrorist in a Libyan hideout, who isn’t thinking about the 25th Amendment? It’s a burp of irrelevant patter – and a move these two authors use repeatedly to pad out the next 600 pages.
“Meanwhile,” as Keating says to wrench us back to the action, Al-Asheed escapes the SEAL team assassination, but in the chaos that unfolds, the terrorist’s wife and three daughters die. Against the objections of his Cabinet members, Keating makes a public apology for the failed mission because “it’s the right thing to do”, and this president always does the right thing.
Such principled contrition might make the president feel better, but it does nothing to mollify Al-Asheed, who is a kind of Osama bin Laden as played by The Penguin. Hiding in a cave in the Libyan mountains with his Koran and a 7.62mm Russian-made Tokarev pistol, Al-Asheed vows to wreak vengeance upon Matthew Keating no matter how long it takes.
It takes two years.
Keating is now out of office, replaced by his own vice president, a conniving woman with “short blond hair perfectly styled and in place”. (I’m dying to know how that line went over at the Clinton breakfast table.) But no hard feelings. The former president is enjoying retirement in New Hampshire, chopping wood and beating younger, muscle-bound Secret Service agents in canoe races across the lake. Sure. Little does he suspect that this pastoral life is about to be shattered.
While hiking nearby with her boyfriend, Keating’s only daughter, 19-year-old Melanie, is kidnapped by Al-Asheed and whisked to an undisclosed location. With the whole world watching, the fanatic who has set nations aflame is about to focus the full force of his sadistic rage on one young woman. It’s every parent’s nightmare wrapped up in a tasty slice of Islamofascist terror.
Of course, the lumbering US government can’t or won’t do anything to help. With no money and no military at his disposal, Keating does what any dad would do. He assembles a team of death-defying Secret Service agents, rules-be-damned Navy SEALs and “a young lady … on the spectrum” who’s a computer genius. Drawing inspiration from America’s most advanced missiles, the text of The President’s Daughter is capable of hitting multiple stereotypes simultaneously.
“I’m an ex-POTUS now,” Keating says with his Mount Rushmore gaze. “And I’m also a father who’s willing to go anywhere, and kill anyone involved, to get his daughter back.” But it’s not just his daughter he has to save, it’s his own honour. When the Saudi intelligence agency offers to assassinate Al-Asheed for him, Keating is touched but turns them down. “I have to do this myself,” he says. “For … my family.”
Will Keating reach his daughter before it’s too late?
The President’s Daughter by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Cornerstone, £20
© The Washington Post