The President is Missing is a curious beast: a thriller co-written by James Patterson, one of fiction’s most bankable producers of trashy beach reads, and Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States. “With details only a president could know, and the kind of suspense only James Patterson can deliver,” promises the book’s blurb. I suppose “From a president who has been out of office for 17 years and a novelist who probably hasn’t written his own stuff for longer” isn’t as sexy.
Although neither Patterson nor his publisher are keen to discuss just how much of the author’s oeuvre is written by him directly and how much by ghostwriters, neither disputes that his back catalogue is a collaborative process. I like to think that somewhere there is a factory of monkeys hard at work on typewriters, where none of the chimpanzees have yet turned in Hamlet but every so often an orangutan files a disposable thriller such as this one.
Which ape wrote The President is Missing? I’m inclined to believe that it cannot have been the work of a ghostwriter, but Clinton himself, because surely a ghostwriter would have felt too much shame. The hero is an embattled Democratic president in his first term of office, with “rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour”, who goes by the name Jonathan Lincoln Duncan (not too hard to see where William Jefferson Clinton got the idea for that name). He must deploy all his wits and know-how against a cyber-terrorist threat that has planted a traitor at the heart of the White House and has connections to Russia’s shady president, Dimitri Chernokev.
His political opponents are a vice-president who is playing her own game and a Republican speaker of the House seeking to impeach Duncan for party-political ends. He has a daughter, Lily, and his wife, whom he met at law school, has added his surname to hers to give Rachel Carson Duncan. (What Hillary Clinton makes of the fact that her fictional stand-in is recently deceased at the start of the novel, I don’t know.)
As an insight into Clintonian wish fulfilment the book is certainly remarkable. Sexually, the novel serves an unexpected blend of chaste lechery, the women described in a way that feels both excessively detailed and yet surprisingly unevocative. Bach, the ruthless assassin hired to put a whistleblower down, is introduced as someone who deflects suspicion with, you guessed it, her body – she walks through an airport in a plunging neckline allowing “just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable”.
Few women, from the president’s political adviser (“petite in every way”), an unnamed prostitute (“an Asian who can’t be over twenty, with boobs that can’t be real”), the CIA’s director, and a terrorist mole, escape unogled. Even the Israeli prime minister and Duncan’s treacherous chief of staff Carolyn Brock (“attractive but not beauty queen gorgeous”) get a once-over. No wonder – in a plot twist that is not so much telegraphed in advance as visible from space – Brock wants the president dead. Yet the one thing there isn’t any of is sex, at least not that we see. Bach is pregnant when the novel begins, the product of a liaison with an unnamed lover she restricted to “three times a week to maximise his potency”.
The real Clintonian excess comes with the politics. Moments after a showdown with the House speaker in which Duncan reveals that the United States is facing a terrifying threat to its existence, he muses for a full page and a half about the malign effect of social media and cable news on American politics. “When the mountains and molehills all look the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter,” thinks Duncan, in a passage that should have been left to the pages of Clinton’s memoirs. Midway through a tête-à-tête with the Israeli prime minister, Duncan explains the theory of nuclear deterrence, presumably to himself. And the penultimate chapter is devoted entirely to a Duncan speech in which he reveals the terrorist threat, outs the Russians as “the world’s worst bagmen”, and calls for a revived American dream and a renewed spirit of cross-party co-operation.
This book wants you to finish thinking that you have just experienced a white-knuckle ride with a serious message, when Clinton closes with his stand-in musing on the importance of the American ideal. A more fitting epitaph comes earlier in the story, when Duncan watches a shock-jock discuss his presidency on cable news. “Where do they get this crap?” the president wonders. “I have to admit it’s sensational.”
The President is Missing
James Patterson and Bill Clinton
Century, 528pp, £20
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis