The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson review – Guns! Girls! Guff!
he first thing to note is that the title is fake news. The president isn’t missing; he has to lie low for a bit, but spends almost all the novel surrounded by his Secret Service security detail, as well as other aides and officials. Indeed, the president himself narrates most of the book, which wouldn’t really work if he had no clue where he was or what he was up to.
Bill Clinton is not the first modern president to make a foray into fiction: in 2003, Jimmy Carter wrote The Hornet’s Nest, a well-regarded historical novel set during the revolutionary war. But for his novel, Clinton has teamed up with James Patterson, a thriller industry unto himself, whom Stephen King has not unjustly called “a terrible writer”. One character is a female assassin codenamed Bach, who, when we first meet her, is described strolling seductively through an airport with a décolleté “allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable”. Girls?
Anyway, the president of the title – president Jonathan Lincoln Duncan – is facing an enormous cyberattack, codenamed “Dark Ages”, which will bring the US to its knees. Thanks to a helpful slab of exposition by a geek halfway through, we know that this is really, really serious. It’s not just that Tinder and Alexa will stop working; all bank records will be wiped, the electricity grid will go down, water will stop running, air defences will fall silent, that sort of thing. Also, the Russians might be behind it, and Duncan might have a mole in his own ranks. So out of the White House the president sneaks: he disguises himself using makeup with the help of a famous actress friend (as you do), before meeting someone who might be able to help at a baseball game. Luckily, he is being followed by the pros.
But readers hoping for spicy revelations about what really goes on in the White House are likely to feel short-changed by bromides such as, “Sooner or later, every president faces decisions in which the right choice is bad politics, at least in the short term”, or the revelation that there is a one-lane bowling alley in the White House basement. The sense that a lot of important conversations happen in dull rooms over video-conferencing links, however, does ring true. As does the populist opinion on beer: “You can shelve all those microbrews: at a ball game, there is no finer beverage than an ice-cold Bud.”
Patterson, who never knowingly writes a paragraph when a single sentence will do, also seems highly unlikely to have authored all the prose-blocks of sorrowful asides on the state of the media and politics today. After some pretty good twists, the novel ends (spoiler alert) with the president having foiled cybergeddon and delivering an earnest televised address, in which he basically promises to do everything a Democratic voter might want. Throughout, the story regularly halts for folksy homilies on police shootings of African Americans (bad), stricter gun control (good), or the desirability of friendly relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
But never mind, because soon we will cut to a sexy vegetarian assassin dangling from a tree, or a silent helicopter making stuff blow up, or Secret Service men clenching their jaws in moodily lit rooms as their maverick president plans to do something they don’t like. As long as it concentrates on this stuff, the forthcoming Showtime TV series will no doubt be a hit.
“What the hell is going on, people?” yells US president Jonathan Lincoln Duncan for the 512th time (on almost every page) as he urgently tries to stop an annihilating cyberattack on America.
The commander-in-chief dreamed up by former US president Bill Clinton and James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author, is “fifty years old and rusty”, “a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour”. The hell that is going on for the reader is a perfectly absurd and terrifically boring actioner in which Duncan frantically attempts to thwart a “devastating stealth wiper virus”.
The nefarious plot to “reboot the world” has been cooked up by Suliman Cindoruk, “the most dangerous and prolific cyberterrorist in the world”. He’s “Turkish-born” but “not Muslim” and yet nonetheless confusingly leads an organisation known as the Sons of Jihad.
Duncan is facing possible impeachment for allegedly having a telephone conversation with Cindoruk and striking some kind of deal after letting him escape during a special forces attack. Did he? And why? A house select committee wants to know.
All becomes tediously clear soon enough. Duncan is a stoic boy scout. A former governor of North Carolina, he served and was wounded in Iraq. He’s also a widower with a daughter and suffers from immune thrombocytopenia, a debilitating blood disorder. Choosing to carry the burden of the ghastly truth about Cindoruk’s conspiracy – codenamed “Dark Ages” – on his own, Duncan decides to sneak out of the White House in a disguise to tackle the threat.
Far from confronting Cindoruk’s plot on his own – which the Russians might be behind – Duncan is in fact surrounded by an army of staff and helpers almost the whole time. These include a couple of international hackers, one “a cross between a Calvin Klein model and a Eurotrash punk rocker”.
He is also being hunted by one of the most preposterous assassins committed to print, the “Bosnian half-Muslim” Bach, so named for her proclivity for listening to the mighty Johann Sebastian during her wet jobs. “Sexy”, and “allowing just enough bounce in her girls [sic]”, as she strides around in her knee-high chocolate leather boots, she names her favoured weapon “Anna Magdalena … a thing of beauty, a matte-black semiautomatic rifle capable of firing five rounds in less than two seconds”.
She’s also unconvincingly pregnant, through a somewhat callous affair in which she slept with the father “no more than three times a week, to maximise his potency”.
Anyone expecting anything juicily salacious from the 42nd president will also be disappointed. Duncan simply doesn’t have the bandwidth. Or the inclination. The closest he comes to is with the prime minister of Israel at a summit at a Camp David-like ranch: “If I had the time I’d give you a tour.” “What – a tour? It’s a cabin. I’ve seen cabins before.” The only person who seems to be getting any is Cindoruk: “There is nothing so sexy as a good, destructive overwrite,” he concludes.
The whole fatuous and bizarrely written shebang almost seems to have been constructed as the foundation for a long-winded and desperately earnest sermon clearly voiced by Clinton at the end of the book. It’s a pity that he couldn’t have spent more time making his insider knowledge more compelling. But that’s what’s happening here, people.
‘The President Is Missing’ is published by Century