The President is Missing is a trap, a lie of a novel. It’s the best title for a political thriller ever, and it is squandered on a book where we know where the president is at all times. It seems like a no-brainer: Former President Bill Clinton and Former Author James Patterson team up to write a political thriller. It is a no-brainer, but the brains are lacking from the book itself, rather than the reader.
Charismatic Democratic President Jonathan Duncan, single father and all around good guy, is potentially facing impeachment over a phone conversation he allegedly had with a pointedly irreligious terrorist. Upon realising that the system can’t help the Leader of the Free World, Duncan goes off the grid (but with the complete cooperation of the most trusted members of his staff) in order to prevent the catastrophic event known as “Dark Ages”.
The President is Missing takes place over three days in approximate real time. In the early stages, there’s a single event. Then there are no more. This is a thriller in which nothing happens, not even in the shadowy abstract world of the internet. The stakes are huge, but it never feels like there’s a threat. Clinton and Patterson’s use of only three major locations, one of them being the White House, feels like a failure of the imagination. Washington, D.C. is a prime place for a political thriller (or a post-apocalyptic first person RPG), and these two men – at least one of whom is intimately familiar with the place, its workings, its secret locations – have utilised none of its landmarks or its obscure nooks and crannies. If you can think, off the top of your head, of a more exciting concept using the title “The President is Missing”, you’ve already done more work than either Patterson or Clinton.
Which is not entirely fair to the hardworking man who ghostwrote it for them, presumably. You have to respect Patterson’s business model a lot of the time: even if much of what has his name on it never really graced his word processor, his two hander titles generally give a leg up to worthy authors, like Australia’s own Candice Fox. The opening page of The President is Missing acknowledges the efforts of David Ellis in coordinating the book, which we can take to mean “writing it”. Presumably serving two masters and their whims is a hard task, and though the prose isn’t up to much, it’s mostly fine. If neither of the two names do the heavy lifting, and their ghost is forced to take whatever half-baked ideas they want and synthesise them into an inevitable but unworthy bestseller, you’re not going to end up with a satisfying read. Even if the ghost were a master stylist, there’s nothing he could do with the lazy story he has been burdened with.
The President is Missing pretends that it is apolitical (it is not), and that there is a modern President who would be inclined to hire an almost exclusively female staff. In Clinton and Patterson’s defence, this means that if a woman happens to be a villain, she can’t be viewed as a scapegoat. This goes hand in hand with his Middle Eastern villains visibly not subscribing to a religious ideology – they’re just Middle Eastern people who hate the United States. Because that’s not potentially incendiary for a political thriller. Worse than that – and more tone deaf – is the conclusion that reads as a State of the Union delivered by a President who wishes that everyone would just get along. What a President really needs is a free pass – their own September 11 that gives them licence to run the country without reproach or repercussion for a good eight years – and Clinton and Patterson have gifted Jonathan Duncan exactly that. Put aside your pesky partisan convictions and just give it up for the man in charge, it’s your patriotic duty.
What anyone thinks of The President is Missing is irrelevant. It made its sales based on the authors’ names alone, and fans of either of them may not be disappointed, but this novel is more dull than it has any right to be; feel free to put it on your shelf and pretend that you’ve read it; the effect would be exactly the same. The President is Missing is a waste of one of the great titles of all time, and that is an impeachable act in itself.