I was recently asked to interview bestselling author David Baldacci at the Library of Virginia Literary Awards Luncheon here in Richmond. The library was giving Baldacci a Lifetime Achievement award, and I would sit with him on stage and ask him about his writing process.
I was thrilled. The only problem was, the last Baldacci novel I’d read was Wish You Well, published in 2000. So I picked up the book that started his career in 1996, Absolute Power, as well as three newer releases: No Man’s Land, Memory Man and The Finisher. I tore through all four as the date of the interview approached. And I noticed a few things Baldacci does that help his stories succeed.
Good guys fall down. Bad guys stagger back to the straight path. In the first chapters of Absolute Power, it’s clear where the characters stand. Baddies include Chief of Staff Gloria Russell, who’s ruthless and calculating, and Secret Service Agent Bill Burton, a former good cop who’s now willing to commit heinous crimes. On the side of virtue are Jack Graham, a slobby but big-hearted former public defender, his old flame Kate Whitney, an idealistic prosecutor whose dad is a cat burglar, and dogged detective Seth Frank.
You know who you’re supposed to cheer for. Yet as the plot unfolds, Whitney betrays her own father, and Frank helps her do it. Russell is exposed as a failure as her machinations unravel. The true villain is revealed to be the president himself.
“I thought you were the good guys,” Jack Graham says to Burton in the climactic scene.
“So did I,” Burton replies.
Heroes’ own flaws redeem them. Amos Decker, the detective introduced in Memory Man, has an origin story as wild as something out of Marvel: he’s a former football player who took a hit to the head that gave him perfect, photographic memory. Now, if Decker were a lantern-jawed, steely-eyed guy, he would be boring. This book would be Cam Jansen and the Secret of the High School Massacre.
But that’s not who he is. Decker, because of the trauma he suffered when his family was killed, is a near-homeless, out-of-shape mess: “Bloated, dirty, wild-haired, bushy-bearded… Six-five and a blimp with bum knees. His gut was soft and pushed out, his arms and chest flabby, his legs two meat sticks. He could no longer see even his overly long feet.”
Decker’s physique mirrors his state of mind — Publishers Weekly aptly called him “a wounded bear of a detective.” And in the final confrontation, his own weight becomes the only weapon he has left, as he literally crushes his adversary to death. It’s great. It’s satisfying.
Characters’ decisions drive the action. Not one character in Absolute Power kicks back in the La-Z-Boy and lets things happen to them. In every chapter, they make momentous and risky decisions.
Chapter 1. Luther Whitney decides to stay, not run, when people enter the empty house he’s burgling.
Chapter 2. Chief of Staff Russell decides to cover up a murder involving the president.
Chapter 3. Luther, watching it all, decides not to intervene; he also decides to steal crucial evidence.
Chapter 4. Russell decides to keep the missing evidence a secret from the president.
Chapter 5. Luther decides to flee instead of asking his daughter for help.
The result is a plot in which the tension inevitably tightens, as characters paint themselves into tighter and tighter corners. This, I think, is how Baldacci successfully executes convoluted thrillers without outlining. He says he doesn’t know how his stories end until they end, but it’s a breathless ride all the way.