- 08 May 18
Never sit down to a TV murder mystery with David Baldacci. He’ll spoil it for you by the first ad-break.
“People hate to watch movies or television with me,” laughs the bestselling thriller writer. “Five, 10 minutes in I’m going, ‘Do you want to know who did it?’ And they’re… ’No, no’…”.
Leaning back in his chair at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, he elaborates. “I call it the ‘two peek’ rule. A person who comes in to provide information – if they come in a second time… that’s the second peek. The writer is, ‘I can’t have them come in that one time… The killer can’t just be the elevator operator.’ That would be unfair – so… you get the second peek.”
Such hokey reliance on formula has no place in Baldacci’s novels. From his 1996 break-out Absolute Power to his latest bestseller The Fallen, the Richmond, Virginia author has proved a master of the whodunnit form.
But The Fallen – nothing to do with the Transformers movie of the same name you’ll be relieved/crushed to hear – is more than merely another blockbuster mystery. The story is set bang in the heart of America’s opiate belt – in the fictional former textile town of Baronville, where the jobs are gone and the streets are paved with painkiller prescriptions and heroin needles. Four bodies have turned up in unusual circumstances – could the deaths be related? Take a wild guess...
Usually when one of the Coastal Elite – a club to which Baldacci reluctantly admits membership – turns their attention to the rotting heart of the real America, the results are condescending with bells on. That’s not the case here – instead, Baldacci grippingly conjures the hopelessness and helplessness sweeping America’s left-behind millions. “My mom is from a rust-belt community,” he says. “Dickenson County is the poorest county in Virginia. When there was coal it was great. And then the coal ran out and they were left with nothing. We can’t just write off these people with, ’That’s capitalism… sorry’. We have to do something to help them.”
Baldacci, who typically publishes two to three books a year, was working on The Fallen as Donald Trump was in the course of getting himself elected President. It is no coincidence that the characters in the novel belonged to the very demographic which fell for Trump’s empty promise to make America great again.
“It’s like Germany after World War One, when the people there didn’t have anything to hope for. It’s easy for them to be manipulated and led down a rosy path. And it’s very easy for people not in that situation to look at it and think, ‘Oh hell – this is all crap.’
“But those people don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or whether they have a roof over their head. And then this guy comes along who seems to speak for the marginalised – I can easily see how they would be swayed. It’s not their fault. Society has left them behind.”
The hero of the novel is Amos Decker, one of Baldacci’s regular cast of crime-solvers. He’s an FBI agent who sustained a life-changing concussion during a football match. He woke to find he had perfect recall – a curse for a man with a lot in his life he’d rather forget such as the murder of his wife and child, but also a gift to a sleuth.
“He’s a guy who has a good heart,” says the author. “His biggest struggle is: how would you feel if you were one person before and you had a traumatic brain injury and you know you used to be different and you can’t get back to that place?”
Baldacci, who was working as a lawyer in Washington DC when he wrote Absolute Power - later adapted for the screen by Clint Eastwood - is a one-man publishing industry. Among his fans are George Bush Sr and Barack Obama, who, as President, approached the author in a Washington DC bookshop to proclaim his fandom.
“It was wonderful meeting him. We are both writers, both lawyers, both book lovers – and on the same side of the political aisle. It’s a great validation; I respect someone who has accomplished what he has. I have heard him speak – how thoughtful and precise he is choosing his words.”
Crime has always had a loyal following. But today it is enjoying a particular resurgence, with a recent survey confirming it as the most popular of all publishing genres. Baldacci has a theory about this. “A lot of bad happens in the world that goes unpunished,” he says. “People are looking for heroes and looking for justice. In a crime novel, if something bad happens, a good person comes along and figures out the truth. In the end the bad person is usually punished. It’s a fulfilling ending that you don’t find in newspapers, or in real life.”
With more than 110 million of his books in print, Baldacci is one of the elite crime novelists. He’s friendly with many of his peers. The late Sue Grafton was a close friend and he’s on good terms with John Grisham, Scott Turow and Michael Connelly.
“I would say that underneath there’s a little bit of that rivalry,” he laughs. “How many books are you selling? But I try not to get into that.”
The Fallen is out now.