It is 3am, somewhere on the outskirts of Manchester in England. Under the magnesium alloy shell of The Reviewer’s 15.6 inch HP Envy laptop, the processor hisses as it greedily consumes 15 watts of power. The Reviewer’s mouth holds a cold smile. Damn whatever the environmentalists might say: he knew those watts were produced from coal made from the fossilised flesh of Mesozoic lizards that would have ripped his face off if only the tables were turned. He would accept no compassion. Not this time. Not in this review.
Instead, the impact of his gnarly fingertips on the backlit butterfly sprung keys produced a staccato-like that of a .45 ACP Uzi in the hands of a homicidal terrorist. The Reviewer wasn’t for stopping. He knew readers wanted to know what he’d made of the new James Patterson book, The President’s Daughter, written in collaboration with William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States.
“Godamn it, Storm,” he told himself. “Focus!”
First, he had to be sure that his readers really did believe The Reviewer’s name was Storm Concorde, former child harmonica prodigy cum Special Operations sniper cum Olympic pole vault champion cum book reviewer with a speciality in special weapons and tactics. He checked his watch. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Mariner grimaced back. He had a deadline to hit. Could he do it?
Was it even possible to review this 594-page doorstop and not sound cynical as he explained how it was the second collaboration between the “authors”? He’d noted how the thriller writer Brendan DuBois had a strangely prominent place in the dedication (“was with us throughout all the research, every outline, and more drafts than we care to count. Brendan was our rock — and occasionally the hard-ass that we needed”). Was he really to thank for the book? How should we feel if he was?
A bullet cracked the window and impacted the Pingliang planter flower-pot above Storm’s head showering him in geranium pulp. Or he thought it a bullet. His mind was playing tricks. It was only the sudden realisation that people would want to know how the book reads.
“It reads… awkwardly.”
He nodded as he typed those words then wondered if he should explain how the lead character – a navy SEAL – is named “Nick Zeppos”, and how that undercuts the tension every time, sounding like a Marx Brother was storming a terrorist camp.
“This morning, I shot a jihadi in my pyjamas! How’d he got in my pyjamas, I’ll never know…” [Wiggles eyebrows]
It was that kind of book.
His mind shifted back to the opening chapter, where special operatives hunt for a terrorist leader reminiscent of Bin Laden. Zeppos receives a communication from Matt Keating, the American president, who tells him to “squids body-bag that son of a bitch for the country”. The first problem The Reviewer faced was figuring out what “squids body-bag” meant. The second: was this really written by the same President Clinton who, in the memorable words of George W. Bush, fired “a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”? Could a book be so unaware of its own irony as it gloried in the virtues of decisive executive action?
Storm wondered if he should even mention how the book is written in the third person but sequenced around first-person chapters from the President’s point of view? Should he mention how the President is also a former SEAL who has a dodgy hip after a helicopter accident and how any similarity to Jack Ryan, former U.S. Marine with a gammy back after a helicopter accident and who also becomes president in Tom Clancy’s far superior novels, is surely coincidental?
Storm pauses to reflect on how all this has been done so much better, even the way President Keating channels the spirit of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the droll witticisms he delivers as he’s offing terrorists. Should he mention those terrorists are aided by the Chinese who give their chief, Asim Al-Asheed, a high-tech thermal blanket cunningly painted the colour of rocks so it makes him invisible to drones?
He shook his head and his eyes narrowed on a bottle of Eagle Rare. He popped the cap and soon a flavour like leather and oak cut through his fear that readers might realise he couldn’t afford to drink this stuff and had only found its name by Googling “good bourbon”. It didn’t matter. Fiction like this requires just a touch of veracity, afforded by strong branding and a smattering of proper nouns, technobabble, and lots and lots of acronyms. SR-16 CQB. 5.56mm. CAT team. SWAT. P226. TOR. HRT. HK416. NVGs. Hk416. HVAC. SIG. M84. BOLO. RPG. NSA. Unit 8200. M4. MMH-60M. TAWS 32.
Despite the pretence, nobody would think any of it was real. Not the story. Not the scenario. Not even the names of the “authors” on the cover. Even the “sticker” with a recommendation from Karin Slaughter (“Propulsive, unnervingly believable”) wasn’t the usual afterthought highlighting what great reviews the book had been receiving since it was published. This was printed into the jacket, making it forethought and ever so calculated. He even wondered how this book was already rating nearly five stars on Good Reads given that it was still a week away from publication.
Storm realised he was getting to the centre of this mystery.
He also knew he loved a good techno-thriller (Clancy marred his legacy by becoming a brand but The Hunt For Red October remains a classic of the genre), but this leaned so heavily upon cliches, conventions, and thriller tropes that they had cracked, creaked, and ultimately shattered under the load. What did the former President bring to the book other than a marketing opportunity and the occasional sense of disquiet? At one point, the Chinese antagonist, Jian Lijun, reflects on the death of his father. The elder Lijun had been a communications officer in the Chinese embassy bombed by the Americans in Belgrade in 1999. This was a strike ordered by Clinton and for which he would later apologise. Yet here he is, fictionalising events, and putting the idea into his character’s mind that “[e]veryone knew it was a deliberate attempt by the West to punish China for standing with the Serbians.”
This confused Storm, who had to take his copy of Clinton’s My Life from his shelf. He thumbed to the passage he’d already underlined.
“It was the kind of mistake we had worked hard to avoid. The military was mostly using aerial photography for targeting. I had begun meeting with Bill Cohen, Hugh Shelton, and Sandy Berger several times a week to go over the high-profile targets in an attempt to maximize damage to Milosevic’s aggression while minimizing civilian casualties. I was dumbfounded and deeply upset by the mistake and immediately called Jiang Zemin to apologize. He wouldn’t take the call, so I publicly and repeatedly apologized.”
What the book presents isn’t presidential insight, then, as much as presidential confusion mixed with a morally questionable blurring of history and fiction. Yet isn’t this so typically Clinton – oblivious to how their shameless willingness to make money off their privileged positions fatally weakened Hilary’s run for the presidency in 2016?
Speaking of shameless: Patterson has authored over 287 books since his first in 1976. Storm only knew this because he had made his eyes sore counting them on the James Patterson website, noting in the process that the exhaustive list didn’t yet include The President’s Daughter. He did the maths. 288 books in twenty-five years, eleven books a year – or a book a month, with a nice break every Christmas.
The Reviewer felt conflicted. How could he take such numbers seriously? How much time should he devote to describing characterisation, plot, style, and – heaven forbid – subtext and theme? He decided he would give the book the respect it deserved.
Storm stood up and stretched before walking across his room in his luxurious pink fluffy rabbit slippers.
He picked up the heavy book with the luxurious cover and wondered if his readers would prefer a few more comments about that cover. This, after all, is how Patterson books are ultimately judged by would-be buyers who stumble across them heavily discounted in Tesco. It certainly had an impressive jacket, with the names embossed in gold over a soft-touch lamination. Storm knew the term “soft touch lamination” because he’d been forced to self-publish many books, marking him out as the kind of bitter failed writer who gets nowhere in an industry that only values the fame of the author and their marketability.
Somewhere an owl hooted. Storm was thankful that it did. He didn’t want to turn this review into a mean-spirited rant about an industry crassly remade in Patterson’s image. The book was co-written by the world’s richest author and a former President of the United States. Was there anything else the reader needs to know? Would anything he said make any difference to how the book sold? Storm didn’t think so. He knew his work here was done.
He hit the send button in Windows 10 Mail and then engaged the twin Pratt & Whitney PT42-6A/5 turboprop engines on his XRQ Model C regimental truss and felt 400 horsepower surge through his authentic Super XXL Mick Jagger circa-1964 loins. As he smashed through the ceiling and soared into the night sky, Storm realised that none of this made any sense, yet it was never meant to.
The only point was that the world’s richest author was just that little bit richer and somewhere out there in the darkness aspiring authors cried their selves to sleep.