I was in a room with 800 women who were all car­ry­ing guns

Top crime writer David Bal­dacci tells HAN­NAH STEPHEN­SON about his new fe­male FBI agent, how #Me­Too is chang­ing po­lice at­ti­tudes and the movies that have come and gone

Ruislip & Eastcote & Northwood Gazette - - Bookshelf -

THERE’S a touch of Clarice Star­ling-meets-Han­ni­bal Lecter in the open­ing chapters of best-sell­ing thriller writer David Bal­dacci’s lat­est novel, Long Road To Mercy, which in­tro­duces us to fe­male FBI spe­cial agent Atlee Pine as she vis­its a ‘mon­ster’ in­mate in a high se­cu­rity prison.

But the fact that the two fic­tional fe­male heroines both have FBI badges is where the sim­i­lar­ity ends, in­sists David, 58, the clean-cut for­mer Wash­ing­ton lawyer who has now racked up 36 nov­els for adults which have sold 130 mil­lion copies world­wide.

“He is a mon­ster but Pine would never go to this guy for ad­vice or to try to glean some in­sights on the case she’s presently work­ing on,” he says. “The rea­son for her be­ing there is solely con­cerned with her sis­ter.”

Pine is a twin. We dis­cover early on that, when she was six, a man broke into her bed­room, per­formed an ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ rhyme and took her twin, Mercy (hence the ti­tle).

“She still doesn’t know what hap­pened to her sis­ter and that’s another jour­ney she keeps go­ing down. That al­lows me a lot of ma­te­rial to build her char­ac­ter.”

Un­like Agent Star­ling, who was fresh out of the academy, Pine has been an agent for 13 years.

“I’m not sure she needs help from this guy to solve any case, but she needs help from him if he’s the one who took her sis­ter.”

More than two decades af­ter his de­but novel Ab­so­lute Power – about a thief who wit­nesses the US pres­i­dent mur­der his lover – made him an overnight suc­cess and re­sulted in a film adap­ta­tion star­ring Clint East­wood and Gene Hack­man, David is still writ­ing riv­et­ing page-turn­ers to great ac­claim.

While Ab­so­lute Power be­came a hit movie, David ad­mits that he hasn’t en­joyed the same box of­fice suc­cess with sub­se­quent nov­els, de­spite writ­ing screen­plays and be­ing hands-on with other projects.

“I’ve had two other movies made and a TV se­ries. I have a cou­ple of TV se­ries in devel­op­ment now. But un­til I see it on the screen at the pre­miere, I don’t get ex­cited.”

And while he’d like to see Atlee Pine brought to the big screen, he’s not hold­ing his breath.

“There aren’t a whole lot of roles for fe­males in ac­tion se­ries like this in which she’s the prime agent. I never have an ac­tress in mind when I’m writ­ing it – or I’d be writ­ing a screen­play, not a novel.”

David, who has met real-life spies and FBI agents in the course of his re­search, be­came in­ter­ested in writ­ing from the fe­male per­spec­tive af­ter he was in­vited to speak at the an­nual con­fer­ence of an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Wi­fle (Women In Fed­eral Law En­force­ment).

“I was in a room with 800 women who were all car­ry­ing guns. That’s quite in­tim­i­dat­ing. I’ve met a num­ber of fe­male agents and I un­der­stand the chal­lenges they have that men don’t.

“Most of these law en­force­ment agen­cies are dom­i­nated by men. Some­times a guy looks at an agent next to him who’s a woman, think­ing ‘You took the slot of a guy who re­ally needs the job’ or ‘You’re go­ing to get mar­ried and have a baby and all the money we spent on train­ing is go­ing to be for noth­ing.’

“It’s just very old-school think­ing and women in those fields have to put their heads down and keep striv­ing for­ward.

“There’s a lot of sex­ism ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing the po­lice, where the jobs are tra­di­tion­ally done by men. There’s a lot of push­back try­ing to get women into com­bat units in the mil­i­tary, but it is chang­ing. You see women in roles do­ing things now that they never thought pos­si­ble.”

He be­lieves the #Me­Too cam­paign will move things along.

“It has to,” he says. “If guys don’t get their house in or­der and start liv­ing in the 21st cen­tury, their rep­u­ta­tions are go­ing to be sul­lied.”

He’s clearly wor­ried about the state of world pol­i­tics and an­gered by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Ev­ery new tweet seems to go down the rab­bit hole that much fur­ther. I don’t want us to get to the point in the coun­try where we’re so far down that we can’t get back up to the sur­face. Some­times I wake up and feel that I’m liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent uni­verse.”

“You have nu­clear weapons, you have lead­ers who have not shown a lot of re­straint or re­spect for hu­man life. Any sen­si­ble per­son would be wor­ried,” he con­tin­ues.

He has met four pre­vi­ous US pres­i­dents – Ge­orge Bush Jnr and Snr, Bill Clin­ton and Barack Obama – who are all fans of his books, but he wouldn’t go into pol­i­tics him­self, he re­flects.

“My wife told me that if I did, I’d have to do it with another wife, so no. We are a po­lit­i­cal fam­ily. We put a lot of money into cam­paigns, we travel and try to get mes­sages across, but my wife has seen the life that hap­pens to politi­cians. She likes our pri­vacy and the life we lead. If I had any am­bi­tion to be a politi­cian, my love and re­spect for her ‘trumps’ that.”

Yet the state of po­lit­i­cal un­rest could lead to a re­turn to Cold War nov­els, he agrees.

“I can see a lot of thriller writ­ers out there who lamented the pass­ing of the Tom Clancy days, who are lick­ing their chops and sharp­en­ing their pen­cils, rel­ish­ing a whole new trea­sure trove of op­por­tu­nity.

“I may ex­plore that, but I don’t want to be com­pet­ing with the head­lines. I need to write about things that are im­por­tant on a hu­man level.

“In real life, peo­ple see oth­ers get away with bad acts and no con­se­quences. At least in a crime novel you have a bad act and the per­son who did it is usu­ally pun­ished by some­one who’s try­ing to do good. Peo­ple get out of fic­tion what they can’t get out of real life.”

The son of a truck­ing com­pany fore­man, David, whose grand­par­ents em­i­grated to the US from Tus­cany, grew up in Vir­ginia and started to write short stories at high school.

He stud­ied po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and law at uni­ver­sity and went on to prac­tise law for nine years in Wash­ing­ton, to pay his way while he car­ried on writ­ing.

“As the years went by, I had to come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that I might be a lawyer for the rest of my life. But I didn’t want that,” he has said.

He still lives in north Vir­ginia with his wife Michelle, to whom he has been mar­ried for 28 years. They have two grown-up chil­dren. Although there’s plenty of space to work in the house, he writes in an of­fice nearby.

“My wife kicked me out of the house 15 years ago. I used to have in­ter­view­ers and TV crews come into the house when the kids were young. So I have a staff who do a va­ri­ety of my sched­ul­ing, travel and other stuff and it al­lows me to focus on my writ­ing. I’m a worka­holic. Be­ing able to do this for a liv­ing is my va­ca­tion.”

He has a lake­house in south­ern Vir­ginia, where the fam­ily goes wa­ter ski-ing and sail­ing, and another home in Florida, where they go for the win­ter. But he never re­ally switches off.

“Writ­ing for me isn’t a job, it’s a life­style. I can’t dis­tin­guish be­tween the two.”

Long Road To Mercy by David Bal­dacci is pub­lished by Macmillan, price £18.99.

David Bal­dacci and, in­set, his lat­est book

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