David Baldacci needed to figure out a way to kill the head of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. In the past, he'd turned to MP5 submachine guns, knives, pistols, lethal injections and a custom-built semiautomatic SR75 rifle. But inside the vaults of the Library of Congress, guns and daggers were hard to come by, and so Baldacci had to be creative. Baldacci is a novelist, and so his license is great, but he likes to do things right. He followed Mark Dimunation, the library's head of rare books, past a collection of early American medical texts and up to the mezzanine, where children's books are housed. At the top of the stairs Baldacci patted the head of a small marble bust and then walked into the middle of the narrow room, unsure, exactly, of what he was looking for. Suddenly he spotted a gas nozzle on the wall between the tall, tightly packed shelves. "What's that?" he asked.
The nozzle did its dastardly deed on page 38 of "The Collectors," one of Baldacci's immensely successful political thrillers. Jonathan DeHaven, the fictional head of the Rare Book collection, dies of carbon-dioxide poisoning after the killer swaps a canister of Halon 1301—the gas used at the time as the fire suppressant inside the vaults—with the deadly CO2. (The murder originally took place even earlier in the story, but Baldacci decided to grant Dimunation's alter ego a few more pages "for being such a nice guy.") Baldacci tells this story, three years later, with a boyish delight. He's back at the Library of Congress, visiting a curator who helped him understand the inner workings of the library—and, as always, he's on the lookout for plot devices for the novels he cranks out about twice a year.
"Who would have thought of setting a spy operation at the Library of Congress?" Baldacci asks, bouncing his leg as he speaks. Actually, a number of authors: think of "The Da Vinci Code," "The Rule of Four" or "The Secret History." But it does take some swagger to write about a team of misfits—an obsessive-compulsive technological genius, an ex–Defense Intelligence Agency employee who's a recovering addict, a mousy Library of Congress curator and a rogue government "eliminator"—cracking conspiracy after conspiracy. "The Collectors," the second book in Baldacci's Camel Club series, was a bestseller. This, for Baldacci, is not unusual. All 16 of his novels (including two nonthrillers) have been New York Times bestsellers. His latest, "Divine Justice," debuted at No. 1, six months after "The Whole Truth" did, too. It's probably safe to look for his next, "First Family," on the list when it hits stores in late April.
Critics rarely take Baldacci's novels seriously. The reviews of his books (when they're reviewed at all) can be nasty: "The Winner," "full of mixed metaphors and malapropisms, often reads like an exercise by someone trying out a language he is not entirely at home with," wrote a New York Times reviewer. Many people (especially New York Times readers) don't take Baldacci seriously, either. David Baldacci: isn't he the guy in the airport bookstall displays? For the most part, mass-market thrillers are treated like fast food: tasty, perhaps, but banal and bad for the heart. This is the kind of thought that exasperates Baldacci. "If I spent 10 years on a book, could I be as good as x? I don't know," he says. "The only thing I regret is that people set this up into warring camps." In a country where an estimated one third of the population reads at a basic or below-basic level, he says, maybe the ability to put books in the hands of so many is a kind of public service. "Most people associate reading with laying on the beach," he says. "They don't see that it's crucial for a democracy!" (He puts his money where his mouth is: Baldacci has a literacy foundation, and on the last page of some editions of his paperbacks there is an ad for a help line "if you or someone you know wants to improve their reading skills.")
The suggestion that reading a thriller is a kind of civic obligation is questionable, to say the least, and there are plenty of people who dispute that reading potboilers encourages an engagement with more-demanding texts. But Baldacci has a point: there is something thrilling about the hunger for what lies on the next page, and it seems more absurd to suggest that enjoying a thriller harms a person than it does to suggest that it helps him. In these stressful times, Baldacci offers a break—and people who care about books should care about him. Whether or not thrillers are crucial for democracy, they are certainly crucial for publishers. Where a more literary book might be considered a success if it sells 50,000 in hardcover, a novel by a writer like Baldacci can sell more than a million. In any given week, about a third of the top-selling books are thrillers. The king of the bestseller lists is James Patterson, who has had 19 consecutive books hit No. 1 in The New York Times in hardcover; he publishes so frequently that he relies on a team of collaborators. "I do think that the most successful publishing programs are those that have authors—often authors whom they've built over the year—who publish consistently and sell hundreds of thousands of copies," says Jamie Raab, the publisher of Grand Central Publishing, the imprint of Hachette Book Group that publishes Baldacci's books. "If you have that as the foundation of your publishing house, you have the freedom to experiment in other areas." Hachette—which publishes several megaselling writers, including Patterson and the "Twilight" juggernaut—has been particularly good at this, and as a result was able to give every employee a year-end bonus in 2008 while other houses were reorganizing and firing.
What makes a thriller work is a million-dollar question, but why they matter is more than an economic concern. Baldacci's prose might be clumsy (a typical Baldacci line: "As with scissors, one should avoid running with a loaded gun while the safety was off"), but if anyone could do it, more people would. On the most basic level, a thriller works if it can persuade the reader to turn the pages as fast as possible. The easiest way to get someone to keep reading is to withhold information expertly, but a blockbuster has to offer more than just suspense. Like other thriller writers, Baldacci depends on a mixture of inventive plotting, appealing characters, luck and consistency. Unlike others, his books rely more on characters' relationships than whiz-bang technology or procedural twists. Baldacci is more likely to set a scene in the Washington suburbs than a submarine (though any thriller worth its name has a decent armory), and the courtroom is rarely the site for drama (though, as a former lawyer, Baldacci usually includes a little law and order). What he offers is in some ways more unusual.
To be sure, his books feature presidents and spin and spies and secrets, and his Washington is a place where an unmarked van is always down the block and an assassin usually lurks nearby. But his heroes are often accidental. Rarely rich, brilliant or handsome, they're no James Bond. They're awkward in love, paranoid and they have imperfect pasts. Some of them would rather be watching "Monday Night Football" than saving the leader of the free world, but such is their plight. In Baldacci's Washington, outsiders are forever coming to the rescue—which may explain why Washington insiders, as well as those beyond the Beltway, read Baldacci's books. Nobody wants to be from Washington, but everybody wants to be a hero. With 75 million copies in print worldwide since he began publishing in 1996, it's clear that Baldacci appeals to a common denominator with a common touch.
"You came at an interesting time. I'm in the last lap of a new book," Baldacci says, sitting in his office suite's library in Reston, Va., on a drizzling December morning. Interesting, perhaps, but not at all unusual. Baldacci writes a book every seven months or so. It's a punishing pace for someone who does his own research and writing. (Baldacci has three full-time employees—an assistant, an office manager and the head of the literacy foundation. Family chips in, too; that morning, his father-in-law sat at a massive wooden table in the conference room addressing envelopes for an online book-signing session.) His working style is intense. "I had this mentor, a trial lawyer—he was the best on his feet I'd ever seen," Baldacci says. "He was a chain smoker, all that, and incredibly anxious. Before every trial, he'd go into the bathroom and throw up. But when the time came, he was so eloquent. And I would look at him, amazed, thinking, you were just puking. And for me, it's a similar thing. I'm scattered, and then that last hundred pages, bam, I'm a laser." And when one is done, it all begins again—so that when the reader turns that last page, there's another new first page waiting. "You've finished a book, and now he comes up with a new book, and boom," says his agent, Aaron Priest. "I think, where the hell did you come up with this?"
Baldacci, 48, has brown hair threaded with a few strands of gray, a jutting chin and a solid, broad-shouldered build. He acquired his strong work ethic early, as a child growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va. From junior high until his senior year, he delivered newspapers before school, and as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University and then at the University of Virginia School of Law he worked as a night guard, a construction worker and a vacuum-cleaner salesman. After law school, Baldacci toiled for nine years as a trial lawyer and corporate attorney. (Several of his novels feature lawyers: those in private practice are invariably miserable.) At night, he wrote screenplays and stories, for which he received rejection after rejection. Then, in 1994, he finished a novel about a burglar who inadvertently witnesses a murder and a cover-up involving the president. Finally, there was interest—big interest. Baldacci signed with Priest, an agent known for representing mass-market thriller writers. Larry Kirshbaum, then the head of Time Warner Book Group, started reading the manuscript of "Absolute Power" on the evening he received it from Priest. "It's one of these amazing kind of epiphanies that happen so rarely in one's editorial life," Kirshbaum says. "Before I know it it's 4 in the morning and I'm reading the end. So I literally took a shower, put my feet up for an hour and went into the office. I called Aaron [Baldacci's agent] and said, 'I want to buy this book.' He said, 'You can't possibly have read it!' I said, 'Oh, yes, I did—you can quiz me'."
With a $2 million advance—plus another $3 million for the movie (directed by and starring Clint Eastwood) and foreign rights—Baldacci was suddenly rich. After paying off debts, he, his wife and their two kids moved into a seven-bedroom house in northern Virginia, paid for in cash. Baldacci clearly has an ambivalent relationship to his wealth. His house is huge and his Reston office is well appointed—the enormous wooden conference table is polished to a shine; the library furniture is soft and deep. ("I always wanted a room like this," he says as he looks around the library, his tone more surprised than satisfied.) At the same time, he wears old bluejeans, sends his kids to parochial schools instead of one of the tonier private D.C.-area schools, and his favorite restaurant in D.C. is still Nathans, the Georgetown pub where he took his wife on their first date. (Nathans makes many appearances in Baldacci's books.) His characters, tellingly, have a contentious relationship to money, and it is one of the subjects that seems to make his writing least artful. Rich characters wear "yet another gown" or suits described simply as "very expensive." They wear diamond necklaces, and decorate their mansions with murals; they are forever having extramarital affairs. The worst psychopaths are in it for the money alone.
Baldacci himself is insistent that he writes for more than money. He wants to get inside a terrorist's head, or to keep people vigilant to abuses of power, or to set up situations in which good people are pushed past their breaking point to see how they respond. At one point, he suggests that his novels offer a kind of reworking of justice. "As a lawyer, as a private citizen, you see a lot of injustice. You see a lot of people who should have been punished and are not, and people who were punished wrongfully are not vindicated," he says. "Fiction is sort of a way to set the record straight, and let people at least believe that justice can be achieved and the right outcomes can occur." He talks about being inspired by the rectitude of his father, who would bring his son on weekends to the trucking firm where he worked. "They had in the shop a black bathroom and a white bathroom, and the white bathroom was much better," Baldacci says. "My dad was a mechanic, and then he moved up and became foreman. The first thing he did when he became foreman was he nailed shut the white bathroom. And he said, 'Everybody will use one bathroom. And if you don't like that bathroom, we'll shut that one and use the white bathroom. But we have only one bathroom here.' Some of my themes of injustice come from that."
When Baldacci talks about the moral complexity of his books—how the bad guys can be good and the presidents scum—his soft Southern accent speeds up. It's clear that he believes what he's saying—and it's true that he likes to blur the lines between good and evil. But more than any moral calculus, it's his eager, expansive imagination that drives his books. He loses himself in the hands-on process of immersive research and writing—and fans in the fields he writes about claim that he gets their world right. Baldacci reads books on taxidermy and terrorism and concocts ways to fix the lottery, and studs his books with little lessons on geography, history, ballistics, rare-book facts—whatever. (This is another key to the thriller: an overwhelming abundance of sheer—and fun, if sometimes useless—information.) He's staked out landing strips, shot machine guns and befriended snipers and Secret Service agents. Baldacci does have his limits: for one book involving hypnosis, a psychologist offered to hypnotize the author, but Baldacci became skittish and refused. "He is an extraordinarily detailed interviewer," Dimunation says. Writing books has allowed Baldacci to turn his life into a giant field trip. His friend and former neighbor Robert Schule, a special assistant to President Carter and a founder of a lobbying firm, remembers coming home one day and spotting a horse trailer down the road, parked in front of Baldacci's house. "We said, what the hell?" Schule recalls. Baldacci was writing about an agent working undercover at a ranch in the Virginia countryside, and he wanted to get inside a horse trailer to figure out if someone could successfully hide drugs in one.
Baldacci's audience extends from Poughkeepsie to Pennsylvania Avenue. His office suite, which is sandwiched between a Department of Homeland Security campus and Lockheed Martin, is decorated with bestseller lists mounted on plaques and posters of his novels, and the bookshelves lining the walls of his reception area—which eerily resembles a doctor's office—are filled almost exclusively with his books—many of them in unrecognizable languages. There are framed fan letters from several first ladies, the former South African president F. W. de Klerk, Dolly Parton and a couple of U.S. presidents ("If you get a letter from the president, you gotta put it in a frame," he says). In 1999, Bill Clinton called Baldacci's "The Simple Truth" his favorite book of the year. George H.W. Bush, who signed one note "from your No. 1 fan in Houston," likes Baldacci's books so much that he invited the author to visit him in Kennebunkport, Maine. "Boy, can he drive a boat," Baldacci says.
Baldacci clearly relishes the chance to mingle with the mighty, casually mentioning that Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman now running for governor of Virginia, was stopping by the office the next day. He's proud that he's been contacted by contractors to the government to imagine "doomsday scenarios"—how to blow up the Super Bowl, say—and by agencies lobbying him to be featured in his books. But he still projects the air of a regular guy who just happened to be thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Then again—in Baldacci's world, where everything is a conspiracy, nothing is really accidental.
Clues You Can Use: The Best of Baldacci
He may not write "serious literature," but Baldacci's books aren't devoid of useful information—or guilty pleasures:
Best secret code technique: A chemical wash applied to rare copies of 19th-century dime novels. From "The Collectors"
Best terrible motto: "Why waste time trying to discover the truth, when you can so easily create it?" From "The Whole Truth"
Best money-making scheme: A lottery scam that was so ingenious, some Italian thieves used it. From "The Winner"
Best random factoid: Polk's wife played "Hail to the Chief" so people would notice her short husband. From "The Camel Club"
Best worst line: " 'Survival is always intoxicating,' Thornhill thought as he turned out the light." From "Saving Faith"