First Family by David Baldacci: A Book Review

Sometimes you luck out and find good reads just by browsing, and so it was with David Baldacci’s First Family, 2009, an action adventure novel featuring private detectives Sean King and Michelle Maxwell.  As ex-Secret Service agents, both know Washingon, and in this case, the first lady, who calls them when her 12 year old niece, Willa, is kidnapped.

At first, we know who the good guys and bad guys are, and the breakdown of that certainty as the story moves forward is the single most telling feature of this tale.  In fact, for me, Sam Quarry, the mastermind of the kidnapping plot is likely to be the most unforgettable character.  He is ruthless, even fanatical, in the pursuit of his brand of justice, but then we see him stop in a nursing home to read Jane Austin to his daughter who has been in a coma for 13 years.  As the story unfolds, we come to appreciate the ingenuity he brings to bear on his personal concepts of right and wrong.  Our gradual understanding of what drives him parallels the fall of our admiration for several other characters who at first appeared virtuous but are revealed as anything but.

This is Baldacci’s fourth novel featuring the team of Sean and Melissa.  If I’d started the series at the beginning I might know why they left the Secret Service under clouded circumstances.  They are a compelling team, and the plot is complicated when Melissa’s mother is murdered in a separate event that parallels the main action when it leads to the exposure of family secrets.

The rhythm of a book, its pacing, is something very mysterious.  James Patterson sets a hook or mini-crisis every four pages, which is the length of his chapters.  Other writers speed things up even more

Baldacci steps away from constant thrills and chills.  Yes, there is the obligatory shootout early on, but the author also keeps us reading as he details the minute preparations Sam Quarry has made on his land in rural Alabama.  The little shack he has planned and constructed by hand is lined with metal and surplus dental x-ray blankets.  Why?  The video camera mounted almost invisibly near the cabin has a hidden feed to a bunker up the hill.  Why?  Quarry spends hours in the basement of his falling-apart family home, with charts and notes, illustrating a web of connections he has spent years uncovering.  We know just enough to keep us reading.  Baldacci knows that mystery and nagging questions can keep us turning the pages as eagerly as drama and shoot-em-up action.

I cannot say much more without giving away the plot.  I can say this – I am definitely going to read the first of the Sean King and Michelle Maxwell mysteries, and if First Family is any indication, I have a whole new series to enjoy.

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