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Will Gompertz reviews Bill Clinton's The President is Missing ★☆☆☆☆

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter


There is a long and noble history of two individuals coming together to create a memorable double act. Braque and Picasso, Lennon and McCartney, Dolce and Gabbana, Morecambe and Wise and French and Saunders spring to mind.

There have also been less successful, rather odd couplings. I'm thinking Bing Crosby and David Bowie, Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood, and now - 513 pages later - Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

Their co-authored book The President is Missing is not quite as bad as Sam and Mick's hosting of the 1989 Brit awards, but it is not far off.

It is, let us say, not the most thrilling thriller. Which would be okay if it was a beautifully crafted, character-rich work of literary fiction. Sadly it is not.

image copyrightPenguin Random House/Getty

It is a disappointingly predictable, surprisingly jingoistic shaggy dog story about cyber crime and American party politics.

The most interesting thing about it is one half of the authorial partnership was once the President of the United States: a fascinating old job that has provided source material for this tall tale and its unexpectedly bland main protagonist.

Maybe that's the way it had to be for an ex-President writing fiction based on his experiences in office: all the interesting stuff was still too top secret to share, leaving only the most mundane aspects for us readers.

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The upshot is a present-day fictional president called Jonathan Duncan, "the leader of the free world", who is perhaps the most characterless character to have ever been created in the name of fiction. It'd be wrong to call him two-dimensional because that would suggest a sliver of depth where there is none.

Duncan is as interesting as a drawer full of neatly folded socks. He is all light and no shade: a war hero who tells us he will never trade on his stories of nation-saving derring-do, while telling us boastful stories about his nation-saving derring-do.

image copyrightDavid Burnett
image captionJames Patterson (left) co-authored the thriller with the former president

Here he is mulling on how tough it must be for the woman (now his vice-president) he beat to the top job:

"It hasn't been easy being vice-president, though she is well aware that any number of people would trade places with her. But how many of those people came within a breath of winning the nomination only to see their dreams upended by a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour."

Here is a man who is always staunch in the face of adversity, carrying on regardless because that's what presidents do. His wife dies, he carries on regardless. He has a life-threatening medical condition, he carries on regardless. He risks impeachment for his actions (no stained dresses in this instance, just heroics), he carries on regardless.

image copyrightWilliam J. Clinton Presidential Library
image captionFormer President Clinton was photographed with Monica Lewinsky at the Oval Office in 1997

You get the picture. If you're looking for insights into life in the White House beyond finding out there is a subterranean bowling alley, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Even though, in the opening credits, it reads:

"To Hillary Clinton... for her constant encouragement and reminders to keep it real."

For whatever reason, the authors haven't done as Mrs Clinton instructed.

President Duncan is more plastic than a row of Ken and Barbies. There is nothing remotely real about him or his story, which is why it's about as gripping as a wet handshake.

It's difficult to understand why it should be so thin. Neither writer is without literary ability nor short of decent stories. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMr Clinton and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton attended the 2017 inauguration ceremony for Donald Trump

Here is the set-up. America is in imminent danger from a catastrophic cyber attack that will paralyse the country and leave it desperately vulnerable. There's even an outside possibility of total destruction. We are talking about stakes higher than someone smoking a joint but not inhaling.

Nobody knows of this terrible threat other than President Perfect and a handful of his trusted aides. Their role is simple. It is to provide informed advice that the president can then ignore in favour of his own instinctive solution, which always proves to be correct.

This is a thriller with no surprises. Guess which countries the baddies come from. Yep, you're right.

I'm afraid the cliches don't stop there. We have the inevitable rotten apple, an assortment of dodgy foreigners (mysterious lone-wolf terminator, heartless terrorist etc.), and legions of rufty-tufty Secret Service agents. The entire ensemble has been hired as a job lot from Central Casting's end-of-year sale.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHe met Donald Trump at the at the Inaugural Lunch

The story unfolds as you would expect, with occasional detours to hop on a (ex-president's?) political hobby horse:

"...because that kind of over simplification epitomises everything that's wrong with our politics."


"Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, extremism and seething resentment. Today it's 'us versus them' in America. Politics is little more than a blood sport. As a result, our willingness to think the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking."

These forays to the soap box are extraneous within the context of this story, but at least they have a sense of a writer's personality, which is otherwise lacking in this painting-by-numbers novel.

After the success of his non-fiction books, it is easy to see why Bill Clinton wanted to park his authorial tanks on literature's lawn. And there's a logic to his collaboration with James Patterson.

It was an interesting experiment, which the publishers are probably delighted with on the sales front. But the end product is not a success.

Perhaps its two creators should take a leaf out of President Duncan's book, and go it alone.

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