I recently reread a long time favorite book of mine called Absolute Power by David Baldacci, which has a movie adaptation of the same name (also a solid movie). I wanted to take a minute to go through this novel, and why I feel it is possibly one of the best debut novels to ever make it to press, and ranks up there on the list of things I’ll read every few years.
Before we dive into the book, yes I know the book and movie share a first act, but then deviate greatly from one another. Part of that is because the book has some very complicated story lines that while complex seem realistic. The challenge is that if you were to adapt all that complex stuff to the screen it would have been a very long movie, so I understand why they made the changes.
As the book opens we see a burglar doing his job and cleaning out a vault at one of the largest, most expensive homes in the Washington DC area. This home is owned by a billionaire who is one of those DC powerbrokers we all hear about on the nightly news (a fictional one).
During the robbery the thief sees a woman killed after she struggled with the current President of the United States (long story as to why, read the book, it is well worth the time). But the scene makes sense. Somehow in the struggle the woman gets the upper hand and POTUS screams for help. Secret Service rushes in the room and shoots the woman in the head.
Now, a thief who sees all of this, knows what happens, and really wants to protect the woman is stuck with a problem. He has no reason to be in that house, who is going to believe him, and honestly, if he comes forward how does he not go to jail being fingered as the one who did it by POTUS. Seriously who will believe a thief more than the President?
After fleeing the scene the thief’s presence is known to the Secret Service but not his identity. So, there is a conundrum. Can he just sneak away, disappear, and let the guy get away with it? How do you do that when you can finger the trigger man? The stress the thief puts himself through leaps off the page, and not even the great Clint Eastwood can make it transition to screen with as much clarity as Mr. Baldacci has crafted in his novel.
The book itself has a subplot that never makes it to screen. It gets into the legal firms that basically are “bandits” running around D.C. Now, when he wrote this Mr. Baldacci was a lawyer near DC so this part of the book rings very true. I also have done a lot of work in and around DC and the number of layers charging to “assist” with government relations is staggering. Basically, they are selling access for an hourly rate of $500/hour and up in today’s dollars. Typically, there is an 80-hour minimum to keep out the riff raff.
Interestingly there is a whole section about lawyers and what they call “security” in their career. It turns out that it is the clients they “control.” Now, how many layers are on retainer for elected officials. That whole concept is in the book for more than a chapter. Basically, having worked there for a long time, this shows that Mr. Baldacci has worked in and around DC for a long time. He knows how it works, and if you ever want to know an accurate description of the functionality of that town, read this book. It is fictional, but dang is it close to the way it is in real life.
So, back to the story. Dead wife, billionaire husband, who is so distraught he hires a hitman to go after “whomever it was.” Think about this. If a normal person’s spouse ended up dead in some strange murder scene I’d have to depend upon the police. But then, billionaires have a different set of rules they live by. We can go on social media and rants that all rules apply equally but let’s be honest, they don’t.
Now, the cops have no leads (I strongly suggest you read the book and see how they pulled that off), the billionaire doesn’t know who to kill, and the President is on TV railing about random violence, even though he is the cause of this one. What is Luther to do?
What would you do?
Let them get away with it?
The stress of the entire situation gets to Luther in ways that are impossible to put into a movie, yet Mr. Baldacci manages to make leap off the page. I really felt for Luther and couldn’t imagine how I would get through the day if it were me.
Enter an ambitious Chief of Staff to POTUS. She sees this entire situation as a way to enhance her power, because who in DC doesn’t look for an easy way to have that happen.
Flash back to Luther who is now so stressed he goes to see a lawyer to look for options. The lawyer suggests witness protection, Luther laughs then vomits.
Back to the White House. They know that a letter opener is missing, and Luther (whose ID is still not known) has it. So, of course, they make the decision to kill him, if only they could find out who he is. Poor Luther now has two sets of people chasing him down.
Now here is where the movie and book really start to depart. Through some herculean efforts the police get onto Luther in a manner that was presented much differently in the film.
The Billionaire is now getting angrier, and impatient, and devising ways to increase his fortune.
Whew, this is a fast paced book.
The police find a way to encircle Luther. Now, because it is a billionaire who knows everything because he can, and the Secret Service everyone who wants to kill Luther knows where he will be and bam, take the shot.
The Billionaire starts to suspect it wasn’t our thief.
Now, I won’t ruin the rest of the book, but I will say something about the last half. Authors tend to write what they know. Stephen King often has an author character in the book who is the hero of sorts. Mr. Baldacci has a lawyer who he desperately wants to be the hero. In fact, wants him to be the hero so much the lawyer can do anything.
He can find out where the evidence is through deductive leaps. He can wrestle an armed Secret Service agent to the ground and live to tell about it. He does all this without really becoming all that stressed, and still chasing down the woman of his dreams.
The lawyer sequences toward the end get a little bit much personally, but this is probably still one of the better novels I have ever read. I enjoyed it greatly, and someday will enjoy it again.
The other interesting thing about authors is they tend to craft a world the way they want it to be. In Mr. Baldacci’s perfect world lawyers are always the hero, but also Presidents pay for their mistakes, and pay for them with more than the end of their career. There are actual consequences for breaking the law. Now if only it were like that in real life.