There’s a touch of Clarice Starling-meets-Hannibal Lecter in the opening chapters of bestselling 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 Baldacci, 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. The reason for her being there is solely concerned with her sister.”
Pine is one of twins, he explains. 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 book 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’s 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, Baldacci is still writing riveting page-turners to great acclaim.
While Absolute Power became a hit movie, Baldacci 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’s not 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.”
Baldacci, 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, Baldacci, 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 also has a lake house in southern Virginia, where the family goes water skiing 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, out now, priced £18.99.