THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING
By Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Hachette/Paperback/513 pages/ $28.89/Major bookstores/
To write fiction more melodramatic than the reality of today's White House is a tall order. For his first novel, former United States president Bill Clinton pulls out all the stops.
He has teamed up with veteran thriller writer James Patterson, the Guinness World Record holder for the most No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, for pulpy political thriller The President Is Missing.
This title boasts unprecedented star quality, which is perhaps why the novel, only partially a page-turner, is allowed to get away with more than it should.
President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan has vanished - from the public view, that is.
In fact, he has gone off the grid to run around untangling a terrorist threat, a virus that could cripple the US any time on Saturday.
He has an impeachment hanging over his head, a traitor in his inner circle and a blood disease that could act up any moment.
Clinton is already a best-selling author, thanks to his 2004 memoir My Life.
He is not the first president to try fiction. In 2001, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, wrote American Revolutionary War novel The Hornet's Nest. But even with Patterson's input, it is clearly not Clinton's strong suit.
At more than 500 pages, the novel is far longer than it should be. Its first half is a slog, bogged down with political jargon and garden-variety metaphors, such as the Speaker of the House "looking forward to the select committee hearing more than a college boy looks forward to his 21st birthday". There is even some appalling poetry.
Duncan is a cookie-cutter hero-president of the Hollywood mould that has populated the likes of Air Force One (1997) and White House Down (2013).
He is an Iraq war veteran, a man of honour, a technological dinosaur who can nevertheless out-think the best millennial minds in cyber-security.
He is the kind of man who says things like "I didn't betray (my country) because I couldn't. I love my country too much" with a straight face. He is also curiously widowed, which people are bound to read too much into.
Arrayed against him are Suliman Cindoruk, a mercenary terrorist who talks like a film-poster tagline; and the more intriguing Bach, a ruthless, pregnant assassin with a taste for classical music whose fate is something of an anti-climax.
The novel kicks into gear halfway through - not that the writing gets any better, but at least it stops getting in the way of the plot.
A virus that initially looked like a malware McGuffin turns out to have frighteningly well-thought-out consequences.
If you thought a half-hour blackout in the Central Business District last Friday was bad, that was a walk in the park. This book will have you freaking out about the cashless economy.
Policy wonks will also be fascinated to learn about the inner workings of the White House in times of crisis, as well as how Duncan ropes in other world leaders - from allies Israel and Germany to the keep-your-enemies-closer involvement of Russia.
The writers get in some well-aimed jabs at current President Donald Trump.
Duncan's chief of staff Carolyn Brock lost an election because a dirty word she said in a private conversation was caught on a live microphone.
"If a man had said it," she notes, "it wouldn't be an issue" - as indeed it was not when Mr Trump was caught on tape boasting of grabbing women by their genitals.
The outcome of all this reads like wish-fulfilment fantasy, a nine-page address to Congress that runs through a laundry list of hopes and dreams - fight climate change, immigration reform, better gun-safety laws and more.
It is far easier to write about presidents than to be one.
If you like this, read: Executive Orders by Tom Clancy (Berkley, 1996, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya). Agent Jack Ryan suddenly finds himself President of the US after a nuclear attack wipes out the government.