I've suggested before that in Richard North Patterson's political thrillers the politics usually was more compelling than the 'thriller' portion of the story, and at one point I compared him to Allen Drury. This can lead to problems, because the more involving your background story, the more mechanical seem the devices of the thriller. In his last novel, Exile, Patterson moved into current affairs. The book was set amidst the perpetual conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and full of well-researched in depth analysis of the struggle, extremely balanced, carefully nuanced, and deeply sympathetic. Of course, although the book was resolved, the issue could not be within the framework of a thriller.
With The Race, Patterson returns to more straightforward electoral politics, and dispenses entirely with the thriller format. Patterson writes with a firm sense of narrative, and can wring out the suspense from the long process of the Republican presidential primary. But by setting the novel so firmly in the present, and with such easily-identified characters, he creates a whole new problem for himself. In his earlier trilogy, Kerry Kilcannon was just enough not a Kennedy to be believable, just enough of a middle-road Democrat to be part of the process. The second and third of those novels, Balance Of Power and Protect And Defend, engaged with single issues, and the fact that he approached those issues from a position of 'right' and 'wrong' allowed him to focus the narrative better than The Exile. And they dealt in 'real' politics, as practised by more or less 'real' people.
Paradoxically, Patterson's new presidential candidate Corey Grace, Gulf War hero and POW, is too obviously crafted from a base of John McCain to be real. Though Patterson acknowledges that Grace's good looks and liberal outlook are taken from former Maine senator, 'defense' secretary (and thriller writer) William Cohen, it is McCain's background that resonates through Grace. And though Patterson claims Grace (the name is revealing) is a 'politician as we wish politicians would be', he is a character from a romantic fantasy, in which Republicans can be more liberal than their Democratic rivals, yet still believe in the party that has long-since jettisoned any pretense toward such values. Those guys died with John Lindsay, who was, as mayor of New York, a sort of soft-shelled version of Grace (the mayor of the Big Apple lives in Gracie Mansion, by the way, unless, like Giuliani, his wife throws him out!). There's also an honourable Republican general pitched somewhere between James Earl Jones as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to President Harrison Ford and Colin Powell.
This is a more serious problem than it seems, because the novel's main impact is its final twist, a truly brilliant one, but only someone as uncorruptable (that is, fantastic) as Grace would be able to pull off what he does. Yet it becomes difficult to believe in the character, because he is such an impossible construct. Even his girlfriend, Hollywood star, liberal, and black, notices this problem, though being the fantasy man he is, he overcomes her reservations.
But the meat of the novel, the machinations between the 'mainstream' candidate (loosely based on Rick Santorum, with a little Mario Cuomo perhaps) and the evangelicial preacher candidate (who turns out to be almost as honorable as Grace, which is another flight of fantasy) and their campaign advisers, is gripping, so gripping I would have perferred more of the primaries, rather than the jump straight into the convention. There must have been a temptation to include an assassin and amp up the straight-forward thriller element, but Patterson's been there and done that.This is book is better for that, but by opting to anchor his political story so firmly in reality, and then turning to fantasy politics, he's lost the element of ambiguity which would have made this a political novel up there with Advise And Consent, or The Last Hurrah (both of which I read when I was 12 or 13, along with Fail Safe and Seven Days In May...and you wonder where my cynicism about the American system comes from!).
Bill Clinton has a lot to answer for, as I suspect Patterson is yet another former 'liberal' disillusioned by the Clinton presidency, and turning to the moral certainties of the Republicans as a result. The Exile suggested Patterson favours those who recognise, if not favour, grim reality. I wonder how Barack Obama, whose dating a black woman couldn't become a campaign issue as it did for Grace, but whose politics, at leaast before he took the oath of office, didn't match Grace's, nor the character who's the thinly-disguised Colin Powell, fit into Patterson's paradigm when he got elected president?
The Race, by Richard North Patterson
Pan Books, £6.99, ISBN 9780330440158