David Baldacci has just got back from visiting London’s Sherlock Holmes Museum with his 12-year-old son. Each room is fitted out as a scene from one of Conan Doyle’s detective’s bestknown adventures. “It was kind of embarrassing,” says 44-year-old Baldacci, “I knew the books so well that within five seconds I’d worked out which one the room was about and was telling all the other visitors the storyline.” It is what comes from being a ferocious reader of crime fiction during a happy, but tough, youth in Richmond, Virginia. Agatha Christie was another favourite and now Baldacci himself is one of the world’s most successful practitioners of the thriller genre. Each of his 10 books has made the top 10 of the New York Times’ bestsellers list. Several have been made into films. Former President Bill Clinton made Baldacci’s The Simple Truth the official presidential book of the year in 1998. To prove the endorsement was genuine he was seen walking round carrying his copy.Worldwide, Baldacci’s sales have topped 40 million and will continue to rise with the publication in Britain this month of his latest novel Hour Game.
The grandson of Italian immigrants who left behind their vineyard in Tuscany to head for Ellis Island and a new life in America, Baldacci has Catholicism running in his blood, but in his childhood his own parents drifted away from the Church. “I think I was the only ItalianAmerican Baptist,” he jokes.
As an adult, though, after his marriage to Michele, a devout Catholic, Baldacci has again drawn close to the Church and now is active in the Fairfax, Virginia, parish where his family worship, and the parish school where his two children are educated.
“There’s something about the ethos of the school that comes from the teachings of the Church, that has taken me back to the faith,” he says. “It is the sense it gives you of being part of a community, of having compassion for those who need help, of feeling that you can and should do something for them. Many people knock the Church – often for good reasons – but when you see it in action, through the school and the parish, there’s a whole lot of good.” Baldacci was a trial attorney in Washington before his first novel, Absolute Power – written as a hobby in his spare time – was a publishing sensation in the States in the early 1990s. There remains something of the lawyer about him in the flesh. Smartly dressed in a well-cut blue jacket, he has a big, almost cherubic face that gives little away. He picks his words with care.
The Catholic Church in the States, he believes, is beginning to emerge from what has been a period of great trauma following the scandal of paedophile priests. “The effects of that scandal reached everywhere,” he recalls. “My wife and I both volunteer as helpers at the kids’ school but before they would let us set foot inside the building we had to have our backgrounds checked, fill in a detailed questionnaire and attend a four-hour seminar on how to recognise a child who has been abused and how to spot an abuser. I found it tough to sit through that, but I could see why it had to be done.” As we talk in his rented flat in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral in central London, Baldacci’s wife, children and parents-inlaw sit having breakfast in the next room, waiting for him to go off on foot for a sight-seeing trip. Despite his success, he remains rooted in family life and as a conse quence is endearingly grounded.
There was, he recalls, a wave of disillusion that passed through American Catholic parishes as the worst aspects of the abuse scandal emerged – particularly the activities of bishops in covering up offences by priests.
“It wasn’t so much that people turned their back on the Church – though many did. It was more that they became reluctant to participate in the life of the parish or the school. I suppose it was a natural reaction when faced with something so terrible, but with time that is changing.” The terrible and the traumatic, and their positive flip sides, have been powerful themes in Baldacci’s books. Absolute Power (later made into a film with Clint Eastwood), featured a dedicated presidential security officer who shoots a woman he believes is attacking his boss, only to find out later that it is the other way round. The woman was the victim and so the guard goes from feeling he has done the right thing to becoming the bad guy – all through circumstances beyond his control.
That good-bad dichotomy is there too in Baldacci’s latest book, Hour Game, which chronicles the impact on a small town of a serial killer who uses zodiac signs and paraphernalia to suggest a darker motive to his crimes.
“Many crime fiction books have what you might call a moral purpose,” Baldacci says, “in telling of the triumph of good over evil, but for me it is more complicated. The line between good and bad is not so easily drawn. I always believe that you should never judge anyone until you’ve walked in their shoes and understand why they have done what they have done. That’s when you come round to thinking, not that they are evil, but that if you’d been in that situation you may very well have done the same as they did.” In the debate about nature against nurture, Baldacci is a firm believer that few are born bad and that most of the damage is done by bad nurtur Baldacci: ‘I was the only Italian-American Baptist’
Photo: René Durand
ing – as indeed is the case with the killer in Hour Game. Is he evil, I ask? “That’s for the reader to decide,” says Baldacci with an impenetrable smile, refusing to lead his witness.
Such subtleties can be a hard to maintain, he acknowledges, in a publishing market place where detective novels are big business. “Telling people that things are black and white – particularly when it comes to serial killers – can scare them. But the fact that so much of it is a grey area scares them even more because it makes things random. And once things are random everyone is a potential victim and everyone is a potential perpetrator. It’s a very uncomfortable thought.” If there is a thread between Baldacci’s various killers, it is that each has a moment when the balance visibly tips, when the grade A student goes bad, or the successful careerist becomes a murderer. What fuels that change is the intellectual and moral interest at the heart of his taut thrillers that makes them more than straight whodunits.
And it is also something that he has turned his attention to in real life. He and his wife have set up a foundation named after his book Wish You Well that channels money into providing opportunities for those who would otherwise miss out and may as a result take a wrong turn in life. The foundation gives books to youngsters, scholarships for those who want to write about poverty and deprivation – and so raise awareness – and funds adult education schemes enabling people who dropped out of formal education as children to catch up. It is about giving individuals a second chance after their life has taken a wrong turn and, as such, fits neatly with Baldacci’s own description of the Church “working away at the heart of the community to direct the interest of the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’”.
Hour Game by David Baldacci is published by Pan, priced £6.99