Review

First Family

by David Baldacci

David Baldacci has been producing bestselling thrillers
consistently since his debut in 1995 with ABSOLUTE POWER. Last year
he returned to the top of the charts with a stand-alone
international espionage thriller, THE WHOLE TRUTH. The early part
of his career featured mostly stand-alone thrillers --- until 2003
when he penned SPLIT SECOND, the first of four novels featuring
Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. With his latest effort, FIRST
FAMILY, he revisits the now-former Secret Service agents for their
first appearance since SIMPLE GENIUS in 2007.

FIRST FAMILY poses an interesting dilemma for Sean and Michelle:
Could a kidnapping take place at the tightly guarded presidential
compound, Camp David? If this were to happen, who would have
protocol in investigating the matter? Such an event indeed occurred
as 12-year-old Willa Dutton is taken in brutal fashion following a
children’s birthday party at Camp David. Willa’s
father, Tuck, is the brother of First Lady Jane Cox and niece of
the current president, Dan “The Wolfman” Cox. President
Cox is preparing for Election Day and the opportunity to be
re-elected for another four-year term. Any negative publicity
surrounding his immediate family cannot be good for campaign
efforts. In addition to the Secret Service, CIA and FBI
involvement, the First Lady goes out on her own to hire Sean and
Michelle. Mrs. Cox has had prior experience with them and had
worked closely with Sean during his own stint as a Secret Service
agent.

Since this is a David Baldacci thriller, things are not as cut
and dry as they seem. A child could not have been abducted from
Camp David without some internal involvement. Unfortunately,
Willa’s mother, Pam, was brutally murdered during the
abduction, and her arm was marked with what later turns out to be a
Native American symbol. With the nearest Native American
settlements being a few states away, Sean and Michelle must create
a fairly wide canvas area for their investigation. They begin to
uncover links to everything from cover-ups to shady business
dealings to adultery. Just how important is it for the First Family
to have Willa found quickly and without incident?

The story moves to Willa’s captor, Sam Quarry, who has
taken Willa to an underground prison on the grounds of his
200-year-old plantation home. The Atlee Plantation is in an
isolated area of Alabama, and above the cavernous underground
passages is a mysterious one-room house that obviously was built
for some unknown purpose. Why did Quarry and his group ---
including one son, Darryl --- kidnap not only Willa but also an
adult woman named Diane Wohl? Quarry is a former Air Force pilot
who speaks cryptically and keeps his agenda close to the vest. He
also has some members of the Native American tribe the Koasatis
living on his property. What, if any, is their involvement in the
kidnappings, and what does the symbol left on Pam’s arm
mean?

As the investigation begins to heat up, and as Sean and Michelle
continue butting heads with the other agencies that are conducting
their own investigations, a sudden tragedy hits Michelle. She
receives a phone call from her brother Bill in Tennessee that their
mother has died. Apparently, Sally had collapsed in her parking
garage, hit her head on something and died before her body struck
the cement. Michelle’s father, Frank, is an ex-policeman and
totally despondent upon his daughter’s arrival. Even though
Michelle’s brothers are also involved in law enforcement and
see the death as being of natural causes, Michelle thinks
otherwise. She begins to investigate on her own. Later, with the
assistance of Sean and upon speaking with several friends and
neighbors of her parents, she starts to paint a picture that this
case may not be simple death by natural causes but a homicide. What
makes things that much more uncomfortable for Michelle is that her
father may be the number one suspect in her mother’s
murder.

It was at this point in the novel that I became distracted as it
did not appear that the Sally Maxwell murder had anything to do
with the Willa Dutton abduction case. However, I should have
remembered that I was in the hands of a master of thriller plotting
in Baldacci and did not have to be worried about such things. I was
indeed quite satisfied with the outcome of the Maxwell murder
investigation and came to recognize that the title FIRST FAMILY may
not be referring just to the President and First Lady. The title
could almost be reversed to read “Family First,” as
Michelle’s focus on her own family situation and the secrets
revealed by her investigation take precedence, but in a way mirror
the fact that the Cox family has their own secrets they need to
hide. Once the Maxwell case is closed, Sean and Michelle are able
to re-focus exclusively on the Willa Dutton case, and their newly
found familial experience allows them to delve deeper into the past
and to trust no one along the way.

Baldacci’s novel races to a breakneck ending involving a
standoff at the Atlee Plantation. Once Sean and Michelle uncover
the true reasoning behind Quarry’s abductions of Willa and
Diane, they are placed in a precarious situation. They must fulfill
their obligation to rescue Willa, but then are faced with the moral
dilemma of revealing some of the past indiscretions by the First
Family that would not only create a bigger scandal than Watergate
or Monicagate, but could very well impact the outcome of the
upcoming Presidential election.

FIRST FAMILY strikes to the heart of political cover-ups and
dysfunctional families at all levels. I think David Baldacci said
it best when he dedicated the book to “my mom, my brother and
my sister, for all the love.” Another great King/Maxwell
thriller!

Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011

First Family
by David Baldacci

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446539759
  • ISBN-13: 9780446539753