'A Minute to Midnight'

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Author refuses to rest on his laurels in latest crime thriller 

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

New York Times best-selling author David Baldacci refuses to become complacent, something he’s demonstrated in the two novels he’s published this year: “A Minute to Midnight” and “One Good Deed.”

“Midnight” – which debuted November 19 – features FBI agent Atlee Pine, who debuted in 2018’s “The Long Road to Mercy.”

“As a writer, you’re always thinking of doing something new and different and challenging. To have a lead female character was a challenge for me... After having done this for so long, you look for things that will challenge you and get you out of your comfort zone. Atlee Pine delivered on that score for me,” explained Baldacci, of Virginia, an alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia School of Law.

Baldacci’s writing totally from the perspective of a female instead of a man-and-woman duo he’s established with Will Robie and Jessica Reel in his Robie series, Amos Decker and Alex Jamison in his “Memory Man” series, or Sean King and Michelle Maxwell in his “King and Maxwell” series (which inspired 2013’s TV series).

“Her partner – to the extent she has one – is also a female, Carol Blum (a secretary). Not only was I writing from the female perspective, I was writing from one in her 30s and one in her 60s,” he said. “You have to fight against complacency, this compulsion to write the same book over and over again.”

In “Midnight,” Pine returns to her native Georgia to investigate the abduction of her twin sister Mercy, who’s been missing since 1989 when both girls were 6. On that fateful night, Mercy’s kidnapper brutally beat Pine, who almost died.

This motivated Pine to become an FBI agent. As she searches for answers, a local woman is found murdered in some bizarre ritual. This murder’s followed by two more. Soon thereafter, Pine is on the trail of a serial killer.

“When you create it a new series, you can approach it any number of ways. I’ve done it in my Decker series as well – create a character who has a very compelling job, has some special attributes that people might find interesting, but also has some personal baggage. With Decker, it’s what happened to his family. With Atlee, it’s what happened to her sister. That allows me to mold Atlee as an FBI agent, showing the cool things she can do and people respect the professional side of her, but also she has this personal side that’s not nearly as developed and mature and smooth-running as her professional side. She’s got a lot of baggage.”

Baldacci created Blum to be simpatico, supportive, and complementary of Pine, in both her professional and personal lives. 

“(Pine) has this personal hole in her life I don’t see in any of my other female characters that really drives everything she does,” said Baldacci. “You don’t just get the professional side of the cases she’s working on, you get this void she can’t get over and hasn’t gotten over for most of her life. That’s what made her different for me.” 

He continued: “Because of that, I had to juggle how much time to spend on the cases she’s working on at the time and how much time to spend on this hole in her life that’s affected her so deeply; it’s this balancing act. That was something new to me, too, and that’s okay because as a novelist, you try something new. If you do it successfully, it allows you to do something like that again in a future book with another character. Writing’s a craft. Nobody ever masters it; you’re just continually a student.” He added, laughing: “I think with the Pine series, it was almost like taking a new class.”

Eagle-eyed readers will spot an Easter egg in “Midnight,” where it’s mentioned Pine knows John Puller, another series character who’s starred in four books. 

“That was definitely a nice foreshadowing on my part,” he said. “The FBI and military criminal agencies exist in very complementary worlds; they do a lot of work together because their jurisdictions overlap a lot. I like the fact that Puller is also very wounded because of his family. I think having them together in a book, he can also be complementary to (Pine), helping her through some very painful experiences and some painful times coming up for her. Yes, I did that in a very calculated way. I intend to execute on that in a future book.”

Fellow best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer praised Baldacci.

“David has been a dear friend since before my first book came out. When I reached out to him, he called me back, offered to help, and to this day, is one of the nicest people in this business. And, man, the guy can write!” said Meltzer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School.

Earlier this summer, Baldacci introduced Aloysius Archer in the aforementioned “Deed,” a crime noir period piece set in 1949. Archer is a World War II veteran released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. On parole, he’s sent to the fictional Poca City. There, he gets involved with someone’s mistress and caught up in a murder that may well send him back to prison.

“Archer was an amalgam for me. My father and all five of his brothers fought in World War II... They fought this great war, which changed their lives in many respects. They’ve seen parts of the world they never would’ve thought they’d see and done things they never would’ve thought they’d do,” he explained. “So then they come back and now what? Do they just go back to their hometown and live the lives they led before they left? Or do they say, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna pull up my roots... and start a brand-new life somewhere’? Archer (represents that).” 

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the godfathers of hard-boiled detective fiction, played a part in Archer’s creation. 

“The 1940s, post-World War II, were very interesting in this country; a lot of transition and changes were taking place. The more I was writing, the more stuff came to me and the more the character really spoke to me. I had a lot more things I wanted Archer to do,” he said. “It started out with the humble ambition of being a short-story and turned into a novel just because I became so immersed and excited about it.”

One challenge Baldacci faced with “Deed” was writing in that hard-boiled style. It was also liberating for him. 

“People said it was some of my best writing. One of the reasons why is I had to spend time on things in this book that I ordinarily don’t have to. I don’t spend a lot of time writing a book during current times because it’s current times and people assume it is. (‘Deed’) was different. I had to take the foot off the pedal a bit and spend a little more time writing about the time, writing about the atmosphere, but I enjoyed it,” he said.

Also this year, Baldacci taught an online seminar on writing thrillers for MasterClass.com.

“I didn’t just want to sit there and tell stories,” he explained. “I really wanted to give advice to show my process, for whatever it’s worth, and take writers from a thought to a finished page throughout outlines, manuscript pages, and the business of publishing as well, which I tell writers (to not hand off) or abdicate that responsibility to somebody else because nobody’ll care about your career more than you do... I try to take writers through every facet of what I do, not only to write better but to manage their careers better.”

Currently, Baldacci’s finishing the next “Memory Man” book, coming out in 2020. Also on his agenda are the next Pine and Archer installments. His “Vega Jane” series of YA novels will be relaunched in England next year with new covers. “The Finisher,” the first book, will be renamed “Vega Janes and the Secrets of Sorcery.”

“I had a blast writing it and it was nice revisiting it, going back through and trimming it down a little bit,” said Baldacci. “I want young people to read. Books can be your friends for life. The more kids begin to read an early age, the more apt they can read throughout their whole lives. It’s not just a series I want to sell to kids, it’s a belief that books should be a part of your life – that’s what I want to sell to kids.”

Baldacci has inspired fellow attorney-cum-authors Adam Mitzner and Anthony Franze. 

“I’m a great fan of David’s work, right from the start with ‘Absolute Power.’ Then when I learned he was a fellow UVA law grad turned novelist, it inspired me to believe I could do it too,” said Mitzner.
Franze is a former Michigan State University law professor and the vice president of International Thriller Writers.

“David Baldacci is the Hemingway of the thriller community. As a lawyer-writer myself, he’s always been an inspiration. He published his first novel, ‘Absolute Power,’ right after I graduated from law school more than 20 years ago,” said Franze. “As I went on to more than 40 Supreme Court cases, he went on to 40 mega best-sellers, and he was my inspiration when I finally got the courage to try fiction – and it’s harder than a Supreme Court brief, I’ll tell you! Baldacci’s books are immediate best-sellers for a reason – his stories have so much heart but also make your knuckles burn turning the pages. Add to that, he gives back. He’s a devoted philanthropist, including his Wish You Well Foundation that supports literacy. Bottom line: He’s a writer’s writer and a damn good guy.”

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