Absolute Power

Reviewed: November 22, 2002
By: David Baldacci
Publisher: Warner Books
505 Pages, $10.99

This is anther of those novels I was lured into by having seen the movie. The Clint Eastwood film has the same name and is driven by essentially the same themes, though it is vastly simplified compared to the book and has a happy Hollywood ending.  Primarily, it enhances the role of Luther Whitney, the character Clint plays, and allows him both to triumph and survive. In the novel that is an either/or proposition.

Whitney is a former soldier and semi-retired thief. In his younger days he served some prison time but he eventually got to be good enough that he never got caught again. He’s been a bit of Robin Hood. His targets usually deserve it, but he believes that charity begins at home.

In the film we get the impression he decided to burgle Walter Sullivan's house for the sheer challenge it presented.The book reveals more of his motives, which are purer than that. His entry is textbook perfect. He would have been in and out without leaving a clue if Mrs. Sullivan hadn't lied to her husband. She wasn't really feeling too ill to accompany her older spouse to their island retreat; she was entertaining a lover.

She brought the man home while Luther was in the secret safe room behind the one-way mirror, trapping the unwilling voyeur there for everything which was to come.

First, it looked like a mere orgy, but then it turned ugly. There was a fight. She got hit. She stabbed her attacker with a letter opener and was about to do something far more lethal when the Secret Service agents shot her. 

The drunken man who enjoyed getting rough with women was the President of the United States, and he was making time with his mentor's wife. Fortunately for him, his ambitious chief of staff was on hand with the agents, ready to supervise the clean-up and make it look like a robbery attempt gone bad.

Luther ends up scared witless and in possession of a blood stained letter opener, the clue which could establish President Alan Richmond's presence in  Christy Sullivan's bedroom. First he runs; then he realizes he just can't leave it alone. He is too offended by Richmond's smarmy grief. He has to go back to the States and begin to unravel the web of deception.

This is where the movie departed from the book in a big way. The president's office has a lot of resources to mobilize. Luther is one man. We'd like to think he could win, but we know it's not likely.

Luther has an estranged daughter who has become a public prosecutor. She becomes involved in the case when the investigating police officer begins to tie the burglary (and by extension the murder) to Luther.

 In the movie this character, played engagingly by Ed Harris, is actually a blend of two people from the novel. One is the cop and the other is a dissatisfied corporate lawyer who used to be Kate Whitney's college lover, Jack. Jack had always liked Luther, and the older man turns to him to mediate when he needs to communicate with his daughter. In fact, when Luther is captured Jack takes him on as a client, much to the disgust of his rich class-conscious fiancee.

The movie, you see, became primarily an exercise in pushing a good man to the wall and watching him fight back effectively, making sure everyone got what they deserved.

The novel is about the challenges faced by these people. Luther tries to do the right thing. Kate tries to overcome her anger at the father whose criminal career deprived her of a parent. Jack tries to come to terms with the changes in his upwardly mobile life, and why he is so unhappy. Detective Seth Frank tries to figure out why the official story about this case smells so bad. Agent Bill Burton tries to cope with the hell his life has become just because he follows his boss's orders.  How come each step along the way makes him feel more and more like Macbeth and less like the officer of the law he had once been?

Strangely enough, I don't find that I prefer one version of the tale over the other. They are for different mediums and they accomplish different ends.

Essentially they become two quite different stories even if they do develop from the same  criminal act. Both are about consequences, but the novel deals more deeply with internal consequences, while the movie was more like vigilante version of Law and Order.

I'd recommend either for a good evening's entertainment, though the book will take you several evenings and the video will go better with popcorn.