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The Sixth Man
David Baldacci
Macmillan
£12.99, Kindle $11.34

IF a publishing house was to create a writing machine, it would have to be modelled on David Baldacci. “When I’m on, when I’m in the zone, when I’ve got it all thought out clearly, I am very productive,” he says, citing his current release, The Sixth Man, as an example.

“My daughter’s going to college in Boston and she and my wife flew up there but I took a six-hour train ride up (from his Virginia home) and a six-hour train back because I wanted to finish this book.

“On the train ride up I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript and on the train ride back I wrote another 20,000.”

That could sound boastful but Baldacci has the track record to prove he states the truth. In 15 years of thrilling thriller fans, he’s never been out of the zone.

He’s written 22 novels — 20 of them bestsellers — and his 23rd, Zero Day, comes out in the US in November. Since 2007 he’s put out two titles a year and this year, he’s making it three.

He reviewed the final draft of Zero Day in his hotel room in Dublin before a round of media engagements at 10am. And he’d already done breakfast TV.

The temptation is to ask him to stand up, lift his shirt and show where his battery back is inserted but that would be rude, especially to Baldacci, who is politeness personified.

“I love to tell stories” he says of his prolific output. “It’s so much a part of my life that when I’m not doing it, I’m not really pleasant to be around. I’m uptight and edgy and not very happy.”

Which is not to say it all comes easy to him. “I’m scared with every project that I won’t be able to bring the magic again,” he confesses.

“But fear is a great combatant to complacency. You can’t grow complacent because once you do, you ask yourself the question how did I do it before, instead of how can I do it differently this time. So yeah, I get fearful and nervous and scared and uptight every time.”

The great combatant to fear, however, is preparation and Baldacci arms himself by being an assiduous researcher.

His world of assassins, secret agents, conspiracies and cover-ups may be ripe for fantasy but he likes to keep it real by learning all he can from security industry experts and intelligence agency veterans.

“It was really hard to get access at the beginning but what I did was prepare voraciously before I sat down with anyone. So if it was secret service, FBI or some other agency I would learn what they do, their jargon, their vernacular so that they could see that I’ve prepared. Preparation shows respect.”

Still, there is such a thing as too much realism and despite being a stickler for accuracy, Baldacci sometimes deliberately gets it wrong.

“I’ve been known in certain novels to fudge the details so that I know no psychopath out there could ever use it,” he explains.

“Like an explosion I did in a book once that sounded really cool on the page, but scientifically wouldn’t work.

“I had people write me in and say hey, you know the way you wrote that — it wouldn’t work, and I wrote back and said, I know — I don’t want to be a blueprint for a crazy person.”

He could also be accused of departing from reality in another equally forgivable way by generally letting the good guys win, although not before putting them through ordeals that would have the average special agent begging for desk duty.

The Sixth Man unites former agents turned private investigators Michelle Maxwell and Sean King for the fifth time, taking them on a corpse-strewn hunt for the truth behind the case of an alleged but unlikely serial killer whose dull-as-dishwater job number-crunching for the Internal Revenue Service may not have been the only task he was performing for the state.

Baldacci’s fast-paced writing sets a typically breathless tone as the pair charge up and down the East Coast of the US, following trails, dodging bullets and surviving on endless cups of coffee and their mutual admiration for each other.

It had to happen. In the best tradition of the male-female partnership, the professional has gotten personal. But fans of the way it used to be will be pleased to know Baldacci doesn’t let their tenuous romance soften their crime-cracking mettle.

Michelle still has her swagger and F-grade in diplomacy skills. Sean still knows how to harness her punch to best effect and how to reminder her not to take herself too seriously.

“You know what they say — some girls like handbags and some girls like guns,” Michelle pronounces while brandishing yet another of her scarily large collection of weapons. “Actually, you’re the only one I’ve ever heard say that,” Sean replies.

Their banter has caught the ear of the makers of US TV crime drama, NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), who are working on a pilot for a series featuring the King and Maxwell characters.

Baldacci is chuffed. When he was practicing law, as he did up to 1995, and dreaming of becoming a writer, he first turned his hand to screenwriting and loves the idea that a story can be told through different mediums.

But the printed word is his main passion and one he aims to spread through the Wish You Well Foundation which he set up with his wife, Michelle, to fund community and voluntary groups promoting and improving literacy skills.

“Literacy in the US is a huge problem and I see it as a fundamentally democratic issue,” he explains.

“The whole concept of democracy is you have a fully informed, opinionated citizenry thinking about and debating the big issues and then voting on them. If you can’t read, you can’t think. They’re the same verb in my mind.”

Apart from the foundation, family and the odd break at his lakeside retreat in southern Virginia, Baldacci’s time all goes on his books.

He didn’t intend putting out three this year but One Summer, a rare non-thriller (he has written just two others), landed on his lap in unlikely circumstances and refused to budge.

“I went to church for my son’s confirmation but I went early to save seats and ended up sitting by myself for like an hour and a half.

“My dad had passed away and my mom was very ill and my daughter was getting ready to go off to college and you start thinking about your own mortality.”

The resulting One Summer, a drama about a family confronting similar issues, went from concept to completion in three months, so when Baldacci says he’d like to slow down a bit, it sounds like a hopeless ambition.

He’s already decided that a new character, military investigator John Puller, whom he introduces in Zero Day, will be the mainstay of a whole new series of thrillers, which also puts paid to any notion that he’s going to apply the brakes.

“I really would like to slow down a bit and relax more. I just have to work out how,” he smiles. “I guess I’ll have to research it.”

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