David Baldacci's new book, The Whole Truth, boasts everything that has landed his last 14 thrillers on national bestseller lists: the compelling villains, the fearless hero, the suspense and all those delicious twists. In other words—it's a really fun read. But Baldacci hopes readers will get more out of it than just a good time. "Maybe with this book, people will sit up and say, 'Gee that could happen. And we need to make sure that it doesn't happen,'" he says.
The Whole Truth is about the Big Lie, and how the Internet has made it possible for disinformation to sound so convincing and to spread so fast that facts become irrelevant. "It's ironic. I think we have less truth today than we had 50 yeas ago," he says, adding, "You can go into a chat room and throw out percentages and figures and they can be a total lie, but people believe them." In Baldacci's new book, Nicholas Creel, the head of the world's largest defense contractor, hires a "perception management" company—the so-called PMers don't just spin facts, they make stuff up—to re-ignite Cold War fears about the Red Menace, driving nations toward the edge of WWIII. It's no coincidence that the plot calls to mind recent concerns about real-life Russian President Vladimir Putin. While PMers trade in lies, "Their targets are picked really well; it's easy to have a negative view of Russia," says Baldacci.
The disinformation campaign that propels The Whole Truth begins with the release of a grainy amateur video showing a Russian man recounting the horrors that he and his countrymen are suffering at the hands of the Secret Russian Federation police. Never mind that the man is an actor. The whole world buys the lie—and nations buy trillions of dollars worth of Creel's weapons. The scenario is not far-fetched, insists Baldacci, who says he got the idea for the book by talking to real people in the perception management business. Since publishing his blockbuster debut novel, Absolute Power, 12 years ago, the author has prided himself on having sources that lend his stories of government corruption and military intrigue authenticity. The 47-year-old Virginia native, who spent nine years as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., before giving up law to write full time, works out of an office in Northern Virginia where his neighbors include the Department of Homeland Security, defense giant Lockheed Martin and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Could the company he keeps be making him paranoid? "I keep my shades drawn and I never say anything over the phone I wouldn't want others to know," Baldacci says. He's chuckling, but it's hard to tell if he's entirely joking. "I don't know if I am or not," he admits.
In The Whole Truth, Shaw, a guy for whom beating up thugs and terrorists is all in a day's work, fights to reveal the truth. But in real life, brains, not brawn, may the best defense against the Big Lie. Disinformation won't be as effective, Baldacci says, if people start reading widely and reaching their own—well-informed—conclusions. "I want people to be curious again. I get tired of listening to people whose opinions are verbatim what they hear on Rush Limbaugh or what they hear on 'The Daily Show,'" he says. Baldacci is doing more than just complaining about the decline in reading. In 1999 he founded the Wish You Well Foundation to support literacy programs. Two years ago the foundation partnered with the hunger-relief organization America's Second Harvest to establish the Feeding Body and Mind (feedingbodyandmind.com) initiative. When Baldacci makes a store appearance, readers bring books to donate, which are then taken to local food banks and distributed to poor families. He's planning to recruit other authors into the program when he speaks in July at Thrillerfest in New York, where the International Thriller Writers Association is giving him its Silver Bullet Award. In the meantime, Baldacci is already well into his next book, a Camel Club thriller that picks up where Oliver Stone's story left off in Stone Cold. The as-yet-untitled book is due out in November.
He's also closely watching the presidential race. Baldacci, who describes himself as an independent, worries the public excitement generated by the candidates won't last once the contest is over. "It's easy to listen to a speech for 10 minutes," he says. "But come January, when we have a new president and the really hard decisions are being made, I'm afraid our citizens are going to check out again."