“The Winner” by David Baldacci (Warner Books, 513 pages, $25)
Give credit where it’s due: David Baldacci invents high-concept premises that virtually guarantee his thrillers a slot on the best-seller list. His novels may be flawed, but Baldacci certainly knows how to hook and hold the reader.
In his 1996 debut, “Absolute Power,” a burglar witnesses the president of the United States’ culpability in the death of his mistress. In “Total Control,” financial wizards plot the plunder of 12-digit withdrawals from the American economy.
And now in “The Winner,” Baldacci has devised a pitch certain to sell 100,000 books and 10 times more movie tickets.
A mysterious but deadly stranger guarantees a decent but poor single mother in a backwoods hamlet that she will win the national lottery if she blindly agrees to unspecified conditions.
While agonizing whether to engage in the first illegal act of her life, LuAnn Tyler is forced to run when her trashy boyfriend is killed in a drug deal and she becomes a suspect.
LuAnn accepts the Faustian “Mr. Jackson’s” bargain to protect her infant’s future, finding herself $100 million richer. But she is forced into foreign exile under an assumed name.
And that’s just the first third of the book.
Baldacci, currently hyped as “the next big thing” in thrillers, indisputably, has a sixth sense for compelling premises. Who can resist the pipe dream of being catapulted from obscene poverty to obscene wealth overnight? Couple that with a storyteller’s ability to absorb a reader by spinning that imaginative premise through a 500-page book. Throw in an admirably self-sufficient heroine, a mesmerizing villain, a couple of stalwart heroes and a procession of seemingly inescapable perils.
That adds up to the kind of engrossing quick read for a weekend at the beach.
And while Baldacci is a commendably competent craftsman, that may be exactly the reason his work doesn’t yet rise to the level of Alistair MacLean, William Diehl or Scott Turow.
From even the earliest scenes, you can see him pulling strings, setting traps, sprinkling clues and foreshadowing the denouement with all the subtlety of an elephant stampede. LuAnn has no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no social security number - an odd situation that makes her disappearance ludicrously easy.
As in his other two books, Baldacci succumbs to creating credulity-straining coincidences in “The Winner.” An inventive plot twist involving siblings is so unlikely that readers will likely laugh aloud.
Amazingly, the story remains engrossing even when you can see the joists and seams. That may be because, besides his premise and his storytelling ability, Baldacci creates three-dimensional characters who may not be terribly believable, but are undeniably fascinating.
Like Carl Hiassen’s far-better written satire on the lottery, “Lucky You,” Baldacci’s novel will justifiably score with readers. But it won’t make them forget “Presumed Innocent” or “Day of the Jackal.”