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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Not the Usual Suspects You Find in Murder Mysteries : ABSOLUTE POWER: by David Baldacci; Warner $21.95, 469 pages


Most mysteries are set in the mean streets of urban America, where the dicks are down at the heel, the prose is hard-boiled, and the most memorable characters tend to be lowlifes.

David Baldacci, on the other hand, takes the high road in his tale of murder among the rich and famous. "Absolute Power" starts at the very top--the White House--and stays there. Only a few of the men and women who skulk and skuldugger their way through the pages of his bestseller are not certified members of the power elite.

One lowlife who does show up in "Absolute Power" is Luther Whitney, an aging career criminal who is described as "a card-carrying member of AARP." While burglarizing a mansion outside Washington, D.C., Luther happens to see the lady of the house in the arms of a stranger--"a view from behind that should have been reserved for her gynecologist and husband"--and that's what sets the unlikely plot of "Absolute Power" in motion.

At risk of giving away the key conceit of "Absolute Power," I must disclose that the stranger is the president of the United States and that the lady in his arms meets an unfortunate fate. The rest of the book is devoted to the making and breaking of a wildly implausible cover-up that G. Gordon Liddy might have dreamed up but could not have carried out.

President Alan Richmond is depicted as a mean drunk with a hollow leg and a taste for "celebrity whores" and "political groupies." Apparently, he prefers to beat them up before he makes love to them, and it falls to the Secret Service and the White House staff to clean up after him.

How a man like Richmond could become president in an era of intense media scrutiny is not explained by the author, at least not in any convincing way. But, then, no one is picking up the best-selling "Absolute Power" because they are looking for a story that rings true.

"I'd call this," deadpans one Secret Service agent at the scene of the crime, "a unique situation."

Caught up in the cover-ups and setups are a handsome and highly principled defense lawyer, a sentimental police detective and the daughter of the principal suspect, who just happens to be the former girlfriend of the man who is defending her father. Baldacci did not dress them up in white hats, but we have no trouble at all in telling the good guys from the bad guys, even if some of the worst malefactors in "Absolute Power" are Secret Service.

As a writer of mystery-thrillers, Baldacci owes much more to Judith Krantz than, say, Raymond Chandler. His characters are graced with "perfectly chiseled features" and "flawless skin," and their clothing is described in dollars and cents: "She almost spilled out of her five-thousand-dollar dress." At one point, he pauses in his high-gloss narrative to point out that the room in which a murder took place includes "six-inch crown molding."

Baldacci is never subtle, but he succeeds in building up enough suspense to keep us reading, if only to find out exactly how evil all the president's men (and women) will turn out to be. Indeed, "Absolute Power" is a page-turner precisely because it is so preposterous, and that's why I am confident in predicting that we will be seeing the book in abundance at poolsides all summer long.

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