Mark Harris
February 16, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

There was a time when books were made into movies only because they had won a large and devoted readership — but that was before Hollywood figured out a way to eliminate you, the middleman. Forget that old ”by popular demand” rule: Three new camera-ready thrillers are arriving in bookstores already garlanded with fat motion picture deals. If their language seems hurried and their plots potholed, just lower your expectations and think of them as long, long trailers — movie larvae that have yet to reach their Panavision destiny.

Or wait for the videos. David Baldacci’s first novel, Absolute Power, is an eye roller from the very beginning, during which an elderly burglar, while hiding in a Virginia mansion, witnesses the following: the drunken President of the United States having rough sex (described in prose so chastely sleazy it could reanimate Irving Wallace), a couple of Secret Service agents killing his mistress, the President passing out, and the chief of staff (whose name is Gloria) whipping off her undies to have a go at the Commander-in-Chief’s instrument of power while nobody’s looking. Enough said, although it should be noted that any novel in which the villains are Secret Service men and the hero is a well-established corporate lawyer probably doesn’t have its finger on America’s pulse.

Like too many thrillers, Absolute Power is eventful without being surprising; before the book’s characters can discover what we already know, we must wade across a Potomac of overwriting in which eyes are ”twin pools of danger,” a coffee mug contains ”black depths of…nighttime stimulus,” and even presidential advisers have ”ample cleavage” and ”creamy white” thighs. Presumably, screenwriter William Goldman will earn big bucks to hose down all this fevered intrigue and find something for Clint Eastwood (who will direct and play the burglar) to do besides peep and run. Goldman’s work is cut out for him; faced with 469 fulsome pages, you may need a couple of cups of nighttime stimulus just to keep your twin pools of danger from closing.

The Secret Service is treated more kindly by Philip Shelby, whose Days of Drums is a semi-suspense novel of the one-statuesque-babe-against-the-world variety. Our heroine, Agent Holland Tylo, is 28, 5’10”, and ”would have stayed simply at beautiful, were it not for the eyes”; in other words, like most federal employees, she resembles Nicole Kidman. This time, the bad guys are a cabal of evil senators (no wonder Washington is always so mad at Hollywood), and Holland has a diskette in her purse that will blow their conspiracy, or whatever, wide open — but who’ll believe her? Unlike Absolute Power, Days is credible on its own outlandish terms. But if anything, it’s already too much of a movie (specifically, The Pelican Brief), offering one long set of stage directions for a book-length chase that features a lot of diving out of the path of bullets and running in high heels, and thoughtfully provides villains who take the time to explain all the plot stuff you missed, usually while they’re holding guns. Betcha can’t guess who wins in the end — and she still looks great!

Film rights to John Gilstrap’s Nathan’s Run have already landed with explosion king Joel Silver (of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon movies), and the book’s advance press materials offer this highest of all possible testimonials from a reader: ”It unfolded in my mind like a movie.” In fact, the best thing about Gilstrap’s slightly corny kid-on-the-run debut is that it unfolds like a novel, with a sense of pace, a lightness of touch, and an emotional undertow that are fully developed on the page. Even the main characters — a 12-year-old boy who kills a guard and then flees a juvenile detention center, and a conservative black female shock jock known to her radio listeners as The Bitch — don’t seem to have been conceived with one eye on Brad Pitt’s availability, and thank goodness: Relieved of the obligation to read like a high-concept pitch, Nathan’s Run has the freedom to tell its modest story with energy and compassion. Alone among these novels, it feels finished — and alone, it feels worth finishing.
Absolute Power: C-
Days of Drums: C
Nathan’s Run: B

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