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A Conspiracy Around Every Corner In Baldacci's D.C.

David Baldacci is the author of 17 number one best-selling crime novels.
Tom Bullock/NPR /
David Baldacci is the author of 17 number one best-selling crime novels.

It's another sticky summer morning in Washington, D.C., and people are commuting to work, smiling, happy. They have no idea what's going on behind the closed doors of the government.

A man in an unmarked car slips through traffic. The emotionless voice of a GPS directs the driver to a location just outside the nation's capital. The man he's about to meet — crime writer David Baldacci — is the brains behind of dozens of high-level government conspiracies involving the CIA, the FBI — even the president.

Anyone who's been to an airport bookstore in the last 10 years has seen Baldacci. He stares out from the book jacket of his Camel Club mystery novels, or the Sean King and Michelle Maxwell series. His latest novel is First Family.

Washington is Baldacci's hunting ground, and he's mined the city's secrets for 17 number-one best-selling crime novels. It is, after all, the only city in the world that can declare war and raise Americans' taxes. It's a place where the hot dog vendor on the corner could be an undercover agent.

Baldacci's office sits in an office park just over the D.C. border in Virginia. It's an anonymous-looking place; an unmarked Homeland Security building is next door, and the people who run America's spy satellites are just across the street. The author's name is not even listed on his building's directory.

"It's all very, very clandestine," Baldacci says with a laugh. "I am what I write about."

Many of Baldacci's novels could be set nowhere but Washington. "This city is full of the most intense people you will ever find in your life," he says. "They live, breathe, drink, eat, and sleep this stuff 24-7."

There's a reason Washington — and Baldacci's novels — are so intense. The stakes here could not be higher.

"I'm not talking about a typical crime novel where a gumshoe detective is trying to solve a murder," says Baldacci. "In a thriller like this, a city disappears or a war is declared or 1,000 people die."

On The Hunt For Spies

Today, Baldacci has agreed to take us spy hunting. Five minutes' drive from his office, Baldacci points out Michelle Maxwell's apartment. She's a troubled former Secret Service agent and the heroine of some of Baldacci's novels.

Maxwell is fictional, but her apartment is real. It's a totally nondescript complex that Baldacci calls "bland by design." With its proximity to CIA headquarters, the development is a perfect place for real-life spies to live, Baldacci says.

"A foreign government could rent this place out for a year, two years, have different agents coming in and out. You don't want to be right across the street from the White House," says Baldacci. "That's where people are watching. Here, there's nobody watching. So they come and go, they look just like everybody else."

Around Washington, even the most mundane places have been centers of international espionage. Baldacci describes a park near his house where his son played Little League baseball.

"Everyone in the area calls it the spy park," he says, "because there have been so many spies caught there dropping off stuff. Even my son, when he was nine years old, said 'Dad, it's the spy park. Everyone knows that. Why don't they go someplace else?'"

A Visit To The Center Of Power

Next Baldacci takes us into the heart of the city, to the global center of power. Across the street from the White House, we're surrounded by tourists, business people and government staffers. They all look about as non-threatening as you can get. Baldacci, that's exactly what spies want you to think.

He points out an elderly man in a white-and-green checked shirt:

"He's looking at the White House, he's taking pictures, he's having a great time." Then the wheels in Baldacci's mind start turning. "He might be taking pictures as a way of signaling somebody inside those grounds who works there who's been a plant from a cell who's been there 20 years. Then based on that information, something's going to happen later on."

Suddenly there's action behind us as a motorcade screams by. Baldacci researches his books methodically, so he can tell at a glance that this motorcade is not the president.

"But it's somebody serious," he says, "because they have at least one SUV full of Secret Service agents." He says it might be a Cabinet member or the vice president.

Inside the President's Church

Baldacci says he gets a rush from writing novels that take people so close to the center of power. His latest book takes people into the part of the White House where the first family lives. "99.9 percent of the people never get to go there," says Baldacci. "But they want to know what it will be like, and I allow them to know what it would be like."

He points to our next stop, a modest yellow church just across the park. Every president since James Madison has attended services in Saint John's Episcopal Church. In First Family, the first lady sneaks out of the White House for a clandestine meeting at the church.

The church's operations director, Hayden Brian, says real first ladies have done the same thing.

"We've had visits from the first lady like that where it was unannounced," he says. "We had one from Laura Bush on good Friday a couple years ago."

Brian says that in Washington, even a house of God can be a den of spies.

"We use a walkie-talkie system here sometimes, and I've actually picked up people being followed on the walkie-talkie," he says. "It was bleeding over into our channel."

"You could hear people saying, 'he's getting up, he's taking the briefcase with him, he's walking down the street.'"

Brian says the CIA used to use the church's front bench as a drop site. "They would leave something taped to the underside and put a little mark indicating they'd made the drop," he says. "It was training."

Baldacci surveys the people in the church and concludes, "It really is the heart of spyland."

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.