They used to say that 50 million Elvis Presley fans couldn’t be wrong, and James Patterson makes 50 million fans look like a good start. He has sold more than 230 million books, and his fans aren’t wrong, either. His new thriller, “Kill Alex Cross,” provides the perfect example. It’s Patterson at the top of his game.

The terrifying premise of the 18th Alex Cross novel is that someone has abducted the children of the president of the United States. And the kidnappers don’t want ransom.

Okay, I’m hooked. Aren’t you? Don’t you want to know what would happen behind the scenes at the White House, police, FBI and CIA? “Kill Alex Cross” takes us through this ordeal step by step, with a realism that feels like an insider’s view of a family tragedy played out on a national stage.

That would be enough, but it’s not all.

As soon as the children are kidnapped, Patterson introduces us to a happily married Saudi couple, chubby hubby Tariq Al Dossari and his bossy doctor wife, Hala. We like them until we learn they’re terrorists, members of a radical cell known as The Family. They’ve just arrived in the nation’s capital with plans even more lethal than what happened Sept. 11.

Patterson takes it from there, credibly describing the way the terrorists contact their co-conspirators, finance their mission and choose their weapons, and all the while, he keeps readers guessing about whether the terrorists are also the kidnappers. Short chapters cut back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys, telling the unthinkable in 800-word bursts like machine-gun fire.

Our point man is Alex Cross, Patterson’s iconic Metro Police detective who’s a thoroughly believable Everyman, husband and father, and his humanity is underlined at every turn. Cross feels humbled by a visit to the White House, and he responds to first lady Regina Coyle on a personal level: “The more I knew Mrs. Coyle,” he says, “the more I found myself relating to her, parent to parent.” Cross even admits to himself that the pressure of the harrowing case can be too much: “It was hard not to feel overwhelmed.”

Cross is aging. When a kidnapping suspect runs away, he says, “There is nothing that [annoys] me like a footrace I don’t want.” But he evinces a charming, middle-aged comfort in his own skin, thinking during his interview with the first lady, “I did what comes naturally to me and waited quietly for her to go on.” Patterson’s down-to-earth characterization of Cross serves to anchor this high-flying plot.

Because, above all, Cross is a family man. He loves his wife, Bree, also a detective, and his daughter, though he worries she reads too many comic books. His son is away at boarding school, and Cross secretly misses him. Remarkably, Cross has always lived with his 90-something grandmother, the feisty Nana, who now wants to add to their bustling household by taking in a homeless girl.

The chapters about Cross’s family are interspersed with those about the terrorists’ family, whose operatives refer to one another as Grandfather, Sister and Brother. Add to that the scenes of President Coyle’s family, and by the end of the book, in a final section titled “Family Ties,” you can see what’s really happening in “Kill Alex Cross.”

Even in the context of a thriller, Patterson is presenting three different families — Cross’s, the terrorists’ and President Coyle’s — each with its own darkly parallel definitions of justice, loyalty and love. Underneath the fast-and-furious action, Patterson is exploring what it means to be a father, a man and, ultimately, a human being in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.

And that’s why he’s Elvis.

Scottoline’s most recent book is “Best Friends, Occasional Enemies: The Lighter Side of Life as a Mother and Daughter,” written with her daughter, Francesca Serritella.


By James Patterson

Little, Brown. 384 pp. $28.99