by J. Kingston Pierce
No Safe Place
by Richard North Patterson
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
497 pages, 1998
by Jim Lehrer
Published by Random House
256 pages, 1998
An American Killing
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Published by Henry Holt & Company
320 pages, 1998
President Lyndon Johnson once joked, "I seldom think of politics more than 18 hours a day." But even that extraordinary concentration on the often-sluggish workings of a democracy must pale beside the time that American novelists spend exploring -- and exploiting -- the possibilities for corruptive power, sweeping conspiracies, and yes, homicide at the highest levels of government.
Political intrigue has been a staple of US crime fiction ever since the Black Mask era of the 1920s and 30s. What really fertilized this field, though, were scandals such as Richard Nixon's Watergate cover-up of the 1970s and the Reagan administration's Iran-contra fiasco in the 80s, both of which cast long shadows over the credibility of lawmakers and confirmed that fact was miles ahead of fiction in the strange department. American voters are frequently contemptuous of politics, as if a nation could be governed without them; yet they gobble up political thrillers, no matter how far-fetched.
Former President Harry Truman's daughter Margaret has made a killing off her stories set at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, her most recent being Murder at the Watergate. The late Elliott Roosevelt contributed to this subgenre with his own series of light-hearted tales (including 1998's Murder at Midnight) starring his mother, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as an amateur sleuth. Other Beltway habitués, from one-time presidential-wannabe Gary Hart to present Defense Secretary William Cohen, have also created thrillers based on their experience in the corridors and cloakrooms of Washington, DC.
But most of these books have been penned by folks who prefer to observe governmental goings-on from afar. The results have been decidedly mixed. For every dozen didactic, conspiracy-obsessed clunkers -- such as Stephen J. Cannell's The Plan (which suggested that organized crime has schemed for decades to move someone friendly to their causes into the White House) or John Calvin Batchelor's Father's Day (about a Democratic president who steps down briefly for mental health reasons, only to find his path back to the Oval Office blocked by his ruthless vice president) -- there has been maybe one novel worth remembering. And even those have tested the reader's willingness to suspend his or her skepticism.
Could the president murder his mistress and then be nearly successful at covering it up, as David Baldacci posited in his best-selling 1996 novel Absolute Power? If so, why not make the president's wife the prime suspect in a killing, as E.J. Gorman did in his suspenseful 1995 work The First Lady? Then, as if presidential campaigns aren't ugly enough, how about plotting a novel around the kidnapping of a Republican candidate's granddaughter and her attempted rescue by the Democrat, as James Grippando did in last spring's The Abduction? Or make the target of a snatch the president's illegitimate progeny, à la The President's Daughter (1997), by Jack Higgins. If one operates under the execrable assumption that politics is and must be a dirty business, then no novelistic malfeasance would seem beyond the realm of possibility.
This being a mid-term election year in the United States, and with Washington still aswirl in poisonously partisan presidential probes, it's no surprise that a whole new crop of political fiction is sprouting at bookstores. The following titles run the gamut of what's available, from more crime-oriented yarns to others that mine their drama from bare-knuckled squabbles between branches of the government.
"I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damn business." No, that wasn't Bill Clinton speaking, but rather Chester A. Arthur, one in a string of single-term Republicans who occupied the White House during the late 19th century. Regrettably, the American press -- anxious to dig up what it loosely defines as "the people's business" -- hasn't since taken Arthur's admonition to heart.
The inability of presidents or presidential candidates to live as mere humans outside of the spotlight has been occasionally embarrassing. (Remember Gerald Ford's clumsiness showcased on television, or George Bush caught on film as he puked during a Japanese state dinner in 1992?) Over the last 11 months, however, this dearth of privacy has been more infuriating than anything else, as the scandal-obsessed media adopted a supermarket-tabloid approach to covering President Clinton's personal life, particularly his unfortunate indiscretion with a White House intern, printing both uncorroborated gossip and spoon-fed leaks from an overweening, right-wing prosecutor. Voters watched as Washington's climate became increasingly tendentious and mean-spirited, boding ill for the future of both national parties.
It was Richard North Patterson's good fortune -- if you can call it that -- to introduce into this environment his latest novel, No Safe Place, about a White House aspirant whose chances of winning may be destroyed by news of his long-ago relationship with a reporter.
Politics isn't an entirely new area of interest for Patterson, a San Francisco author; his 1985 novel Private Screening concerned the shooting of presidential hopeful James Kilcannon and a defense of his assassin. Yet No Safe Place is different enough from his usual legal thrillers (including 1997's Silent Witness) that some Patterson fans have complained. They shouldn't: While this book has flaws, it is certainly an engrossing, often tense, and educational introduction into the tumultuous and terrifying world of modern national politics.
New Jersey Senator Kerry Kilcannon (brother to the front-runner who was slain in Private Screening) is something of a dream candidate -- mediagenic, idealistic, and refreshingly self-effacing, at least in private. He's challenging a sitting (and rather slippery) vice president for the Democratic Party's nomination in the year 2000, speaking out for campaign-finance reform, handgun controls, gay rights, and compulsory national service. Patterson provides a few extended excerpts from these allocutions, and they're dynamite, crammed with the sort of brutal honesty that we might all relish hearing more of from pols. Consider Kilcannon's anti-violence address, delivered on the anniversary of the death of a nine-year-old boy, Carlos Miller, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting:
"Over forty thousand Americans are killed with firearms every year. One hundred and ten people every day." Kerry lowered his voice again. "And on this day a year ago, Carlos Miller was one of them....
It's hardly smooth sailing to election day, however. Kilcannon is haunted by his elder brother's murder. His willingness to address the moral ambiguities of abortion has drawn fire from his pro-abortion supporters at the same time as it has drawn the ire of an anti-abortion zealot, who's stalked the candidate to the California presidential primary. And then there's the problem of Lara Costello, a comely Hispanic-American reporter with whom Kerry enjoyed an affair before his divorce, and who has recently begun covering his campaign. Word of their past dalliances has been leaked to a newsmagazine, and that publication is preparing to run the story -- an event that, in our hypocritical era, could remove Kilcannon from the race as summarily as any bullet.
For the character of Kerry Kilcannon, author Patterson obviously draws on the backgrounds of both Robert Kennedy (who showed similar courage -- or recklessness -- in following his late sibling to the stump) and President Clinton (who, as a boy, faced down an abusive parent in a way similar to what Kilcannon does here -- an incident that helped shape their respective lives). It was a far wider circle of sources, though, identified in Patterson's acknowledgments, who provided him with a ground-zero appreciation for White House politics. Because of those consultations, No Safe Place is much smarter than the average political novel, filled with consultants, newsies, and powerbrokers whose behavior and observations would be familiar to any veteran of American elections.
True, some elements of Patterson's story smack of soap opera, and he could have looked still more closely at the press' belief that it is entitled to know everything, and then judge what is newsworthy and what's not. But the insider perspectives provided in No Safe Place are a real treat to any dedicated campaign watcher. Where else, for example, are you likely to hear presidential races described so perfectly as "hours of boredom punctuated by panic," or learn the reason why Secret Service agents always wear dark glasses in the field? (See sidebar.)
Insider savvy also spices up Jim Lehrer's Purple Dots, only here it has primarily to do with international spying and the Central Intelligence Agency. The plot turns on a new president's nomination of Joshua Bennett as CIA director. A longtime field operative and currently the agency's deputy director, Bennett seems to be an ideal candidate for the top slot. Yet for some mysterious reason, Republican Senator Lank Simmons of New Mexico, the ranking minority member of the Senate's Intelligence Committee, has taken it into his scattered brain to dig up whatever dirt there is on Bennett and perhaps sink his confirmation.
Fortunately, to Bennett's rescue rides a cadre of retired and aging spooks headed by his friend, Charles Avenue Henderson. Though he now spends most of his time dressing up in Colonial garb and greeting guests at his wife's historical bed-and-breakfast in West Virginia's panhandle, Henderson hasn't completely forsaken his interest in Washington. Or his contacts there. And he's determined to find and break the logjam holding up Bennett's nomination, even if it means butting heads with congressional investigators or a modicum of "friendly terrorizing."
While author Lehrer is best known as the chief anchor of PBS-TV's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, he now has 11 novels to his credit, too. Probably the most critically acclaimed of those was White Widow (1997), the small-scale but affective tale of a Texas bus driver in the 1950s whose mooning over a beautiful regular passenger eventually leads him into a heap of trouble. Both that book and Purple Dots demonstrate Lehrer's attraction to eccentric figures and quirky situations. Modern-day Washington, Lehrer's home turf, offers plenty of each. So it is no surprise that he can write appreciatively and insightfully about the way that legislative decisions are made there, agendas are fostered, and careers are influenced by political wheeling and dealing.
It's just such a complicated deal that has stalled Bennett's advancement. Apparently a high-powered Democratic senator from Texas, Hank Grover, wants Simmons to raise hell about the CIA nominee until the new president has agreed to appoint one of Grover's old lawyer friends to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In exchange for Simmons' cooperation, Grover will help him protect New Mexico's water supply and Simmons' chief counsel on the intelligence committee, Martin V. Madigan, will score unlimited parking privileges in the District -- thanks to a coveted "purple dot" on his license plate. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. That's the way of America's capital, and everyone's supposed to be content in the long run. No real harm done.
Except that Madigan, an arrogant, self-obsessed conservative who insists he's above politics even as he plots his trajectory to a Senate seat of his own, decides that legitimate reasons do exist for opposing Josh Bennett's appointment -- no matter how inconsequential they might look to Bennett's supporters.
There are times when this story verges on satire. In an early scene, for instance, Madigan faces off in the US Capitol against Charlie Henderson and his beefy, smooth-talking, and equally venerable lawyer, Scotty Hartman. Rabid for proof of his suspicions against Bennett and frustrated by Henderson's unwillingness to cooperate, Madigan tells the ex-spy to "quit your lies and deceptions" or be subpoenaed and humiliated. To which Hartman responds:
"Young man..., that speech is one that I suggest you run up and down the halls here and deliver to some of the truly certified liars who serve in this congressional body. The wind from the laughter such unmitigated crap would no doubt provoke would blow you right out of here. If lying was a sin, Mr. Madigan, you wouldn't be able to touch a doorknob in this building because the heat of hell would have permeated this place and everything in it."
However, Lehrer doesn't write like someone who's intent on castigating Congress or the White House so much as he enjoys simply tweaking lawmakers for their often abstruse and commonly insignificant conduct. Even the fatuous Senator Simmons seems to appreciate his bit part in the endless game of give-and-take that is American politics. ("This is ridiculous," Simmons says of his attempts to torpedo Josh Bennett's nomination. "But the people's business occasionally requires a taste of the ridiculous.") Henderson and his cronies definitely understand that all their years of intelligence gathering, all of their spy-versus-spy tactics and covert conversations (frequently conducted via an "egg machine" -- a scrambler of telephonic transmissions) have done little to move the ship of history off its steady forward course. It may be only Madigan -- earnest, blindered Marty Madigan -- who takes it all seriously. And you can just imagine Lehrer, smiling and shaking his head at the guy, knowing that Madigan, too, will learn better.
It was only a matter of time before some novelist decided that modeling a character after celebrated true-crime writer Ann Rule would be a dandy idea. And Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has more or less done that. The protagonist she introduces in An American Killing is Denise Burke, the author of several best-sellers, including one that purports to tell the real story of the O.J. Simpson murders (her contention: that the former football star had planned to kill his ex-wife and their children, but didn't get a chance to finish the job). Burke's background -- as a person who once worked unwittingly beside a serial killer -- is eerily similar to the story that Rule told in The Stranger Beside Me, about how she'd known Ted Bundy in Seattle and thought him a fine fellow before he was revealed as, quite literally, a lady killer.
There are a few essential differences between Burke and Rule, though. Maybe the most important of which is that Burke is the wife of President Clinton's domestic affairs adviser, and she's having her own affair with a randy congressman who may hold the key to solving a triple murder in Rhode Island.
Early in this yarn, Burke is lazily fishing around for her next book project, when wealthy, left-leaning Representative Owen Hall meets her at a literary cocktail party in Manhattan and interests her in those two-year-old slayings in his hometown of New Caxton. Hall seems convinced that the local African-American sports hero on whom the gruesome crimes were pegged is actually innocent, though he claims ignorance about the guilty party. Burke is intrigued -- as much by the cavalier Hall as by the story he's dropped into her lap -- and briefly abandons her workaholic husband and largely self-sufficient children to see if Hall's suspicions about the New Caxton case are justified.
Soon she's not only trysting with Hall in Foggy Bottom, but aggressively mining an undercurrent of violence against women in the supposedly peaceful, if on-the-skids industrial burg of New Caxton, making residents there very uncomfortable -- including Hall's too-powerful elder brother Charles. When the congressman suddenly asks that she drop her inquiries, and then a young reporter investigating the Hall family turns up dead, Burke realizes that she was right to pursue this story of murder in a town that conspires to look the other way. The question now is whether she can survive long enough to tell it.
Connecticut author Smith has earned a great deal of critical praise for An American Killing, her fifth book, and most of it's justified. She has an appealingly breezy, rather smart-ass style, but when necessary, manages to turn up the volume on her seriousness without hobbling the force of her plot. Smith is strong on dialogue and the development of characters, especially women. Poppy Rice, her tough-talking, sexually-adventuresome head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's crime lab, is a real treat; and New Caxton's embittered librarian, Rosie Owzciak, is the sort of multi-layered figure you hope to see come farther out of her armor in future Denise Burke adventures (if the popularity of this book leads to a series, as has been rumored). Even presidential adviser Nick Burke, Denise's former professor and emotionally constrained spouse, has an inner strength that is rarely so well portrayed in fiction.
Some of Smith's catty literary quips are delicious (about Joseph Wambaugh: "The Onion Field was a fluke. The rest of his books suck"). And her cameos -- by such illuminati as actor Jeremy Irons, author Richard Condon, Senator Ted Kennedy, and President Clinton (who promises Denise that "If we ever get a dog, I'm naming him after yours"; Denise, of course, owns an energetic hound called Buddy) -- can be tremendous fun.
These strengths don't quite overcome Denise Burke's implausible ignorance of the dangers she faces by poking around in New Caxton's underbelly; nor does the author's attention to some characters excuse her failure to make others anything more than clichés. (Owen Hall's brother, as an example, is the sort of cloyingly proper menace you expect never to encounter outside of a cartoon strip.) But in choosing books, as in casting ballots for politicians, you rarely get exactly what you'd like. At the best, as with An American Killing, you just learn to accept the imperfections and be happy anyway with the rest. | October 1998
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
Richard North Patterson's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, provides an intriguing interview with the author at its Web site.