Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) it’s Presidents’ Day in the U.S. Whether it’s the office of the president of the United States or that of another head of state, there’s a lot of power and privilege associated with high political office. So it’s not surprising that there is also a great deal of power-brokering, “wheeling and dealing” and more at the top of the political tree. All of that intrigue makes for juicy headlines; it’s also a very effective context for crime fiction. We can believe that people will do a lot to get and keep that kind of power.
For example, in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the White House, Ron Fairbanks is offered the job of Special Counsel to the President for President-elect Robert Webster. He’s reluctant at first, being somewhat of a free thinker. Besides, he doesn’t agree politically with the president. But he accepts the position. He’s just settling into his job when Secretary of State Lansford Blaine is shot one night at the White House. The security procedures alone make it very unlikely that anyone outside the White House could have committed the crime, and there’s a call for an investigation. President Webster knows that if he doesn’t authorise a complete investigation into Blaine’s activities, he’ll be accused of cronyism and cover-ups. So he taps Fairbanks to head an independent investigation team. Fairbanks is reluctant; he’s savvy enough to know he’ll be treading on a lot of highly placed toes, so to speak. But he has his marching orders. So he and his team start asking questions. The more they learn about Lansford Blaine, the more they see that more than one person had a very good reason to want to kill the victim. Blaine made political enemies including the president’s own Chief of Staff. Even President Webster himself is not above suspicion.
Margaret Truman was, of course the daughter of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, and so had an “inside look” at White House politics. So did Elliott Roosevelt, the son of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote a mystery series that reflected his knowledge of the world of Washington politics. What’s interesting is that although many people claim that Roosevelt was the author of this series, there’s also evidence that it might have been ghost-written. Whoever actually wrote the series, it’s interesting in that Eleanor Roosevelt is the sleuth.
For instance, in Murder and the First Lady, White House staffer Philip Garber is found dead in the apartment of Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary Pamela Rush-Hodgebone. She’s the most likely suspect, as she and Garber were lovers, and Garber’s body was found in her apartment. What’s more, there is evidence that she and Garber might have worked together to pull off a jewel heist in England. But Mrs. Roosevelt doesn’t believe that Rush-Hodgebone is guilty. So she sets out to clear her secretary’s name and find the real killer. That’s not going to be easy, either, since Garber’s father is a powerful Congressman who doesn’t want Mrs. Roosevelt’s “help.” And in Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, Mrs. Roosevelt investigates the murder of Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich, whose body is found in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. The murder occurs during a top-secret conference between Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower. If the press is going to be kept from knowing about this top-level meeting, they also can’t find out about the murder, so Mrs. Roosevelt starts to look into the matter. It turns out that Weyrich was part of a plot to assassinate Roosevelt. Now Mrs. Roosevelt has to find out who’s behind the plot if she’s to keep the conspirators from making new plans.
Of course, intrigue in high political places isn’t just confined to the U.S. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings get an unexpected late-night visit from the leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. It seems that Prime Minister David MacAdam has been kidnapped on his way to deliver a very important speech in Paris. World War II is on the horizon and MacAdam’s speech was intended to “rally the troops.” MacAdam’s political enemies don’t want him to make that speech; instead, they want to move England along an appeasement path. The speech is absolutely critical to the MacAdam government and to the nation, so Poirot and Hastings are given a day in which to find the Prime Minister, as his speech is scheduled for the following day. They look into the matter and in the end, they find out who is behind the kidnapping and where the Prime Minister is.
And then there’s Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse. In that novel, Albert Campion wakes up in hospital, suffering from amnesia. He knows that he has an urgent task to accomplish, but he can’t remember what that task is. Bit by bit, he begins to recover his memory and with help from various people that he encounters, he starts to put the pieces together. He slowly becomes aware that there is a conspiracy to use counterfeit currency to bring down the British government and instal a new government in its place. Now Campion has to find out who’s behind the conspiracy and stop it before those involved are able to finish what they have started.
In Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, a far-right French terrorist group called Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) wants to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. There’s already been one failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, and OAS knows that if they send one of their own on another mission, that person may be recognised and the plot foiled again. So they hire an outside assassin, a British assassin known only as The Jackal. The Jackal agrees to make the hit and begins to prepare. The French government finds out that a plot exists, but no-one knows who The Jackal is, nor does anyone know the details of the planned assassination. So French detective Claude Lebel is assigned to track down The Jackal and stop him before he carries out the assassination.
Sometimes, political intrigue can last even after a government is no longer in office. That’s what happens in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Australian Federal police officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is persuaded to come back to work after taking some time off to recuperate from the last case he investigated. The case that lures him back is the double murder of Alec Dennet, late of Australia’s 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. Dennet was working on his memoirs at a noted writers’ retreat when he and Starke were murdered. When Chen and his team find that the manuscript Dennet was working on has disappeared, it seems clear that there’s a lot to these murders. Some very powerful people have a lot to lose if Dennet publishes everything he knows about the Whitlam government. So Chen and his team have to look for some well-kept secrets to find out who killed Dennet and Starke and why.
There’s just something about life at the top of the political tree that can be intriguing. Little wonder there’s so much crime fiction that deals with the political crème de la crème.
ps. As you know if you’re kind enough to read this blog, I almost always use my own ‘photos for this blog and I do it with pride. This one, though, was too good for me to pass up. Thanks, Acclaim Images.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s The Campaigner.