As this is posted, it’s 36 years since John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempt to assassinate then-US president Ronald Reagan. It certainly wasn’t the first attempted assassination; there’ve been many actual assassinations, too.
It shouldn’t be surprising that there are plenty of such attempts in crime fiction, too. It’s a tension-filled, suspenseful main plot line, and it’s flexible enough that it can be adapted for a thriller, a traditional-style crime novel, and other sub-genres, too. There are several examples out there; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, powerful banker Alistair Blunt visits his dentist, Henry Morley. When Morley is later found shot in his surgery, the police believe that Blunt was actually the intended victim. He is a wealthy and influential man, and those in political power depend on him. Blunt stands for traditional approaches to government and finance, and that’s made him plenty of enemies. One day, he happens to be meeting with the Prime Minister when an activist takes a shot at the Prime Minister. Neither he nor Blunt is killed, but it shows just how much in danger Blunt may be. Because this is such a sensitive case, the Home Office takes over, pulling Chief Inspector Japp from the investigation. But Hercule Poirot is under no such restriction. So, he continues to look into the Morley murder and finds that it’s not as easy as you might think to tell whether this was an attempt on Blunt, or whether Morley was the intended victim.
One of the most famous novels dealing with this topic is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French group called Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) wants to plan to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The members are aware that they’re already known to the police. So, they decide to hire a killer – an Englishman known only as ‘the Jackal.’ No-one knows his real name or what he looks like, so he’s a good choice for the purpose. The arrangements are made, and the Jackal begins elaborate preparations for the assassination. Detective Claude Lebel has the difficult assignment of finding and stopping the Jackal, if he can, before de Gaulle becomes a victim. In this novel, it’s the ‘cat and mouse’ suspense of watching both sides that keeps the suspense going.
In Dawn Harris’ The Fat Badger Society, which takes place at the end of the 18th Century, an attempt is made on the life of the English King. It isn’t successful, but it’s clear that there is some sort of major plot in the works. Prime Minister William Pitt has intelligence that suggests that there may be a group of French supporters behind this plot. And he suspects that they have a base on the Isle of Wight. As it happens, Lady Drusilla Davanish (Harris’ sleuth) lives on Wight. She happens to be in London on other business, so Pitt asks to see her. He tells her that John Hamerton, whom she actually knows, may be a French spy, and may be in with those involved in the plot. Pitt wants Lady Drusilla to return to the Isle of Wight, and find out whether or not Hamerton is a spy, and what ties, if any, he may have to a mysterious group called the Fat Badger Society, which is suspected of having French loyalties. Lady Drusilla agrees, and begins to ask some questions. She finds that there’s a lot more danger in store for her than she thought…
Murder in the Lincoln Room is one of a series of mysteries featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the sleuth. Her son, Elliott Roosevelt, is listed as the author. Whether he actually wrote the novels, or whether they were ‘ghost-written,’ they provide an interesting portrait of life during the Roosevelt years. And in this particular novel, President Roosevelt is holding a top-secret meeting with UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s important that this meeting be kept completely confidential. Matters get complicated when the body of Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich is found in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. Now, it’ll be even harder to keep the story of the meeting out of the press. When it’s discovered that Weyrich was part of a plot to assassinate the president, Mrs. Roosevelt knows that she’ll have get answers quickly, before there’s another, possibly successful, attempt.
And then there’s Leif GW Persson’s Free Falling, As If in a Dream. This story has as its focus the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. As you’ll know doubt know, there’ve been a number of theories, but Palme’s murder has never been solved. In the novel, Lars Martin Johansson, chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Sweden, decides to re-open the investigation. He enlists the help of a group of trusted colleagues, and together, the team starts going back through all of the paperwork associated with the assassination. Little by little, the team uncovers new leads. And that means fresh possibilities for investigation. But there’s more at stake here than there is in most murder cases. And Johansson soon finds himself caught in several moral dilemmas.
Assassination attempts are, of course, awful in real life, whether or not they’re successful. But in crime fiction, they can add a great deal of suspense and tension. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anne Clark’s Red Sands.