Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today is Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of Robert Catesby’s failed plot to assassinate England’s King James I. And tomorrow is the U.S. presidential election. What better time to turn the spotlight on a political/legal thriller? So let’s do that today. Phillip Margolin’s legal and political thrillers have gained him a wide readership and well-deserved acclaim, and it’s about time I included one of them in this feature. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Executive Privilege.
Executive Privilege begins when former cop turned PI Dana Cutler gets a new assignment. Wealthy and well-connected attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report where Walsh goes, whom she sees and what she does. At first Cutler can’t understand why Walsh would be of any interest to Washington’s power-brokers. But she takes the job and the generous pay and starts her surveillance. At first, not much happens. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot and is driven to a secluded safe house. To Cutler’s shock, it turns out that Walsh is meeting with U.S. President Christopher Farrington. Then Cutler is spotted and only barely gets away. With Walsh apparently mixed up in something much bigger than it seemed, Cutler is only too glad to call in to her employer and quit the job.
It doesn’t turn out to be that easy. The next morning Cutler learns that Walsh was murdered after she got back to her car. What’s worse, Cutler’s been identified as the person who took surveillance ‘photos of Walsh’s meeting with Farrington. Now, some very powerful people are after not just the ‘photos and any related files, but Cutler herself.
In the meantime, we meet fledgling attorney Brad Miller, who’s been hired by a large and powerful Portland, Oregon law firm. Although he’s working far too many hours, Miller’s hoping to get a strong start to his career. Then he gets an assignment from one of the firm’s top attorneys Susan Tuchman. She wants Miller to work on a pro bono assignment for convicted killer Clarence Little. Little is scheduled to be executed for a series of horrendous killings, one of which is the murder of Laurie Erickson. Erickson was the daughter of the woman who served as President Farrington’s secretary when he was governor of Oregon and Little is claiming that he didn’t kill her. He wants Miller’s firm to help him in his appeal. The more Miller finds out about Laurie Erickson’s murder, the more he comes to believe that Little didn’t kill her.
These two story lines come together when Dana Cutler learns of some similarities between Charlotte Walsh’s death and Laurie Erickson’s death. With help from FBI Agent Keith Evans, who’s investigating the Walsh murder, Cutler and Miller put their stories together and the picture emerges of a frightening conspiracy (I know, I know, it sounds cliché, but it’s true in this case) that goes all the way to the White House. As it turns out, the murders of Charlotte Walsh and Laurie Erickson have everything to do with a common experience in their pasts.
This is a thriller, so the pacing and action level are what you’d expect for the sub-genre. There are narrow escapes, injuries, high-level enemies, threats and more. Cutler and Miller even end up having to be taken to a safe house. Readers who prefer novels with slow buildup of tension will be disappointed. But that said, the action is credible and so are the protagonists. They use their wits as much as any weapons, and neither has what you’d call superpowers.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a thriller full of gruesome brutality. There’s gunplay and some violence. There is some detailed forensic discussion, and Miller’s meetings with convicted killer Clarence Little include frank (and to me, creepy) conversations about Little’s crimes. But the violence isn’t gratuitous or extended.
Thrillers sometimes get a reputation for not having rounded and well-drawn characters, but that’s not the case here. The characters of Dana Cutler and Brad Miller are important elements in this story. Cutler is a former cop who left the force after a traumatic experience that left her psychologically wounded enough to need hospital care for a time. We learn what that experience was, but again, not in harrowing detail. And her reaction to what happened is both human and credible. So is the person she’s become. She’s tough, resourceful, and smart. But at the same time, she’s vulnerable and plenty frightened when she learns just whom she’s up against in this case. Through her readers get a sense of what life on the run can be like.
For his part, Miller’s a former law school ‘whiz kid.’ He’s a skilled researcher and fairly longheaded as the saying goes. Through him we get a sense of what life is like for the hard-working young legal associate; it’s not easy. Miller feels very much out of his element when he has to interview a serial killer and later use a gun, and he has a believable fear of being involved as deeply as he is in this set of mysteries. These two protagonists complement each other’s skills and they are credible as co-sleuths. Oh, and one other note: I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Margolin avoids the all-too-common trap of having co-sleuths end up as lovers. These two develop a liking and respect for each other, but they don’t start a relationship.
The story is told from several different perspectives, so readers who prefer only one point of view will be disappointed. It’s through these multiple perspectives though that we get to know Cutler, Miller, FBI Agent Keith Evans and the Farringtons, as well as some of the other characters in the novel. The main storylines alternate between Cutler’s experiences and Miller’s so the reader follows along as each slowly puts the pieces of the larger puzzle together and eventually meet.
Executive Privilege is fast-paced and has more than one twist to it. It features credible co-sleuths, a believable mystery (all the eerier for actually being possible) and solid Washington, DC and Oregon settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Executive Privilege? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 12 November/Tuesday 13 November – The Paris Lawyer – Sylvie Granotier
Monday 19 November/Tuesday 20 November – Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery – Anthony Berkeley
Monday 26 November/Tuesday 27 November – Desert Wives – Betty Webb