As Buckminster Fuller once said, “The end move in politics is always to pick up a gun.” Political thrillers cover a broad spectrum of mayhem: international geopolitical thrillers that concern the movements and positions of countries as they fight for global supremacy; thrillers about the actual process of politics; the back alleys and government boardrooms in Washington, D.C.; military thrillers in which warriors fight in distant lands for the ideals of democracy, even though they usually have to overcome venal politicians and quislings at every level of government.
Within these varieties you will find enough spies, soldiers, patriots, scoundrels, thieves, traitors, cabals, plots, conspiracies, secret societies, archfiends, and heroes to populate the bookshelves and e-readers of the world for years to come. It’s a crowded field with a vast readership.
The history of the genre is the history of writing itself. Ancient warriors battled for the supremacy of their homelands in the earliest poems and sagas. In modern times spies from John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series join with Smiley’s people in John le Carré’s novels to fight and kill for the policies of their governments. Other classics such as Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal show what one man can or can’t achieve in the service of either a state or a terrorist organization.
Christopher Hitchens, in the quarterly magazine, City Journal, once wrote, “I suspect that it was only with the assassination of President Kennedy that the stately Potomac-paced roman-fleuve began to give way to the imperatives of the anything-goes thriller and to the mounting demand for Washington stories that could easily make the transition to the big screen.” An example of the roman-fleuve—at least in the way Hitchens is using the term—is Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, whose measured pace gave way to thrillers like Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Published in 1974, Condor tells the story of a low-level CIA analyst who goes on the run after his CIA unit is completely wiped out by unknown killers. The novel was a ticking-clock riveting read that changed the face of the Washington thriller. Grady has recently finished a new book that he describes as “Condor meets Wag the Dog/Our Man in Havana; American spies through Arab Spring.” Grady has yet to find a publisher, but when he does, readers will be lining up to see if he can reach new heights.
These books form a base for the political novels of the present, whose authors, both new and those who have been practicing their craft for years, carry on the traditions of the past while folding in the exigencies of today’s politically complicated and increasingly violent world.
Dale Brown was one of the founders of the modern military-action political novel with Flight of the Old Dog in 1988. In Tiger’s Claw (Morrow, Sept.), Brown takes on China, the country that tops the list of this year’s geopolitical adversaries most likely to bring about global conflict on a massive scale. He brings back his series hero, Lt. Gen. Patrick McLanahan, who is now retired and the v-p of a military consultant firm. The U.S. is crippled by a massive recession, and China is the world’s economic and military powerhouse. As China pursues an aggressive military presence in the South China Sea, McLanahan has to come up with a viable defense against a new Chinese missile that threatens America’s naval power.
Larry Bond was in on the early days of the genre as well, writing with Tom Clancy in 1986 on Red Storm Rising. Now he and Jim DeFelice, another veteran thriller writer, are continuing their war-between-China-and-Vietnam scenario in Blood of War (Forge, Jan. 2013), number four in the Red Dragon Rising series. America is a silent partner in Vietnam’s war with China as a highly skilled group of SEALs, CIA fighters, and other special forces types prove that small teams practicing asymmetrical warfare can throw large monkey wrenches into the massive cogs of war. Like Dale Brown, the authors posit a world with contemporary difficulties—global warming, recession, rampant price increases—that form an intriguing backdrop to the political implications of the war. U.S. Army Maj. Zeus Murphy once again comes up with a mission designed to knock the Chinese back on their heels and stop, or at least blunt, their ongoing attack. And once again, difficulties arise that Zeus, a genius of military improvisation, must overcome.
In Black List (Atria, July), Brad Thor, a geopolitical thriller bestseller mainstay for the past decade, once again sends his series hero, Scot Harvath, against a dangerous foe. This time it’s a secret organization buried deep within our own government, a cabal that keeps a list of enemies to be assassinated, and Harvath’s name is on the list. Harvath must keep himself alive long enough to figure out why he’s on the list, save his own skin, and block a massive terrorist attack on the country.
Oliver North is no stranger to the political ramifications of secret military missions. In Heroes Proved (Threshold, Nov.), it’s the year 2032 and the government is in the hands of Progressives who have applied draconian cuts to the military, declaring that the U.N. alone can keep the U.S. and the world safe. Conservative Christians everywhere have been demonized. A high-level scientist is captured by Islamic terrorists, and former war hero and security consultant Peter Newman—first seen in North’s 2002 thriller, Mission Compromised—decides he will rescue the man, who happens to have been Newman’s roommate when they were both in the Naval Academy.
Iran takes its place as one of America’s chief enemies in Thomas M. Kostigen’s Golden Dawn (Forge, Oct.).That country’s madman president, Mahmoud Talib, is out to detonate a nuclear bomb, aided by an IRA terrorist bomb maker. Foreign correspondent Michael Shae, the IRA bomber’s nephew, is determined to stop the Iranian mission. Aiding Shae is his love interest, Neda Ghazali, a member of a secret sect, the Golden Dawn.
Iran again looms deadly in The Natanz Directive (St. Martin’s/Dunne, Sept.), in which Wayne Simmons and Mark Graham spin the complicated tale of a mission undertaken by Jake Conlan of the CIA’s Special Activities Division to infiltrate into Iran to verify evidence of an imminent nuclear missile attack on Israel. Conlan’s mission does not go smoothly—when do they ever?—and soon it’s up to him to save the world from all-out war. Simmons’s 25-year career with the CIA gives him an edge when it comes to authenticity, plus he has the seal of approval from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Robert Ludlum comes back to life in two new books. Jamie Freveletti, one of the few women writers in the genre (don’t cross her; she has a black belt in aikido), takes up the Ludlum mantle in The Janus Reprisal (Grand Central, Sept.), a new entry in the Covert One series. Pakistani warlord Oman Dattar escapes imprisonment in The Hague and hatches a plan utilizing a new secret weapon that threatens to bring down the West. And thriller favorite Eric Van Lustbader continues the Ludlum/Bourne franchise with The Bourne Imperative (Grand Central, June). Bourne, while fishing on a lake outside of Stockholm, comes across the body of a half-drowned man, who after regaining consciousness claims to be amnesiac, a condition near and not so dear to Bourne’s own heart. This kicks off an adventure that leads around the world as Bourne searches for the terrorist known as Nicodemo and the secret that threatens, dare we say it, the entire world.
Moving from world politics to the world of politics, Charles Robbins, a Washington journalist who has written books with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the late Sen. Arlen Specter, brings to his The Accomplice (St. Martin’s, Sept.) an insider look at a presidential political campaign that is rife with thugs, a ruthless campaign boss, a seriously flawed candidate, nosy reporters and a beautiful campaign worker who ends up dead. Robbins, who ran press operations for several congressional campaigns, knows whereof he speaks, and the down-and-dirty tactics and cynical mindset of a big-time campaign rings chillingly realistic. Ditto former PI Steven Gore’s novel of Washington political malfeasance, Power Blind (Harper, July), in which a senator with honor and principles leads a campaign to fill two openings on the Supreme Court. Complicating matters is the senator’s own brother, a federal judge; the mysterious death of a well-known political fixer; the funeral-day burglary of the fixer’s office; and the fixer’s wife’s plea for the truth.
No exploration of fascinating, indefatigable Washington investigators would be complete without including Mike Lawson’s exceptional series featuring congressional investigator Joe De Marco, who works out of a seedy office deep in the U.S. Capitol’s sub-basement. DeMarco is employed by the powerful former speaker of the House, the gloriously flamboyant and crooked John Fitzpatrick Mahoney. House Blood (Atlantic Monthly, July) will be followed next July by House Odds, which centers on Mahoney’s daughter, a gambling junkie in cahoots with a mob casino owner in Atlantic City.
Matthew Quirk’s debut, The 500 (Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, June), tells the tale of Mike Ford, a recent Harvard grad, who goes to work with a powerful lobbying and influence-peddling firm on K Street in Washington. This is one of the more “Washington” books in that it focuses on a business that’s relatively unknown outside the District of Columbia, one that feeds off the government, dipping deep into the public trough for spectacular profits. Quirk has finished the next installment in Mike Ford’s Washington career, slated to come out in spring 2014, and a significant movie sale suggests a Mike Ford adventure on the big screen.
Jon Land takes a particular slice of geography, the state of Texas, as his political territory. His focus is on the Texas Rangers and in particular his series heroine, the formidable female Ranger Caitlin Strong. He has been increasing the political scope of the novels, and his latest, Strong Vengeance (Forge, July), features a homegrown terrorist plot against the U.S.
David Baldacci, one of the most bestselling authors in history with more than 110 million copies of his books in print, focuses on a small town in Florida in The Forgotten(Grand Central, Nov.). Army Special Agent John Puller is assigned a new case that turns out to be the murder of his own aunt. The police are calling it a tragic accident, which, of course, it isn’t.
Lastly, an unusual but compelling political novel spans the entire genre, from the heights of international maneuvering to the depths of the interior of one man’s mind. Harvey Simon’s The Madman Theory (Rosemoor, Sept.) asks the question—what if Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1960 and it was his hand on the nuclear button instead of JFK’s during the Cuban missile crisis. Told from Nixon’s extremely personal point of view, it’s a very sweaty, scary, paranoid place to be, and the reader leaves the last page grateful that this is one political scenario that never came true.
Allen Appel writes thrillers and historical mysteries, and blogs under the name “The Thriller Guy.”
Yes, We Can (Put a Sitting President in a Thriller)
Someone unexpected turns up about 30 pages into Stephen Hunter’s 2011 Ray Cruz thriller, Soft Target (Simon & Schuster), centering on gunmen terrorizing a U.S. megamall. The newly appointed “commandant” of the Minnesota state police takes charge of the volatile situation. His name alone—Col. Douglas Obobo—won’t create associations for most readers, but Hunter (q&a, Nov. 12) soon makes it clear who inspired his creation of this character. He does so incrementally, first revealing that Obobo became a national figure as the first African-American, and the youngest, superintendent of state police. The colonel has “the gift of inspiration.” Not clear enough yet? It will be a few sentences later, when Obobo’s heritage is laid out; he’s “the son of a Kenyan graduate student at Harvard and a Radcliffe anthropology major.” Obobo hopes to use his position to develop progressive law-enforcement practices.
At the outset, Hunter gives the reader an ambivalent view of Obobo. “No stated goal [of his] had been accomplished, but it was hard to hold that against a man struggling against the old culture and the old ways.” But a few pages later the reader learns that “Col. Douglas Obobo hadn’t really done anything. His career was primarily a phenomenon of showing up, giving speeches, accepting awards, then moving up to the next level.”
Obobo (aka “The One”) is rumored to be in line to become the first person of color to become FBI director. The intentional decision to give Obobo a biography similar to President Obama’s, and to characterize him less than 100% positively, has been a unique one four years after the president took the oath of office. No major writer has depicted an Obamaesque president in the way that Tom Clancy modeled his president in 1989’s Clear and Present Danger on the just-out-of-office Ronald Reagan, in a plot with more than a few parallels to the Iran-Contra affair.
For fictional African-American presidents, we must look pre-2008. Those ascribing to popular culture an importance it may not merit have observed that America was prepared for the prospect of an African-American president by the character of David Palmer in the TV series 24, which, with its frequent ticking-bomb justifications of torture, is generally considered a product of right-wing sensibilities. Palmer goes from candidate to chief executive, becoming the first of two African-American presidents during the show’s eight-year run, from 2001 to 2010. In a 2009 article, freelance television writer Michael Langston Moore wrote, “Four months after the first African-American man took the oath of office, one can’t help but think that the first black president of the United States—on television—may have significantly aided Barack Obama’s chances to secure the presidency.” Moore noted that Palmer “felt real. He seemed believable.... This president earned his stripes and commanded respect. And although viewers watched a country that Palmer presided over get attacked by terrorists, he still had the ability to make you feel assured in his capacity to lead. In many ways, President Palmer was similar to Cliff Huxtable’s television influence.”
Palmer isn’t even the first fictional African-American White House resident. That distinction may go to the unnamed lead in a bizarre short story by Joseph Campbell, of The Hero with a Thousand Faces fame, set in 1942 in an America-like country. In the opening of “The Forgotten Man,” a beginning Kafka would have enjoyed, a Caucasian POTUS wakes up to find himself with a much darker skin tone than the one he wore to bed the night before: “The president of the alliance that claimed to represent the principles of charity, justice and the freedom of man had the political misfortune to awake one morning—a Negro.” That change alone is enough to force his resignation from the nation’s highest office in disgrace. (The story, unpublished in the author’s lifetime, can be found in Mythic Imagination: Collected Short Fiction, New World Library, 2012).
Irving Wallace took a crack at the concept in 1964’s political thriller The Man (later filmed with James Earl Jones in the lead). An unlikely series of coincidences leads to the elevation of the Senate’s president pro tem—after the v-p dies, and both the president and the Speaker of the House are killed in an accident.
Those seeking the real Obama in a novel will be pleased by his cameo in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Harper, Sept.). It’s a 2004 version, with the then-state senator stumping for John Kerry [“he would attempt by measured words and a calm demeanor to reassure them (vainly and mistakenly, as it would turn out) that their candidate for presidency of the United States would not go down to inglorious defeat in November”]. The future political star’s appearance is brief, with Obama depicted as joking about a band member’s attire (“That is quite a suit,” Obama said. “Takes a special kind of man to go around wearing a suit like that”). —Lenny Picker
Mystery Winners: E-books and Amazon
Mysteries were one of the first categories in which e-books took a significant slice of sales, and that trend continued into the first part of 2012, according to new data from Bowker Market Research. In the seven months ended in July, e-books accounted for 26% of spending in the mystery/detective category, up from 18% a year ago, making it the second-largest mystery format, trailing only hardcover in terms of consumer spending. E-books posted even more impressive gains on the unit side, taking a 47% share, compared to 23% for hardcover and 14% each for trade paperback and mass market paperback.
The increase in popularity in e-books, combined with the collapse of Borders, has pushed more and more mystery sales to Amazon. According to Bowker, 26% of all spending on mysteries came through Amazon, up from 21% in the 2011 period. Other online sales accounted for 19% of spending, up from 16%. Barnes & Noble also gained market share in the eyar, from 17% to 18%. The other chain channel, which had included Borders, saw its share fall by 10 percentage points.
Mystery book buyers are overwhelmingly women, and accounted for 71% of spending, compared to 56% of spending on all books. And the older readers get, the more likely they are to buy mysteries—the 65-year-old and up category was the biggest buyer of mysteries, accounting for 28% of spending, with the 45-and-older age group accounting for 70% of spending. —Jim Milliot
|Mystery/Detective Book Sales by Format, January–July, 2011–2012 (based on $)||All New Books|
| Sales by Gender |
|Sales by Age: Mystery/Detective Books vs. All Books, January–July, 2011–2012||Mystery/Detective Book Sales by Channel, January–July, 2011–2012 (based on $)|