No it’s not History, nor is it historical fiction it’s just fiction, but I was given to read and I have reviewed it.
“A Treasonably good thriller”
Paperback: 416 pages
* Publisher: HarperCollins; 01 edition (4 July 2017)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0007413734
“Threatening the life of the president of the United States is a class E felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871. It consists of knowingly and willfully mailing or otherwise making “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States”.
That is the quote that appears when you google “To Kill the President”, generated by Wikipedia. I googled this to check a fact or two about the book I was about to review, I stared at the words for a few moments remembering the story I had just read and wondered if somewhere out there some security analyst was deciding wether I was a credible threat.
Well even if not, I’d be immensely surprised if Sam Bourne AKA Jonathan Freedland wasn’t part shares in his own satellite by now. I turned the pages of this novel holding the book like one might hold a stick of dynamite, the word explosive, written in bold on the back is not overstatement.
First question: What would you do if you knew the President of the United States was going to trigger a nuclear war and could do something about it?
Second question: Deprived of that fact but knowing the President was a madman, if you found out someone was going to try and kill him, would you try and stop it?
The first question is for two high up government officials. The second question is the quandary confronting the main protagonist Maggie Costello. Both revere and respect the constitution, both will uphold and defend i, but in different ways.
The story follows three slowly converging paths. Firstly the men behind the would be assassination. Secondly the typical do your duty, conflicted, disillusioned investigator pursuing a mysterious but routine case and stumbles onto the truth. There is intrigue here and some thrills, but the true mystery is to be found in the question, who is murdering seemingly unconnected people all over the world. This new facet which evolves out of what we think is part of the two other converging strains, is a clever device to get us to the cross the meridian of the book, where with the parting of some mists the first hints are given to who is behind it, but not why?
The vision of this America is dark. Almost dystopian in scale, a liberal dystopia where the white house is full of mysogonists, bigots, sexism, racism and all that goes with the liberal popular conception conservatism. It exudes the fears of a generation that doesn’t quite know how, where or what, only who. The author does not need to name the president form it to be perfectly clear who he is talking about. In the writeup it’s put like this. “The unthinkable has happened… The United States has elected a volatile demagogue as president,”
He is the beast in the castle. The book references to a shadowy man, a loose cannon in all the wrong ways, a monster with a monstrous army of ghastly yessmen who haunt the White House in t-shirts, shorts and socks, sexually abusing all the women they can find and troping every conservative cliche you can think of in everyday conversation. The president is a childlike minded, non politician, a wildcard hero of the “Alt-Left”. Here Fiction and reality blur with reckless clarity, almost as if the author is brazenly flaunting the freedom he wishes to protect and feels is threatened.
It is therefore a piece of gutsy writing, tinged with the metallic tang of adrenaline fuelled urgency. A treasonously good thriller in which reality has been taken and then magnified into the worst nightmares of every left wing liberal in the world. It’s not even very subtle, it’s at times almost comedic but it’s not even parody, it seems like a deadly serious warning. At the same time it’s a Democratic Party fantasy. A perverse wish that something like this might happen that would instigate removal proceedings for the highest office in the land.
However one thing that is made very clear here by the absense of any charachter development is that the President in the novel is not Donald Trump. Even though it sounds a bit like him it’s really not. Well; It is but it isn’t. The unnamed president is accused of having attention decificit disorder. But remember “it’s not Trump”. He’s a highly sensitive media conscious president that overuses twitter who eastern powers call a Paper Tiger, but remember at all times “it’s not Trump”. And in truth it isn’t, this is a fictional creation, the germ of which has an ounce or two of fact behind it. It is the message about reality rather than a reality in the fictional narrative that is being conveyed. It also does a fair job of representing the two political parties of the United States.
At the same time it is an unapologetic lampoon, and utterly tears apart the far right/alt right, but in the spirit of fairness this book also mildly attacks those who violently oppose them. A few times, the word civil war is bandied about. If the shadow president, whose name is never spoken but in whom all the fears of this author seem to be endowed, is assassinated the country will be split and war could break out as his followers attack those who took away their leader. The message here seems to be towards those who in reality scream “not my president”, a slogan continually used in the book.
The sickly self righteousness of the Democratic Party is hanging around, in the spirit of fairness they are just as magnified in their flaws. Condescending to everyone else. And the grating pomposity of the republicans who crow and berate with the mad stares of righteous purpose, is there to oppose it. The book although unapologetically biased, is also representative of a great political truth. Perhaps the greatest in politics: Both sides think the other is insane for believing what they believe.
On top of that it also spins us back to the worrying ease with which a president can unleash a nuclear strike, and why therefore many feel discomfited by unpredictable leaders without enough safeguards.
This then isn’t just a book about a ethical assassination it’s about a short sighted coup d’etat. It also echoes the ungovernable fear we have of our leaders. The fear of nuclular holocaust. The people who can start wars, and end civilisations. This is a book about an anarchic sort of civic duty. Well suited to the tone because allot of political assassinations are driven by noble purposes, the man who shot Kennedy thought he was saving America, as I’m sure did Wilkes Booth when he shot Lincoln. The characters here have been left in no doubt; after a photo finish nuclear abortion, that the president needs removed. When the head of state becomes a threat to the country they serve, the juxtaposition of the representative role of the president and the man himself becomes starkly clear. Public servants serve the nation that the president represents and embodies, not the man himself.
However the problem with the characterisation of the president here is that there is no sympathy. Only the office is given sympathy. Therefore it’s hard to see the quandary. The monster that the author has created in the Whitehouse has no light and shade, he’s just an exaggerated shadow, who most heroes would kill without hesitation. A Nero without the whimsy, a Caesar without the genius, who is ripe from the first page for execution by an American praetorian guard. But making the CIA bump him off would be too easy, instead we see something slightly akin to the plot of the Penn/Kidman movie “The Interpreter.”
The White House chief counsel, Macnamara who of course is nicknamed “Mac’, is a parody dragged straight out of a hardware store. He is supposed to represent nationalst conservatism gone mad, a crazed hybrid of everything America fought against in ww2 and during the Cold War, yet swearing blind this is the America that beat both and then bragged about it. He goes on a ridiculous 4 page rant at one point which pretty much certifies him as a threat to national security. The main point being indeed that the clock is being turned back, not to the 1940’s but the 1840’s, because what this man believe in is essentially the Manifest Destiny America, without the patina of genteel civilisation.
The book presents an ethical problem for the open minded liberal hero’s. They very quickly run through all non violent options, too quickly some might say, and resolve as patriots that the only option left is to kill the president. (Democracy takes a body blow from both sides in this book).
Now of course the president in this book is a exaggerated monster, madman maniac, and therefore we are told quite simply and convincingly that he needs removed. We follow the conspirators along as they take refuge in the fortress of patriotism, and at the same time therefore watch them become asylum seekers in the last refuge of scoundrels. Yet because the book has been crafted in such a way that the dystopian new Capitol Hill elite block all non peaceful means of removing him, no freedom fighter can see how corrupt they have become by taking up the banner of patriotism.
And yet was not Lincoln the highest of scoundrels when he trod all over the constitution to fight the south, and would he not have been remembered as a scoundrel had he lost? The end justifies the means, but to that end the patriot and the tyrant share something in common, an indifference to the cost of victory.
The actions of such people lately bring to mind to words Tupac Amaru II, the 18th century Peruvian freedom fighter, who told his executioner. “There are no accomplices here other than you and I. You as oppressor, I as liberator, deserve to die.”
It’s a book to keep you guessing as you while away the long evenings of summer, the boredom of a long journey, or a weekend away. Chances are of course depending on your political leanings it will be like marmite to you.
I’m not a fan of excessive profanity in novels, so I found that aspect distracting, it’s pretty heavy on the swearing, few characters don’t share each other’s need for pointless embellishment. That aside there is an effective and basic construct here. Beginning with a problem, leading to a solution undone by a complication and then a final resolution. It is surprising and well thought out. The Irish heroine delivers in the role she is given, and remains accessible and relatable. I think though, I might have liked some more personal life details of the type afforded to the heroine for the two plotters. Perhaps typically for someone who reads so much about soldiers, I grew quite fond of the businesslike characterisation and simple loyalty of Sergeant Garcia, even if he is only a supporting character. Often it is these lesser sculpted figures that make a book shine in dim light and there are a good many solid columns holding up the roof of this novel.
In To Kill The President everything means something else and therefore is a fine example of a thriller. It is also meant to show us what not to do by example. Be afraid, be very afraid of the consequences of your actions. The dystopian White House is there for us to be afraid of. The patriotic response is there for us to be afraid of. And like a tennis match in which each point won is actually a point for the other team the author seems to be telling us simply what Mark Twain told us. If you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to think again.