While I was on vacation last week I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Jake Tapper’s new novel, The Hellfire Club. It’s a definite departure for the CNN anchor from his previous work, representing his first foray into the world of fiction, unlike his earlier, real-life war story, The Outpost. Set in 1950s Washington, D.C. during the heat of the McCarthy era, Tapper has crafted a story which places an unlikely, fictional protagonist in the middle of the Washington swamp, dropped in alongside an array of very real government figures from that period. It’s listed as a thriller (and it is), but it also turns out to be something of a mystery novel as well, though not along the same lines as Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot.
At the heart of the story is Charlie Marder, a successful history professor who has his world completely upended when a series of unlikely and possibly sinister events result in his being suddenly appointed as a member of Congress. This happens via the influence and political machinations of his father, an influential GOP kingmaker. As the tale unfolds, you simultaneously want to root for Charlie and curse him. He’s a person thrust into a position of power with much to recommend him, but he also quickly begins exhibiting many of the frailties of the human spirit. Marder starts out looking as if he’s going to be a Mister Smith Goes to Washington sort of character but we quickly learn that he lacks much of the will to reject the temptations of power and all the trappings that go with it.
Tapper also paints a less than flattering picture of Washington’s elite, with stories of abuse and debauchery which fit in nicely with the book’s title. The Hellfire clubs were real, dating back to England and Ireland in the 1700s, cropping up at various times on both sides of the pond, possibly even to the present day. Of course, it’s not hard to read portions of this book as a critique of modern politics as well.
If I were to offer any sort of constructive criticism of the book it would be that the author seems to go a bit too far in demonstrating that Marder is a fictional character who interacts with a dizzying list of very real characters from American political history and he spares no effort in fully fleshing out those figures. This leads to Charlie winding up in a variety of encounters with famous people over and over, to the point where it might be hard for the reader to suspend disbelief. Also, while fleshing out all those details of McCarthy era Washington, the story takes some detours which don’t necessarily add all that much to the main plot. But that’s a minor quibble and it wasn’t enough to put me off. This is still a suitably fast-paced story which entertains and should be of particular interest to those who are up to speed on American political history.
The Hellfire Club is out this week and is available for pre-order now.