‘Hellfire Club’ is overwrought thriller

  • This cover image released by Little, Brown and Company shows "The Hellfire Club," a novel by Jake Tapper. (Little, Brown and Company via AP)

For the Monitor
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Set in Washington, D.C., during the mid-1950’s, Jake Tapper’s debut political thriller, The Hellfire Club, recalls a time when high-stakes gambling and hiding the truth were as much a political reality then as is true now.

Tapper is the acclaimed anchor for CNN and is widely regarded as one of the best in the TV broadcasting business. Nevertheless, though his book moves along nicely and his storytelling is well-intentioned, fiction-writing might just not be up Tapper’s alley.

The protagonist of the Tapper tale, Charlie Marder, a rookie congressman who is noted for his integrity, character and sound moral judgment, wakes one morning with a mouthful of mud only to discover that he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Moreover, a dead woman is slumped on the front seat of his wrecked Studebaker, which is halfway submerged in the same creek Marder has woken up next to. Negligent vehicular homicide or something of its kind singes the air, and so begins the suspenseful thriller.

As luck would have it a high-powered lobbyist with whom Marder is friendly comes along in the nick of time to save the day. The friend dutifully destroys the evidence and whisks Charlie away. Hence, by his complicity in a wrongful action, Charlie unwittingly enters the Bermuda Triangle of Washington politics. As the story unfolds further, the deeper Charlie submits to the compromises he feels compelled to make, the greater he finds himself at odds with his conscience. However, in spite of his inner reservations, and as a World War II veteran and an accomplished academic, he is not unused to putting up a good fight.

Arguing on the House floor that the money earmarked for a rubber company would be better spent on an improved version of the gas masks that Charlie found lacking when he served in the war overseas, Marder earns the respect of his congressional colleagues. Accordingly, he proudly bears the mantle of the big guy who stands up for the little guy. And yet due to pressures at home, as well as his growing sense that he’s over his head, he begins to drink excessively. He may be a good guy, but he’s going down hard.

Tapper adds spice to the story with the cameos of those we have come to know only too well: the Kennedy brothers, the Nixons, LBJ, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the infamous Roy Cohn and the equally infamous Joseph McCarthy. We even have the pudgy-faced Herbert Hoover put in an appearance.

The book’s chief drawing card, however, lies with the unspoken yet obvious parallel Tapper draws between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump. The very same story about McCarthy-era America might as well be the one before us now. They say history repeats itself – and how!

“He’s become this ... planet ... blocking the sun. And whatever points he makes that have validity are blotted out by his indecency and his lies and his predilection to smear.” Now who do you think Tapper refers to? Joseph McCarthy? Well yes – in a way.

Rather than evoke the excitement and fright that the Red Scare wrought upon our country, Tapper keys in on the importance of things that are not especially important. Furthermore, in addition to using language that is at turns hackneyed or improbable, Tapper makes the rookie mistake of cramming every little interesting tidbit into an already overwrought plot.

The book derives its title from an actual Hellfire Club, which existed in the days of none other than Ben Franklin. As is true in the book, so too was it then known as a real club – a place where politicking can or could be played like a game of poker; one where no one ever gets caught cheating.

The Hellfire Club concludes with a meeting between Marder and the president himself. Herein, Tapper effectually draws upon a plethora of historical information concerning Eisenhower’s presidency to lend an unerring dose of reality. Accordingly, Marder meets with Ike for the sole purpose of having the president chart a course for Charlie’s future. But to this observer, such is needed not so much for Marder’s sake, but for that of Tapper, and his fate as a fiction-writer. For to have this story begin and end in a place that fails to tie a knot is an egregious error. What happened to the dead woman; and who was she? And what’s the final disposition of Marder’s problems with his wife or with the booze? Marder gets to talk with Eisenhower. So what.

At 327 pages, and published by Little, Brown, The Hellfire Club may not be my cup of tea, but that’s not to say it won’t be yours. Anyway, to those who enjoy suspense novels, no less than James Patterson blurbs that it’s “a superior thriller.” And who am I to say?

(Timothy Langlais lives in Concord.)