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For once, I manage to write my book reviews on a Wednesday.

Sam Bourne: To Kill the President

It was to be expected: the first Donald Trump era thriller (that I've read). Which takes full advantage of the fact that when previously any critic worth their salt would have complained about the one dimensional characterisation of the villains and the lack of realism in the US voting someone like that into power and then the Republican Party falling in line, followed by no checks and balances from any institution after even the Supreme Court caves due to the stolen seat being filled by the new President's choice, now all this looks like, well, realism.

In fact, the most unrealistic thing about this novel which got penned by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland under a nome de plume is the part of the premise where Priebus and Mattis two members of the current administration become worried enough about the President destroying not just the US but the world that they decide to get rid of him by any means.

To kill a President, however, does not have them as the central character, neither as heroes nor villains. Our heroine is Maggie, who for some reason is Irish. (This is referred to quite often, but doesn't impact the plot in any way, so I don't know why the author bothered to make her an immigrant of the not discriminated against kind instead of a born US citizen.) Maggie was originally hired by the previous government and doesn't have any direct rl counterparts, though she gets traits of both Sally Yates and James Comey (in the novel's verse, she's the one who by pointing out the previous secretary of state's emails use of an insecure mobile phone cost the woman her election.) Maggie loathes the current regime, which gets worse by the day, but discovers the plot afoot to assassinate the President, creating the ethical dilemma of the novel - does she prevent it or not? Given that the author while keeping the unnamed President himself off stage, err, page - i.e the guy never makes a direct appearance, though he gets constantly talked about by other characters - makes him incredible life like loathsome, sets up the stakes in the opening scene by letting the President actually order a nuclear strike on North Korea because his feelings are hurt (he's foiled at the proverbial last second due to various people's quick thinking) and has as a main villain the very much on screen, err, page Steve Bannon former Breitbart guru, presidential campaign manager and current second most powerful man in the White House, you'd think making the case for assassination was never as strong, and I was really interested in whether the author would bother to make a credible counter case for his heroine. Turns out he does. As Maggie points out, once you accept assassination as a viable tool/end-justifies-the-means, you give up on democracy altogether, not to mention the precedent it sets. (Also, in no universe is a former general able to just ask ask one of his former soldiers to kill some one for him, and the guy accepting this unconditionally, not squick worthy.). My guess is that Bourne/Freedland liked the first season of Homeland a lot, because the big action climax wherein our frantic heroine tries her best to save a despicable politician because such is her duty as an ethical being, only to be turned away by every institution, bears some suspicious resemblance. It also turns out before that her boyfriend is really working for the dark side, though that brings me to a key difference.

Which is to say: real life resemblance or not, To Kill a President isn't a good novel the way the first season of Homeland was good tv. The boyfriend in question is an obvious plant from the get go, with no inner conflict whatsoever. The boo-hiss villainy of Bannon MacNamara (come on, Bourne/Freedland, that's just not fair on Bob M.!) and the unseen President may be revoltingly true to life, but that creates all the more the need for some other characters with a fictional shade of grey. As for our heroine, she is so high minded that she feels like a West Wing escapee horrribly stuck in the wrong show, and so there isn't really a question of temptation to do the unethical thing for her, either. Mind you, the way she manages in the end to find a way to defeat Not!Bannon and by consequence his President regardless in an ethical way is due to horrible rl satisfying wish fulfillment for this reader, observing the "villain gets defeated by his own hubris used against him" trope which I usually enjoy. And the twist before that, that the two luckless conspirators were luckless because Not!Bannon was on to them and immediately saw a way to use this, taking a page of Erdogan's book (foiled assassination/coup followed by coup d'etat from above, with the government now free to dispense with the rest of democracy) also felt all too likely (and was a further argument against assassination).

Basically, if this were fanfiction, I'd call it relentless issue fic, brought on by the source material having delivered a series of horrible plot twists. It serves its needs, which is why I read it through entirely, but between the paper thin characters and non-memorable prose, it certainly doesn't invite a reread, and I doubt it will survive beyond the current day.

Philip Kerr: March Violets.

This is the first novel of a mystery series which I heard/read about via The New Yorker. The article in question was enthusiastic enought to overcome my instinctive squick at the premise, to wit: hard-boiled/noir detective novel set in the Third Reich. Basically, what if Philip Marlowe was German? Wandering those mean streets as a cynic with an ethical core takes a whole new meaning if the authories aren't just corrupt but a dictatorship preparing for war and genocide. Our hero is Bernie Gunther, former policeman who quit the force in 1933 for the obvious reason given that the novel positions he has ethics, and became a private investigator instead. Kerr serves up all the usual hard boiled/ noir tropes - untrustworthy millionaire clients, corrupt cops, shady dames -, complete with Chandleresque language, and he did his research - the novel's setting is Berlin in 1936, around the Olympic Games, and in addition to the well drawn Berlin geography, there are some great nods to Fritz Lang's movie M via some of the supporting cast, gangsters (given that Bernie Gunther originally gets hired to recover some diamonds, though of course it turns out it's far more complicated and what everyone is after is something else altogether. The brief appearances by historic figures (Göring and Heydrich, to be precise) are drawn credibly, which is to say their vileness comes across without Kerr employing sledge-hammery moustache twirling; in fact, he uses Göring's bonhommie manners to make him chilling.

As opposed to To Kill a President, this actually is a good novel. But. I still struggle somewhat with the basic premise. This is the first novel of what according ot the New Yorker article I'd read are twelve so far, and already I'm having to suspend disbelief about Bernie's continued survival. There's no reason why Heydrich at the end of this first novel shouldn't have gotten him killed, for example. And since we're in 1936, Bernie would still have the possibility to leave the country, and given what happens to him in this novel, it's hard to wonder why he doesn't, given he has no dependants who'd suffer for it. Yes, the decision to emigrate wasn't as easy as hindsight would have it if you weren't rich and didn't have friends abroad, but again, some truly harrowing things happen to Bernie in this novel which would serve as an incentive to get the hell out of Germany if ever there was one beyond the general situation of the country.

With this caveat, I'll keep reading.
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