Political institutions are the problem, but it’s institutions that will save us.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what Adam McKay would say about institutions (the law, courts, norms, democratic rule) but I would nevertheless love for him to read and respond to my Faithless Elector thriller series. Because as gratifying as it’s been for the books to find readers who see the political moment reflected in the pages of my books, the larger narrative sometimes gets lost; that the present moment has been a long time coming. And the moment isn’t over.

Speaking to David Marchese in the NY Times magazine, McKay talks about what “hooked” him in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (which he produced for the screen). Reading the book in one night, he says that “[Lewis] does two things. Number 1, we all love the taste of making a lot of money. The other thing we all love is knowing things that we’re not supposed to know. Lewis tells me things that most people don’t tell me…” He goes on to say that what he asks of a work is: “Is there a sincere attempt to understand the world, or is the action just one of manipulation and distraction?”

In the three books that make up the series—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers—I’ve tried to do just that–to tell a story that tries to understand the world, one that doesn’t talk down to the reader, nor one that has an axe to grind. They’re about insider politics, and delve into things you thought you knew about in a new way: strong, character-driven stories set within a context of conflicted, dangerous politics. The conspirators exploit weaknesses in our legal/constitutional institutions to effect their power grab—motivated, as McKay discusses “by pure power and reactionary beliefs.” And if they can get hold of all the levers of power, they may very well succeed.

The “Faithless Elector” conspiracy, and the forces arrayed against America in my stories didn’t rise with Trump (he’s nowhere in their pages). Rather, it’s part of a much longer trajectory and deeper worry. And those forces haven’t gone away now that Trump’s making his noise offstage.

I would urge anyone thinking or writing about politics to give the interview a good read. It’s the kind of insightful, reasoned (yet still passionate and opinionated) discussion many of us lament as lacking these days. He also zeroes in on the dearth—in literature and in politics—of working people’s voices. Which, again, my work strives to bring into the conversation. Meetings between the FBI and “regular” folk aren’t caricatures, but are meant to be rounded people, to add nuance and complexity to the plot—and the stakes—as the story unfolds.

Later in the interview, McKay makes an interesting claim about center-left and center-right politics, putting himself in the CL corner, and Aaron Sorkin’s work on the CR. It’s Sorkin’s faith in institutions (again, the law, courts, norms) that pushes him rightward in McKay’s view. (McKay is careful not to claim that Sorkin is a right-winger). McKay’s observations and phrasing are in keeping with a balanced, long-view perspective. By McKay’s rendering, I guess I’d end up CR, too. Which is an uncomfortable feeling…

But insofar as my work enlightens, as it is a sincere attempt to understand the world, I’ll accept it.

Far from contributing to the politics of distraction and outrage porn, the Faithless Elector series reads, in the words of one reviewer, like an “insider’s view” of power politics. The conspirators manipulate the Electoral College, the congress and the bureaucracy from the inside–and for their own ends–with the future of the nation in the balance. It is characters in and out of government who risk their lives to right the ship of state. What my characters oppose is not bureaucracy, or legal authority, but the perversion of those institutions.

There’s a quote posted above my home computer, from Professor Emilios Christodoulidis at the University of Glasgow School of Law:
“Any separation between legal and political power is purely conceptual…there can be no real legal authority without some political power…[and] there is rarely political power without some legal authority.”
(from Jurisprudence: Themes and Concepts )

As the tagline for Dark Network notes: “Without law, there’s only power.” To which, perhaps I should add, And what about when law protects and abets the powerful?

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland, w/t Bastard Verdict.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Faith among the Faithless

I suppose this is sort of Christmas-y: In my most recent post, “Blunt Tools,” about the obstacles in the way to legitimating a presidential election—Electoral College vote, Congressional certification, potential contingency vote—I found that the word “faith” cropped up again and again: faith in the rule of law, faith in the system(s), faith in our officials, in our democracy. Faith and hope.

Besides being a messy work-in-progress, democracy feels like a spiritual undertaking. Like prayers, where God sometimes answers, No, election outcomes are seldom all that you could have hoped. It’s not the hope that’s spiritual, however. It’s faith in the process, that the result was arrived at fairly; that voting is the best way to achieve our ends, to hold officials accountable.

But it isn’t mere faith that gets us across the ever-moving line. There must be trust in the systems, in people and institutions. Transparency. Faith surmises that tangible evidence doesn’t exist; whereas trust is based largely on evidence that is real according to the senses and to human reason. It’s the institutions, the procedures, and the repetition of sound outcomes (fairly arrived at) that bolsters faith and inculcates trust.

Consider banking, a messy, craven business, ripe for (and often rife with) corruption and collusion. But the teller doesn’t pocket your paycheck, the bank doesn’t steal it. Indeed, banks take steps to ensure that there’s a trail of evidence should something go awry. And they make sure that no one else steals it. (They may snatch at part of it through fees, etc., but that’s a separate discussion.) Your savings are secure, as are your investments, if you’re fortunate enough to have any. I don’t mean to suggest that some mere squishy feeling can bring about the change we want to see all by itself, but without it, we’re lost.

It is trust—repeated, faithful (that word again) repetition of processes and procedures combined with legitimate outcomes. Say what you will about the Electoral College (and I’ve said and written plenty); say what you will about the conduct and byzantine rules within banks (see my example above), but at their most basic, they are open, verifiable activities.

Given the multiple lawsuits and demonstrations—distinct from required/permitted challenges and recounts—I can only surmise that Trump and his enablers have a different aim: to erode trust by striking at our faith in democracy, by tarring institutions and officials with their own foul brush. They certainly have no love for democracy, which at its core is an act of faith that self-governance is the optimal system. The Big Lie works, breeds doubt, will give people pause. The Big Lie in this case is that the vote was stolen. And that lie lingers, festers, strikes at faith.

A recent WA Post editorial points out that, for weeks, Republicans and “Donald Trump [have] told the public that the presidential election was riddled with fraud. And now, in an immaculate act of self-confirmation, Republicans are pointing to the public’s doubts about the election as evidence that something fraudulent must have taken place…” The accusations have been rebuked at every point, by sound, faithful reporting (and recording) of sound certification practices and procedures.

The Big Lie—and it feels like the past four years have been nothing but lies—reminds me of a pool shark, who not only makes the shot, but “leaves” the cueball either in a good place to make his next shot, or in such a way as to thwart his opponent, and leave him behind the eight-ball.

Ours is a postlapsarian world, to be sure. It has been for quite some time. What came before it was hardly perfect, and certainly it wasn’t paradise. But it was (and is) verifiable. Something we can have faith in.

Perhaps a worldly and political update of 1 Corinthians 13:13 is in order: “And now abideth faith, trust, certify, these three; but the greatest of these is certify.”

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Blunt Tools

If you’ve followed my posts at all you know that my first novel, Faithless Elector is a thriller about stealing the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College—something that seemed crazily far-fetched to most of the agents I pitched it to years ago. Faithless Elector asks, “what if a group of conspirators wanted to steal a close election by getting a small number Electors to switch their votes—to vote as Faithless Electors—and overturn the result?” What would it take? How might it be done?

What doesn’t get as much attention (what middle child ever does?) is the second book in the Imogen Trager trilogy, Dark Network, which focuses on sub rosa politicking (and murder!) in the lead-up to certifying the votes, and a subsequent Contingency Election.

These thrillers, which include this year’s Emergency Powers, aren’t screeds for or against one party, but unblinking examinations of what could go wrong, about how the systems we the people rely upon to protect the process can also be the very thing that gets exploited–and what a fearless, driven group of investigators might have to do to protect the rule of law.

Today (Dec. 14) is the “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” the day provided for in the Constitution, when the Electors meet for the real presidential election. No one expects there to be the kind of faithless voting that took place four years ago when ten (10!) Electors cast their ballots as Faithless Electors. But it’s the second book, Dark Network, that may prove more prophetic because it deals with the aftermath of Electoral voting: Electoral votes must be certified by Congress.

If enough votes are challenged and rejected, and neither candidate has an Electoral College majority (270 or better), the vote for president goes to the House, where each state has but one vote. The Senate votes separately for VP.

The separate Senate and House votes could even mean that the president and vice president are of different parties. But what Dark Network examines, underneath its thriller veneer, is the lengths a group of bad actors might go to in order to undermine faith in the process, to undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

Voting, and faith in its legitimacy, is the blunt tool by which we hold our government accountable. “Without law, there’s only power,” is the tagline from Dark Network. But what about when law protects the powerful?

As this Lawyers, Guns and Money blogpost makes clear, as does my earlier Murder is Everywhere post about the patchwork nature of Electoral rules, each stop on the way to certification and inauguration adds layer upon layer of uncertainty—and potential for mischief—to the process. And while the Supreme Court, hoping to avoid the kind of chaos that would indeed undermine faith in the process, ruled in July that states may make laws binding Electors to their pledge, the ruling only permits those laws. 32 states have no such law.

House members are already agitating to challenge various states’ Electoral votes when Congress meets on January 6. Will they be able to throw out enough Electoral votes to change the anticipated outcome? Probably not. A Senator would have to sign on to the challenge(s), and a majority of both houses would then have to vote in favor of the challenge (throwing out the votes!).

But overturning the result at this stage may not be the goal.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.


Sharing Space, part 2

The response to the launch of Emergency Powers has been tremendous, and I couldn’t be happier! I’ve noted before how fortunate and honored I am that others will lend me space on their blogs to write and post about issues and ideas that matter to me. In the first month since the publication of Emergency Powers, I’ve had the opportunity to write about an array of topics here and as a guest blogger.

Earlier in the year, I’d been hosted on ‘Writers Who Kill’ blog, on Art Taylor’s ‘The First Two Pages,’ and others. Here’s a listing, with snippets and links from the more recent guest posts and interviews. You can click the blog link to read the whole post.

The Reading Cafe – Isolation and Conflict – (Oct. 1)
“I’ve been thinking about isolation recently. (Can’t imagine why.) And I was struck by a theme in my thrillers, one I hadn’t necessarily intended, but which is there nevertheless. That of isolation. In my thrillers, the asymmetry of information—and the danger of sharing what you know—is the core of the tension, and suspense…”

The Book Divas Reads – Blurred Lines: Separating Fiction from Reality (Oct.9) “Recently in an interview, I was asked: ‘How do you keep your written world from encroaching on your life?’ I have the opposite problem…”

Avonna Loves Genres – Becoming a Writer – (Oct. 15) “I’m often asked how old I was when I first realized I wanted to be a writer? It’s a difficult question for me because I honestly can’t think of a time when I wasn’t writing stories…”

Murder is Everywhere – Electoral Appliqué – (Oct. 19) [on the Electoral College]: “I’m struck by the patchwork uncertainty of it all. I can’t shake the image of 2020 America as some shambling Akakii Akakievich, from Nicolai Gogol’s fine story The Overcoat (1842), as he pleads with the tailor Petrovich to patch his winter coat…”

Quiet Fury – Your Book is a Movie – (Oct. 20) “With film studios shuttered in response to Covid-19, is it still relevant to think of who should be cast in the movie if the book makes it to the big (or small) screen? Of course it is!”

As we move into November, I’m excited about the upcoming appearances and potential for sharing further.

You can keep up with my journey on the ‘author‘ page of my website. Or keep reading along here! I’ll be at A Novel Idea on Passyunk bookstore on Thursday, November 12 at 7pm. It’s free, and you can get a signed copy of Emergency Powers…but you do need to Sign-up/RSVP.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle. He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.