Systemic Weaknesses

We are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls “Stupid Watergate”

In my last blogpost, I wrote about how readers found Faithless Elector and Dark Network to be prescientFaithless is a page-turning thriller about stealing a presidential election by manipulating the Electoral College (published well before the 2016 election, thank you); and Dark Network looks at the exploitation of the the FBI in aid of a conspiracy to usurp the presidency.  Many readers are surprised to learn that neither of the parties is behind the conspiracies.

It’s less that each thriller is forecasting doom and intrigue, but that they examine very real weaknesses in the US system and how they might play out, pitting the feisty heroine, Imogen Trager, against the forces arrayed to abet these power grabs.  She is continually marginalized at the Bureau, even though it is her patient, analytical approach that gets results.

“If the president does it, it’s legal…no matter how he got there.”  

blog.DailyBeast-obstructFor two years now, the terms “collusion” and “obstruction” have been in almost constant use with regard to the Trump presidency.  My current Imogen Trager thriller, Emergency Powers (finished, but in pitch-mode), deals directly with collusion and obstruction of justice–only the conspiracy is so well organized that there’s no room for such charges.

Nor is there a special prosecutor:  if the House and Senate are controlled by the president’s party, and the president appoints a savvy, ruthless, hand-picked Attorney General, the minority party can complain, but it can’t really do anything when one party manipulates all the levers of power.  And since the Constitutional powers are operating more or less as designed, it can’t even properly be called a “crisis.”

EMERGENCY POWERS: When FBI Agent Imogen Trager learns that the President has died in office, she knows it’s no isolated tragedy but the final stage of a dark network power grab. The new president owes his position to a clandestine power that’s avid for greater control.  Over the next six weeks, through the new president, they’ll work to solidify their supremacy.  The pendulum of rule has swung decisively.  Unless Imogen can stop them, it won’t swing again.

Not content with merely “owning” a President, the wealthy, ruthless autocrat known only as The Postman plans to tighten his grip on power by staging a horrific false flag terrorist attack, which will allow his new President to invoke emergency powers and martial law.

As bodies pile up and leads go cold, a break in the case arrives when a dark network operative on the run from the FBI and marked for death by the Postman, reaches out. Trager is wary of trusting him, and not only because he’s offering intelligence that sounds too good to be true.  He’s already tried to kill her once.

That’s the premise of the “noir politik” thriller, Emergency Powers.  It’s not precisely what we’re experiencing in the moment, but as the earlier thrillers have demonstrated, it’s certainly possible.  Unless Imogen and her colleagues can trust and exploit their gap in the armor, it might very well come to pass.

blog.StupidWatergate-OliverWe are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls Stupid Watergate, which is “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything”

But what if an administration were run by smart, seasoned political operatives?

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Quorum Sensing

My political thrillers are tense, fraught stories of people confronting forces greater than themselves.  There’s no magic (nor magical realism), no dragons, zombies or vampires.  And yet….Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 4.35.21 PM

The first two Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are made the more disquieting because neither Imogen nor the reader know the identity of Imogen’s conspirator nemesis, referred to only as the “Postman,” nor what it is he ultimately wants.

Despite not revealing him, I had to look at events in the stories both from the perspective of my protagonist and from that of my antagonist. Moreover, I had to look at his enablers.  Who invited the vampire in?  And why?

BlofeldI’ve always wondered what drives people to work for/with the bad guys.  In the James Bond world, for instance, why would you work for Dr. No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  Beyond a paycheck (and, sure, that may be enough for some), what draws them in such large numbers?  How do you advertise the positions?  Are they just lackeys from the ranks of some sympathetic war lord?  Again, it’s possible, but that just kind of kicks the can down the road a bit.  I mean, how did the war lord get so many?

Here’s what I think happens: attraction, sorting and dissolution happens constantly, until there’s some critical mass.  Sometimes individuals coalesce into small groups but result in nothing more than pitiable sound and bitter, impotent fury.  At other times, they cause great suffering.  There’s an analog in the natural world, among bacteria, called quorum sensing (from US Nat’l Library of Medicine/Nat’l Inst. of Health). 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 12.57.09 PMBacteria, far from living solitary, cloistered existences, signal to one another, organize and coordinate into cooperating structures in a biofilm with specific roles and tasks.  Indeed, some potentially toxic bacteria never reach a level at which they can do damage, never “initiate gene expression for coordinated activities” (see link above), because their signaling and coordination is not turned on until they’ve reached sufficient mass or strength.

Among groups of people, certain phrases and symbols act as signals to draw out and sort those most sympathetic, amendable or susceptible to a World Power or Ruin message into discrete camps.  In small, uncoordinated groups they may appear benign, if distasteful.  But at some threshold, they become toxic and threatening. And, like bacteria, they will kill the host.

What fascinates me is that the elites who are drawn into this political biofilm are originally attracted not to the dear leader’s vision or objectives, but often view joining forces as an expedient to their own ambitions.  They think they’re the ones in control.  But as I’ve tried to explore in the Imogen Trager thriller series, once the juggernaut is set in gear, it will roll over everything.  And you can’t un-invite the Vampire.

Note: I’m grateful to Rutgers University for exposing me to this notion of quorum sensing.  I attended the Honors College Capstone presentations yesterday, where I listened to some wonderful presentations regarding Honors Seniors’ research work, where this came up in relation to bacteria on plastics in our waterways.  My daughter’s roommate, a Biochem and Microbiology major, broke it down for me and provided the NIH link. 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Northwest Return

Last week, I wrote about transporting a wine cellar across the plains when myScreen Shot 2019-03-07 at 4.04.06 PM family moved from Iowa City to Seattle in 1979.  This week, as I prepare to come back to the Pacific Northwest, to see family and old friends, before heading up to the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, I’m thinking about my time there (1979-2000).Weekly-80s

 

Somehow, two three-year-old Seattle Weekly nostalgia posts helpfully popped up in my feed to prepare me for coming back. As I’ve been thinking about this trip, I find myself, like the character of Miss Gilfillan in William McIlvanney’s very fine, Docherty, dipping into nostalgia “like a narcotic.”

Back-to-back articles, Seattle in the ‘Eighties, and Seattle in the ‘Nineties, did a lot to spur those memories.  I skipped their piece on the ‘Nought’s because by then I was living in the East.

I recognized the Seattle depicted on both articles, though I wonder how much of the present city I’ll know when I come back at the end of the month.  And maybe it’s fitting that I’m writing about this on a cold, drizzly day here in Philadelphia, the better to feed my nostalgia.  The blinds are down, the light is low, and I can hear car tires swishing as they drive past our row house.Weekly-90s

The black-and-white photos in the Weekly articles best depict the Seattle I know (and still love).  In the scattered, flat light of the Northwest, black-and-white photos seem the most expressive.  They pick up nuances and depth of field that often fail to register in dismal color compositions.

Though nostalgic, this blogpost isn’t meant as some dreary yearning for a “lost” city that was better in the past than it is now, because I’m deeply suspicious of any such remonstrances. In the ‘eighties, I endured long, tiresome disquisitions from aging hippies who hated what Seattle had become.  What comes through in such ubi sunt diatribes is the speaker’s lament for lost youth, not any honest valuation of their subject.  Like Miss Gilfillan, “whose mind had closed a long time ago and in another place, wherever she looked she saw only the shapes of her own atrophied prejudice,” you learn nothing new by listening, unless it’s that you should endeavor to order your life so that your future happiness isn’t predicated on holding onto youth.

My family lived in Montlake, on Hamlin Street, “the museum side” of Montlake Blvd., we’d say, though I guess since MOHAI moved that isn’t particularly helpful. In high school, I worked at The Last Exit on Brooklyn (see “aging hippies,” above), for which I have an abiding affection.

I went to Garfield High for sophomore and junior year, and I spent the first semester of my senior year in France.  I graduated from the Northwest School of Arts, Humanities and the Environment, got my BA in English from the U-Dub and then my MFA there, as well.  I was married (twice).  All three of my children were born in Seattle.

The geographic center of my city was always binary, first oscillating between Pioneer Square and the U District, then Belltown and the U.  After the The Exit, I worked the dinner and late night shift at Trattoria Mitchelli and spent my downtime at the J&M Cafe and Central Tavern; while I lived and went to school in the U district.  Later, I also worked for Pioneer Square Theater, running sound for Angry Housewives and understudying props, lights & sound on The Foreigner.  Over time, one of those centers of gravity shifted north to Belltown and the Watertown, Tugs, the Frontier Room, Raison d’Etre, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, the Two Bells and a number of venues that came and went quickly.  I ran lights for a couple of shows at The Moore.  I even did a summer internship at the Weekly in 1987.

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The Palladian, 2nd & Virginia – 1987

Along with friends and family, what I remember and value most about those years in Seattle was an energy and attitude that still animates me; what the writer Clark Humphrey (another Belltown denizen) refers to as Seattle’s “DIY Ethic,” and it touched everything.

There was a sense (and I mean this kindly), that the stakes weren’t all that high.  In the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, you were allowed to take chances because failure wouldn’t be catastrophic.  Rents–commercial and residential–were relatively low.  There was space for experimentation and innovation.  Mediocre restaurants didn’t necessarily go out of business, but endured, got better, learning as they went.  Musicians often learned to play while they performed in tiny venues. Writers, painters, actors, could do their day-jobs while working on their craft.  People were open, supportive, engaged. The only downside back then was that if you wanted to be taken (more) seriously, you had to leave–for LA or New York.

I’ve lived all over the city, and contemplating any one spot in isolation is impossible.  I’m assaulted by memory.  There’s both the surface and what underpins it, a jumble of memories, images and contexts, like when your cursor rolls over a cluster of embedded links onscreen.  Each spot isn’t just what it is (or used to be), but who lived there, what happened there, what it was on the way to; what I was doing at the time. 

I lived in a couple of different places in Belltown in the late ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and it was largely in order to be close to Pike Place Market.  Here in Philly, I made sure to locate near the 9th Street/Italian Market, because it reminded me of the Market.  You can even get great seafood there, though primarily from the Atlantic, as you’d expect.

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Alaskan Way, w/ TDT – 1988

Can’t wait to spend some time in Seattle!  Looking forward to staying connected (and reconnecting!) with old friends.

I want to check out all the neighborhoods where I used to live and spend time: U-District, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne; Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the ID.  I want to check out some of the old and new bookstores.  I will eat at Dick’s Drive-in; will get a banh mi at Saigon Deli on 12th.  I want to see what’s left of the viaduct, what’s left of the places I used to know…and what’s going on now.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

Oldthinkers Unbellyfeel Ingsoc

Contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse…

Harry Frankfurt’s Reflections on B. S. (1986), like Corinne Purtill’s recent essay “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck,” does a nice job of distilling the differences, nuances and attendant dangers in an overlooked lexicon.  But there’s more, piled higher and deeper.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.50.40Like the differences between “shitshow,” “clusterfuck” and Snafu eloquently described by Purtill and discussed in an earlier post, there’s also a crucial difference between bullshitting and lying. As Frankfurt notes, the difference concerns truth value: one must believe that one knows the truth, in order to conceal it, to lie; whereas, the bullshitter has no necessary relation to truth.

Frankfurt notes that we have all dipped our toe in the swelling tide of bullshit (if not, er, stepped in it); and, like art, we all think we know it when we see it. Often, as the advice a father gives his son makes clear in Eric Ambler’s Dirty Story, we regard one as preferable to the other: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through,” says the father.ambler

So, is bullshitting preferable to lying?

I would say that now, 30-plus years on from Reflections’ first printing, it’s the wrong question: in the corporate and political realm, bullshit and lying have become the same thing. Indeed, now, it’s lying by bullshitting.

Journalist Timothy Egan weighs in on a related subject with a NY Times piece this past week on euphemism: “The most egregious of political language fraud,” Egan writes, “as George Orwell noted in his seminal essay on the subject, is used for ‘the defense of the indefensible.’ To that end, the Trump administration has been a fount of criminal circumlocution.”

politics-engl-orwellThough Egan quotes from ‘Politics and the English Language,’ he may indeed be guilty of euphemism himself when he fails to call Trump’s “criminal circumlocution” what it is: bullshit.

Frankfurt’s notion of “truth value” evokes an image in which a lie erects a wall concealing the truth, while bullshit merely litters the pasture. Today, however, contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse, and the most adept practitioners (Mark Zuckerberg, the current president,the Senate majority leader, Lindsay Graham spring to mind) now make the wall out of bullshit to hide or obscure the truth.

“Ah, they’re just bullshitting,” we say of the politician or the corporate flack, and so they often are.  And we stop listening. More to the point, we may grow weary and stop paying attention. In either case, we’ve come no nearer to truth or accountability.

The misidentification of and our winking attitude toward bullshit carries dire consequences. In George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946), he equates bad prose with oppressive ideologies, and he’s not wrong. Language exists to convey and reveal thought, and when it’s used to do the opposite, we should be concerned.

“Some comfortable professor defending Russian totalitarianism,” writes Orwell, can’t say outright: “‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’” People would be aghast. And rightly so. To get there, you would need to hide behind opaque, obtuse language, disguising what you’re saying (perhaps even from yourself), as:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods…”

The above is a species of euphemism; and it might succeed as rhetorical pabulum precisely because it conjures no concrete images, and shades its meaning with ponderous, sonorous dependent clauses, but that’s not what rhetoric does today.

I part company with Egan’s euphemism diagnosis because it sounds like “spin,” an older form of deception.  While it seeks to disguise, spin can at least be decoded by reading between lines. Bullshit in its contemporary guise, by contrast, is about overwhelming. It seeks to shift so much bullshit on everyone and anything that there is nowhere to step. If there were lines to read between, they’ve been buried under steaming mounds.

Trump-emgTrump’s speech this past Friday invoking emergency powers to build a border wall is the apotheosis (or nadir) of bullshit, and it differs from earlier bullshit only in degree. During his speech, if it can be called that, after a series of dismaying, unrelated digressions, after using the word “invasion” seven times; after flinging the bullshit every which way he can, he states that his emergency declaration isn’t actually urgent at all, but an expedient. And yet, admitting that, he will go forward.  Because….ya know.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.43.43The only truth attached to this administration was scrawled on the back of the First Lady’s jacket: “I really don’t care. Do you?”

Which is the administration’s surprisingly consistent message behind all the bullshit.

 

 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

The Correct Word(s) Makes all the Difference

The recent publication of Corinne Purtill’s “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck,” on QZ.com, underscores the need for nuance in thinking, action, and in writing. Purtill’s essay does a nice job of distilling the differences, nuances and attendant dangers.

blog.SnafuThe three main contributors to a clusterfuck are “illusion, impatience and incompetence,” according to Purtill, and I can’t disagree. A clusterfuck is distinguished from a Snafu, for instance, in that a Snafu “refers to the functionally messy state” of many bureaucracies; whereas a clusterfuck is the result of poorly taken, badly executed decisions.

“Shitshow” can be distinguished from Clusterfuck in that the shitshow is the result of a clusterfuck, and therefore describes an end state—and this is important—is not, like Snafu, intransitive. A resultant shitshow describes a moment in time, whereas Snafu continues through time. Thus, the shitshow, resulting from a clusterfuck, may contribute to an overarching bureaucratic Snafu malaise, or it may lead to FUBAR (f’d up beyond all repair).

Ms. Purtill has done a great service to writers, thinkers and planners.

A British friend, and devotee of The Thick of It on BBC, proposes “omnishambles” as a further adjective of Buro-Political disapprobation. It’s so vivid that I feel compelled to locate it along the spectrum.Thick-of-ItDVD

Initially, I was inclined to regard omnishambles as a synonym or cognate of shitshow, an end state; but its first appearance in 2009, as Malcolm Tucker speaks to a disastrous MP candidate (below) leads me to believe it should have its own spot on the spectrum:

“Not only have you got a fucking bent husband and a fucking daughter that gets taken to school in a fucking sedan chair, you’re also fucking mental. Jesus Christ, see you, you are a fucking omnishambles, that’s what you are. You’re like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you fuck up.”

— Malcolm Tucker to Nicola Murray, “Series 3, Episode 1”, The Thick of It.

This coinage conjures images of a single, out-of-control Rube Goldberg machine indiscriminately slaughtering (hence the “shambles”) innocents, rather than a bureaucratic clusterfuck. It’s therefore outside of time, carrying its threat at a vector

To sum up:

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 16.01.15

 

 

 

 

I’m open to debate and discussion, though perhaps not with Malcolm Tucker…

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Independent bookstores – shop small

Don’t make Shop Small Saturday be just once a year. The great buys, the rare finds—and the people who share your passion—are out there.

Local, independently owned shops are the heart of a community, and local, independent bookstores are its lifeblood. It’s a place to check in, catch up; to see what’s new, to waste time, or to get lost…and to buy books. The Shop Small Business Saturday that’s just passed was an excellent reminder of all we have.Indys-first

There are fads and pendulum swings, and fortunately, people seem to be rediscovering the pleasures and importance of independent, owner-operated stores, and that rarest of qualities—connection.

Growing up, I don’t think I considered the difference between independent and chain stores generally in any depth, beyond a vague sense that non-corporate shops seemed to have better quality and more focused (sometimes idiosyncratic) choices. And in small, local bookshops, I found a confluence of what I liked most about reading: like libraries, they had a fairly broad selection, knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff—and yet they had books I could own. In those indy bookstores—then and now—you’re likely to get staff recommendations, find something quirky you may not have heard about. Your purchases are liable to elicit discussion (and follow-up reading!) when you’re checking out.

HempelYears ago (1985 or ’86), I ordered a copy of Amy Hempel’s short story collection Reasons to Live at my then-local bookshop, the University Bookstore because I’d read her short story “Going” in Vanity Fair, and I wanted to read more. When I went to collect the book, the woman at the pick up desk told me she’d glanced through my copy, been intrigued and ordered one for herself. Our paths crossed a month or so later, and we talked again about it and other books. I’d see her every so often, and she’d ask what else I was reading.

When I moved to a different part of town, I missed going to that bookshop, but fortunately I found another, a new-and-used bookstore called A Different Drummer (now gone). Though I was probably in the shop once a week, every 4-5 months I would bring in a box of paperbacks, get store credit and “buy” another 3 or 4 books with the credit, recommencing the process. It happened more than once that I would stop in and the owner would grab a book from behind the counter that he’d been holding for me, not because I’d ordered it, but because he knew my tastes and thought it was something I’d enjoy. He was often right.

Now I live in Philadelphia, and I’m spoiled for choice. There’s an excellent bookstore 5 blocks from our house (Headhouse Books), a fabulous, funky new-and-used bookstore 4 blocks beyond that, up from Headhouse on Bainbridge Street (Mostly Books). Just around the corner, Philly AIDS Thrift’s second floor has a mind-boggling used book selection. Further south, in the 9th Street Market, Molly’s Books & Records has some exquisite gems. West Philly has the fabulous Penn Book Center. And there are many, many more.

Don’t make Shop Small Saturday be just once a year. The great buys, the rare finds—and the people who share your passion—are out there.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

Mendacity

votingIn the Noirpolitik thriller Faithless Elector, the reason the faithless electors give for not voting as they pledged to vote (for switching) is presented as a vote of conscience. In the book, there were seeming irregularities in the Illinois vote count, allowing each faithless elector to say their switched vote was cast as a vote of conscience for the candidate who should have won the presidency.Illinois

It’s Imogen Trager’s enlightened, careful investigation and analysis that brings the surprising truth to light…and puts her in mortal danger.

I was intrigued by the notion of an anti-democratic power grab that exploited administrative and procedural weaknesses with deadly consequences. I was excited as the characters and the real story of how they try to oppose such a conspiracy took shape.

In the original draft of the book I chose Illinois as the site for the fictional malfeasance because I had in mind the disputed vote count there in the 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. Many contend the Daly machine rigged the vote. I hoped that setting the disputed votes in Illinois would give the novel some verisimilitude. As I’ve noted in other posts, readers will sooner believe the fantastic than they’ll accept the implausible.

FLA-hanging chadPerhaps I should have chosen Florida, particularly since the scandal, irrespective of the truth remains a volatile point of contention across both (now, all three) books and Florida is back in the news again…and likely, again.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com