Better Next Time…

The Atlantic published an article this week, “The Unraveling of the Trump Era,” by Olga Khazan, who notes: “Trump’s team fell short because it often made mistakes in the nitty-gritty work of rule-making… That might come as a relief to Democrats, but it’s actually a warning: All it will take is someone with the same priorities as Trump, but better discipline, to reshape the way the government works.”

The comedian and host of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver, referred to the Trump administration’s all-thumbs approach to governing as “Stupid Watergate,” which he described as “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything.”

The Faithless Elector series (while not about Trump) mines and articulates the very real dangers of what could happen if a group of ruthless, disciplined and canny political operators were to try to seize control of government—and then cement their grip.

We’ve seen the lock (goose) step of the vast majority of the GOP. If such a president had majorities in both houses of Congress, he could enact what he wanted. If he had a pliant Att’y General and had successfully remade the Office of Personnel Management to be under the aegis of the White House as he tried to do (thus a return to the spoils system of patronage government), the few things such an administration enacted that were contested might easily be upheld by a craven Supreme Court, bent on returning the nation to the 19th century. And the DOJ could become solely the tool of the president.

Also from Khazan’s article: “The rule process is specific, technical, and tedious, which did not exactly fit Trump’s style. Some experts say Trump’s agencies wrote their rules carelessly…”

The genesis of Faithless Elector books and the conspiracy bent on seizing control and remaking the nation in their own bloodless image was not Trump, but the W Bush administration–and the work of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Carl Rove. Cheney and Rumsfeld cut their teeth under Nixon, and they were aggrieved by the rejection of their candidate and the repudiation of the so-called Imperial Presidency. They were savvy, cunning, and understood intimately how government works. They set about bending it to their oligarchic will. It was Rove’s job to ensure a “permanent Republican majority.”

It’s touching that fewer than 20 years ago the GOP still cared about elections.

Beginning with the first book, Faithless Elector (published in spring 2016 before Trump was even the Republican candidate), the conspirators recognize that they do not have a majority, and so they set out to manipulate the Electoral College. In Dark Network, they work on the rules and try to manipulate a Contingency Election. In the final book, Emergency Powers, the conspiracy starts working hard on eating government from the inside out.

It’s worth noting that while the Faithless Elector series was prescient in many ways, the era in which we find ourselves may not be a rebirth of freedom and democracy but–for the forces arrayed against democratic accountability and the rule of law–nothing more than an unfortunate, regrettable interlude in their dark march. And they will delay, distract and bide their time.


People like Mitch McConnell play the long game, and they’re patient. And ruthless.

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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. 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.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place in issue #7 this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Antagonizing

What we get wrong in political thrillers is the same thing we get wrong in real life —

We tend to oversimplify antagonists.

For the protagonist, every writer asks, who is she? what does she want, and why can’t she get it? Part of the writer’s craft is to artfully reveal details that make the main character(s) feel rounded.

But what does the antagonist want–and why?

My recent thriller, Emergency Powers, takes seriously those questions, delves into who the bad guys are–so much so that one reader said he almost began rooting for one of them.

He didn’t think that was a bad thing, and neither do I. You don’t have to agree with- or root for them. But reader and writer should at least understand who the bad guys are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

My thrillers – Faithless Elector, Dark Network and the new Emergency Powers – have been called prescient, seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines (or, rather, anticipating them). One of the reasons is that I looked not only at the driven, conflicted protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, but at what the bad guys wanted; how they might get it—and what it would take to stop them. If possible.

That impulse forced me to think like them, to consider how they might go about staging a coup. I had to consider which tools were at hand, which key institutions and offices could be undermined, corrupted or hollowed out. And as I worked on the second draft, I stumbled onto things I had written that were really happening. (I should say that I never saw the Jan. 6 capitol riot coming; and even if I had my editor would have axed it as too far-fetched.)

But I did see that a pliant, corrupt Attorney General would be the key to covering up and legitimating a coup; that cabinet positions–even whole departments–could be captured or rendered ineffective through second-in-commands and “acting” heads; that hollowing out the civil service by putting the OPM (Office of Personnel Mgmt) under the ambit of the White House and returning it to a “spoils” system would make a cover-up more complete. And I saw that this state of affairs–a true conspiracy with many moving, coordinated parts–would be hard to stand against, much less defeat. But if anyone could, Imogen would be the one to do it.

Thrillers are meant to be an escape, but not an escape from sense. The gray eminence presiding over the coup (“The Postman”) is concerned with private power, exercised through public means. In the past, he tried to get himself elected, and tried to buy politicians, but his ideas are unpopular and can’t win in the public sphere. Like a lot of frustrated suitors, he thinks it’s because the game is rigged. Well, two can play at that game…

His henchmen are not James Bond automatons, but have real (if misguided) reasons for signing on with the Postman. A great many of us bemoan the level of discourse on social media, but confronting (and considering) some of the ideological rantings there has given me insight into what ideas they hold and what they might be capable of doing.

It makes for a thrilling story–all the more so because much of it could really happen.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. 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.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of 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.



Southern Gothic – Gladwell’s Grand Unified Theory

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece recently for Crime Reads in which he described his grand unified theory of thrillers. Briefly, he stated that “There are, structurally, four (4) essential narratives in [the thriller] genre.”

I tend to shy away from reductive theories, but they can be useful, too. And I think Gladwell is on to something. His four genres are cardinal in nature (and direction, too!):

1) In the Western, the hero comes to a world without justice or law, and establishes order.

2) In the Eastern, our hero works to improve and educate the institutions of law and order in a world where they are incompetent. (Think Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s sleuths.)

3) Third, is the Southern, where our hero, an outsider, restores order to a world that is hopelessly corrupt. “John Grisham’s novels are all Southerns,” Gladwell contends.

4) Last is the Northern, in which our hero works to perpetuate order from within a functional system. “The popular television show Law & Order is a classic Northern,” he notes, as is most Scandic-Noir.

It pains me to realize that while I’m drawn to “Western” thrillers (and Westerns), it seems (according Gladwell’s Theorem) that I’m writing Southern thrillers. Indeed, my favorite kind of Western stories are perhaps a subset of the genre, those in which not only is the world of the book or film without justice, but it’s going to take someone who’s even worse to put it right. And that person won’t be able to stay and enjoy it. They’ve made the world acceptable for decent people, which is why they must now leave.

Unforgiven, Shane, True Grit and the Road Warrior movies spring to mind. But so do Hammett’s Red Harvest, and the Jack Reacher novels. They’re mythic tales—Unforgiven resonates heavily with medieval themes of good and evil, stories of knights and quests. A quest tale turned upside down, to be sure: the knight is a vile murderer, the damsel is a prostitute and the magic elixir which allows him to transform into a hero is corn whiskey.

Those are the Westerns I admire, and go back to. But what of the thrillers that bear re-reading? For the discussion, I’ll stick with well-known favorites: LeCarre’s George Smiley novels, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal and Graham Greene’s Quiet American

Philip Kerr, to stick with Gladwell’s taxonomy, is writing Southerns. His recurring character, Bernie Gunther, is trying to inculcate something like morality or justice in the midst of Hell. Greene’s narrator, Fowler, can’t stop the war to come, any more than Gunther can stop the war he’s in, but he can do something, can strike a blow. By contrast, the wind blows Northern-ly for Smiley and Inspector Lebel, as they search and scratch and tighten the net around their quarry–Karla and the Jackal. Their dogged pursuit will prevail.

My protagonist FBI Agent Imogen Trager is a Cassandra figure, confronted with corruption no one else sees. She’s an outsider—even though as a Bureau Agent she should be the ultimate insider—made so by the very corruption and factiousness she opposes. She’s dedicated to law-and-order and accountability, because the opposite is thuggish, anarchic corruption and chaos. A Southern thriller, then, but with noir-ish elements of the Northern procedural. The conspiracy goes deep, and she knows that if you don’t get the root, it just grows back—perhaps stronger than before.

Whether the nomenclature of Gladwell’s Unified Theory is accurate (“eastern” and “northern” feel forced), it’s an interesting way to look at how thrillers operate. Fortunately, they’re not carved in stone, and there can be shared elements. His own take on Lee Child’s hero combines elements of both South and West(ern).

In each, we’re drawn to the problem, drawn in further by the situation and we want to watch our hero(ine) set it right. In the end, it’s just categories. It’s the details of why and how—and the characters—that will make it unique.

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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!

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.