The Death of a Thousand Cuts

What would an accidental president need to do to solidify his grip on power?

Good stories demand verisimilitude. To make them believable, a writer has to imagine them from multiple angles. S/he must “see” as the characters see, and that includes (maybe especially) seeing what it is the bad guys want and why. From there, the writer has to imagine how the conspirators would achieve their goals.

pawn-to-king-WhogovernsWhat would an accidental president need to do to solidify his grip on power? That’s the question I set myself for the new thriller, Emergency Powers, with chillingly real implications. I find my stories once again sailing too close to the wind.

In Emergency Powers, FBI Agent Imogen Trager is haunted and undone by a case she failed to solve. When the president dies in office, she knows that the conspiracy she chased down a blind alley still has life in it–and she needs to get back in the hunt. The accidental president is no accident.

The (not) accidental president will take steps to solidify his grip on power, with deadly results. His party controls both Houses, so impeachment hearings or Senate Judicial hearings are unlikely. But he’ll need a pliant Attorney General to thwart, delay and/or make a mess of certain investigations that might bring the truth to light. Moreover, to guard his flanks, he has to secure the allegiance of the Federal bureaucracy.

It’s dismaying that a number of the key moves I ascribe to the conspirators’ playbook turn out to be exactly the kind of thing the Trump administration enacts, and there are spoilers I’m leaving out which also synchronize with both playbooks. I didn’t set out to write a screed against one party or another, nor to malign any particular politician. I wanted to tell a cracking story that would be thrilling…and plausible.

So how is it that our government consistently acts like the bad guys in my books?

Step one in Emergency Powers, after achieving the presidency, is to remove and replace the Attorney General, who will guard against any investigation getting too close. At the same time, the new administration proposes a number of federal rule changes. It’s immaterial whether the rules actually go into effect. The act of proposing them–and observing the reaction–is meant to help the conspirators sort out who is with them, and who is not.  Then, with that information in hand, they begin dismantling the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and move on to Step Two.

Screen Shot 2019-07-16 at 11.12.08 AMI had all this in the first draft of Emergency Powers, which I finished in October of 2018. That same month (unbeknownst to me at the time), Jeff Tien Han Pon was asked to resign as Director of OPM. As of this writing, there is still only an acting Director, Margaret Weichart, who is also the Deputy Director of OMB.  Pon’s resignation came as the Trump administration began work to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management and to bring it under the ambit of White House administration, which folds the daily business of the Federal government into one run by political appointees: patronage politics, or a return to the “spoils system.”

February of this year, the Trump administration appointed William Barr as AG after Jeff Sessions proved incapable of shielding the president from attacks. Barr has been doggedly faithful to his president, if not to his office or the American people.Barr-AG

Thriller writers generally work in broad strokes–assassinations, a terrorist plot, a proxy war. A hero thwarts it all at the last moment. Emergency Powers has all that (no spoilers), but it also works on (and maybe gets too right) the little things.  Not only is there an ugly, violent plot, but the conspirators in my books simultaneously attack seemingly mundane institutions and/or procedures in the hope of slipping by unnoticed…until it’s too late to stop them. Or in the case of Emergency Powers, by the time anyone notices, the conspirators will control all levers of power and levels of government meant to check them. Ideally (for them), the truth may never come out.

It’s death (of democracy) by a thousand cuts, and it’s shocking how closely reality and fiction meld.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, 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

 

 

Added Value and Perspective – Publishers Have a Trump Problem

Alex Shepherd, writing in New Republic this past week (‘Book Publishers Have a Trump Problem‘), notes and discusses the economic factors constraining big publishers, and the trap it presents.  As he states:

NewRepub.Trump“Publishers are doing what everyone else in the news media has done for the past two years. Trump’s ability to sow constant chaos and shift attention toward himself is unparalleled…

“The result is an industry addicted to the quick Trump fix—and an industry that is rapidly moving away from one of its seminal strengths…the long lead times and production work that go into book publishing are meant to allow for added value and perspective.”

The Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are not about Trump, but they are about this political moment. They embody the “added value and perspective” Shepherd finds lacking elsewhere. We did not suddenly fetch up here, orphans of some storm out of the blue, but as always, step by step. The Imogen Trager thrillers have the added value and perspective that comes not from reporting, but from imagining what would happen if…

In the novels, the conspirators are ruthless and focused where the current administration is lazy and scattershot; are canny and adept, where the real occupants are foolish and clumsy.  The implications are chilling.

In Faithless Elector, which introduces FBI Analyst-turned-Agent Imogen Trager, a clandestine group operating outside the major parties tries to steal the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College vote, exploiting for the sake of fiction a weakness that remains all-too factually latent.  In Dark Network, Imogen returns. The FBI is leaking, the Attorney General is being undermined, politicians are spinning and social media is in an uproar.  The presidency is still up for grabs.

In Emergency Powers (coming soon!) we get a look at who’s pulling the strings and what their endgame is. If you crave perspective, if you want a look behind the circus noise, check out the Imogen Trager novels.

Emergency Powers is making the rounds of agents and editors right now.  Let’s hope it IS coming soon!

Look for the other Imogen Trager thrillers at: Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

 

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

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Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies 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

 

 

Noir, spy thrillers, and political history

“If I had to give [my work] a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’” -J-P Manchette

Crimereads features a fascinating discussion and exploration of the themes animating the final work of the writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, and why he abandoned the crime novel. Obviously, reports of the crime novel’s death are greatly exaggerated. Their number, variety and loyal followers attest to it.  But I was intrigued by the lure he felt for the fusion of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 17.10.55Manchette cites many of my favorites, like John Le Carre and Ross Thomas as having been very influential in his embrace of a new aesthetic. As Ethan Anderson put it in his ‘Do The M@th‘ blog about Ross Thomas’s work: “Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.” For his part, LeCarre gave us the anti-James Bond, George Smiley, a quiet, pudgy, near-sighted cuckold.

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Alec Guinees as George Smiley

When I come to write the stories that grab me, I’m drawn to this noir-spy hybrid.  It’s a rich vein of crime and realpolitic, combining detective work and contemporary politics—a “who dunnit” (and why), plus “who gets power and why.” Leavening this compelling mixture is the fact that the things government (and quasi-government) operatives do to achieve their ends are often downright criminal, adding a noir level of complexity and moral uncertainty.

Call this suspense-thriller genre “Noirpolitic.

Putting characters into a story where not only crime but competing values are involved makes for rich, vivid storytelling. The tales of Le Carre and Thomas, though exemplars of the suspense-thriller genre, are generally less concerned with the literally ticking time bomb, and more about what’s going wrong and how to right it.

quietTo Manchette’s list of influential writers in this hybrid genre, I would add Graham Greene. His “entertainments,” like The Quiet American, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul are extraordinary. Political events are not just backdrops for Greene’s and the others’ stories, they are integral, giving deeper meaning to the characters’ struggles and to the stakes if they fail. They inform the stories and give them an edge, whether it be Viet Nam as the Americans replace the French (Quiet American), or the gullible Agency in Our Man in Havana. As I struggle to write engaging thrillers, I keep these and other works in my mind, not to copy, but as strong examples of all that’s possible.

To write now, in the context of the decline of democracy, the rise of nationalism, backlash against globalism, fraying political alliances and norms, is to stare at a reality that’s all too noir.

Situational morality, suspect propaganda and win-at-any-cost gambits used to be the province of clandestine agencies. Now it’s mainstream politics. If, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means,” then we are simultaneously the prize to be won and the foe.

“How the hell did it all come to this?” is a question we should all be asking.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series is due out at the end of this year.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.

 

 

Downtown revitalization management is perfect training for writing thrillers

In the past, I’ve joked that there’s a well-worn path between downtown revitalization non-profits and writing thrillers…because let’s face it, there isn’t. Lately, as I think about it, I’m not so sure it’s a joke.

My former jobs were perfect training for writing thrillers.

MysteriousAffair.panel

A Mysterious Affair in Princeton

Recently, I was a late addition to a panel at “A Mysterious Affair in Princeton” put on by the Cloak & Dagger bookstore, which was a fantastic “affair,” with great speakers and a very nice turnout of mystery-thriller readers who had insightful questions.

The day’s final speaker was SJ Rozan, best known for the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series and other mysteries. Her talk revolved around why people are drawn to mysteries and thrillers.

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SJ Rozan

She began by discussing “ur” stories, or essential narratives, that we tell ourselves over and again. The job of mysteries, she said, going back to their essence as “ur” stories, “is to provide an explanation” for what happened in an otherwise arbitrary, indifferent world.

The essence of a thriller, she noted, my ears pricking up farther, is simply: “is there enough time?” Can the hero(es) stop the ticking bomb or thwart the bad guys? What will it take to stop it?

As good as her talk was, I’m afraid I started thinking a lot about thrillers and stopped listening. My thrillers are indeed predicated on timing. In Faithless Elector, the tension concerns whether the heroine and hero can get the information out in time to stop the conspiracy, and in Dark Network, they’re confronted with a plot no one initially believes exists. In both cases, if the presidency is stolen—as we’re seeing now in the real world—it’s next to impossible to effect meaningful change after the fact.

This past week, I applied for a part-time job with a commercial district management organization. As I worked on my cover letter, wondering how much (or even if!) I should discuss writing novels as the reason for my hiatus from the world of non-profits, I found myself thinking about what leadership of a non-profit entailed.

downtown.revitalzIt turns out, managing a commercial district is perfect training for thrillers. Not that death and mayhem are ever part of the work, thankfully, but the planning and execution is eerily similar to plotting a thriller.

First, (Act One, let’s call it) there is a cast of characters in any district. In order to be effective, the district manager must know who the main players are, who the ancillary players are, how they interact and what it is they want. Scene setting, exposition. Often what they want is at odds with what others want, and they will coalesce into mini interest groups—Conflict!

And then something happens to disrupt the equilibrium (such as it is). Information that wasn’t meant to come to light is revealed, or someone is murdered…or there is a block grant available. Which takes us to Act Two.

Act Two, then, is where the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle toward achieving his/her goal of exposing the conspiracy or beginning a façade improvement program. Anyone who has worked in non-profit/local government will recognize this trope, and any such person might be forgiven for having daydreamed a timely murder or two.

Act Two sees the “first culmination” wherein it looks like the hero(ine)/district manager will achieve their goal. Inevitably, everything falls apart, leading to the “midpoint,” where it seems all hope is lost.

This leads naturally to Act Three, and the “climax” –the point of maximum tension where the opposing forces confront one another (Board meeting, anyone?). Act Three, then, shows how the world/commercial district returns to equilibrium having successfully navigated the obstacles—or failed miserably.

It’s the ending, however, where the non-profit and the fictional worlds diverge.  The thriller writer Tom Clancy once famously said:  “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  He might just as easily have been talking about the difference between non-profit district management and thrillers.

 

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 James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

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

Imogen Trager’s online presence

Imogen.site1Apparently, Imogen Trager, the heroine of my books, Faithless Elector and Dark Network has a larger online presence than I do!

When a friend recently took a Facebook personality test, it concluded that my friend should consider becoming an FBI agent.  Jokingly, I suggested she change her name to Imogen Trager–who is an FBI Agent.

My friend felt she knew the name (she has read the book), but Googled it nevertheless.  To her (and my!) surprise, Imogen has quite a large online presence.  In fact, Imogen Trager has a larger, more consistent online presence than I have.imogen_trager.google_search2016.10.30

I find I’m a bit jealous.

Or is it darker than that?

All writers hope their characters have a life “beyond the page.”  We hope they seem real.  I remember one of the highest compliments I received some 25 years ago was from an acquaintance who told me how at a dinner party he’d started telling a story about something that had happened to a friend of his.

But as he told the story, he later related to me, he realized he was talking about a scene from the book I was writing back then, and the “friend” he was talking about was a character in the book he had read.

Why did that earlier instance make me feel good, where this leaves me troubled?  Am I a modern-day Major Kovalyov, obsessed with status and rank?

In Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story, “The Nose,” Major Kovalyov’s nose goes missing and ends up living a better life than he, its owner. Kovalyov frets and seethes because his nose achieves greater social rank (status) than he ever had himself.

The Nose-GogolPerhaps the difference between now and 25 years ago is the nature of status: how it’s achieved, and what it represents.  In the indy-publishing business, we live by ‘mentions,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘follows;’ by ‘shares,’ author- and sales rankings–all of it contributing to our rank (our “status?”) in search engines. To be on page two of the search results is almost as bad as not existing.

I think it must be the exclusivity of her presence on the search results page that bothers me. Her rank is such that the first two pages of search results relate to her and no one else; whereas I have to share my “james mccrone” presence with a musician, an insurance broker in London (they seem like very nice people) and an ad for Ancestry.com.

RedHairWill Imogen and her red hair continue this life of their own?  Will her status grow and mine wane?

Or am I just losing my mind?

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 James McCrone is the author of the political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network….featuring Imogen Trager.

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

Sailing too close to the wind: Guest post on The Reading Cafe

Sailing Too Close to the Wind, by James McCroneblog.ReadingCafe

A well-crafted political thriller should feel “real.” To do so, it has to flirt with real events. But sometimes I worry I’m sailing just a bit too close to the wind.

Read the full post…and enter to WIN a giveaway for one free, signed copy of Faithless Elector
-or-
Dark Network

Faithless Electors and Constitutional scrutiny could see the end of the Electoral College

Scholars have long held that Electors are independent decision-makers, and that the state laws enacted to force them to vote with the plurality in their state would fail a Constitutional challenge.  There is no mention of the current system we have all come to know in the Constitution.

538-div2 buttonThese state laws have stood for years because until now, no one had standing to bring a case.

Until Wednesday, August 15, 2017.

In Colorado, in Washington State and elsewhere, electors were fined, replaced or both for flouting the laws in their respective states.  On Wednesday, Harvard professor, Lawrence Lessig, on behalf of two members of Colorado’s Electoral College filed suit claiming voter intimidation against them by the Colorado Secretary of State; and they have filed their suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado.

The legal wrangling will be interesting, but if the Supreme Court (and make no mistake, that’s where this is all now heading) were to rule that Electors were independent actors and decision-makers in their own right, we might see the end of the Electoral College in the United States.

blogpic.COIndy.FE files suit“Whether you agree that they have a constitutional right to vote how they want or not, this election has opened up the door, and it’s really important for the Supreme Court to clarify what the rule is,” [professor] Lessig says. “We don’t want to get another close election and have this uncertainty affect the actual results. Either way the court ought to clarify, and our hope is this we’ll have a vehicle to give them a chance to do that.” (full story here, in The Colorado Independent)

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, and Dark Network (on sale Oct. 20). Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”  Kirkus Reviews says it’s “a gripping and intelligently executed political drama.”

The sequel, Dark Network, is coming in October 20, 2017.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available NOW through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up your copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  
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