“Hellfire Club” by Jake Tapper; Little, Brown & Co. (342 pages, $27)
Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation, all around him legislators and lobbyists plot and plunder.
That’s right, it’s 1954, the height of the reign of terror of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
What did you think I was talking about?
If you notice parallels between that notorious period in American political history and the present day in “The Hellfire Club,” they may not be accidental.
As an award-winning journalist, the novel’s author has had an up-close view of Washington’s political scene for more than 15 years. Jake Tapper is the chief Washington correspondent for CNN, anchor of the CNN weekday television news show “The Lead With Jake Tapper” and host of the Sunday morning program “State of the Union.”
Tapper has published three nonfiction books, including the best-selling “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” but “The Hellfire Club” is his first novel, a historical political thriller that interweaves a fictional hero and story with real events and people.
The fictional hero is Charlie Marder, a rookie member of Congress from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The novel opens with a bang: After a night of drunken revelry he only half remembers, Charlie awakens in Rock Creek Park near a partly submerged, totally unfamiliar car, with no idea how he got there. There’s a dead woman nearby, and a lobbyist with an intricate web of connections shows up at just the right time to help.
From that harrowing start, the novel backs up a couple of months to Charlie’s early days in Washington. A World War II combat veteran, he became a history professor at Columbia, basking in the success of his best-selling book about the Founding Fathers, Sons of Liberty, and happy in his marriage to Margaret, who’s a rare bird in 1954, a zoologist with her own career.
Charlie is also the son of Winston Marder, a New York lawyer and powerful Republican operative. When the congressman who represents the Manhattan district where Charlie lives is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Winston pulls some strings and gets Charlie appointed to fill out the term in Congress.
Charlie fancies himself worldly; when he and Margaret see the young Sen. John F. Kennedy at a play, she chides Charlie for a flip remark about Kennedy’s reputation as a womanizer. “How would Aristotle put it?” he responds. “All men who cheat are bastards. All presidents need to be able to be bastards. Therefore, all presidents should cheat!”
Margaret doesn’t buy it, and Charlie is, in fact, a babe in the woods of Washington’s corruption. When he takes an idealistic stand against funding for a company that manufactured defective gas masks because he witnessed a death caused by the masks during the war, he slams up against the culture of trading favors and going along to get along — or else.
His formidable office manager, Catherine Leopold, inherited from his predecessor, tries to train Charlie. When Estes Kefauver, a powerful Democratic representative from Tennessee and one of the novel’s many real-life characters, takes Charlie under his wing, he asks the younger man to help set up a hearing in New York on a subject Charlie finds ridiculous: the insidious effects of violent comic books on America’s children. When Charlie balks, Leopold urges him to bite his tongue and take the opportunity Kefauver is offering for positive exposure.
Charlie tries to sort out the bewildering networks around him and find genuine allies, such as Isaiah Street, a former Tuskegee Airman and one of only two black men in Congress. But the pressure of his new job is also affecting his marriage. Margaret is newly and happily pregnant, but she leaves for a research trip in part to take a breather from her husband and his problems.
Those problems intensify when he’s invited to a party in hotel mogul Conrad Hilton’s private suite in the Mayflower Hotel, a celebration of the GOP’s success in passing a bill to allow more Mexican immigrants into the country. (Real fact, real irony.)
The party turns out to be a meeting of the Hellfire Club, a descendant of the historical club of the same name founded in 18th century London as a place where aristocrats and politicians could indulge their wildest desires — and forge a perverse bond based on intimate knowledge of each other’s worst secrets.
There, Charlie gets into a vicious argument with McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn (who would outlive his disgraced boss and thrive a couple of decades later in Manhattan as John Gotti’s attorney and Donald Trump’s mentor). After that, things get hazy, and the book circles around to that car crash.
There’s much more to come. Tapper is obviously not only a politics addict but a history geek. Fans of such authors as Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer will recognize elements like clues hidden in paintings and old documents, which characters will pause to explicate before getting back to the chases and shootouts that escalate as the book goes on.
The politicians in “The Hellfire Club” spend so much time plotting against each other it’s a wonder they get any work done at all, although maybe that’s realistic.
As is common in thrillers, some of the more outlandish events don’t bear much close examination, like escaping would-be killers on a remote island by blending in with a herd of stampeding ponies. And the author has some distracting tics — it’s really not necessary to remind us that Margaret is pregnant every single time she’s mentioned.
But “The Hellfire Club”’s fast pace and brio carry the story along. And if, like me, you’re fascinated by our nation’s political history, “The Hellfire Club” is hot summer reading.