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The Accomplice by Charles Robbins

The Accomplice by Charles Robbins (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) is a book that I approach feeling it’s in the right place at the right time. As everyone will know, America is going through the last few weeks of the four-year ritual comprising the Presidential Election. Despite the polarisation of the party system which inhibits consensus politics, the symbolism of the Presidency is still viewed as moderately transcendent. Even though the occupant of the White House may not actually be able to get much of significance done because of the trench warfare in the bicameral legislative wing of government, the electorate choses the man to lead the country. It’s a time of some optimism as the voters have the transitory feeling they may be making a difference. This particular author has inside experience having, inter alia, acted as Communications Director for the presidential campaign of Arlen Specter, experience that gives much of the book a reasonably authentic feel when describing the back office of a major campaign. So what does this mean for the book as a whole?

We start with a relatively inexperienced Henry Hatten finding himself in on the ground floor of a presidential run by Senator Tom Peele. As in a fantasy world, this is a moderate Republican candidate and yet still in with a shout if only he can negotiate the early foothills of the Iowa caucuses without any major blemishes on his escutcheon. This senator is a candidate who tips his hat at Ronald Reagan having held a leading role as Ranger Roy in a television show, Parkland, where “. . .he fought forest fires, rescued tourists and bears, and made a generation of teenage girls swoon.” Now all Henry has to do once in position as Communications Director is keep a lid on anything that might threaten his Senator’s progress through to the White House. As it is, Peele more or less has the Jewish vote sewn up and appeals to the silent majority of moderates. To emerge the winner, all he has to go is find an accommodation with the evangelicals and the pro-life, family values conservatives. Obviously building a coalition is not going to be easy, but it’s necessary even if it does involve a little blackmail from those who bankroll the more extreme right wing groups. Equally important is a stock-market scam to earn a buck or two for the campaign funds — all coming in from disinterested (insider) parties, of course. To further complicate matters, our candidate is an inveterate womaniser, always looking for a bright young volunteer to enroll in a supportive capacity while he’s away from home campaigning or earning his keep in Washington.

Charles Robbins as seen by Alev Sezer Jacobs

At this point, I need to clarify my thoughts. If this was a political thriller built around a presidential campaign, it could be structured to show the flaws of the senator more clearly. That way, we can watch as the wheels slowly disintegrate and fall off the axels, leaving the horses hitched to a wagon that ain’t going nowhere. Except there’s very little tension in the opening two-thirds of the book and no sense that our hero is at risk. We know there’s a big stock market manipulation in the works but we’re not allowed to see it being planned nor to follow how it’s performing. There are just vague headlines and the news that Henry Hatten has been recruited as a patsy to be thrown to the wolves if anything criminal is detected in any aspect of the campaign. This element should have been brought to the fore or there should have been a real sense that the Press were going to make major disclosures about the women in the Senator’s life. Paparazzi slightly-out-of-focus, long-lens shots should show the candidate with an unidentified woman. All this could have been built into a really interesting narrative. Yet we get a murder. My sense is that the author, in his first novel, panicked. He realised the book was going nowhere as it was and, in an attempt to rescue himself, he decided to kill of one of the people who knows about the scam.

In real terms, this leaves very little time for our hero to work out who the killer is. He’s supposed to be running a high-profile press campaign for the next President of America, and getting very little sleep as a result. Now he’s suddenly to interrogate possible suspects, liaising with the police, and so on? It just doesn’t work. When you kill someone off early, you can have the hero spend the rest of the book trying to work out the who and why. Alternatively, you forget the murder and chart the death of a political campaign founded on various levels of fraud and dishonesty. This plot falls flat on its face right between the two stools. The result was I really didn’t care whodunnit nor whether our moderate Republican was elected. There’s little or no emotional connection with any of the characters who all seemed stereotypes recruited from central casting. Yes, there are one or two nice one-liners and there’s some interest in the mechanics of the campaigning, but merely having a book out on the shelves at the right time does not make it a good book. Even the title, The Accomplice, turns out misleading because at no time do the police suspect our hero is an accomplice in the murder. Sad really that an insider should waste all his real-world experience in producing something so lifeless.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. October 2, 2012 at 1:29 am

    Actually, and not having read the book, I think I might understand why it fails for you. Arlen Specter was a moderate Republican who, in 2010, found himself up against a more conservative challenger in an election where he would probably fail to win re-nomination on the Republican ticket. He switched sides, but subsequently lost his bid to run on the Democratic ticket. He was very much a party-machine politician whose long political career was killed by a conservative surge he couldn’t accommodate. Charles Robbins may very well have had a personal axe to grind here. Striking the right balance when you have an agenda that goes beyond the plot can be tough.

    • October 2, 2012 at 1:50 am

      My problem is not with the politics. It’s structural. I enjoy political theatre. I enjoy murder mysteries. I just wish this author had decided which book he wanted to write before he started.

      • October 2, 2012 at 2:25 am

        That’s kind of what I meant–he may have wanted to write a political commentary but thought he needed a thriller-plot to sell it, or he may have wanted a thriller but let his political leanings get in the way.

      • October 2, 2012 at 2:57 am

        Ah, sorry I didn’t pick up the message clearly. Yes, we are in agreement. There’s a definite sense of wish-fullfilment in the agenda to advance the moderate Republican cause and sadness when the fictional vessel proves too weak to succeed. Obviously, that’s not really going to sell in numbers so packaging it as a thriller might have looked a good idea. Except he’s put the cart before the horse. He should have written a murder mystery set in a campaign HQ and sprinkled a little star dust from his experience when it didn’t detract from working out whodunnit.

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