History-altering events produce consequences that are sometimes unintended. In our post-9/11 age, the political landscape has quickly altered, from the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton years to perpetual war in the Bush years. Laws have changed to promote greater “security,” and liberties that were once taken for granted have been eroded all in the name of protecting “us” from terrorists. The swiftness with which the PATRIOT act was passed, the illegal wiretapping that has gone on, the way in which electronic voting can be manipulated to change the outcome of an election, lying about the threats the county of Iraq posed to the United States, and on and on is quite prevalent in the newspapers. So it’s of little surprise to see that in the popular culture, the post-9/11 culture of war, paranoia, threats from “The Other,” and the like have been a source for fiction. Fans of 24 know the world of appearance, and the “real” world underneath the gloss, are polar opposites. Fans of Battlestar Galactica can see our own cultural and political issues being played out in a drama where the protagonists and antagonists struggle with not only their identity, but also life in a state of war where the battles are frequent, lives are lost, and enemy and friend have a shared history.
Out of this cauldron comes a new novel by Betsy Hartmann. Deady Election is a political thriller about consequences (intended and unintended) that takes place in a United States very much like our own. The president is a recovering alcoholic/”Born Again” Christian who’s not too bright when it comes to affairs of state. His closest adviser, Lyndon Tottman, is a Machiavellian of the highest order who uses whatever unsavory means he has at his disposal to keep the president in power. And very close to Tottman is the First Lady, whose Southern-gal charms mask a hunger for power that matches Lyndon’s ability to secure it. Those wearing the “white hats” in this story are Matthew Pomeroy (a Supreme Court Justice), Lisa Derby (an assistant to a liberal Senator from Minnesota who dies in a suspicious plane crash a la Paul Wellstone), her boyfriend, Nick, and Faith Jones (the mother of murdered prisoner Salim Mohammed).
The plot centers on the murder of Mohammed — a prisoner of the government whose citizenship has been stripped for being a suspected terrorist under a new law called the Citizen Defense Act. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case and rule on the constitutionality of the Act until Mohammed dies. It’s quickly revealed that Mohammed was murdered by the government to keep the case from being heard by the Supreme Court, and soon Lyndon Tottman and Trudy are setting up a series of staged events to cancel an upcoming presidential election, declare martial law, and dissolve what little checks and balances are left in the Constitution. Because this is a political thriller, most of the action takes place among the “shadow world” where nefarious things are done with nefarious people who don’t really have a conscience. The problem with dealing with amoral people is that one runs the risk of being double crossed — and that certainly happens in this tale.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing what happens, but I will point out that while Hartmann has written a taut thriller, it’s a little too taut for my taste. I’m generally not a reader of this genre of fiction, but I found the way in which she structured her story somewhat frustrating. Each chapter has a series of vignettes that focuses on individual characters that are far too short. My problem is that this style left very little time for the reader to connect with the characters. Moreover, the action shifted too rapidly to another scene and another set of characters just when emotional connections were being made. The result is a novel that is structured as series of cliffhangers — but done with such maddening rapidity that felt like I was reading a book marketed to people with A.D.D.
Hartmann writes well and she keeps the dialogue economical, but there were many times I wanted her to take her own background as an academic and expand on some of the political scenarios she sketches in her novel. Perhaps a political thriller would be the wrong place for the elucidation I craved while reading her book. However, considering that Deadly Election will appeal to those who look at what the Bush Administration (along with a willing Congress) is doing in the name of national security, it would have been more satisfying if the plot didn’t follow a conventional path with sparse details.