Six of the Best Political Thrillers
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth
This is the “Titanic” of political thrillers. Not because Kate Winslet whispers sweet nothings into Frederick Forsyth’s ears, but because it’s a book where everybody knew the ending going in (Charles de Gaulle, whose assassination attempt motors this book, lived long past its publication). But the fun is, of course, how we get to that ending to discover just how de Gaulle lives. A right wing group has hired the world’s most deadly assassin—the titular Jacket—to murder France’s president, and only mild-mannered, unimposing (yet brilliant) detective Claude Lebel can stop him. The Jackal is a frightening antagonist, a flesh-and-blood Terminator, and we watch in fascination and dread as he slowly assembles everything he needs to get the job done, wondering just how this man can be stopped. Meanwhile Lebel has to follow the miniscule clues the Jackal leaves behind in a cat-and-mouse game that resembles an old Ford pickup trying to outrace a Lamborghini.
ABSOLUTE POWER by David Baldacci
This book has an emotional context for me: I read (and devoured) ABSOLUTE POWER on recommendation from my father, an avid reader of crime fiction. I loved the story, was blown away by the opening chapter (The President is a murderer? Inconceivable!). And when I interviewed for my first job in publishing, I mentioned offhand enjoying this book, not knowing I was actually interviewing with Baldacci’s editor. He hired me. This novel also subverts the standard political thriller trope of the hero being some sort of highly-trained Special Ops Agent. No, Luther Whitney is a cat burglar (and a card-carrying AARP member!) who has largely avoided direct conflict since the Korean War. Also, if your only experience with this story is the Clint Eastwood movie, pick up the book. The mid-novel plot twist, which was left out of the film, is truly shocking.
THE SUM OF ALL FEARS by Tom Clancy
In 2017, a generation of readers might only know Clancy from his mega-popular video game franchise (Ghost Recon, Op Center, etc) and spin-off novels, or the co-authored titles that still pop up on shelves like clockwork. But in the 80’s and 90’s, Clancy reinvented the political thriller and sold more books than just about anyone not named King, Grisham, or Rowling. Aside from having one of the greatest titles of all time (in my opinion), The Sum of All Fears is a 900+ page bullet train of a novel centered around a lost Israeli nuclear weapon which falls into the hands of Palestinian terrorists, who seek to detonate it during the Super Bowl in the hopes of starting a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Clancy is an expert in both geopolitics and nuclear hardware, and can make either a meeting between warring diplomats or a disaffected German scientist assembling a bomb absolutely riveting.
THE CONSTANT GARDENER by John le Carré
Nobody wrote about the threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility of World War War III better than Tom Clancy. And nobody writes cerebral, labyrinthine, character-driven thrillers like John le Carré. Justin Quayle, a British diplomat, investigates the murder of his wife, Tessa, an idealistic activist traveling in war-torn Africa. Quayle has grown comfortable with an undemanding government job, where he can tend to his flower garden (hence the title) in peace while his younger wife galavants around the world trying to save it. Yet as Quayle digs into his wife’s death, he learns that her murder was simply a cover up for something far more sinister, and for the first time in his fairly unremarkable life, Quayle finds himself motivated to take action rather than let hope die in dusty meeting rooms. As well as being a riveting thriller, The Constant Gardener is also a criticism of globalization, how corporate greed can intertwine with political warfare, and an analysis of a man grown soft through blissful inaction being forced to understand a wife he realizes that he really never knew.
THE GHOST by Robert Harris
A political thriller revolving around the publication of a politician’s memoirs. Sounds dreary, right? Not in the hands of the brilliant Harris (Fatherland). The Ghost of the title refers to the unnamed narrator, hired by former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly veiled Tony Blair), to help ghostwriter his memoirs. Lang has sequestered himself in Martha’s Vineyard to write the book, but his first ghostwriter has seemingly fallen to his death off the ferry. And as our Ghost takes on the job, leading to a split with his girlfriend (who despises Blair, I mean Lang’s, policies) he begins to dig into Lang’s past in order to properly flesh out the character, er, man, he intends to write about. Needless to say, the Ghost stumbles upon information that would be hugely detrimental to Lang, and he begins to wonder whether the previous ghost may have met an untimely death because of it. This novel met tremendous controversy for its veiled (thinly veiled—as in, barely the thickness of tissue paper veiled) portrayal of Tony Blair, whom Harris called “a tragic narcissist with a messiah complex,” and the cynicism of politicians who leave often office and then cash in with multimillion dollar book deals where they then attempt to gloss over any remotely controversial moments from their life and career.
THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King
Wait, you say, Stephen King doesn’t write political thrillers. Well, that may be true, but the political underpinnings of this classic novel are impossible to miss. We meet bible salesman Gregory Stillson early on, as he shows his true colors by kicking a dog to death after being rebuffed by the dog’s owner. Stillson isn’t the smartest man, but he has ambition, and he connects with crowds through fire and brimstone speeches that soon gets him elected mayor of a small town, and then wins him a seat in the House of Representatives (using blackmailing for campaign “donations”). Johnny Smith was injured as a child, and ever since then has been able to see future ‘visions’ simply by touching people. And when he brushes up against Stillson at a campaign rally, he sees Stillson in the White House starting a nuclear war. Johnny knows that Stillson must be stopped, but abhors murder and struggles to bring himself to take a life, even if it means possibly saving millions. A fantastic climax sees Johnny revealing Stillson’s true colors. While not necessarily a political thriller in the common sense, King shows his true understanding of what makes often a successful politician. It’s not pedigree, education, or even decency, but an ability of a candidate to get people to hate and fear others more than they may dislike you. Sound familiar?