Monday, November 22, 2010

In The Spotlight: Margaret Truman's Murder at the Kennedy Center

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As the daughter of President Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman had a unique perspective on politics and on Washington, DC. Her mysteries take readers “behind the scenes” at the White House, in Congress, and in several embassies, among other places. Truman didn’t create the political-intrigue mystery, but she did make political mysteries very popular, and her novels have given millions of readers an interesting look at American politics. So let’s take a closer look at Murder at the Kennedy Center.

This novel begins with the preparations for a major fundraising event to be held at Washington’s Kennedy Center in support of Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the U.S. presidency. Since Ewald is known for his support of culture and the arts, several famous musicians will be performing, and the event is expected to be a huge success. On the night of the event, Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staffer, is shot. Mackensie “Mac” Smith, a well-respected attorney and law professor at Georgetown University, finds the body while he’s walking his dog. He knows Feldman, since he’s friendly with Ewald and has supported his candidacy. Smith reports the murder and almost immediately is drawn into its investigation. It turns out that Ewald’s son Paul was having an affair with Andrea Feldman, so he’s one of the first suspects. The Ewalds ask Smith to help Paul defend himself, and Smith agrees.

Before long, Smith finds that Andrea Feldman’s death was more complicated than it seems on the surface. The gun used in the murder belongs to Senator Ewald, so he becomes a suspect, as do the other members of his family. There are also several forces that have been working against Ewald’s candidacy for reasons of their own. Colonel Gilbert Morales, the deposed military leader of Panama, for instance, would like nothing better than to ensure that Ewald isn’t elected, since Ewald’s opponent is much more sympathetic to Morales’ cause. The same is true of the Reverand Garrett Kane, an evangelical minister with quite a lot of followers and an agenda that could be upset by an Ewald victory. For both men, anything that would derail Ewald’s campaign – including Andrea Feldman’s murder – would serve their interests. Ewald’s got other political enemies, too, who’d like to see him fail. Smith works with his lover, art dealer Annabel Reed, and with private investigator Tony Buffolino to find out who really killed Andrea Feldman and why.

One of the elements that runs through this novel is the theme of power. Power can have a very seductive appeal, and we see that appeal in the motives of several of the characters. Ewald, of course, wants the presidency, a position of great power. He has an egalitarian agenda, but he knows full well that he can’t reach his goals without gaining the power of the presidency.

Colonel Morales wants to be returned to power in Panama. He claims that he wants U.S. support in order to get rid of the “Communist regime” that’s taken over since he was deposed, but it’s not hard to see that he also very much wants to rule his country. Reverend Garrett Kane is also interested in power. He’s a well-funded evangelist with quite a lot of followers, and he’s very much concerned that an Ewald presidency might mean his financial practices might come under scrutiny. Several of the other characters in the story are also motivated by the desire for personal or political power. In fact, in the end, Smith discovers that Andrea Feldman’s death had a lot to do with the appeal of power. The killer says this about politics and power:

“There are no ideas or ideals in politics. The only thing that matters is winning.”

Here’s Smith’s perception of the killer:

“….so like many young people in Smith’s law classes, void of ideals, of dreams other than wealth and power.”

Along with the theme of power, another element we see in this novel is the theme of hidden secrets. This element comes through in several different ways. For instance, on the surface, the Ewald family seems like the “perfect” American political family. Ken Ewald is a successful U.S. senator who’s never been caught in a scandal. He and his wife Leslie have been married for quite a long time, and they’re both proud of their son Paul, who’s got a successful import/export business, and their daughter-in-law Janet. As we soon learn, though, that’s only what the news media reports. The reality is quite different. Although Ken and Leslie Ewald love each other, and she is supportive of him, the strain of his candidacy takes a toll on their marriage. The relationship between Paul and Janet Ewald isn’t particularly happy either, and there is strain between Janet Ewald and Paul’s parents.

On the surface, Garrett Kane seems to be a well-meaning evangelical minister. He and his wife don’t live ostentatiously, and Kane has never been caught in one of the scandals that all too often are associated with prominent ministers. Underneath that surface, though, we find out that Garrett Kane is hiding some very dirty financial secrets. It’s quite possible, too, that he might have been responsible for the sudden death of a young man who’d worked for him. As Smith, Reed and Buffolino find out more and more about Kane, they also find out that he has much to hide.

And then there’s the element of political wheeling and dealing. Throughout the novel, Truman gives the reader a look at what goes on “behind the scenes” in a political campaign. All sorts of political alliances are revealed, including one between Colonel Morales and the incumbent U.S. president. There’s also “backroom politics” as the two Democratic contenders for the White House square off against each other. We also learn of the role that Andrea Feldman played in her boss’ campaign, and how that, too, was affected by political intrigue.

“Dirty politics” comes into play, too. In fact, Feldman’s killer says this:

“There isn’t a politician in this country who doesn’t try to gather damaging information about opponents, and most of them are happy to pay for it.”

All of this political intrigue and revelation of secrets is played out, for the most part, against a Washington, D.C. backdrop. From the campus of Georgetown University to Capitol Hill to the Kennedy Center to some less-reputable areas of the city, the reader explores Washington. And in fact, the story and setting are very well-matched.

Murder at the Kennedy Center explores ambition and the desire for power and their effect on people’s lives. It also shows the extent to which people might go to hide secrets if those secrets get in the way of their ambition. All of these elements play out in a plot that features plenty of Washington political intrigue. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder at the Kennedy Center? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 29 November/Tuesday 30 November – The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

Monday 6 December/Tuesday 7 December – Tied Up in Tinsel - Ngaio Marsh

Monday 13 December/Tuesday 14 December – Mind’s Eye – HÃ¥kan Nesser

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, who was murdered on 22 November 1963. Whatever the real truth about his assassination, it was a tragedy. I don’t know how history would have been different had Kennedy not been killed, but it is also tragic that we will never know.


  1. I learn so much from your spotlights. I haven't read any of Margaret Truman's books, but I'm going to add her to my must read list now. Ambition and power are great elements of a mystery. It can be the cause of someone committing a crime or used as a red herring.

    Your memorial paragraph brings home a very important point - what would our history be like had he not been killed?

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thanks for the kind words :-). I agree, too, that ambition and the love of power are very important motives for murder; they're seductive, they're strong and they're quite credible as driving forces. That's one thing I like about this novel; it shows those motives in a believable way.

    And you know, I've wondered more than once what history might have been like had Kennedy not been killed. I don't know, of course, but it's an interesting question to me...

  3. I have never heard of this writer. HOwever, it's so much more interesting when writers actually have inside knowledge of the setting they're writing about. I'll have to look her up.


  4. Clarissa - You're so right! Writers who have "inside knowledge" of a city, an industry, an event or something else can tell a story with so much credibility! Truman's novels reflect that knowledge, I think.

  5. I think I've read all of her books. I love them.They give a feeling of behind the scenes.
    I enjoy your spotlights.

  6. Mary - Thank you :-). You're right that Truman's books really do take the reader "inside" Washington. They allow the reader a real sense of being a part of the story, and as you say, they give the reader of being "behind the scenes."

  7. As you know I read this one earlier this year at your recommendation and I agree it does provide a great insight into the political world. What struck me most was the realism of the fact that there really isn't anyone in politics who doesn't have something to hide - even though it was far more realistic that there wasn't one person who was all good and one who was all bad in the tussle for the Party's nomination it was still a little disappointing - I would like to think there is some alternate reality where there are people in politics purely for the right reasons!

  8. Bernadette - I rather felt that way, too, when I read this one. It was very realistic in terms of the people's characters. Everybody - even the nice ones - was out for something and hiding something. I haven't yet found that alternate reality, either, where people get into politics for the right reasons. I wish there were one. We just finished election season here, and it was so disappointing. Even the people whom I voted for didn't really get into "the race" for reasons I'd have liked.

  9. I'll never forget the horror I felt the day President Kennedy was shot. My first child was just a few months old, and I was suddenly so frightened for him and for all of us.

  10. Never read any of her books, but I will be sure to keep my eyes open for them. An insider such as her would have great stories to tell. I even liked the stories by martina Navratilova for that reason, even though they were childish in the extreme

  11. Patricia - Kennedy's assassination, I think, changed everything for us - permanently. Everyone was so horrified and afraid for the future. It was a terrible time, wasn't it?

    Rayna - I have to admit, I haven't read any Navratilova, but she certainly would understand all there is to know about the game of tennis. And I think Margaret Truman's being "on the inside" does lend some authenticity to her novels. One also gets a real flavour of the city of Washington from her novels, too.

  12. Just when I thought that I would be able to make some dent in my ever increasing TBR backlog ("ever increasing"-thanks to your spotlight!);) you've come up with another great author that I have not read at all!

    I was expecting to complete reading Deborah Crombie by the end of this month. Great author! thanks for introducing her work to me.

  13. Amey - Ah, you've tumbled onto my evil plot to increase everyone's TBR ;-). Truman actually was a good author and some of her stories are first-class political intrigues. I hope you'll enjoy them :-).

    And I'm glad that you are enjoying Deborah Crombie, too. She is a talented writer!