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 – Håkan Nesser
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.