There’s a compliment I’ve been getting recently which I don’t deserve. “Your new book,” people say. “I absolutely love the cover.”
I wish I could claim some credit for it, but that belongs entirely to the brilliant designer, Dominic Forbes. So I just smile and nod along. Especially with what most of them say next. ‘It looks like one of those classic 70s thrillers.’
Dead right. Maybe it’s the typeface, or the use of black-and-white, but that’s what it reminds me of too. To Kill The President looks like it could sit alongside some of the classics from the heyday of the dark conspiracy thriller, the era of The Day Of The Jackal and The Odessa File or, at the movies, Three Days Of The Condor and The Parallax View.
I was too young for those stories when they came out, but I’ve always loved them. When the Inspector Rebus creator Ian Rankin tweeted that To Kill the President was a “Day Of The Jackal for these dizzying times,” I could think of no higher praise.
But what was it about the novels of Frederick Forsyth or the much-underrated Ira Levin (he of The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby) or the movies of Alan J Pakula that left such a mark?
I suspect their impact derives, in part, from their grounding in the real world. No matter how high-concept or even fantastical they become, their starting point is always an engagement with contemporary reality. The Jackal was Forsyth’s imagined assassin, hired by the all-too-real OAS, the French nationalist paramilitary organisation which resisted the ending of French colonial rule over Algeria. The Odessa File was about the genuine network of Nazi war criminals that operated in the decades after 1945, a theme picked up by The Boys from Brazil. Three Days Of The Condor dealt with a US intelligence establishment that was out of control, at a time when the CIA and other agencies were mired in allegations of illegal activity.
It meant these stories, even the wilder ones, had some foundation in reality, which lent them extra force. What’s more, they were engaging in subjects that really mattered. The Odessa File is a cracking yarn, but the lingering presence of ex-Nazis in the higher reaches of German national life was a serious issue for that country in that period. The Stepford Wives is a page-turner, but it’s also as good a commentary as any on the fear that 1970s feminism – then branded “women’s liberation” – stirred in many men.
Hovering over nearly all these tales is a brooding sense of power gone awry, of dark forces shaping the world beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen – with that citizen represented by the story’s everyman hero. (In those days, it was almost always a hero rather than a heroine. To Kill The President departs from the 70s template by having a woman, White House troubleshooter Maggie Costello, lead the action.)
That sense of a shadowy establishment up to no good made sense to readers then because of what was happening in the real world. Americans discovered that their own government had lied to them about the conduct of the Vietnam War. A committee of the US Senate, headed by Democrat Frank Church, revealed that the intelligence agencies were engaged in political assassinations and spying on US citizens. And, in the Watergate affair, the president himself was exposed as a liar and a crook. (Indeed, perhaps the definitive 1970s conspiracy thriller was a book and film that was not even fiction: All The President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s legendary account of the Watergate investigation.)
Which brings us to today. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has, once again, left a legacy of distrust in government. And the White House is occupied by a man who does little to hide his eagerness to profit from his office and whose grasp on the truth is slippery at best. Just as the 1970s provided an atmosphere in which tales of conspiracy could flourish, so our own time seems newly ripe for the dark political thriller. Or put another way: I hope, and suspect, that it won’t just be the cover of To Kill The President that strikes a chord.
Jonathan Freedland is the author of To Kill the President, published under the name Sam Bourne, HarperCollins, £7.99