The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago left a John le Carré-sized void in the world of spy fiction that would eventually be filled by D.C. political thrillers. But by now these D.C. thrillers have become as formulaic as they are ubiquitous in airplane seat-back compartments and library sale bins. What the writers of the many thousands of D.C. thrillers failed to understand is that the true genius of le Carré lies in treating Russian cabals and assassination plots and soviet recruitment tactics all as mere vehicles for a story about the person who must navigate them—that these great spy thrillers had a deeply psychological element. This is something Jake Tapper seems to have figured out in his debut novel The Hellfire Club. The Hellfire Club is a reminder that the rarest thing of all in spy novels is a writer willing to give us a character who could exist just as easily in any kind of literary fiction.
Tapper’s novel begins one night in 1954 when freshman Congressman Charlie Marder wakes up in a crashed-out Studebaker with a dead waitress in the passenger seat. Over the next 300 pages we learn how Marder ended up in this ravine—how Marder, a WWII veteran, butted heads with a secret society of powerful politicians and businessmen, how easily he bent to the power and betrayal of Washington despite his own misgivings, how when stripped down we are nothing but a contradictory mix of instincts for both surrender and self-preservation. And amid this story about a man struggling to make sense of his own life, Charlie Marder also forms a few close friendships with two fellow vets in congress, among them a former Tuskegee airman.
What The Hellfire Club does so well is that it doesn’t leave obvious breadcrumbs. Literary spy and detective fiction aren’t supposed to be creepy advent calendars in which you are left to unravel the mystery yourself and dream up speculations of who did what. In reality your input is immaterial; in a good spy novel everything washes over you, carrying you like a wave of panic and misinformation and fear as ruthlessly as it does the protagonist. You don’t pause halfway through a Raymond Chandler or le Carré novel and wonder who did what or if things really are as they seem; instead you succumb to the nerves that exist on the page. You walk through the 59th Street train station in a state of distress as if you were in another world altogether. As if you were in fact a spy.
In good spy books, the only evidence is what the fundamentally flawed protagonist sees through two trained eyes fogged up with human vulnerability. This is Charlie Marder, and The Hellfire Club is nothing without the agonizing back-and-forth that takes place entirely in Charlie Marder’s head. It is a constant cloud of psychological restlessness and uneasiness, and a deep sense of futility. Marder begins to lose himself and juggles what appears to be a failing marriage all the while running from political catastrophe and death. It is a life thrown into chaos. All Marder really has left beyond himself are his new friendships, which are not the chummy work friendships we are all familiar with, but are instead those fast and intimate ones, those full of irony and entente, built not on shared interest but on feeling just as out of place in the world as the other. This isn’t a novel about pistol grips. This is a novel about despair and a novel about friendship, both of which make it infinitely more interesting than anything relying on a body count.
And yet, like any good spy novelist, Tapper pays his dues to the tenets of the form. His character falls into a trap almost as soon as he purports to have seen through all the subterfuge and sleight of hand. Marder explains how assets are recruited, how misguided political agendas can be, how inane and useless each faction ultimately is, all of it done so expertly that you could almost take it for a nihilist manifesto were it not for a character who is so clearly a moralist. And between it all he sneaks in a painstaking description of the look of particular kind of metal on a particular kind of gun at a particular time of night.
Marder is as elegiac as he is cunning, as any good spy or detective novel protagonist should be. He seeks out basic comforts in the world like the calm of a quiet train car on a Friday afternoon or the cold serenity of a martini. These small and final footholds of his former life are a way of giving this plot a measure of order.
The elegiac and the poetic are the very qualities that set a character apart among the thousands of spy and detective protagonists out there. You remember a Marder. It is easy to write a character who is tough; but to write one who is tough and human is another story altogether.
In one scene, Marder’s friend walks through the Capitol building pointing out each of its ghosts, and shows Marder the places where famous men died and were relegated to placards, and where others died—the nameless victims of petty men felled like matchsticks and thrown into that deeper irrelevance that can exist only in death. Moments later, Marder’s friend himself would die, and become another Capitol ghost. Tapper hopes that we notice this moment but doesn’t point it out because something so poetic as this can just as easily become inelegant if put on a soapbox. A moment of symmetry like this can make any book good, not just a spy thriller.
In a later scene Marder laments Congress’s ability to move on and act business-as-usual after the death of a fallen representative, mere seconds before realizing that he has done the very same thing and has moved on. Am I faking it, or am I really as savage, as inhuman as the rest of them? He wonders.
What made Smiley-era le Carré so great was his understanding that a strange magic takes place in the friction between tenderness and chaos. It takes a great spy or detective writer to recognize this, to know that thrillers can exist just as well in airplane seat-back compartments or library sale bins without moments like these, but who chooses to give them to us anyway.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.