Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Within the realm of quirky murder mysteries, one of the most unusual—surely—is the Eleanor Roosevelt series, which was begun in 1984 by Elliott Roosevelt, son of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s one thing for a presidential child to write mystery stories centered on the White House—Margaret Truman did it—but it’s another to make the sleuth the author’s mother!
Such was the accomplishment of Elliott Roosevelt, who was born in 1910 and then had a distinguished World War II service record, rising to the rank of brigadier general, and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. His event filled life included involvement in a number of public scandals, including alleged involvement with organized crime which contributed to his decision to live overseas for many years. By the time he began writing mysteries in his mid-seventies, he was back in the United States, with a back-of-the-book blurb that described him as a “writer and rancher.”
The first mystery, Murder and the First Lady, published in 1984, described the feisty Eleanor investigating the murder of an employee’s boyfriend, and getting involved in the world of high stakes gambling and theft. Later works staged murders in the Oval Office, Rose Garden, and Blue Room—so that by the time the Lincoln Bedroom—19th nineteenth book—the Executive Mansion had become a sort of grisly charnel house!
The setting of Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom is more portentous than others; in 1943 as FDR, Winston Churchill, George C. Marshall, Ernest King, and Dwight D. Eisenhower are in the White House conferring over plans for the invasion of France in the following year, the corpse of a top presidential advisor turns up in the Lincoln Bedroom. Naturally, the discovery can’t be made public, so Eleanor must step in to uncover the murderer herself.
Before he started the First Lady series, Elliott Roosevelt wrote frankly in a number of books about some of the more salacious details of his father’s life, including his affairs. In his mysteries, Elliott dwelt naturally in the same realm. Eisenhower accordingly appears in Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom with his alleged mistress, Kay Summersby. Aside from this, Elliott also understood the world of wartime espionage—a field in which he worked—and was intimately familiar with the White House; a map of the Executive Mansion appears inside of this—other “Eleanor” novels that is essential to understanding and reconstructing the crime.
Elliott Roosevelt died in 1990, and this book—the nineteenth and penultimate book in the series—appeared in 2000. At some point, he befriended the ghost writer/literary collaborator William Harrington, but how the two worked together before Elliott’s death remains uncertain. Harrington, who also worked with Margaret Truman, later claimed to have written books for her, and for him, but that was disputed by others, according to Harrington’s 2000 obituary. His death ended the series. Notably, the early books in the First Lady series exude an easy wit not present in the later entries which—though clearly penned by an experienced hand—are rather flat. Overall, Roosevelt’s mystery series, especially the books written before his death, offer highly amusing if fantastical romps through the wartime White House, where death apparently stalked every corner.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.