Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Margaret (1924-2008) is certainly among the most talented children of U.S. presidents. Born in Independence, Missouri, to Bess Truman and her husband, Harry—who would become president of the United States a little over twenty years later—Margaret demonstrated an affinity for the arts as early as her teenage years. Her musical studies blossomed shortly after the end of World War II when, recently graduated from George Washington University, Margaret began touring as a singer with some of the nation’s leading classical orchestras. Her first television performance took place in 1950. Though undoubtedly talented, she also clearly benefitted from her father’s fame, for Harry did not lightly accept criticism of his daughter; and her singing career quickly faded, whether coincidentally or not, after he departed from the White House in 1953.
Margaret never stepped entirely out of the limelight, however. She appeared frequently on television, mostly on interview shows, from the 1950s to the 1970s, even as she raised four children with her husband, Clifton Daniel. As a journalist, he provided access to a network of information that supplemented her own political influences, ensuring that Margaret remained in the know about political developments in Washington, D.C. Having experienced firsthand the ongoing machinations of political life during her youth, Margaret could observe events with an especially perceptive eye. A burgeoning interest in writing—she wrote four nonfiction books from 1956-1976—combined with a love of reading, especially “golden age” puzzle-plot mysteries by the likes of Agatha Christie, ensured that Margaret would eventually try her hand at writing thrillers set in the nation’s capital that she knew so well.
Murder in the White House was the first in a series of more than two dozen mysteries that she wrote between 1980 until just before her death in 2008. Following a deliberate pattern established by other golden age authors, these books were formulaic from their titles (all begin with “Murder in” or “Murder at,” followed in all instances but one by a location in or near Washington, D.C.) to their plots. Each of them involved revelations of shady machinations or scandals in the halls of government, as amateur or professional detectives—there was no single hero such as Hercule Poirot—unravel plots and expose culprits behind a series of heinous crimes, with multiple possible villains under suspicion until the denouement.
In the case of the first novel, President Robert Webster’s daughter Lynne has just begun into a relationship with Special Counsel Ron Fairbanks—with television cameras catching them holding hands and provoking celebrity gossip—when the Secretary of State is found foully murdered in the White House. The ensuing scandal places everyone in the higher reaches of government or on the White House staff in jeopardy, including the president, since only somebody with access to the Executive Mansion could have committed the crime. In classic (and sadly predictable) fashion, the relationship between Ron and Lynne is threatened as Fairbanks, who the president has appointed to head the murder investigation, works to follow the truth wherever it leads, even if Lynne’s father is implicated. It turns out that the Secretary of State’s seamy private habits made him a slew of enemies—including the president. Nor is the Secretary the only one with secrets to hide. As Margaret Truman knew very well, the highest reaches of government teems with closeted skeletons, more than enough to make a cemetery.
Aficionados of golden age mysteries will recognize all the clichés of the classic English country house murder plot that Christie and her followers mastered so well, except that in this case the country house is the White House. That in of itself was a clever innovation, with Margaret’s insider knowledge adding just the right elements of atmosphere and believability. Published less than a decade after Watergate, Murder in the White House encountered a public eager to devour stories of heroic investigators probing into the inmost reaches of political life and uncovering evildoers.
But it’s an amateur production. Plot devices, such as the romance between Fairbanks and the president’s daughter—are contrived, with many elements clearly being borrowed from Christie and others. Truman’s writing is labored, and her story lacks tension. Most unforgivably from the reader’s point of view, the culprit’s identity is fairly obvious from early on, robbing the book’s fairly abrupt finality of real satisfaction. All of which is not to say, however, that Murder in the White House is unreadable. The period drama is intriguing and loaded with potential, but it would have benefitted from a more practiced hand. That two dozen more novels followed is an indication that Margaret–like her father—warmed to the job over time.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.