Thanks to Adria Locke Langley’s decision to let Verity Martin tell the story of her charismatic husband’s political career, A Lion Is in the Streets is a political novel that can be enjoyed by folks who don’t like political novels.
As the book opens, Hank Martin is dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet. As Verity listens to a reporter tell the story of Hank’s life, she recalls the events as she saw them.
A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley
Blakiston, 1945. 345 pages. 1945 bestseller #6. My Grade: A-.
A Yankee schoolteacher, Verity fell for a southern peddler with dreams of being governor.
While he was out organizing a political machine, she stayed home in a little share-cropper cottage.
Almost from the first, Verity knew Hank’s sex appeal was a potential threat to her marriage.
It took her years to realize Hank’s lust for power is even more destructive than his sex drive, not only for their family but also for the whole state.
Langley does a superb job of making these people seem real. They are complicated bundles of inexplicable contradictions.
In some ways, each character knows the others better than they know themselves.
Like politics, much of the plot has to be grasped from innuendo. You’ll need to read slowly, picturing the scenes, or you’ll miss the point.
George Barr McCutcheon’s first Graustark novel was a thriller with a bit of romance between between the action scenes. The Prince of Graustark hasn’t enough of either thrills or romance to be interesting.
Graustark wants Prince Robin to marry the daughter of the King of Dawsbergen. The young people have never met and refuse to consider marrying for reasons of political expediency. Their subjects blame the rebelliousness on the fact that each royal heir had one American parent.
Meanwhile, American multi-millionare William W. Blithers has decided nothing but marriage to royalty is good enough for his daughter. Rather than be humiliated by her father’s ham-fisted schemes to buy her a crown, Maud takes ship for Europe.
It just so happens Prince Robin also boards a ship bound for Europe on which he meets the girl of his dreams.
McCutcheon’s wisecracks about Mr. Blithers’ are funny, but they are confined primarily to the American episodes. Blithers’ deflation when he gets to the Graustark palace and sees what his money cannot buy rings too true to be laughed it.
The love-lorn Prince appears too dense to lead a cocker spaniel, let alone a country.
And the outcome is far too predictable for the romance to be entertaining.
The title character of The Man is a U.S. Senator horrified along with the rest of the nation to realize he has become American’s first black president.
Douglass Dilman has never made waves politically; he’s never felt secure enough to attempt to do so. He’s not even been able to get up courage to propose to the woman he’s loved for five years.
His party’s elite think Dilman will fall into line as US President as he did as Senate President, but just in case, they draft a bill that prohibits the executive from firing a Cabinet member without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.
Dilman lets the bill become law without his signature; it’s his first, tiny act of personal political responsibility, and one that will lead to his impeachment.
Irving Wallace didn’t imagine Dilman as an elected black president, but that’s one of the few details of the story that don’t read like news from the post-LBJ years: Tussles between the US and Russia over fledgling African democracies, threats of presidential impeachment, blacks’ resentment of a black president who doesn’t support them over whites.
Everything Wallace gets right in the novel, points out everything that’s still wrong in America.
And that’s why, beyond its marvelously well-told story, The Man is worth reading once more.
The Man By Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1964
1964 bestseller #5
My grade: A-
When Margery Fleming walks into his law office seeking help finding her father, Jack Knox falls in love.
Mr. Fleming is a successful—and reputedly criminal—state treasurer with equally criminal colleagues and opponents.
Margery goes to stay with her elderly aunts. Almost immediately, one aunt reports her pearls stolen. Then Miss Jane, the other aunt, disappears from her bedroom. Next Harry Waldron, Fleming’s aid and Margery’s finacé, has cash and sensatitve documents stolen from the aunt’s home.
Jack’s investigation finds Fleming hiding at the White Cat, a private club where politicians and their cronies hang out.
Jack gets inside the White Cat in time to discover Fleming’s body.
With his detective is scared off, Jack appeals to a reporter for help. Together they work at solving the mysteries of who murdered Fleming, who stole the pearls, and what happened to Miss Jane.
Jack has enough self-deprecating humor to make him an appealing narrator. Margery is less convincing as the female lead.
Mary Roberts Rinehart shortchanges some other characters who should have had more rounded roles. Fortunately, her skill at plotting and pacing the mystery render its deficiencies almost unnoticeable.
A Hoosier Chronicle has something for lovers of practically every novel genre except science fiction. Amazingly, Meridith Nicholson manages to blend romance, politics, mystery, philosophy, and history without compromising characterization.
Yale-educated Dan Harwood hand-delivers a letter to a math professor, which prompts the professor to take his granddaughter off to Indianapolis while he tries to raise money to send her to college.
The professor doesn’t know who Sylvia’s father was or if her parents were legally married. His friend “Aunt Sally” Owens, a feisty, rich old widow, says Sylvia is so promising that her background is no matter. She writes a check for Sylvia’s college expenses.
While Sylvia studies at Wellesley, Dan reports for The Courier and studies law. In his work he meets Morton Bassett, a rising state politician married to Aunt Sally’s neice. Though Bassett is rumored to be unscrupulous, Dan genuinely likes him.
When Morton offers him a job, Dan takes it. He thinks his moral principles enough to keep him from being co-opted if Bassett’s reputations turns out to be founded on fact.
Nicholon sets up the plot carefully. He makes all the things that you expect to happen, happen in surprising ways.
Dan is not as quick at unraveling Sylvia’s mysterious past as a shrewd lawyer should be, and the ending is too neat to be believable, yet not one of the 600+ pages of this novel is dull. Nicholson will keep you entertained and give you some ideas to chew on after you’ve finished reading.
Leslie Lynnton falls in love with Texas, sight unseen, when a rancher who came to buy a horse from her father inspires her to sit up all night reading Texas history. A few weeks later, as Mrs. Jordan Benedict, she finds Texas isn’t at all what she expected, nor, for that matter, is her husband.
Leslie is sophisticated, cultured, politically liberal. Texans like her husband are red-necks by choice: Ivy-league educated but tumble-weed ignorant, champagne and caviar masquerading as hogs and hominy.
Jett Rink, a nasty ranch hand whom Bick has thrown off the ranch, strikes oil and the Benedict’s fortunes fall as Rink’s rise and the face of Texas changes.
The Benedict’s marriage is a rack on which Edna Ferber hangs her speculations about what makes Texans different from other people. Unfortunately, there’s not much to the book other than her speculations.
The plot is thin. Most of the characters have mere walk-on parts. Bick and Leslie, while well-drawn, aren’t engaging people. Leslie is too intellectual and arrogant, her husband too pragmatic and callous. It’s hard to care enough about them to keep reading. My advice: don’t bother.
Seven Days in May is a thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, a pair of newspaper reporters whose knowledge of the mid-twentieth century Washington political realities infuse every page.
One May Sunday, Marine Colonel Martin J. Casey uncovers what he thinks could be a plot by his boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Scott to overthrow the President. Putting his job on the line, Casey discloses his suspicions to the President.
President Lyman takes some convincing, but as evidence mounts, he decides to act. He will act secretly, with help from just a few trusted men and his long-time secretary.
The characters are drawn in broad outline, recognizable as types rather than individuals.
Knebel and Bailey’s strong point is plot. Fifty years after first publication, the story sounds even more plausible than it did against the landscape of the 1960s. If anything, the fictional President’s observation that a frustrated electorate, feeling unable to influence events has “seriously started looking for a superman” rings more true today than it did in 1962.
As to the rest of the setting—a President the people are not quite sure of, high unemployment, economic insecurity, apprehension over potential foreign attacks—sounds like the morning news to me.
Seven Days in May
Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II
Harper & Row, 1962
My grade: B+
1962 Bestseller #7
Allen Drury followed up his blockbuster novel Advise and Consent with A Shade of Difference, which builds on events and characters from that novel.
In the mid-twentieth century, “Terrible Terry,”a Western-educated leader of a British possession, is seeking UN help in getting immediate independent status for his African country. Terry has the support of the Communist countries as well as the non-aligned and anti-American nations. More important, Terry has the support of the liberal segment of Americans always ready to denounce their nation.
When Terry dramatically escorts a black girl to integrate a white Southern school, he unleashes a violent clash of races and political opponents.
An experienced political reporter, Drury writes with an insider’s knowledge and a propagandist’s aim.
However, he’s also a capable story teller, who never forgets that readers come for the story. His omniscient character descriptions are borne out by the words and actions of those characters.
The most startling aspect of A Shade of Difference is how contemporary the story feels. Representative Cullee Hamilton, caught in the conflict between the races and his own political ambitions is a fictional sixties Barack Obama.
Whatever your political leanings, you will find intrigue and entertainment in the pages of this political thriller.
A Shade of Difference
1962 bestseller #3
In The Tree of Liberty, Elizabeth Page uses the family of Matthew Howard as a lens through which to view American history from 1754 through 1806.
The Howards had kin and connections throughout the colonies and among the political elite of the Revolutionary era. Page doesn’t have to invent situations to show the political turmoil of those days.
Page follows Matt as he grows up hearing tales of the frontier, adoring Colonel Washington and going to school with Tom Jefferson.
Matt marries a Tidewater aristocrat, Jane Peyton, who instinctively distrusts “the common people” as much as Matt champions them. Their political differences carry on through two more generations.
The novel really isn’t about the Howards, though. The main character is really the American political system, the “tree of liberty.”
Page’s novel moves almost as slowly as the actual events she describes.
I felt as if I should care, that reading the novel was good for me, but that didn’t make me enjoy it.
The novel might have a salutary effect on Americans fretting over the slowness of the Iraqi government to achieve democracy, but, quite honestly, reading about the growth of the tree of liberty is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
The Tree of Liberty
By Elizabeth Page
Farrar & Rinehart 1939
1939 bestseller # 8
My Grade: C +
Edna Ferber dazzled readers in 1958 with Ice Palace, a tale that went behind the headlines of Alaska’s fight to become a state.
The story is about Christine Stone, a beautiful and brainy young Alaskan woman brought up by her two grandfathers, both Alaskan pioneers. Grandfather Thor Stone is passionate about the land and its people; Grandfather Czar Kennedy is passionate about getting rich from Alaska’s resources.
Czar is maneuvering to get Chris to marry Bay Husack, son of one of his wealthy “outside” friends. He wants Bay to be the first governor of Alaska and then become President.
Thor is working equally hard at undermining Czar.
The future of Alaska hangs in the balance.
Ice Palace is part travelogue, part tract. Ferber takes readers through Alaska with the enthusiasm of Rick Steen, then lambastes corporate greed with the zeal of John Bunyon. Even the names Thor and Czar are reminiscent of the symbolic names in Pilgrim’s Progress.
There are some interesting factual tidbits in Ice Palace, but if you want a plausible plot and believable characters, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
P.S. The guys in the white parkas win.
by Edna Ferber
1958 bestseller #7
My Grade: C-