Presidential Thriller: “Inside Threat”

Is President Kline in Matthew Quirk’s new conspiracy thriller the target of an insidious plot by government insiders to overthrow him, or is he himself planning some sort of coup that will make him a virtual dictator? Can Eric Hill, a CIA agent demoted to desk duty save the country and the president? 

These questions drive Inside Threat, a book which will likely remind you of movies like Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down, and In the Line of Fire. Quirk’s debut thriller Night Agent was a recent Netflix hit and this book feels like it’s been written to be turned into another limited TV series. The book is light on description except when it comes to the fascinating mountain fortress the president is hustled off to when the White House is seemingly breached. 

Based on a real government site, the massive retreat is meant to be impregnable, with gigantic blast doors securing it from every possible threat, man-made caverns, buildings inside those caverns that rest on grids of gigantic springs, a reservoir and power station, multiple tunnels and a sophisticated ventilation system. According to a White House website, “In addition to the basic life support requirements of power, water, and air, the underground metropolis also contains a medical and dental clinic, fire department, post office, dining facility, snack bar, dormitories, chapel, barbershop, fitness center, bowling alley, and even a Starbucks.”

In an author’s note, Quirk notes that he’s simplified the layout, hoping that the maze-like interior doesn’t make it hard for readers to find their bearings.  You will probably still need to consult the map of this redoubt.

Quirk has a firm grasp on the “can-the-good-guy-be-redeemed” thriller motif, but the book isn’t seamless.  I think a better editor would have cut the genre cliché of the villain speaking in a “chilling whisper.”  And careful copy editing would have flagged repetition of  details about the retreat, the “forest” of springs under each building, and lines like “She seemed to be restraining an agitated energy,” “A leaden sickness grew in the president’s belly,” and “A nauseous feeling took hold of Eric.”

More importantly, the many intense action sequences could have been made clearer, especially since the complex is filled with entrances,  exits, and secret passages.  Though he does keep you guessing about the president’s real intentions, the reasons for the conspiracy also aren’t entirely convincing and Quirk hasn’t made the president’s policies and record clear enough.

All the same, Inside Threat is a classic, high-energy thriller as one explosive crisis  follows another.  And the next time you see Secret Service agents protecting anyone in real life, they could bring to mind Quick’s hero describing the sad realities of the job: “You go behind the curtain.  You see the mismatch between the public and private faces.  You keep your mouth shut.  It’s not always pretty.” ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other publications.

“The Game She Plays Can Turn Deadly”

Siena Sterling has combined some time-tested fiction tropes in her new quasi-suspense novel: the fish-out-of-water, posh country house gatherings with some kind of accident, the femme fatale, and a woman worried she’s not good enough for her lover. The results are uneven despite the surprise at the end.

It’s 1980 and after a bad breakup, Nicola leaves benighted Buffalo for Paris but is  easily swayed on board her flight by a charming Englishman, James, to spend time with him in the south of France.  She’s so naive and unworldly that she wonders if there’s a bakery in his village because one of her goals in life is to eat a flaky croissant.  Sterling misses a chance to offer readers something special when Nicola and her boyfriend visit the southern French town of Uzès and there’s no description of its cathedral, the duke’s castle, or the lovely arcades. 

The pair go off to a country manor in England to spend a shooting weekend with James’s friends where Nicola is astonished and humbled nonstop. His friends all went to Cambridge together!  How does she know which fork to use at dinner!  Brits can be snide!  Why hasn’t she seen the cook!  Three-course meals are exotic! The hosts will someday have titles of nobility! They already have servants!

But for all her cluelessness, Nicola can somehow imagine the most attractive woman in the group would be more fitting in a “salon entertaining French philosophers and Russian novelists.”  That seems too sophisticated an observation for Nicola the way she’s been written.

As for the femme fatale, she’s repeatedly called beautiful and stylish, but she comes across as a run-of-the-mill narcissist, so whatever schemes she has in mind (remember the title) are painfully obvious.

Jealous of this woman’s acrobatic skill during a stupid parlor game after dinner, Nicola actually jumps onto a glass table and humiliates herself despite being uninjured amid all the broken glass.  That reaction makes sense, but she’s so shame-bound and clueless through the book that it feels like overkill–and even worse, she’s not the only hapless female in the book.

The English shooting weekend is marred by someone getting shot (of course), and there’s also a mysterious rich German present who’s so quickly whisked off-stage you wonder why the author bothered.  A second shooting weekend up in Scotland is more dramatic, but it takes way too long to arrive and there’s a clichéd taunting speech by the book’s villain.

The book’s title is a partial misdirection and that’s where the surprise comes in which is arguably the book’s best moment.  Unfortunately, the prose is bland, the settings aren’t vivid enough, and the characters lack depth.  For an unforgettable English house party novel, try Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood or Isabel Colegate’s classic The Shooting Party.  Both are tremendous reads.  ★★

Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, and several public radio stations.  Guests on his interview show included Erica Jong and Salman Rushdie.

Life and Death in Berlin

It’s been said that Berlin is a city with “too much history” and reading this fascinating, encyclopedic book you can see why. Relying heavily on the letters, diaries, and accounts of ordinary people like clerks, housewives, factory workers, and teenagers, the author charts the complex transition of Germany’s capitol from the end of WWI to the end of WWII and beyond, from rebirth to almost total destruction to rebirth, division and union. 

In the first part of the book we follow Berlin’s path from imperial capital to hotbed of anarchy to democracy to the rise of fascism.  It all seems to happen with dizzying speed in a city internationally renowned in the Teens and Twenties for its striking architecture, its art and music, its amazingly open gay culture, and a boom and bust economy that ruined the lives of far too many citizens. 

Life seemed even faster-paced than in New York City and change could happen with frightening rapidity; equally frightening was the violence that broke out between varying political factions well before the Nazis took complete control and the insane mob violence directed at Jews.

The author deftly captures the bureaucratic madness of Nazi rule as when he lists some of the attempts to control the jazz that citizens enjoyed.  Rules stipulated, for instance, that jazz played on the radio should not have “rhythmic reverses characteristic the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people.”  As opposed to the dark instincts that they were at home with?

In the second part, we enter the downfall of Berlin at the end of the war, experiencing life under ceaseless bombardment by Allied bombers and then Soviet attacks as they seek to pulverize the city and extirpate fascism.  It’s suitably grim as citizens live without electricity, heat and adequate water inside subway stations and basements, scrounging for food, desperate not to be killed while out in the open or buried alive.  Anyone reading news about the current war in Ukraine will recognize the horrendous living conditions under siege, though the aggressor is different.

Surprisingly, the shortest section of the book might be the freshest for people who’ve read books like Berlin at War by Roger Moorehouse or Germany 1945 by Richard Bessel.  Here McKay explores the chaos in a city not fully divided between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, the growing iron fist of Soviet rule, the ways in which people coped or escaped, the re-emergence of cultural life across the city and the widely-held alarm in East and West Berlin about rock music and how it supposedly endangered teens.

Given how often jazz comes up, it’s strange that there’s no entry for it in the index, and though the author occasionally mentions Berlin’s famous cynical humor, he doesn’t offer enough of it to match his characterization of Berliners as ultimately resistant to authority.  Readers interested in that side of the story would probably enjoy Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

These minor flaws aside, the book is an evocative tribute to a city whose energy is admired worldwide.   ★★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 26 other books in many genres.


Alexandra Petri Rewrites American History (and more!)

Bummed out by politics, climate change, inflation, long Covid? Alexandra Petri, Washington Post humorist, has the answer as she charges into the controversy over what students should know about American history and literature.

She’s made stuff up. Hilarious stuff, like John Adams and his wife doing the 18th century version of sexting, which doesn’t go very well. And the story of one of the famous colonial Minuteman who were supposedly able to defend freedom in a minute.  This guy wasn’t exactly on time, taking a few hours to get ready because he couldn’t find his musket or his boots and he wanted to prepare some snacks for the battlefield.  His wife had a few things to say about that.

Petri toys with documents like The Federalist Papers and The Gettysburg Address, but some of the funniest entries in this collection are new takes on American literary classics  like Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, Howl, In Cold Blood, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The House of Mirth.  Edith Wharton character dolls?  Why not!  And why shouldn’t the man who bought The Yellow Wallpaper‘s wallpaper request a refund?

English majors, rejoice: Who else in the world would be doing a spoof of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (one of my favorite novels)?  And the Raymond Chandler satire made me laugh all the way through–it’s one of the funniest pieces in the book, and maybe in human history.  At times the dry turns of phrase reminded me of Philomena Cunk.

Petri’s pastiche of iconic figures is always piercing and revelatory, as when Frank Lloyd Wright tussles with a client about the commission to build the perfect home.  Guess what?  It’s not remotely what the client wants.  And her take on The Teapot Dome Scandal eerily prefigures excuses we’ve recently hear that “explain” why certain figures in government have seen so much money changing hands.  I name no names.

Petri is fiendishly well-read and her humor is consistently delicious, like the lost vignettes from Fifty Shades of Gray that pop up throughout the book which range in time from the Puritans to Trump (sic transit insania mundi).  You’ll never think of Patrick Henry the same way again after Petri serves him up to you with special sauce–and who else could have imagined customer reviews of Our American Cousin from the night Abraham Lincoln was shot?

Writers can learn a lot from her satire and may especially appreciate troubled fan mail to Harper Lee wondering about that missing mockingbird as well as the monomaniacal letter Loraine Hansbery gets about promoting raisins.

The title of the book clearly indicates that Petri made all these documents up, but you have to wonder if this book will get devoured by AI chat bots anyway.  I can imagine students turning in essays about how Melville’s publisher wasn’t very keen on the idea of a book (mostly) about whales.  And much, much, worse.

Well, given the state of academia today, with enrollments going over a cliff, professors can likely use a good laugh.   ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael is the author of the satirical Nick Hoffman mystery series along with seventeen other books in many genres.  He has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Washington Post, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Boston Review and a handful of public radio stations in Michigan.

Tudor Thrills & Chills


Vanessa Wilkie’s book focuses on a powerful woman and her dynasty, a woman who should be much better known.  This is a compelling story of upward mobility as Alice Spencer, the daughter of a wealthy sheep farmer, rose to wealth and status through two important marriages, married her daughters off extremely well, and worked hard to maintain all the right connections.

Status anxiety was rampant in this period and the author clearly lays out the importance of finding the right patron and keeping him happy, of marrying well, of expanding one’s holdings of land, and doing everything possible to rise higher.  There was always the possibility of the Wheel of Fortune dropping you to the bottom in an instant.  Doom could be quick and sudden and your head could end up on a pole.

There are times when the book reads like a thriller, as when Alice’s husband, the Earl of Derby, is approached by Catholic plotters who want him to depose Elizabeth and restore Catholicism in England.  They pick him because he’s a descendant of Henry VIII’s sister and might be a Catholic despite publicly adhering to the Protestant faith.  He alerts authorities that he plans to lead them to London where they should be arrested as traitors.  The ride south takes several several days.

Given legitimate paranoia about attempts to overthrow the Queen, there was the chance that he himself could be arrested, tortured, and executed on suspicion of treason, leaving his wife ruined and persona non grata.  It’s a harrowing episode in a generally well-wrought story of power and privilege. 

In some ways, the Tudor period in which Alice began to rise feels very close to ours: she needed good publicity as she made her way into the upper realms of Tudor society and did everything possible to enhance the position of her three daughters.  Alice, a book lover, was the recipient of fulsome praise via author’s dedications and thereby “gained social capital for being celebrated as [a patron] of the arts and religious works.”  No less a poet than The Faerie Queene’s Edmund Spenser  praised her in some really wretched verse that seems to have helped boost her reputation.  

The prose in this book often undermines the strength of the narrative because it’s filled with words like “probably,” “likely,” “would have,” “could have, “maybe,” “surely,” “may have been,” and “very likely.”

The author does offer up some fascinating material, like the fact that there were actually two forms of secular court at the time whose jurisdiction overlapped:  the common-law courts and so-called equitable courts that dealt with exceptions demanding demanded special attention.  This comes up in the context of a nasty lawsuit brought by Alice’s brother-in law that lasted for well over a decade.  And then there’s a bizarre, horrendous sex scandal worthy of the Marquis de Sade involving one noble daughter and granddaughter.  It’s so freakish, it could truly have been the focus of a separate book.

Alice Spenser was a strong, determined woman who actively built and fostered “a political and social network” while creating “a persona of grandeur” and amassing “landed wealth and power.”  Wilkie doesn’t downplay her faults–like being overly litigious and caring so very much about propriety–but deftly situates her in the complex, murky terrain of upper-crust Tudor and Stuart England.

Lev Raphael recently reviewed a dual biography of Queen Elizabeth I and Marie de Medici: Blood, Fire, and Gold.



When Wilson Declared War in 1917, America Went Berserk

Shocking and brilliant, this book delves into a period most Americans know little about, the years just after America declared war on Germany, when dark currents in American culture were at a flood tide.  One of the historians the author quotes put it bluntly: “The years from 1917 to 1921 are probably unmatched in American history for popular hysteria, xenophobia, and paranoid suspicion.” 

Pogroms against African-Americans were widespread, with men, women and children being burned alive or stoned to death in East St. Louis as just one horrific episode.  Black soldiers at army bases could be hanged under the false charge of raping a white woman.  Union members were spied on, beaten, arrested without warrants, and imprisoned.  Police forces across the country formed “red squads” to surveil and harass leftists, and the U.S. Justice Department actually encouraged vigilante associations to aid in the terrorizing of American citizens.  

Government and civic officials believed the craziest stories, like the one about Germany sending “gypsy fortunetellers” to Harlem to rile up people against the war.  And Members of Congress broadcast delusional warnings that warned about our border with Mexico–one of which claimed Russian communists were using Japanese submarines to get to Mexico and invade the U.S. to spread chaos.

Newspapers that were perceived as “leftist” or “un-American” were bullied, threatened,  censored, vandalized, or shut down because the out-of-control Postmaster General refused to let them travel through the mails. 

Mainstream newspapers were basically either stenographers, repeating anything they were told to print, or worse, cheer leaders, like The Washington Post noting “In spite of such excesses as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening.”

Jury trials were a farce and police did nothing to maintain real law and order, often assisting in the barbaric mayhem which did not shock President Wilson in the slightest.  He cared about the war and his League of Nations plan–mob violence and violence against Black citizens didn’t bother him.  Wilson grew up in the South with slave labor in his household and when you read about him here, you won’t be surprised that as reported in The New Yorker, Princeton students have called for “the school [to] strip the name and imagery of Woodrow Wilson from all of its institutions and buildings.”

The terror didn’t end with the war because it was followed by The Red Scare, which takes up the second half of the book.  Civil rights were pulverized, many hundreds of people arrested without warrants or deported, and machine guns were positioned in city streets to “protect good Americans,” which meant Anglo-Saxons for the most part.

This was a time in which people could be arrested for what we might call “thought crime”: expressing private doubts about the war or criticism of the government.  That could even extend to a judge damning people because he could read what was “in people’s hearts.”  Jury trials were a farce and sentences for supposedly violating the vague, newly-passed Espionage Act were egregiously severe.

America in these years truly sounds like an authoritarian state, with a rampaging government, aided by vigilantes, peering into every nook and canny of its citizens’ lives and punishing any word or deed it thought was subversive. It’s hard not to see similarities with Nazi Germany in the manic propaganda campaign for the war and “patriotism” that bombarded Americans with signs, pamphlets, speeches, and films–and the advice to spy on one’s neighbors.

Hochschild lays all of it out in calm, cool detail that will sear itself into your memory.  This is the kind of book that white-washers of our past would want to ban but which every thinking American should read. 

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently edits, coaches, and mentors writers at

Summertime…and the Christie is Breezy

Agatha Christie has been in the news lately along with other authors as someone whose “potentially objectionable” comments about characters needed to be censored for contemporary audiences.  Several of her novels have been rewritten by her publisher, as reported in The Guardian:

[The] edits cut references to ethnicity, such as describing a character as black, Jewish or Gypsy, or a female character’s torso as “of black marble” and a judge’s “Indian temper”, and removed terms such as “Oriental” and the N-word. The word “natives” has also been replaced with the word “local.”

Sure enough, this new collection of short stories seems to mock gay men and has a “fat Jewish woman” and “Asian” is used as a pejorative.  Moments like that might give you pause–or you might just accept them as representative of her time and her class.  Will they spoil your enjoyment of these light summer reads?  I long ago accepted her antisemitism as par for the course in The Gilded Age and in her social milieu.  My appreciation of her work inspired me to write three books including one of my best-known mysteries, The Edith Wharton Murders.

Christie is the first mystery novelist I read way back in junior high school and though she might make me occasionally wince, I’ve always relished her clever plots and her keen attention to incongruity in dialogue and action.  She’s masterful in that regard and often very entertaining.  Her satire of Brits abroad is always delicious, as in “The Oracle at Delphi”:

Mrs. Peters had tried hard to take an interest in Ancient Greece, but she found it difficult.  Their statuary seemed so unfinished; so lacking in heads and arms and legs.  Secretly, she much preferred the handsome marble angel complete with wings which was erected on the late Mr Willard Peters’ tomb.

We of course find Miss Marple here, in the very well-plotted–if not quite believable–tale The Blood-Stained pavement, remarking as usual that “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.”  Poirot’s little grey cells are keenly at work in a story whose title is perhaps too much of a giveaway, but is diverting anyway: “The Double Clue.”  Poirot also solves a case without leaving his home in “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim,” demonstrating the superiority of thought over feeling once again.  But Miss Marple can do something similar elsewhere in the collection, based as always on her keen observation of human nature.

Throughout the collection, the characters are described briskly and the dialogue is well-tuned.  There’s sometimes the whiff of port and cigars shared by an after-dinner raconteur and you might feel you’re enjoyably back in the Edwardian era of a ghost story-telling.  

The best story is the fast-paced and highly amusing “Jane in Search of a Job” about a young women hired under unusual circumstances.  It’s got some lovely twists and tart observations like this:

In moderation Jane did not object to crime. The papers had been full lately of various girl bandits. Jane had seriously thought of becoming one herself if all else failed.

As with other new Christie titles published by Morrow, the book is beautifully produced with a pleasingly readable type font and an attractive cover. Though  Morrow’s volume of ghost stories released last Fall for Halloween is somewhat more entertaining, it’s still a fun, quick read for fans of the Queen of Mystery.

Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries set in contemporary academia.