Paranoid America Revealed

It’s comforting to think of McCarthyism or the Salem Witch Trials as exceptions, as bursts of madness and vindictive cruelty in an otherwise sane country.  But they’re not exceptions, they’re par for the course in the United States where fear of conspiratorial plots is the “great unseen engine of American history.”  That’s the verdict of cultural historian Colin Dickey.

In a memorable, chilling phrase, the author of Under the Eye of Power throws down the gauntlet with the opening line of his new book: “The United States was born in paranoia.”

Dickey goes on to explain that there’s nothing hyperbolic about this statement.  In briskly narrated and sometimes alarming chapters, what follows is a parade of secret, secretive, or “foreign” groups that have  been seen as targeting America for a hostile takeover of one kind or another.  All these groups have supposedly sought total control, and the unreasoned fear of their machinations has consistently created “moral panic.”

The culprits include real and quasi-imaginary groups: Freemasons, the French, Catholic immigrants, the Molly McGuires, Mystic-Red, Abolitionists, labor unionists, The Illuminati, slave owners, Jews, anarchists and socialists.

All of those groups have been viewed as malign, destructive, nefarious and subversive, deviously operating behind the scenes as puppet masters and saboteurs of American values and independence.  And so there’s been a drumbeat of fear, outrage and violence throughout this country’s history going back to the time of the Revolution.

One of the many surprises in this ugly catalogue of craziness is the fact that even George Washington was prone to see the unseen hand of conspiracy behind contemporary events. Ditto Samuel Adams, as Stacy Schiff shows in her splendid biography of Samuel Adams–he thought that the English were definitely conspiring to “enslave” the colonists and deprive them of their liberties.

The author brings to our attention riots and massacres that deserve more attention, but does the second incarnation of KKK really belong here when it was so ostentatiously public in its racism and violence?

The book definitely needed a firmer editorial hand.  Dickey keeps explaining in different ways that belief in secret groups with inordinate power supplies a simple explanation to complex and frightening realities.  Yes, we got that the first time, and it’s not an especially original observation.

The author has a degree in comparative literature , so it’s curious that he doesn’t mention the influence of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s classic tale of priestly depravity The Monk when he discusses wild, anti-Catholic novels featuring depraved monks and nuns that were best-sellers in the 1840s.

The book is colorful and often shocking, but even at only 328 pages of text seems too long for its thesis.  And given that Dickey ably pinpoints our continued forgetfulness about these episodes, his book will likely fade away too. ★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-seven books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his work appear in fifteen languages. He has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other publications.

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.