"It is impossible to win the great prizes of life without running risk."- Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United Sates (1901-1909)
Last year, I reviewed Washington Deceased (1990) by a lawyer-turned-author, Michael Bowen, whose predilection for "locked rooms, subtle clues, offbeat suspects and colorful characters" earned him comparisons to the likes of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Herbert Resnicow – placing him in the ranks of the genre's traditionalists. Or, as I call it, the top of the heap.
Washington Deceased was the first of five politically tinged mystery novels, published between 1990 and 1999, which introduced Richard Michaelson: a sixty-some year old warhorse who served three decades in the Foreign Service of the State Department. In those five novels, Michaelson had to draw on all his knowledge and experience to plot a safe course through the darkest, murkiest and rat-infested waters of Washington politics. A watery sludge with more than one body floating around in it!
Bowen can tell an intriguing story and has a pleasant style that combines a light, humorous touch with shreds of cynical realism, which evidently lent itself well for a series of political mystery novels and the minor flaws in its debut were largely related to the plot – such as an overly complex impossible crime and a dismissive explanation as to how a firearm was smuggled into a tightly secured prison complex. However, I'm glad to report that such flaws have dissipated by the time the fourth book in the series was published.
Worst Case Scenario (1996) has Michaelson attending the Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference, which is described as a "compressed microcosm of Washington," where he does a favor for a man, named Alex Moodie, who wants to know his wife, Deborah, suddenly stopped getting promotions – effectively freezing her career. Michaelson has dug-up a source of information, Scott Pilkington, who informs Alex that his wife made too much noise when "she thought she'd sniffed out a scandal." Deborah is a deputy director of Planning and Research Priority Assessment with the National Health Research Agency and she discovered that a retired army general, with "a charity star," received a bump on the way up on a priority list for a rare-match liver transplant. She became a nuisance on this issue and was put on a dead-end track. This is just one of the examples of people at the conference who are on the lookout for information, contacts or merely funds.
There is, however, one attendee who has a rather simple wish: Sharon Bedford wants to have a job. She circulates her résumé and attached to it is information "that'll get the attention of the right people at the right time," which is a tantalizing and tempting offer for any political climber in attendance – but she's keeping a tight lid on that information.
Michaelson warned Bedford to be careful, because "there are two ways you can get in trouble in Washington." One of them is "by promising what you can't deliver" and "the other is by delivering the kind if thing you just promised." These words prove to be prophetic when the door of her hotel room has to be pried open. Bedford is found submerged in a bathtub and death is later determined to have been caused by deadly dose of bufotenine, but this does not diminish the seemingly impossible nature of the murder. It is know how the poison was ingested, but the way in which the murderer gained access and exited a locked hotel room unseen remains an apparent miraculous feat and the explanation is simple, clever and sneaky. Bowen used simple misdirection and architectural nature of hotel rooms to create a satisfying locked room situation. So that's one aspect of this series that places its author in the class of traditional, puzzle-oriented mystery writers.
There was another aspect of the plot that reminded me of the traditional detective story, classic or modern, which came when Michaelson examined the victim's bookshelves: shelves hosting an eclectic collection consisting of White House memoirs, Tom Clancy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Danielle Steel. However, Bowen went one step further and planted a nice little clue among those volumes. A clue pertaining to the red-hot information that cost Bedford her life and harked back to the days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, his foreign policy, the previously mentioned general and the rumored government take-over of health care services – which all shapes the murder in "a Washington crime." A crime with a motive "that only makes sense in Washington terms."
Part of the motive nudges the story into the territory of alternative and speculative history, but the incriminating document, which gave the book its title, suffered a similar fate as so many of the lost manuscripts by famous writers and playwrights in similar type of the detective stories – e.g. John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) and Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding (1948).
So, all in all, this made Worst Case Scenario an engagingly written, well plotted and classically-styled mystery novel with an original divergence from "regular" detective stories, from past or present, by simply placing the intrigue of the plots in some of in the inner-circles of Washington politics. It's why I'm really warming up to Bowen and this series, because it takes everything I love about Golden Age mysteries and resettles them in a completely new and interesting environment: Washington D.C. of the 1990s.