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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

From Bill Clinton to Robert Peston: celebrity crime fiction on trial | Crime fiction

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The view that everyone has one book in them is disproved by celebrities, who now tend to produce at least two – a memoir and then, courting publishing’s most lucrative market, a crime or thriller novel. The autumn lists include suspense stories from both a former president and a secretary of state of the US, a former UK home secretary, three well-known British TV journalists and a leading quizshow host.

In Britain, the celebrity mystery genre began with Dick Francis’s Dead Cert (1962), and continued with Jeffrey Archer’s Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less (1976). But though known at the time of their debuts for other things – respectively as a jockey and a Conservative MP – Francis and Archer became primarily famous as writers, and so moved beyond the category they established. Also in a different category are Tony Parsons and Lynne Truss, whose recent series of crime novels – latest instalments Your Neighbour’s Wife and Murder By Milk Bottle – followed many novels in other genres. And, while the current culture secretary Nadine Dorries has published much fiction, she has not yet turned to crime.

The following 10 celebrities – ranked alphabetically and scored for writing and insight – have.

Tom Bradby – Triple Cross (2021)

The ITN News at Ten anchor and sometime confidant of Princes William and Harry had already published six thrillers before Secret Service (2019) took his fiction to a higher level of narrative sophistication and political topicality. Kate Henderson, a senior MI6 officer, investigates data that the likely next British PM has a secret making him unfit for office (echoing doubts that surrounded Johnson and Trump’s campaigns). In Double Agent (2020) and this year’s Triple Cross, Kate continues her scrutiny of the possible traitor-leader. Given the familiarity of many aspects of the “shameless” politician James Ryan, there is enjoyment to be found in reading another chapter just after watching Bradby read the latest Westminster headlines. His publisher and readers surely hope that Bradby will next draw on his royal knowledge.
Fame: 6.5
Writing: 9
Inside info: If he told us he’d have to kill us

Bill Clinton (and James Patterson) – The President’s Daughter (2021)

The two-term 42nd president of the US was regularly pictured getting out of presidential aircraft with his latest crime-fiction read (including Walter Mosley and James Patterson) under his arm. Post-office, Clinton has collaborated with Patterson on two thrillers: The President Is Missing (2018) and now The President’s Daughter. One appeal of such books is accidental or disguised revelation: in the fictional presidencies of Jonathan Duncan and Matthew Keating, readers will find no trace of Monica Lewinsky, little of Hillary (see below), but quite a lot of Chelsea Clinton: the second novel explores the vulnerability of presidential relatives once out of the White House. The loneliness of running a superpower and what it’s like to send people to die in war feel unimpeachably authentic.
Fame: 10
Writing: 7.5
Inside info: 10

Hillary Clinton (and Louise Penny) – State of Terror (2021)

Minimally camouflaged as secretary of state Ellen Adams, Mrs Clinton tackles a nuclear plot to destroy the US while settling political scores with scarcely disguised versions of Presidents Trump and Biden, plus sundry sexist politicians and journalists. The exhausting disorientation of days of plane-shuttle diplomacy across time zones is clearly lived rather than imagined, and there are surprisingly good jokes (her husband’s franchise eschews humour).
Fame: 9.5
Writing: 7.5
Inside info: 9

Iain Duncan Smith – The Devil’s Tune (2003)

Maybe stick to the day job? … Iain Duncan Smith.
Maybe stick to the day job? … Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

After achieving a rare political failure – a Tory party leader deposed before he even fought a general election – the Conservative member for Chingford and Woodford Green explored a possible second career as novelist, with a caper involving art fraud and neo-Nazis. Unfortunately, it admitted him to a second small club: public figures with a single work of fiction that didn’t even make it into paperback.
Fame: 3
Writing: 2
Inside info: 0

Frank Gardner – Outbreak (2021)

Outbreak, the third of the BBC security correspondent’s stories featuring MI6 special operative Luke Carlton, deals with bioweapons, after earlier volumes (Crisis and Ultimatum) in which the super-spy dealt with a smuggled nuclear device and a Middle East hostage crisis. The promise of Gardner’s fiction is that he may be dramatising stuff he can’t say on TV. And, having almost been killed by terrorists in Saudi Arabia on a BBC assignment that killed his camera operator, Gardner’s scenes of threat and fear have unusual realism.
Fame: 5.5
Writing: 7
Inside info: (see Tom Bradby)

Anne Holt – A Memory for Murder (2021)

While the Clintons are far more famous, they have a long way to go to match the achievements – 18 books to date and internationally screened spin-off TV series – of the former Norwegian minister of justice, Anne Holt, in the politician-turned-novelist market. A US president disappears on a state visit in Death in Oslo; a prime minister is somehow killed while alone in a guarded office in The Lion’s Mouth; an MP is killed by a sniper in her latest, A Memory for Murder. In terms of prolific consistency, Holt is the ex-political Dick Francis.
Fame: 9 (Scandinavia) / 3 (UK)
Writing: 9
Inside info: 10

Alan Johnson – The Late Train to Gipsy Hill (2021)

A candidate for one of the best Labour party leaders we never had, Johnson also has a claim to be the finest prose stylist to sit in the House of Commons since an earlier Labour home secretary, Roy Jenkins. He is a more natural autobiographer – in his quartet of memoirs with Beatles-themed titles from This Boy (2013) to In My Life (2018) – than a crime novelist, on the evidence of this crime fiction debut. But The Late Train to Gipsy Hill is elegantly written and, in common with the books of the Clintons and Holt, contains details that could only come from holding high office.
Fame: 5
Writing: 10
Inside info: 8

Boris Johnson – Seventy-Two Virgins (2004)

Boris Johnson with his father Stanley at the launch of Seventy-Two Virgins.
Not that much to smile about … Boris Johnson with his father Stanley at the launch of Seventy-Two Virgins. Photograph: Alan Davidson/Rex/Shutterstock

The current prime minister’s only fiction (in book form, anyway) follows chaotic, philandering, Latin-speaking, bicycling Tory maverick Roger Barlow as he accidentally becomes the last line of defence against a jihadist attack on the House of Commons during a state visit. Descriptive prose and dialogue blithely denigrate anyone who is not a white, male, English Tory. And one particular subplot might leave the Élysée Palace concluding that Brexit is not the most offensively anti-French thing Johnson has done.
Fame: 8
Writing: 5 (points deducted for recycled prose and bigoted jokes)
Inside info: 10 (personal psychology) / 2 (geopolitical insight)

Graham Norton – Holding (2016)

Britain’s leading chatshow host has in his recent novels – A Keeper (2018) and Home Stretch (2020) – moved towards domestic literary fiction. However, his debut was a gentle comic crime story set in a small Irish village where the cosy old garda finally has his first case to solve. An impending ITV dramatisation may encourage Norton to try more whimsical mystery, although another TV face (see below) has meanwhile moved into the same space.
Fame: 7.5
Writing: 8
Inside info: 7 (on Irish society and psychology)

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

Commercially, the celebrity crime novelist who sets the bar for all the rest. Cannily aimed at the older, cash- and time-rich demographic who form much of the audience for Osman’s Pointless and other TV shows, The Thursday Murder Club – about a group of elderly amateur rural sleuths – and its sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, recently achieved the prestigious feat of simultaneous hardback and paperback No 1s on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Some very harsh reviews accused Osman of ill-plotted whimsy, but he will write many more of these, and imitative attempts will be on the laptops of numerous TV stars.
Fame: 7.2
Writing: 6
Inside info: 0 (Pointless fans can enjoy speculating about which homicide method 100 members of the public are least likely to choose)

Robert Peston – The Whistle Blower (2021)

Taking up his pen … Robert Peston.
Taking up his pen … Robert Peston. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex/Shutterstock

While his ITN colleague Tom Bradby risks novels that can be seen as Johnsonian romans à clef, political editor Robert Peston’s fiction debut opts for the safety of a sub-Blair 1997 as the setting for a twisty conspiracy in which investigative journalist Gil Peck, a fairly naked authorial self-portrait, is stung by a family tragedy to hunt corruption deep in the British establishment. Perhaps Peston and Bradby could collaborate on a thriller in which a TV journalist’s disappearance may be connected to political secrets they have hidden in their thrillers?
Fame: 6.5
Writing: 8
Inside info: 9 (on journalism, politics and economics)

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