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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 01:47 pm

The first First Husband is the president’s private eye

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Joesph Flynn of Springfield
Joseph Flynn, a Springfield writer, is the author of a number of well reviewed novels. In this, his latest thriller, the plot is familiar — the bad guys go after their target by going after the person our hero cares about most. In this case that person also happens to be the first U.S. woman president. The hero, in his case the detective, is her husband. Since he’s the first “first husband,” he has to invent his role. Jim McGill, a former cop, deems it politically unwise to offer his services to the FBI or such like, and so sets up as a private investigator. He soon discovers that this is a political role, too. His wife, a moderate, is in jeopardy from the start because of her unpopular stand against the neo-cons of her party. (He names himself “the president’s henchman.”) His job also endangers his three children, his ex-wife and her husband.    

McGill is an interesting, intelligent, and likeable hero — he loves his kids; he’s on friendly terms with his ex: she couldn’t stand the danger of his profession, but can’t get away from it even now. He’s a feminist in his attitudes. A lot pivots on sex — this is Washington, after all — but we are spared lubricious details. There’s violence, and yes, a car chase, and (to me) an overly detailed basketball competition between McGill and a crucial enemy.

Also, being Washington, there are a lot of people involved and here’s where I find Flynn at his best. The people, major and bit players, are not just names and roles. We learn details of their backgrounds and personalities, and these are varied, unusual, fascinating. Since the story is told in progressing episodes, a grand right-and-left of characters, scenes, concerns from cats to Cuba, a cast list would help — sometimes we don’t get back to a certain player for quite a while. Even though each character is distinctive, a list would help the reader who could refer back and say, “Ah, yes, that’s the Pentagon bad guy.”

One especially appealing character is the young lieutenant, Welborn, appointed by the president as her special watchdog. He’s a major player. A minor one is the Armenian landlord who rents McGill space in his building, but he’s deftly drawn in his few scenes, and you really care when he disappears near the end.

Where I pick a small bone with this otherwise good read is the ending, or rather endings. We have a couple — there’s the kid crisis (see below), followed by the crisis involving McGill himself and the bad guy: quite a humorous scene where McGill turns everyday articles on his desk, such as a stapler, into attack weapons, like a grade school kid with his rubber band and thumbtack. But once the major dramas are settled, we still need to know what happens to all these other folk we’ve come to know, including our Armenian. Telling us makes the story overlong: these vignettes, though interesting, might have been handled more economically. We’re also left with a cliffhanger, about a major character’s sudden danger — perhaps death? — which assures us there’ll be another Henchman novel. That’s A-okay.

One other bone (I’m a mother) is this: McGill plans to put his youngest child in danger, at the climax, but assures everyone he won’t without the child’s mother’s permission. Then his ex and her spouse vanish. McGill keeps trying to locate them, lights a candle in church, and the president sends out the FBI, but where’s the scene — which could be a wrenching one — of McGill wrestling with his conscience and going ahead without the permission? And where’s the missing pair? It’s as if Flynn and McGill forget about them. They show up in the final vignettes, oh, they went into hiding and couldn’t be reached, but they’re all right and when they saw the daughter on television . . .. This part doesn’t ring true. If my kid were at Camp David, even in no sort of political danger, I should be reachable – what if he had a ruptured appendix? The times I’ve gone into hiding, I’ve always let someone trusted know where I am.

In the end, however, this is a book worth reading. And the paperback is due out soon.

Jacqueline Jackson is books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and author of several award-winning children’s books.

The President’s Henchman by Joseph Flynn. Variance Press, 2009. 410 pp. 

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