The Hellfire Club
By Jake Tapper. (Little, Brown & Co., 352 pages, $27.)
As CNN’s chief political correspondent, Jake Tapper is immersed in the Washington chaos; for his first novel (after several forays into nonfiction) he takes us back to the D.C. swamp of the 1950s. His noirish thriller centers on earnest new congressman Charlie Marder, a Mr. Smith-type do-gooder who stumbles into nefarious doings. As he peels back the layers of greed and corruption, his lofty ideals — and his life — are put in jeopardy.
Tapper is a professed history buff who has done copious research, and it shows, often obtrusively. Famous figures of the day (Hey, there’s Jack Kennedy! Look, it’s Lyndon Johnson! That Joe McCarthy can be awfully charming!) wander in and out, and a good chunk of the book feels like leaden exposition for those who never cracked a textbook. The dialogue can be clunky, and modernisms, such as a “dad joke” reference, sneak in. Charlie and his pregnant wife — an ambitious zoologist with her own subplot — sometimes seem to be time-traveling from the present day.
And yet you’ll overlook these eye-rollers when the action heats up in the last reel (yes, I predict a movie — Chris Evans as Charlie?). The action comes fast and furious, “House of Cards” on steroids; you’ll be turning pages faster than a cable channel updates its chyron. Perfect for an airplane or the beach, “The Hellfire Club” is a worthy distraction from the real-life news cycle Tapper presides over.
Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense
By Joyce Carol Oates. (The Mysterious Press, 331 pages, $26.)
“What if Edgar Allan Poe’s stories actually cared about women, instead of turning all of them into comely, corseted objects of obsession?” That’s the idea behind most of the six stories in Oates’ new collection, which places women at the center of the drama and which drops Poe references like breadcrumbs (a character named Evangeline, a street named Edgar, several ravens).
A few of the stories ask us to identify with a protagonist and then pull a switcheroo, revealing that we’ve chosen to side with someone who’s cooking up a nasty plan. In “The Woman in the Window,” the title character is a mistress, inspired by the naked, high-heeled woman depicted in Edward Hopper’s painting, “Eleven A.M., 1926.” She’s a forgotten person, forever waiting, but it gradually becomes clear that she’s no innocent and, when Oates shifts the story’s point of view to her married lover, we realize both anticipate their next assignation with murder on their minds.
“The Long-Legged Girl” takes the point of view of a woman whose professor husband is cheating on her, but she, too, reveals herself to be no innocent victim. The closest the collection comes to that is the title character in “The Experimental Subject,” another forgotten woman, this one the unknowing target of a hideous science project gone wrong. At 112 pages, that story feels overextended and, honestly none of the stories approach the creeping dread of Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, who inspired the title tale. But even when they’re not especially thrilling, Oates’ stories remain insightful meditations on the notion that the real monsters are not zombies or vampires but loneliness, inhumanity and despair.