The Devil May Dance: The Rat Pack in a Murder Mystery




By Jake Tapper

Little, Brown and Company, 315 pages.





Jake Tapper is a CNN journalist. I’ve never seen him, nor have I read his other books, but he has hardboiled detective fiction down pat. For those uncertain what that means, the genre is gritty, sordid, sprinkled with innuendo and actual sex, and has snappy dialogue heavy on sarcasm and argot. Tapper’s drink is an old fashioned, an approach more akin to that of a Robert Ludlum or a Michael Connelly than many of today’s nuanced crime writers.


The Devil May Dance is also an imagined historical novel involving real people from the 1950s and 1960s, though his central characters Charlie and Margaret Marder are inventions. Charlie, a World War II vet, is a first-term Congressman from Manhattan who gets a rude initiation into the ways in which politics, crime, and celebrity overlap. The novel is set in Hollywood and New York. In what I learned is the sequel to Tapper’s The Hellfire Club, Charlie and Margaret are recruited, or should I say blackmailed, by Attorney General Robert Kennedy into investigating Frank Sinatra. It’s not really a choice; Charlie’s bad-company-keeping father is in jail and his only ticket out is Congressman Marder’s cooperation. So, it’s off to Los Angeles to be a “consultant” for a new Sinatra film, The Manchurian Candidate. Charlie and Margaret are charged with ingratiating themselves to Sinatra with the goal of spying on him and other Rat Pack members such as Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford, the latter of whom is married to Patricia Kennedy.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is hailed as classic and Tapper mines its plot to make parallels to its web of deception. The movie (and the Richard Condon novel upon which it is based) is a quintessential Cold war story of a Korean War vet captured by communists, brainwashed, and used as a spy and potential assassin. Is Bobby Kennedy’s assignment really a matter of national security? Tapper keeps us guessing in a fast-paced tale of murder, double dealing, and sleaze. It’s often hard to detect who is crooked, who is an infiltrator pretending to be a wise guy, who can be trusted, and who is a skilled actor. There is a subplot involving a Harvey Weinstein-like character running a sex trade ring specializing in, shall we say, jail bait. (Tapper was no doubt influenced by Sue Lyon, the 14-year-old lead actress in Lolita and the love interest of 53-year-old James Mason.)


There is a lot going on in The Devil May Dance. There are mobsters such as Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli; film director John Frankenheimer; scandal rags; Disneyland; internal struggles between the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; the rise of Scientology; and Fidel Castro. It’s no secret that many of the people in the novel were creeps in real-life–Hoover and L. Ron Hubbard, for instance–or bores (Bob Hope). Nor is a secret that the now-sainted Bobby Kennedy was a real S.O.B. when he was Attorney General. The big question in Tapper’s novel is the which-side-are-you-on role of Sinatra. He could be a brutal and crude man, but is he really what he appears to be in the book, a man wounded by his divorce from Ava Gardner? Hollywood is nicknamed Tinseltown for a reason; in its own way it’s every bit as illusory as Disneyland and just as powerful. As the book blurb puts it, “corruption and ambition form a deadly mix….” In such a milieu, nothing is beneath those holding onto power and privilege–not even stuffing a corpse into a congressman’s trunk. No wonder Bobby Kennedy wonders if it’s safe for his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to stay at Sinatra’s house during a West Coast fundraising trip. (Can even a president turn down an invite from Old Blue Eyes?)


You might that Tapper’s speculation rings entirely true. Conversely, you might find the entire thing a tank of banana oil. Either way, though, if you are a fan of thrillers, The Devil May Care is (if I might) a thrilling read.


Rob Weir  

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