It’s the same old story, but it gets us every time. The bedrock suspense plot features a guileless man or woman who becomes enmeshed in evil machinations beyond his or her ken. Our innocent must wise up quickly; the unsavory alternative is either to become a fall guy or to die.
First novelist Charles Robbins spins out a political variant on the basic suspense plot in “The Accomplice.” Our Everyman hero is a naive Hill staffer who has the wool slowly pulled from his wide eyes by a satyr-ish senator making a run for the White House. Robbins carries the creds necessary to transport readers into the grimy realpolitik of campaign-strategy sessions about which fat cats to chat up at fundraisers. Among his other achievements, Robbins worked as a newspaperman and has served as press officer for Rep. Fred Grandy’s gubernatorial campaign and communications director for Sen. Arlen Specter’s presidential campaign. He has also, clearly, spent a lot of unhappy primary seasons in Des Moines, where much of “The Accomplice” is set.
At the outset of the novel, our hero, Henry Hatten, is hired as communications director for the presidential campaign of Nebraska Sen. Tom Peele. Henry’s goody-goody track record better qualifies him for hall monitor than political operative, so it’s a puzzle that he’s taken on by Peele. In Henry’s last job — a gubernatorial campaign — he refused to publicize a scandal that would have torpedoed the opponent. Henry remains such an idealist that, while watching Peele speak at a rally, “He felt [a] tingle; he was hard-wired to melt at stump speeches the way most people cued to weddings or school plays.”
Henry came by his belief in the meritocracy honestly: He’s an up-from-the-working-class son of Astoria, Queens, whose grades propelled him into prep school and Dartmouth. (A particular irritant of “The Accomplice” is the stereotypical way it portrays working-class characters as dolts. The men, in particular, need a crash course in table etiquette: Henry’s father talks while chewing fully loaded nacho chips and wipes the grease on his denims; a Teamster boss in Iowa meets Henry for breakfast, where he “plucked a roll from the basket, tore it, and mashed in blackberry jam.”)
Henry believes in the system, and so he wants to believe in his new boss, Peele, who presents himself as a moderate Republican populist. Indeed, so fervent is Henry’s commitment to the higher virtues of truth and authenticity that, when a prostitute shows up at his apartment door — a “reward” from Peele’s sleazy chief consultant — Henry declines her advances because he notices that the hooker has had breast augmentation. Unfortunately, for Henry, Peele all too quickly reveals himself to be as phony as that silicone sister.
Early on in “The Accomplice,” we learn that Peele is mixed up in some drug company shenanigans guaranteed to bloat his personal bank accounts. And then there’s the womanizing. Away from his wife at a private fundraiser in Iowa, Peele makes a beeline for a red-haired literature professor. She agrees to meet the senator for lunch, where he seduces her by quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
The gullible professor is smitten, and she begins sneaking up to the senator’s hotel suite in Des Moines. Henry, who also nurses a crush on her, is aghast at his boss’s manipulations. Meanwhile, the pressure of the campaign escalates (as shown by a fatigued staffer who has a breakdown at the Xerox machine and is carted off to the loony bin).
While a time-honored formula and an intriguing résuméwill draw us into a suspense novel, they aren’t enough to make us stay put. “The Accomplice” turns out to be of those thrillers in which insider knowledge is sprinkled like particulate matter in a story that is otherwise as flat as Washington tap water.
By the time someone is finally knocked off, any reader still sticking with the story might well feel envy rather than shock. At least the victim found an exit out of the grueling primary season in Des Moines and this thin political thriller.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Charles Robbins
Thomas Dunne/St. Martins. 358 pp. $24.99