Trumpery has been good to Jerome Charyn’s new crime novel, the 12th and last in a series featuring a New York City cop named Isaac Sidel. Isaac has become president of the United States — a development made far less improbable by the real-life rise of a perpetually irate reality-TV star to the same slot.
In his introduction, Charyn admits to imbuing his protagonist with “the cosmic sadness” of his childhood. And what more cosmically sad job could Isaac have fallen into than president of the United States?
The winter of “Winter Warning” is 1989, and the Soviet Union is imploding. Isaac first made a name for himself as a law-and-order cop with a heart, a crime-stopping champion of rent control who rose to police commissioner and then mayor — New Yorkers still refer to him as the “Pink Commish.” Hoping to out-law-and-order the Republicans, the Democratic Party chose Mayor Sidel as running mate for its presidential nominee. The ticket won, but the president had to resign because of his involvement in crooked real estate deals, and the gun-toting Isaac entered an office nobody wanted him in, least of all himself. “He’d Glocked his way to the White House.” (Students of American history will recall that a similar fate befell another New York City police commissioner: Theodore Roosevelt.)
Charyn excels at sketching the presidency’s effect on a reluctant incumbent. Aside from the monumental difficulty of the job, Isaac resents the constraints. Thanks to the Secret Service, he can never be alone. (He and his wife are separated, and his daughter — married to a cop — is a minor presence in the novel.) Thanks to the high stakes of the decisions he must make, he can’t trust anyone not to be using him. And thanks to geopolitics, he can’t stray far from “a black briefcase which held the doomsday codes that would allow the president to launch a nuclear counterstrike.” His popularity is dropping fast, and his rise to power has been so fluky that he wonders how long he can hang on — an uneasiness compounded when he learns that European bankers are placing wagers on when he will die.
Isaac is a cultured man. He attended Columbia University (but didn’t graduate). He admires Balanchine. Being tethered to the black briefcase makes him feel “like a character in one of Gogol’s surreal tales.” On a trip to Czechoslovakia (as the country was still known at the time), he displays a familiarity with all things Franz Kafka, including the great writer’s sister Ottilie “Ottla” Kafka, who was murdered in Auschwitz.
Shaken by an assassination attempt, he vows to change his presidential ways. He will emulate one of his heroes: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who “turned the White House into a Washington resort hotel.” It’s not long before the mansion is crawling with friends and political exiles.
Charyn’s feisty style is as strong as ever. This is American prose at its punchiest. Lamenting the number of near-misses of which he is the target, Isaac refers to his Secret Service handlers as “always a few paces behind someone else’s curve.” A character who recovered from a boyhood case of polio has since developed a slight limp, “as if his own body had become a haunted house.” With regard to the multitudes who want him dead, Isaac complains of having “a ghoul on my back wherever I go.”
The plot of “Winter Warning” may be too byzantine for some tastes. It has to do with counterfeit U.S. currency, bets on Isaac’s life and the loyalty (or lack thereof) of Isaac’s vice president. But luckily, the plot is rather beside the point in an Isaac Sidel novel. We read these books to encounter the gaudy characters who flit in and out of the hero’s life. My favorite this time is a zaftig blonde who reminds Isaac of the primordial TV star Dagmar and who, disguised as a housekeeper, tries to finish him off with death by ironing.
“Winter Warning” brings a bravura series to a fitting end.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Jerome Charyn
Pegasus. 256 pp. $25.95