Jake Tapper turns to fiction for ‘The Hellfire Club’
NEW YORK (AP) — Jake Tapper, veteran newsman and debut novelist, isn’t quite used to being on the receiving end of questions.
“When people come to my set and I’m about to do an interview, I generally don’t think at all that they’re nervous,” the CNN anchor said during a recent telephone interview. “But then it’s you in the chair yourself and you think, ‘Wow, this is terrifying.’”
Tapper’s novel is called “The Hellfire Club,” and it’s meant as a diversion — for the author and his readers. It’s a thriller set in 1950s Washington featuring an imaginary congressman, Charlie Marder, and a supporting cast of very real public figures, from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Joe McCarthy.
The book’s title comes from an exclusive meeting place where Marder discovers a world far darker and more complicated than even he, a World War II veteran, had encountered. Tapper said he had been fascinated by a Hellfire Club from Benjamin Franklin’s time and was trying to figure out how to use it for a novel. He thought of a story based in the 1700s but settled into an era more familiar and one he thought had been overlooked and misunderstood.
“The ’50s get romanticized so much and depicted as serene so often when there’s so much lurking beneath the surface,” he says, “whether it’s anti-communism and McCarthy, the Cold War, the atomic race or racism.”
Tapper’s background is in nonfiction, whether in his day job or in the books he has written before — “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” and “Down & Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency.” But he found the invented part of his new book — “Making things up was fun,” he says — less of a task than merging fiction and history, creating an “alternate reality.” The novel is also a story of time management for one of the country’s busiest journalists, “a matter of carrying around a laptop for all free moments — trains, planes, waiting rooms,” Tapper says.
Thanks in part to blurbs from David Baldacci and Harlan Coben, among others; shout-outs on social media from colleagues (Dana Bash) and rivals (NBC’s Savannah Guthrie); and Tapper’s active promotion of the book, “The Hellfire Club” has reached the top 30 on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Reviewers have likened it to the exotic and conspiratorial narratives of Dan Brown (”‘The Hellfire Club’ is most enjoyable when it’s most groan-worthy,” The Washington Post observed), and Tapper said he wanted “The Hellfire Club” to be a “fun book.” But he also acknowledged that Washington in the ’50s “rhymes” with events now.
“The Hellfire Club” features a fiery confrontation about greed and patriotism between Marder and McCarthy aide Roy Cohn, who became a mentor to Donald Trump. And it’s easy to see the blustering and intimidating McCarthy as a precursor to President Trump, who has labeled Tapper’s employer a leading carrier of “Fake News” and, tweeting about Tapper, referred to “the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky.” Tapper, meanwhile, has stated, “There are basic lines of human decency, norms to which society generally agrees and to which we adhere, and we continue to see the Trump presidency eroding these lines.” (Trump hasn’t attacked “The Hellfire Club,” Tapper reasoned during his interview, because he’s not mentioned by name in it.)
One scene finds Marder in the Oval Office, fretting to President Eisenhower that he sees no end to the political persecutions McCarthy has inspired. The president reassures Marder that the “combinations of checks and balances and a free press and our democratically elected representatives ultimately will expose charlatans.”
Tapper commented: “I think it’s fair to say I was thinking about checks and balances and the current era when I wrote” that passage.
Marder isn’t a stand-in for the author, Tapper says, although they do share a love of history and a heightened sense of smell. But Tapper does relate to his character as someone who, no matter how experienced, can be disheartened by the behavior of politicians.
“I don’t think I’m an innocent man but I am constantly surprised by the decisions people make, based on avarice and impulses not necessarily based on the public good,” he says.
“Charlie goes into the job wanting to do good and ends up being picked apart to death by a thousand compromises. That’s how I see it go with a lot of people who come to Washington. They want to do good. They mean to do good. And they find themselves compromising themselves. And that’s what I wanted to capture, how Washington can erode principles.”