The President’s Shadow | Brad Meltzer | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 401p | Review copy | Buy the book
The First Lady has a secret hobby. She likes to get up long before everyone else and find a hidden spot – they do exist – in the White House grounds and garden by moonlight. But one night Mrs Wallace’s peace is shattered. Her trowel hits something. It is a human arm, just beginning to rot. The arm was placed there no longer than two weeks ago. To have found a way in to bury an arm under the glare of an infinite number of cameras would have required the utmost cunning and planning – it would also have taken an insider. What makes it worse is that the buried hand clutches a clue – a coin inscribed with the symbol of a secretive military unit, forgotten by most: the Plankholders. Those closest to President Wallace are alarmed but the President himself knows where to turn – he calls in Beecher White from the National Archives.
Archivist Beecher White has a history with the President, not always a happy one, but Beecher is good at working out puzzles. He also discovers he has a connection to the dismembered arm. Beecher’s late father was in the Plankholders, as was one of the most lethal figures in recent American history, a man recently escaped from captivity who lives to kill its Presidents. Beecher has long harboured suspicions about his father’s death. At last, he has the chance to discover the truth – if only he can survive long enough to act on it.
The President’s Shadow is the first novel by Brad Meltzer that I’ve read and, although this book is the third in a series, it didn’t matter at all that I hadn’t read the first two. The thriller throws us into the heat of the action from the turn of the very first page and, to be honest, it was only tiredness at the late hour that stopped me reading the whole book in one go.
I have a real thing for thrillers about puzzles, ciphers and secret organisations, particularly when they’re set in the United States (and well away from Knights Templar). There’s a National Treasure feel about this book and, as far as I’m concerned, that is no bad thing at all. Instead of taking us back to the Declaration of Independence era, this novel focuses on more recent history and the events of thirty years ago when the fathers of Beecher White, his friend Marshall and others were taken from their army units, boarded onto a vessel and sent south.
The novel switches narratives throughout. We move between the past and the present day as we watch Beecher’s father try to work out what is happening to him and his friends, intermingling with chapters focused on Beecher’s own investigation into the dead man’s arm. Beecher has made a deal. If he can uncover the truth about who has placed the arm at the White House then he will be given classified information about his father’s fate. But the present-day chapters also shift perspectives. The chapters dealing with Beecher are told in the first person, present tense. We share his anxiety and grow close to him. But we are also allowed to observe the stories of Marshall, Clementine and her father, Niko, the man who became a monster.
One of the reasons for the thriller’s success is that Brad Meltzer manages our sympathies very well indeed. While we always feel close to Beecher, our hero, as well as his damaged friend Marshall, we may be surprised to find ourselves also caring for Clementine and Niko, especially as we learn more about their past. Clementine is undergoing a terrible ordeal and the chapters dealing with her are painful to read, while her father Niko may be a monster but something made him that way. The baddies here are not just individuals. This is a bigger story than that.
The President’s Shadow is full of clues and red herrings, sinister and underhand dealings, secret societies, codes and deceits. The President is an intriguing character in his own right and the scenes dealing with him are a lot of fun while Beecher White is a great hero. The novel is well written and runs along at a rate of knots, with each chapter pushing us on to the next, and the mystery – and its conclusion – is thoroughly entertaining.