21.8.11

Margaret Truman's Murder at the Washington Tribune


Margaret Truman moved to the White House in 1945 when her father, Harry S. Truman, was elected President. “Some of it was fun, but most of it was not,” Truman declared. “It was a great view of history being made.” Truman’s White House experience exposed her to Washington intrigues, power struggles, and political scheming – providing her with extensive material for her 24 Capital Crimes mysteries.

After graduating with a History degree from George Washington University, Truman became a concert singer, a radio host for three different programs, a television personality, and an author of biographies and other non-fiction. When she turned to mystery writing, she became an immediate bestselling author. Washington landmarks provide the setting for her mystery novels, places such as the CIA, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court, the FBI, and the Library of Congress.

Murder at the Washington Tribune is one of Truman’s most captivating mysteries. Joe Wilcox, a reporter nearing the end of his career at the Tribune, feels depressed about his inability to compete in an increasingly aggressive environment. Although he is proud of his daughter – an ambitious award-winning television journalist, he also feels threatened by her success. When a recently hired Tribune employee is found murdered, Joe hopes that the crime will provide an opportunity to prove himself as a journalist. After a second young woman is murdered, Joe fabricates a story about a serial killer on the loose. Events take a new turn when Joe’s brother, Michael, suddenly turns up after 40 years. Michael had spent those years in a mental hospital after he was convicted for the murder of a young woman.

The novel focuses on domestic drama and ethical dilemmas. It is also an intriguing page turner. A sense of impending disaster increases throughout this cleverly conceived tale. As Lloyd Shaw (2005) claims, “Mrs. Truman tells a good story and knows how to plot a mystery novel.”

Like Carl Hiaasen and Lilian Jackson Braun (see my earlier posts on Basket Case and The Cat Who Saw Red), Margaret Truman uses a journalist as her amateur detective, a choice that strengthens the story’s air of plausibility. For 44 years, Truman was married to Clifton Daniel, reporter and managing editor of the New York Times. Not surprisingly, she writes convincingly about the newspaper world.

Murder at the Washington Tribune is about journalistic ethics. With the declining profitability of the newspaper industry, ethical issues become more prominent and problematic at the Tribune:
As circulation dropped off, along with advertising revenues, standards had slipped, too. The almighty bottom line became increasingly powerful; the choice of stories, and the way they were treated, mirrored what had become an almost insatiable drive to return profits to the paper’s shareholders. (62)
Joe Wilcox is caught in the vortex of these forces. Institutional pressures affect other characters in the novel too, causing them to cross lines that jeopardize their lives and careers.

All the Capital Crimes novels are rich in behind-the-scenes details of Washington institutions. Readers who love character-driven, ethically focused novels that instruct as well as entertain will not be disappointed in Murder at the Washington Tribune.

Shaw, Lloyd. “Mind Puzzles, Murder in Wales.” The Washington Times. November 20, 2005.

Truman, Margaret. Murder at the Washington Tribune. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.