Jake Tapper hasn’t strayed too far from his day job for a side hustle.
Tapper is the lead Washington anchor for CNN, hosts the weekday news show The Lead With Jake Tapper and co-hosts the Sunday morning public affairs program State of the Union.
He gets away from the pressures of covering current politics by writing novels about historical politics.
Tapper published three nonfiction books, including the bestselling The Outpost in 2012, before turning to fiction. His new book, The Devil May Dance, is his second historical thriller featuring fictional U.S. Congressman Charlie Marder and his scientist wife, Margaret.
Set in the early 1960s, it sends the Marders on an undercover mission that sounds groovy and glamorous: Hang out with Frank Sinatra and his famous Rat Pack in Los Angeles to find out just how tight the singer’s ties to the Mafia are.
It is indeed groovy and glamorous, and it also nearly gets them killed, several times. Not to mention the dead girl in the trunk of their rental car....
Tapper’s first novel, The Hellfire Club, published in 2018, was set in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s. It introduced Charlie as a rookie member of Congress and Margaret as a reluctant political spouse. Amid the high political drama of the McCarthy era, the two discovered an ugly conspiracy rooted in blackmail and power.
The Devil May Dance takes place about eight years later. Charlie is a moderate “Eisenhower/Rockefeller Republican” (a species now extinct) ensconced in his congressional seat and more acclimated to Washington’s backscratching protocols. But that doesn’t prepare him for a phone call from his father, Winston Marder, a powerful Republican political operative. Winston needs his son’s help because he’s in jail at the Tombs in New York, charged with consorting with notorious criminals.
He’s been put there by one of his worst enemies: Robert Kennedy, U.S. attorney general and brother of the recently elected president. “Find out what Bobby wants and give it to him,” Winston tells Charlie.
What Bobby wants is for Charlie and Margaret to undertake that secret mission. The situation with Sinatra is complicated. The singer is an enthusiastic supporter of President Kennedy and campaigned for him avidly. But Sinatra’s mob ties are not exactly secret, and Robert Kennedy has directed the energies of the Department of Justice toward bringing down organized crime. (And that’s just the tip of the criminal/political iceberg.)
Kennedy has even arranged a cover for the couple. Sinatra is currently filming The Manchurian Candidate, a movie about “a soldier who goes into politics,” Kennedy says. Charlie is a war hero and combat veteran, so Kennedy has arranged with the studio for him to serve as a consultant to director John Frankenheimer and Sinatra.
The attorney general tells Charlie they know that mob boss Sam Giancana, a close friend of Sinatra’s, has asked the singer for a favor. He has to know what the favor is. All Charlie has to do is “cozy up to Frank and find out,” and he’ll be doing a service to his country. Oh, and getting Winston out of jail.
So the Marders park their two kids with their grandmother in New York and head for Los Angeles. There and in Palm Springs, the two hang out with the Rat Pack: Sinatra, singers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford (with occasional appearances by Shirley MacLaine).
And then there are the group’s shadow members, often seated at the same table but never showing up in the tabloid photos: Giancana and mobster John “Handsome Johnny” Roselli. Tapper vividly traces the men’s complex relationships; at one point Margaret draws on her zoology skills to analyze who’s the alpha, the beta, the omegas — and the apex predator.
The Rat Pack’s party-all-the-time lifestyle is a perilous atmosphere for Charlie. The term hasn’t been invented yet, but he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s self-medicating with alcohol. Margaret was concerned about his drinking before they got to L.A., and now she’s on high alert — although, as a man of his era, Charlie doesn’t want to talk about it.
Charlie was the main character in The Hellfire Club, and he’s still co-protagonist, but Margaret more than reclaims her time in The Devil May Dance. From early on, we know she chafes at having put her career as a zoologist on hold to have kids, though she loves them dearly. She’s all in on the Hollywood mission in part because she’s just plain bored with being a polite political wife, and she turns out to be a born action hero.
It’s Margaret who sniffs out a connection in the case to the newly organized Church of Scientology — and heads straight for its L.A. headquarters and a scary run-in with L. Ron Hubbard, whose literal clutches she escapes by making highly unauthorized use of the religion’s vaunted E-meter.
Not long after they arrive in L.A., Margaret is shocked to spot her niece Violet, a 16-year-old runaway from Ohio, being pawed by a much older studio executive at a private club. The guy whisks away the doped-up Violet before Margaret can grab her, so she teams up with a tough-talking tabloid journalist, Charlotte Goode, to find the girl. They’ll find more than they bargained for.
Charlie has a pretty impressive scene in which he faces off with John Wayne — and wins — but it’s Margaret who tears into Sinatra in a confrontation over Hollywood’s complacency about the sexual exploitation of teenage girls — and gets a surprising response.
Sinatra is the most intriguing and fully developed of the book’s famous characters, but Tapper deftly sketches all of them. The book is deeply researched, and he incorporates some actual conversations and performances, which can be shocking in their casual expressions of racism and misogyny, all too true to the era.
But he also captures the glamour and grooviness, culminating in an over-the-top pursuit all over the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the midst of the 1962 Academy Awards ceremony, during which Margaret discovers that the Oscar statuette really is heavier than it looks.
The Devil May Dance is rich in research, packed with pop culture and historical detail. The book is set six decades ago, but neither politics nor show business has changed as much as we might hope. Tapper connects the dots, but does it with a light hand that doesn’t slow down the Marders’ adventures. And listen, about Disneyland after dark....
The Devil May Dance
By Jake Tapper
Little, Brown and Co., 336 pages, $28
Jake Tapper will be the first author in the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading Author Series, appearing in a live virtual interview at 7 p.m. June 9. Ticket information coming soon.