'The House of Kennedy': why is thriller king James Patterson now writing about US history?

This is only the famous author's second work of straightforward history

The life of US president John F Kennedy is addressed in new book 'The House of Kennedys' by James Patterson.  AFP
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There are a good many unavoidably odd things about The House of Kennedy, the new book by James Patterson (with Cynthia Fagen).

The first is the presence of Patterson himself: he's written or co-written well over 200 books, but only a tiny handful of those have been nonfiction, and only one of those, 2009's The Murder of King Tut (co-written with Martin Dugard), was presented as a work of straightforward history.

Finding Patterson writing a history of four generations of the Kennedy family is like finding an 800-page history of the Habsburg Monarchy written by JK Rowling

Patterson is one of the most prolific and bestselling thriller-writers in the world; finding him writing a history of four generations of the Kennedy family is like finding an 800-page history of the Habsburg Monarchy written by JK Rowling.

The book contains no foreword explaining why a mainstay of the fiction bestseller lists would turn to writing history. Perhaps the answer is purely personal; Patterson was a teenager when President John F Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, and the moment may have seared itself into his memory, as it did for many Americans who remember the news breaking that day.

And there are other odd things about The House of Kennedy. The book purports to be the "true story" of the Kennedy family, from paterfamilias millionaire Joe Kennedy to his tragic trio of oldest sons, Joe Jr (killed in action during World War II), John (slain as president in 1963), and Bobby (slain as presidential candidate in 1968) to surviving son, Senator Edward Kennedy and such famous next-generation scions as John Kennedy Junior.

But this account is entirely based on public documents and popular secondary sources; no Kennedy “true stories” are told here that haven’t been told for decades.

TODAY -- Pictured: James Patterson on Friday, December 6, 2019 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
James Patterson has written more than 200 books, most of them thrillers. Getty. 

At its heart, the book is a quick, readable tour through the lurid highlights of the Kennedy family’s past. Readers are served up generous portions of both fact and rumour, all of it delivered in exactly the kind of telegraphic, fast-paced present-tense prose that has characterised Patterson’s fiction for 40 years.

For instance, when the subject of Joe Jr's affair with Broadway actress Athalia Ponsell comes up, Patterson writes: "Ponsell is best known in later years for her grisly – and unsolved – murder in 1974, when she was found decapitated by machete outside her home in Florida."

Before the reader can even register the fact the murder took place 35 years after the affair, the book goes on: “She later becomes the subject of two true crime books, as well as lingering questions about the cost of romancing a Kennedy.” It is Patterson’s salacious innuendo that wins the spotlight.

This isn't exactly how history is supposed to be written

John F. Kennedy Jr, son of the late US president, discusses his political journal "George" during NBC's Meet the Press program 16 February in Washington, DC. Kennedy discussed the sucess of the magazine, which is now the largest circulation political journal. (Photo by STF / AFP)
The book also details the death of John F Kennedy Jr. AFP.

It’s a narrative line that runs through the book. Decades after Joe Jr we find JFK Jr in July of 1999 preparing to pilot a quick flight from Fairfield, New Jersey to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts – the flight on which he and his passengers (including his wife) would die.

The book relates that according to the New York Post, JFK Jr “was still taking Vicodin to relieve the pain of a recently broken ankle, plus Ritalin for attention-deficit disorder and medication for a thyroid problem.”

The 2007 Post story insinuates that JFK Jr was “dazed” on a combination of these drugs and implies it affected his piloting, and Patterson is content to pass along those insinuations rather than either substantiate or bury them. That isn’t exactly how history is supposed to be written. 

Likewise on the book’s biggest historical points – none bigger than the JFK assassination, a topic on which mountains of prose have been written. Patterson and Fagen mention Mary Elizabeth Woodward, a Dallas Morning News writer who was in Dealey Plaza mere arms lengths from the president when the fatal shots rang out.

At the time, Woodward wrote that she heard shots coming from an area in front of the motorcade – not from above and behind, as the official findings concluded. In a vague feint of adherence to those official findings, Patterson and Fagen quote Woodward’s later statement that she eventually concluded thatp she’d mis-identified the direction of the shots, and they seem to let the whole subject go at that. But well over 50 people in Dealey Plaza heard shots coming from the same direction Woodward had; one faulty ear-witness does not a lone gunman make. 

Ultimately, the oddest thing about The House of Kennedy is that it exists at all. What is this book’s expected audience? Although it’s dutiful, it’s also breathless and credulous; Kennedy scholars will rightfully ignore it.

And although it’s page-turning, readers of Patterson’s thriller novels will find it fairly stodgy. Maybe those Patterson fans will make it a bestseller out of simple loyal habit – and maybe that’s the point of the whole thing.