'The Kingfisher Secret' - when fiction is but a pale imitation of US political reality

This book's biggest problem, of course is that the grubby details of American political life today are far more compelling than fiction. The tail genuinely does wag the dog right now

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Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro
Wag The Dog - 1997
Director: Barry Levinson
New Line/Tribeca
Scene Still
Des hommes d'influence
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The Kingfisher Secret
Anonymous, Penguin Books

Twenty-one years ago, Hollywood imagined a world where a United States president burdened by scandal had a spin doctor invent a small war in Albania to distract voters from his domestic wrongdoing. The 1997 film, Wag the Dog, starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, proved disturbingly prophetic: the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke shortly after its release, rocking the Clinton administration. As impeachment hearings were being advanced against Bill Clinton, the 42nd US president ordered air strikes against Iraq, an act his political opponents called "suspect", suggesting they were a smokescreen to steer media attention away from his domestic problems.

While the current US president is also embroiled in scandal, he does not bother with such smokescreens. Last week, Donald Trump traded insults on social media with Stephanie Clifford – who says she had an affair with him in 2006 and maintains she was paid hush money by his legal representative shortly before the 2016 election – in a distinctly unpresidential exchange of words that was initiated by the president himself. No need for Wag the Dog distraction tactics nowadays.

Recent events track the trend of the past two years: revelation after revelation has rocked the administration. Only last weekend, a former US ambassador to Mexico, Roberta S Jacobson, was moved to write wearily in The New York Times that "some chaos is normal at the start of an administration, but it has been extreme under Mr Trump". Jacobson had served under five presidents, but had never seen such a diplomatic mess before. Previous administrations may have been sunk by the amount of toxic ballast that has found its way into the White House in the past two years. The Trump administration sails on into the storm.

In another time, the publication of The Kingfisher Secret by Anonymous, a new novel about a journalist, a presidential candidate and his mysterious former wife, might have encouraged a quest to reveal the identity of its author or prompted some grand debate about the state of the political landscape.

The Kingfisher Secret by Anonymous
The Kingfisher Secret by Anonymous

In 1996, Primary Colours offered a satirical look at a fictional candidate who closely resembled Bill Clinton. The whodunnit that exploded around the novel's publication – the author was later revealed as Newsweek columnist Joe Klein – did much to encourage sales and shape perceptions of the Clinton years. A generation later, O: A Presidential Novel tried to repeat the trick, offering up an anonymous takedown of the Obama years, but failed to stir too much of the public's imagination. Perhaps the law of diminishing returns that affected O: A Presidential Novel, will apply even more rigorously to The Kingfisher Secret. Its author is said to be a "respected writer and former journalist", but there is little in its text to persuade one to believe that this roman a clef is the Primary Colours of the Trump era.

Its biggest problem, of course is that the grubby details of American political life today are far more compelling than fiction. The tail genuinely does wag the dog right now.

When an actress sells the story of her affair with a presidential candidate to an American tabloid, the brilliantly named National Flash, at the beginning of The Kingfisher Secret and the author earnestly tells us that the entertainer had gone into "grim, humiliating detail about her affair with the man some hoped and many feared would become the next president of the United States", it feels like a pale imitation of the world we now live in.

Grace Elliott – the Flash's reporter who bagged the scoop only to have it killed by her editor who does not deem it in the public's interest to publish a few days before a November election – is dispatched to Prague to hang out with Elena Craig, the former wife of presidential candidate Anthony Craig. Grace is the ghost-writer of the "Ask Elena" column in the tabloid, in which she answers readers' queries about etiquette and what to do with errant husbands. The column is sponsored by Elena's beauty company. In true sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut style, Elena is presented as a fictional facsimile of Ivana Trump.

Grace harbours dreams of writing Elena's life story, something the latter is wholly uninterested in sharing. Are there skeletons in the cupboard? Of course. "Elena isn't who we think she is," Grace tells her editor. "My God, Grace, who are you dealing with?" asks one of the reporter's confidantes midway through the novel.

Elena Klimentova, as she was formerly known, has a dark secret to suppress, having been recruited as a spy in post-Soviet-invasion Prague with orders to infiltrate the upper echelons of western society and marry a politically ambitious businessman. The goal is to dismantle the US system from within. Welcome back to the binary world of Cold War rivalry.

Grace searches for the "real Elena" and the book settles down into a fairly standard airport thriller tale of reporter being pursued around the world by spies and stalkers intent on keeping the truth from being told. "The integrity of the American election is at stake," Grace screams in exasperation as she bears down on the truth.

The action flits from Montreal to Miami to Moscow and Prague and switches from the autumn days of 2016 to an episodic representation of the unwilling Elena's rise through the ranks. If conspiracy theories are your thing, The Kingfisher Secret may be for you. Even then, you won't find this especially nourishing. There is not too much thrill in this chase.


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The Kingfisher Secret
Anonymous, Penguin Books