The Art of the Devil

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More than ten years before writing The Art of the Devil, I had pitched a very similar book as a sequel to my first novel. A contract had been signed. But the book had refused to come. Eventually, instead of a sequel to A GATHERING OF SPIES, I’d come up with a prequel (see BEHIND THE BOOK – A GAME OF SPIES).

But the idea had never left me. A spin on The Day of the Jackal, set in the 1950s, with a female ex-Nazi assassin antihero … I liked it. And so I went back to it. (“None of them has ever escaped my mind,” Stephen King said about his own early stabs at novels. “Not even the really bad ones.”)

The Art of the Devil describes a plot to assassinate President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Inspired by a real event – the severe heart attack suffered by Eisenhower in October 1955, near the end of his first term – the book suggests that the coronary was in fact a failed attempt on his life, and speculates on events both preceding and following the incident.

The first time I tried to write the book, I read a lot about the Fifties (most notably, perhaps, David Halberstam’s excellent The Fifties, which I read three times from cover to cover.) But I was unable to find an interesting way into the decade. Frankly, the Fifties seemed a rather pallid period in our American history. Post-war, Patti Page, Doris Day, Norman Rockwell, Father Knows Best … all very pleasant, to be sure. But where was the juice?

But now I was coming at it from a different angle. After 9/11, American politics had grown more fiercely partisan. And now, again, we were again at war.

When I commenced research, searching for the real beating heart of the decade, I read less history and more fiction. The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit proved a revelation. All the shiny surface of the Fifties, I realized suddenly, could be seen a reaction to the trauma of World War II and the Bomb, an attempt to paper over reality and soothe ourselves to sleep at night.

Viewed through this lens, I suddenly found the era fascinating. (People keeping secrets under pleasant surfaces is an obsession of mine.) I devoured more and more books from the decade: Peyton Place and The Best of Everything, and Alas, Babylon and On the Beach and Earth Abides (from which I borrowed my protagonist’s name, Ish). I explored a little ahead of my time frame, and a little behind. I read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, to more fully understand the history of Eisenhower’s Gettysburg estate, where the bulk of the action would take place.

And I kept my book relevant by keeping one eye on the current headlines, and the extraordinarily partisan nature of contemporary U.S. politics. It took only a small nudge into fiction to imagine that something like my story could really have happened …

After World War II, America had been a newly-minted superpower facing a historical crossroads. During his first term, Eisenhower had revealed himself to be far more moderate than many Republicans would have liked. Alienating the base of his own party, he’d set the nation on a course which his enemies considered weak and irresolute, squandering, in their view, a singular chance to assert America’s global dominance.

But if the heart attack suffered by Eisenhower in 1955 had proved fatal – as it very nearly had – Vice President Richard Nixon, a favorite of the far right, would have been installed in office, and history would have followed a very different path.

The Art of the Devil worked out so nicely that after finishing I looked back at another idea I’d been toying with. As I was looking, the Edward Snowden story broke … and suddenly I had the starting point for my next book.