Friday, March 6, 2015

FFB: The Corpse on the White House Lawn - "Diplomat"

"Call in the others and we'll see if we can't figure out some way to pin this [murder] on some outsider -- preferably a Democrat"
--Dennis Tyler in The Corpse on the White House Lawn

Dennis Tyler, head of the Current Political Intelligence (CPI) branch of the State Department, is not a fan of exercise. Especially at 7 AM. When he is told to meet a couple of journalists, the White House Press Secretary and an old army pal on the White House lawn for a publicity stunt involving tossing a medicine ball around so early in the morning you can imagine he's not exactly thrilled. But he goes. He's a diplomat after all. He knows how this kind of publicity work in Washington DC. But the exercise doesn't last long. The ball goes astray several times and when he goes searching for it among the dwarf rhododendrons he literally stumbles upon a corpse in a tuxedo. And he's shocked to recognize the face as Ramon Sanchez, a Mexican diplomat and informer for the State Department. Sanchez has been strangled, his silk scarf still wrapped around his neck. Quickly, Tyler enlists the aid of his exercise gang to cover up the crime by moving the body as far away from the White House as possible. They dump Sanchez in the Potomac and hope that he'll remain there for a couple of days giving Tyler time to concoct a story that will spare the President and his staff the taint of a scandal.

Pretty far-fetched, isn't it? But no different from the kind of nighttime drama we are being fed these days on TV shows like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. The difference is this book was written prior to the outbreak of World War Two and is fairly influenced by pulp magazines plot mechanics.

Tyler turns detective and eventually learns of some stolen plans for a unique catapult design that can launch and retrieve airplanes at sea. Essentially, the invention renders an aircraft carrier obsolete. If the plans get in the hands of the enemy it might just wreak havoc with the US naval shipbuilding industry, possibly end it altogether.

Or so the author would have us believe.

The Corpse on the White House Lawn (1932) is the fourth of six novels featuring series character Dennis Tyler. It's an odd blend of detective novel, political satire and espionage. It also suffers from a schizoid identity in the writing. "Diplomat", better known as John Franklin Carter, has absolutely no skill in writing dialogue which leans towards histrionic exclamations, pun laden wisecracks and is generally unrealistic on every level. When his focus is on exposing the hypocrisy of politicians however, Carter has a clever way of turning a phrase. The novel works best when Carter is eviscerating the world he knew so well as a member of the State Department under both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Here's one particularly trenchant passage:

Diplomacy, like Jehovah, works in devious ways its wonders to perform, and [Tyler's wife] had seen one treaty put over merely because the wife of a foreign delegate was regularly taken to the movies by a young foreign service officer, and another treaty completely wrecked because the American delegate had forgotten to lock his bedroom door. Wine, women, and red tape were still the three graces, or greases, which lubricate the government's work.

His characters and their actions seem to have been pulled from the pulp magazine writer's bag of tricks. The plot is filled with spy silliness like fountain pens that shoot tear gas and superhuman feats of daring do. There's a climactic fire in the White House, several near fatal bumps on the head, a kidnapping and some business with codes that use newspaper articles in combination with the number pi. Sometimes Carter has an original idea that seems perfect for his DC Setting. The bad guy, who happens to be an evil traitor selling information to enemy powers, has managed to co-opt the services of several cab drivers and formed a battalion of eager to serve, easily bribed,  getaway drivers who help him escape from the scenes of his spying and killing.

John Franklin Carter is a lot more interesting than the fiction he concocts. You'll find lots of information about him on the internet these days, but nothing to compare with what is discussed in Roosevelt's Secret War by Joseph Persico or an article I found in the Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence.  Carter was just as vain and rebellious as Dennis Tyler. It's hard not to separate the character he created from the author when you read his letters and diaries and know more about his personal life and political aspirations. Dennis Tyler is so obviously Carter's twisted superego realized in fictional form. Both men defy rules and regulations, act on their own authority, all in the name of saving democracy. Carter managed to manipulate FDR and have himself appointed as the head of a secret, off the books, one man intelligence operation created essentially to spy on Roosevelt's own advisers and cabinet members. Roosevelt even manged to siphon money from federally allocated funds to pay Carter so that his salary as a spy for the President wouldn't show up in the records of the State Department.  Like a member of the IMF in Mission: Impossible Roosevelt and the Secretary of State were ready "to disavow any knowledge" should Carter be caught doing something unethical or illegal.

Another post on Carter and two of his other books is in the works. Stay tuned!

The Dennis Tyler Political Detective Novels
Murder in the State Department (1930)
Murder in the Embassy (1930)
Scandal in the Chancery (1931)
The Corpse on the White House Lawn (1932)
Death in the Senate (1933)
Slow Dance in Geneva (1934)
The Brain Trust Murder (1935)

*  *  *

Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age bingo card, space G1 - "Book with a color in the title"


  1. Even more than the book itself, the real life shenanigans behind it sound really fascinating - thanks John

  2. "this book was written prior to the outbreak of World War Two... a unique catapult design that can launch and capture military fighter jets at seas. "


    1. There's a polite way to let someone know of a mistake and then there's the supercilious way. Yes, there were no military jets in 1932 and I ignorantly used it as a synonym. I've removed the term and replaced it with "airplanes".

    2. I didn't know whether the author had dreamed up jet aircraft in 1932- which would be worth commenting further on in itself- or whether you were mistaken.

  3. John, thanks for this. I'm not sure the fiction is for me, but it does sound like the real-life stories would be worth looking into.

  4. John,

    Thanks for this review. I've been curious about Carter's books ever since I read the Persico book. He also did the classic turn from left-leaning New Dealer to hardline cold warrior that so many folks did in that era -- quite an interesting personality.

    1. I'd say you ought read at least one of his novels, Jim, just to see what Carter was like prior to his immense ego trip as FDR's personal spy. It's almost like reading his plan of action in fictionalized form. Both he and his wife kept the most indiscreet diaries, but how much of it was embroidering the truth I guess we'll never know. So far this one reviewed here is the closest to a real detective novel and the least irritating. MURDER IN THE EMBASSY which I finished a couple of days ago is a poor excuse of a book. It's really a short story padded out to novel length with loads of nonsensical "action" incidents and long winded speeches and narrative diatribes.

  5. Great piece! I have to love a book entitled "The Brain Trust Murder."