New Deal for Death

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Of the stream of books appearing under Elliott Roosevelt’s name since his death in 1990, two have launched a new mystery series with a new protagonist, Blackjack Endicott, a wealthy Boston playboy and special agent for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. THE PRESIDENT’S MAN (1990) marked Endicott’s debut, and NEW DEAL FOR DEATH continues Endicott’s fieldwork for FDR.

After the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago, Endicott hears of sinister reactions to Roosevelt’s nomination for president. The candidate’s talk about a bill of rights for labor has alarmed vested interests in many circles. In Hollywood, studio executives and crime bosses worry that better pay for blue-collar workers in the film industry will shrink legal and illegal profit margins. The Roosevelt campaign has also received blackmail threats alleging that the candidate’s son Elliott has impregnated a teenage girl. Endicott travels to California to tackle both problems and sees the two threats quickly converge into an assassination plot against FDR.

Rather than emphasize mystery and action, the author re-creates the late-Prohibition era tinged fondly by nostalgia. Roosevelt’s fictional valentine sets scenes at Saratoga Springs and San Simeon with celebrities like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper. In one scene, C. B. DeMille films a nude Bette Davis in a bathtub shot for an upcoming picture; in another, Endicott chats pool-side with Joseph P. Kennedy and his teenage son John. Both book and hero exude privilege.

Along the way, authentic-seeming trivia add to the novel’s appeal: it took forty-one hours to fly crosscountry in 1932; an honest roulette wheel collects 2.7 % of an evening’s bets; bottles of ginger ale carried printed reminders of the illegality of mixing the beverage with alcohol. With such esoterica popping up every few pages and the author playfully including himself as one of the characters, the reader soon senses that the best way to enjoy the book is as a stylish, fictional gossip column.