Jake Tapper, Rat Pack novelist, likes to unwind with a martini and a mountain of research
On the Shelf
The Devil May Dance
By Jake Tapper
Little, Brown: 336 pages, $28
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Jake Tapper has a public-service announcement: Don’t order pork tartare. “My wife and I went to a foodie restaurant recently and made the mistake of ordering the tasting menu,” he says, sitting outside on a balmy spring evening under the awning at Le Diplomate, one of Washington, D.C.’s favorite watering holes. “We got this plate of raw pork. I didn’t even know what to do. I kind of moved it around on the plate.”
Tapper is talking about restaurants because, like everyone, he’s gradually venturing out to eat after a year of pandemic isolation. The CNN anchor has also just published his second mystery novel, “The Devil May Dance.” (The first in the series, “The Hellfire Club,” came out in 2018.) The stylish thriller takes his protagonist, Rep. Charlie Marder (R-N.Y.), and his wife, zoologist Margaret Marder, from Capitol Hill to the Hollywood Hills, biding their time poolside in the desert with the Rat Pack while helping Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy suss out their mob connections.
The nexus of fame and politics is one Tapper knows well. Before getting to his book, he recalls another memorable tasting menu, which he and his wife, Jenn, ordered with Seth Meyers and his wife, Alexi Ashe, the night before Meyers and President Obama roasted Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner — arguably provoking Trump to run for president out of spite. Anyway, one of the courses was goat, and Alexi, who keeps a pet goat on Martha’s Vineyard, “was really mad.”
Martinis arrive at our table, with extra olives, and conversation turns to Tapper’s research for his thrillers, which feature real figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy. They also include the kind of granular detail — the world-historical equivalent of the pet goat — that distinguishes the author as a crack researcher and political gossip.
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“When I learn something like McCarthy used to eat a whole stick of butter after an evening’s drinking, I just have to put it in there,” Tapper says. “Fellow geeks understand; they want to know what’s real and what’s not.” Both novels end with bibliographies annotated with further observations, including the idea that a person can be charming and charismatic, “like McCarthy was,” but also do terrible things. “If I could go back and rewrite ‘The Hellfire Club,’ I would make McCarthy a bigger character.”
After ordering the trout — “It’s so good here” — Tapper explains that he followed that impulse in “The Devil May Dance” with regard to Frank Sinatra. “He probably had a mood disorder, and he was definitely a pig with women. He was also a hopeless romantic, and he had his heart torn out by Ava Gardner. He was also a revolutionary when it came to civil rights.”
Like Ol’ Blue Eyes and other Rat Pack members, all with hefty cameos in “The Devil May Dance,” Charlie Marder is “a pretty complicated guy,” says Tapper, “and getting more complicated. He’s becoming an alcoholic.” So I have to ask: Do the Marders resemble the Tappers?
The author laughs. “There’s elements of us in them, of course, and I’m as enamored with Jenn as Charlie is with Margaret. But the more important thing we have in common is that when I decided to write a thriller series I wanted it to be different than a lot of thrillers I read, and I read a lot of thrillers.”
He takes a sip of his martini. “I wanted to have more than one main character, and maybe a female character, who is the nobler one. ... I’ve never faced anything as complicated as the Marders do, but I do believe in remembering that there’s something bigger and deeper and more important in your life when you are faced with complicated things, like hanging out with the Rat Pack without losing your shirt or your mind.”
For all the real-life resonance, the devil of the book is in the research. The Rat Pack connoisseur confesses to being a bit of a pack rat. “I found one book on AbeBooks about a woman who hung out with Sinatra and the others. It’s not particularly unlike what you see in the coverage of Matt Gaetz, a hazy world in which it’s even hazier discovering who is paying for what.” Along with books, he scavenges for other memorabilia, like the “Swayze” news-trivia game mentioned in “The Hellfire Club.” “My wife would like me to give it to you,” Tapper says. “To anyone, really.”
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For “The Devil May Dance,” which takes the Marders to 1961 Los Angeles, Tapper drew on his own experience in the city, where he attended a semester of USC film school before reporting from ABC News’ L.A. bureau. “They sent me out, covering things like Arianna Huffington’s support of conservative causes. Back when she was a Republican!” In those months, his first editorial cartoons were published in The Times. (He’d later draw “Capitol Hell” for Roll Call for nine years.) Tapper moved to D.C. in 1992 but visits L.A. several times a year; his brother lives in San Francisco.
He also acquainted himself with historical Los Angeles via Google Earth, which sent him down a rabbit hole. At one point, while researching Sinatra’s Rancho Mirage compound, he discovered so much about President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nearby digs that he wrote “a completely pointless chapter; I had to scrap the whole thing.”
Talk of Eisenhower seems to flip a switch; Tapper the journalist lights up: “Ike was flawed and made mistakes, but his speech warning us about the rise of the military-industrial complex is one of the greatest and bravest any president has ever made, period.” He absent-mindedly turns a silver cuff on his right wrist, engraved with the names of soldiers who died in an Afghanistan battle covered in his 2012 nonfiction book, “The Outpost.”
As cappuccinos arrive, Tapper explores more recent debacles. How did he make it through Trump’s four-year occupation of Washington? “By reading a lot of history and understanding what we’ve been through before as a country, whether it’s McCarthyism or something else,” he says. “And, honestly, with writing fiction. Besides the love of my family, it’s nice to be able to step away for a couple of hours from the very serious and grave and unhappy world — whether it’s kids being torn from their parents at the border or hundreds of thousands of people dying from a disease their government could have protected them from. It’s nice to be able to hang out in my imagination at Rancho Mirage.”
His real trips out West help too. “Every time I visit my brother, I think, why isn’t the nation’s capital here in California? I get that Hamilton and Madison cut that deal with Jefferson, but let’s move our capital here. D.C. is nice, New York’s fine. But you guys know that Malibu exists, right?”
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Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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