A lot of novelists try to capture Washington, D.C., but not many get it right. So what makes a great Washington book? That depends on which D.C. the author is trying to portray. The storied halls of power? The infamous swamp? The unsung neighborhoods? We looked at a slew of recent releases that focus on different aspects of the nation’s capital and rated how well they proved their local credentials on a scale of (naturally) one to five Washington Monuments.
Portraits of presidential life
Landfall by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon, 496 pages, $29.95)
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard
(Algonquin, 400 pages, $27.95)
It’s hard to compete with Landfall, a nearly 500-page comic novel about the Bush family, with a cast of characters that reads like a Debrett’s Peerage of turn-of-the-21st-century America — George H.W. and George W. Bush, Condi Rice, Karl Rove, Betty Ford, and many, many more. Bayard’s book has the luster of Abraham Lincoln as a protagonist and the fluster of the 16th president’s ambiguous sexuality at its heart. Courting Mr. Lincoln considers how Honest Abe might have dealt with the trickery of maintaining propriety in an age when many loves dared not speak their names. A worthwhile read? Yes. But D.C.-centric? Not compared to Landfall’s look at the Wild West of politics. Verdict: Landfall (five monuments) over Courting Mr. Lincoln (two monuments).
Savage News by Jessica Yellin (Mira Books, 352 pages, $26.99)
The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper
(Little, Brown, 352 pages, $27)
Both of these novels by newshounds (Yellin is a former CNN reporter; Jake Tapper we all know from his calm steerage of the same network through this era’s bumpy waters) are fun and fast-paced. Tapper does all the necessary research to offer up a McCarthy-era historical thriller set in a D.C. where those in power can get away with murder. Yellin’s novel, meanwhile, is a more personal (and authentic) take on how modern broadcast journalism has skewed too far to the glamour shot. Verdict: Savage News (three monuments) wins by a discarded false eyelash over Hellfire (two monuments).
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos (Mulholland, 272 pages, $27)
Trigger by David Swinson (Mulholland, 352 pages, $27)
The third Frank Marr novel by D.C.-native Swinson has a lot to recommend: Marr, a retired cop from the Metropolitan Police Department, has a bad cocaine habit that brings him into contact with many sides of the city’s worst. Pelecanos, also a Washingtonian, is as readable as ever with the story of ex-con Michael Hudson, who works as a dishwasher, lives in Anacostia — in Southeast D.C. — and has choices to make that will define him while taking him to other parts of the city. Verdict: The Man Who Came Uptown (four monuments) over Trigger (three).
The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews (Scribner, 448 pages, $26.99)
Red, White, Blue by Lea Carpenter (Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95)
Matthews, a career spy, completes his Red Sparrow trilogy — which inspired that saucy Jennifer Lawrence film — with this guide to CIA decorum in Washington and around the world. Carpenter’s stunning “literary fiction” thriller takes on the same agency from a different but no less believable perspective: that of a young woman whose father’s machinations during the Cold War threaten her present and future. Verdict: A tie with four monuments for each.
The Good Lie by Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco, 368 pages, $27.99)
The Cutaway by Christina Kovac (37 Ink, 320 pages, $26)
At first, Rosenstiel’s internationally driven plot — an explosion in an African country sets off congressional hearings — makes The Good Lie a clear favorite. His characters, retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Rena and his business partner, Randi Brooks, have more points of intersection with D.C. insiders than George H.W. Bush has points of light. But Kovac, with a background in D.C. news, threads The Cutaway with information about how people who live in D.C. actually navigate, both by GPS and with information. Verdict: The Good Lie (four monuments) over The Cutaway (three monuments).
(Publishers Weekly contributed to this story)