March 1-31, 2021 Tour
From its very inception, Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes series has excelled at stitching tales of murder and mystery with Washington, D.C. as a backdrop. Look no further than the title of each of the now 31 entries to find a particular setting in the Capital where a murder sets off a high stakes game or gambit with the pursuit of political power invariably serving as the motive. So to commemorate the publication of MURDER ON THE METRO, my first effort in the series, I thought it would be especially appropriate to conjure up a list of the greatest political thriller films ever, all based on equally terrific books of the same title.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY: John Frankenheimer’s brilliant adaptation of the Fletcher Knebble bestseller remains the quintessential benchmark of the genre. The mere notion of a military overthrow of the United States government seemed like a true paranoid fantasy until the last few years stretched the limits of what is possible. The plot’s gradual unraveling through the eyes of Colonel “Jigs” Casey, magnificently played by Kirk Douglas, is a structural schematic of brilliant proportions. And Burt Lancaster’s irrepressible and hubris-riddled General James Mattoon Scott leads a stellar cast, highlighted by Fredrick March’s embattled president Jordan Lyman, on a high-stakes romp through corridors of power that never felt so threatened or claustrophobic.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR: Dominated and defined by Robert Redford’s portrayal of a CIA cypher whose job it is to read books in search of hidden meanings and nefarious plots that may stray too close to the truth, the thriller by James Grady’s (titled Six Days instead of Three) became the seminal tale to emerge from the post-Watergate era of conspiracy-laden tomes. Evoking classic Hitchcock films featuring an innocent man on the run, director Sydney Pollock pits Redford’s Condor against the whole of the US government when his entire station is wiped out because of a report he wrote. The mystery lies in what he inadvertently uncovered and the fun in watching him do battle with a sinister yet saintly assassin wondrously played by Max Von Sydow. The film’s genius is cemented into legendary status by their final scene, especially the sequence that begins with Von Sydow’s deceptively deadly Joubert saying, “It will happen this way. . .”
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN: The ultimate political thriller because it was all true. William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay elegantly stitches Woodward and Bernstein’s reportage into a nail-biting narrative you have to pinch yourself to remember is real. There is so much to like here, but nothing exceeds the intrepid reporters’ dogged efforts that roil the halls of power en route to toppling an entire administration. Again, current events have lent this thriller fresh resonance and credibility, reminding us that the press remains the greatest safeguard against would-be tyrants.
FAIL SAFE: Sydney Lumet’s relentlessly suspenseful tale of an accidental nuclear attack launched against the former Soviet Union is included here because it’s dominated by exchanges between the American president, played by Henry Fonda, and the Soviet premier, stoically interpreted by Larry Hagman. As the nightmarish scenario ticks down to a potential doomsday, the principals are faced with an impossible choice. This while a stellar klatch of characters, led by Walter Matthau and Dan O’Herlihy (in his finest role), do battle with themselves and each other. The final moments of the film are among the most powerful ever, right up until the shattering fadeout when O’Herlihy’s doomed General Black realizes he is “the matador,” the villain of his own recurrent, and ultimately prescient, nightmare.
THE CANDIDATE: While running for the senate, Robert Redford’s title character is determined not to let anything get in the way of his ideals. Under the tutelage of a political consultant, wondrously played by the underrated Peter Boyle, though, Redford’s Bill McKay finds himself in a rigged game where the goal posts keep getting moved and the means to winning become an end in themselves. Never has a film’s message been better summed up than in a final line with Redford’s McKay posing a question to Boyle’s Marvin Lucas after they win: “What do we do now?,” to which Lucas has no answer.
BEING THERE: Many consider Peter Sellers’ portrayal of a simpleton who accidentally becomes a pawn of power brokers to be the actor’s finest performance in this farcical parody. Hal Ashby’s touchtone rendering of Jerzy Kosinski’s classic novel has gained new and scary relevance in an era where truth has become a relative term and facts are dumped into a hamper with yesterday’s laundry. The film is built around a kind of figurative battle between perception and reality with the former winning out hands down. Sound (regrettably) familiar?
ADVISE AND CONSENT: Otto Preminger’s faithful adaptation of the pitch-perfect book by Alan Drury gives a bird’s eye, behind-the-scenes view of all the mechanizations involved in confirmation hearings for a controversial selection for secretary of state. The 1962 film was way ahead of its time in stitching together a trail dominated by duplicitous politicos, backroom manipulations, and the cloudy nature of the truth itself. Preminger’s stunning take on the dark side of politics makes the process a character, and a villain, in itself. The film’s genius lies in the fact that the system portrayed is pretty much the same, and even more broken, 60 years later.
THE PARALLAX VIEW: This is director Alan J. Pakula’s second appearance on this list, a kind of nightmarish expansion of his All the President’s Men. Warren Beatty plays a political reporter whose quest to expose the conspiracy behind the assassination of a presidential candidate evokes memories of Dallas on November 23, 1963 as well as Watergate. Lacking the support enjoyed by his fictional counterparts, Beatty’s character bites off more than he can chew and ends up getting swallowed himself, along with the entire country, as a result.
THE LAST HURRAH and ALL THE KING’S MEN: A twofer of loosely-disguised biopics on Mayor Michael Curly and Huey “the Kingfish” Long respectively, both classics dwell on the manipulations and mechanizations behind political machines. These period pieces spell doom for the old-fashioned way of doing business as Spencer Tracy’s Frank Skeffington and Broderick Crawford’s Willy Stark find that when you sell your soul, sooner or later the devil comes calling to collect. Again, though, what emerges beyond all else is that in politics the more things change, the more they remain the same.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: We started with one John Frankenheimer adaptation so let’s end with another, in this case the great Richard Condon’s Cold War thriller that lives on stronger than ever in pop culture. What would indeed happen if a young man marked for greatness was actually a brainwashed plant totally beholden to a foreign power? Thankfully, Frank Sinatra’s tortured Major Ben Marco is there to unravel the deceit and save the US from a crazed plot that seemed utterly outlandish . . . until now.
Israel: A drone-based terrorist attack kills dozens on a sun-splashed beach in Caesarea.
Washington: America awakens to the shattering news that Vice President Stephanie Davenport has died of an apparent heart attack.
That same morning, a chance encounter on the Washington Metro results in international private investigator Robert Brixton thwarting an attempted terrorist bombing. Brixton has no reason to suspect that the three incidents have anything in common, until he’s contacted by Kendra Rendine, the Secret Service agent who headed up the vice president’s security detail. Rendine is convinced the vice president was murdered and needs Brixton’s investigative expertise to find out why.
In Israel, meanwhile, legendary anti-terrorist fighter Lia Ganz launches her own crusade against the perpetrators of that attack which nearly claimed the lives of her and granddaughter. Ganz’s trail will ultimately take her to Washington where she joins forces with Brixton to uncover an impossible link between the deadly attack on Caesarea and the attempted Metro bombing, as well as the death of the vice president.
The connection lies in the highest corridors of power in Washington where a deadly plot with unimaginable consequences has been hatched. With the clock ticking toward doomsday, Brixton and Ganz race against time to save millions of American lives who will otherwise become collateral damage to a conspiracy destined to change the United States forever.
“Jon Land is one of the best thriller writers in the business, and the Capital Crimes series is in superb and skilled hands with him. Nobody does pacing better than Land, and MURDER ON THE METRO starts with a bang and keeps on going at breakneck speed. If you haven’t read this excellent series, start with Land’s MURDER ON THE METRO.” —Lisa Scottoline, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Washington, DC; the next morning
Not again . . .
That was Robert Brixton’s first thought when his gaze locked on the woman seated across from him in the Washington Metro car. He was riding into the city amid the clutter of morning commuters from the apartment in Arlington, Virginia where he now lived alone, his girlfriend Flo Combes having returned to New York.
Former girlfriend, Brixton corrected in his mind. And Flo’s return to New York, where she’d opened her first clothing boutique, looked very much like it was for good this time.
Which brought his attention back to the woman wearing a hijab and bearing a strong resemblance to another Muslim woman who’d been haunting his sleep for five years now, since she’d detonated a suicide bomb inside a crowded DC restaurant, killing Brixton’s daughter Janet and eleven other victims that day. He’d seen it coming, felt it anyway, as if someone had dragged the head of a pin up his spine. He hadn’t been a cop for years at that point, having taken his skills into the private sector, but his instincts remained unchanged, always serving him well and almost always being proven right.
But today he wanted to be wrong, wanted badly to be wrong. Because if his instincts were correct, tragedy was about to repeat itself with him bearing witness yet again, relocated from a bustling café to a crowded Metro car.
The woman wearing the hijab turned enough to meet his gaze, Brixton unable to jerk his eyes away in time and forcing the kind of smile strangers cast each other. The woman didn’t return it, just turned her focus back forward, her expression empty as if bled of emotion. In Brixton’s experience, she resembled a criminal who found strange solace in the notion of being caught after tiring of the chase. That was the suspicious side of his nature. If not for a long career covering various aspects of law enforcement, including a private investigator with strong international ties, Brixton would likely have seen her as the other passengers in the Metro car did: A quiet woman with big soft eyes just hoping to blend in with the scenery and not attract any attention to herself.
Without reading material of any kind, a cell phone in her grasp, or ear buds dangling. Brixton gazed about; as far as he could tell, she was the only passenger in sight, besides him, not otherwise occupied to pass the time. So in striving not to stand out, the young woman had achieved the opposite.
He studied her closer, determining that the woman didn’t look tired, so much as content. And, beneath her blank features, Brixton sensed something taut and resigned, a spring slowly uncoiling. Something, though, had changed in her expression since the moment their eyes had met. She was fidgeting in her seat now, seeking comfort that clearly eluded her.
Just as another suicide bomber had five years ago
If he didn’t know better, he would’ve fully believed he was back in that DC restaurant again, granted a second chance to save his daughter after he’d failed so horribly the first time.
Five years ago
What world are you in? Janet had asked a clearly distracted Brixton, then consumed by the nagging feeling dragged up his spine.
Daddy, I haven’t finished!
Janet always called him “Daddy.” Much had been lost to memory from that day, forcibly put aside, but not that or the moments that followed. It had been the last time she’d ever called him that and Brixton had fought to preserve the recording that existed only in his mind resolvedly ever since. Whenever it faded, he fought to get it back, treating Janet’s final address of him like a voicemail machine message from a lost loved one forever saved on his phone.
Is something wrong?
Brixton had headed to the door, believing his daughter was right behind him. He realized she wasn’t only when he was through it, turning back toward the table to see Janet facing the Muslim woman wearing the hijab who was chanting in Arabic.
He’d started to storm back inside to get her when the explosion shattered the placid stillness of the day, an ear-splitting blast that hit him like a Category Five wind gust to the chest and sent him sprawling to the sidewalk. His head ping-ponged off the concrete, threatening his grip on consciousness. Parts of a splintered table came flying in his direction and he threw his arms over his face to shield it from wooden shards and other debris that caked the air, cataloguing them as they soared over him in absurd counterpoint. Plates, glasses, skin, limbs, eyeglasses, knives, forks, beer mugs, chair legs and arms, calamari, boneless ribs, pizza slices, a toy gorilla that had been held by a child a table two removed from where he’d been sitting with Janet, and empty carafes of wine with their contents seeming to trail behind them like vapor trails.
The surreal nature of that moment made Brixton think he might be sleeping, all this no more than the product of an airy dream to be lost to memory by the time woke. He remembered lying on the sidewalk, willing himself to wake up, to rouse from this nightmare-fueled stupor. The worst moment of his life followed the realization that he wasn’t asleep and an imponderable wave of grief washed over him, stealing his next breath and making him wonder if he even wanted to bother trying for another.
Brixton had stumbled to his feet before what moments earlier had been a bustling café filled with happy people. Now, bodies were everywhere, some piled on top of others, blood covering everything and everyone. He touched the side of his face and pulled bloody fingers away from the wound. He looked back into the café in search of his daughter but saw only a tangle of limbs and clothing where they’d been sitting.
“Oh, my God,” he whispered, his senses sharpening. “Janet!”
Washington’s Twenty-third Street had been crammed with pedestrians at the time of the blast, joined now by people pouring out of office buildings and other restaurants nearby, within eye or earshot of the dual blasts. Brixton’s attempts to get closer to the carnage, holding out hope Janet might still be alive, were thwarted at every turn by throngs fleeing in panic in an endless wave.
“My daughter! My daughter!” he kept crying out, as if that might make the crowd yield and the chaos recede.
It wasn’t until Brixton reached the hospital that he learned Janet hadn’t made it out, had been declared one of the missing. Having served as an agent for a private security agency out-sourced to the State Department at the time, he knew all too well that missing meant dead. He had another daughter, Janet’s older sister, who’d given him a beautiful grandson he loved dearly, but that was hardly enough to make up for the loss of Janet. And the guilt over not having dragged her out with him when she’d resisted leaving had haunted him to this very moment, when instinct told him many on this crowded subway car might well be about to join her.
Thanks to another woman wearing a hijab, but it wasn’t just that. Brixton had crossed paths with an untold number of Arab women in the five years since Janet’s death, and not one before today had ever elicited in him the feeling he had now. She might’ve been a twin of the bomber who’d taken his daughter from him, about whom Brixton could recall only one thing:
This woman had the very same shifting look, trying so hard to appear casual that it seemed she was wearing a costume, sticking out to him as much as a kid on Halloween. Brixton spun his gaze back in her direction, prepared to measure off the distance between them and how he might cover it before she could trigger her explosives.
But the young woman was gone.
Brixton looked down the center aisle cluttered with commuters clutching poles or dangling hand-hold straps. He spotted the young woman in the hijab an instant before she cocked her gaze briefly back in his direction, a spark of clear recognition flashing when their eyes met this time.
She knows I made her, Brixton thought, heavy with fear as he climbed to his feet.
He started after her, heart hammering in his chest, the sensation he was feeling in that dreadful moment all too familiar. He couldn’t help but catalogue the people he passed in the woman’s wake, many of whom were either his late daughter’s age or younger. Smiling, gabbing away on their phones, reading a book, or lost between their earbuds without any knowledge of how horribly their lives might very well be about to change. If he needed any further motivation to keep moving and stop the potential suicide bomber though any means necessary, that was it. Doubt vanished, Brixton trusting his instincts in a way he hadn’t that tragic day five years ago when he was still a de facto agent for the US government.
Janet . . .
In Brixton’s mind, this was no longer a Metro car, but the same restaurant where a suicide bomber had taken a dozen lives and wounded dozens more. And he found himself faced with the chance to do today what he hadn’t done five years ago.
Had Brixton barked that command out loud, or merely formed the thought in his head. Other passengers were staring at him now, his surge up the aisle disturbing the meager comfort of their morning routine.
Ahead of him, the woman wearing the hijab had picked up her pace, Brixton spotting her dip a hand beneath a jacket that seemed much too heavy for the unseasonably mild Washington, DC spring. His experience with the State Department working for the shadowy SITQUAL group, along with that as a cop, told him she was likely reaching for the pull cord that would detonate the suicide vest concealed under bulky sweatshirt and jacket.
If you could relive the day of your daughter’s death, what would you do?
I’d shoot the bitch before she had the chance to yank that cord, Brixton thought, drawing his Sig Sauer P-226 nine-millimeter pistol. It had survived his tenure with SITQUAL as his weapon of choice, well balanced and deadly accurate.
He could feel the crowd around him recoiling, pulling back, when they saw the pistol steadied in his hand. Several gasped. A woman cried out. A kid dropped his cell phone into Brixton’s path and he accidentally kicked it aside.
Shouted out loud for sure this time, the dim echo bouncing off the Metro car’s walls as it wound in thunderous fashion through the tube. The young woman in the hijab was almost to the rear door separating this car from the next. Brixton was close enough to hear the whoooooshhh as she engaged the door, breaking the rule that prohibited passengers from such car-hopping.
She turned her gaze back toward him as he raised his pistol, ready to take the shot he hadn’t taken five years ago. Passengers cried out and shrank from his path. The door hissed closed, the young woman regarding him vacantly through the safety glass as she stretched hand out blindly to activate the door accessing the next car back.
And that’s when she stumbled. Brixton was well aware of the problems encountered by this new 7000 series of Metro railcars after federal safety officials raised repeated concerns about a potential safety risk involving the barriers between cars that were designed to prevent blind and visually impaired people from inadvertently walking off the platform and falling through the gap. The issue initially was raised by disability rights advocates, who argued the rubber barriers were spaced too far apart, leaving enough room for a small person to slip through.
The young woman wearing the hijab was small. And she started to slip through.
Brixton watched her drop from sight an instant before an all-too familiar flash created a star burst before him. He felt light, floating as if there was nothing beneath his feet, because for a moment there wasn’t. The piercing blast that buckled the Metro car door blew him backward, the percussion lifting him up and then dropping him back down, still in motion sliding across the floor amid a demolition derby of commuters crashing into each other, as the train barreled along. Separated now from its rear-most cars, what remained of the train whipsawed through the tube with enough force to lift this car from the rails and send it alternately slamming up against one side and then the other.
Brixton maintained the presence of mind to realize his back and shoulders had come to rest awkwardly against a seat, even as the squeal of the brakes engaging grew into a deafening wail and his eyes locked on the car door that to him looked as if someone had used a can opener to carve a jagged fissure along the center of its buckled seam. The car itself seemed to be swaying—left, right, and back again—but he couldn’t be sure if that was real or the product of the concussion he may have suffered from the blast wave or upon slamming up against the seat.
Unlike five years ago, Brixton had come to rest sitting up, staring straight ahead at the back door of the Metro car currently held at an awkwardly angled perch nearly sideways across the tracks. He realized that through it all he’d somehow maintained grasp of his pistol, now steadied at the twisted remnants of the Metro car door as if he expected the young woman to reappear at any moment.
Janet . . .
A wave of euphoria washed over Brixton as, this time, he thought he’d saved her, making the best of the do-over fate had somehow granted him. The Metro car floor felt soft and cushiony, leaving him with the dream-like sense he was drifting away toward the bright lights shining down from the ceiling.
And then there was only darkness.
Excerpt from Murder on the Metro by Jon Land. Copyright 2021 by Jon Land. Reproduced with permission from Jon Land. All rights reserved.
JON LAND is the USA Today bestselling author of over fifty books, including eleven in the critically acclaimed Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, Strong from the Heart, won the 2020 American Fiction Award for Best Thriller and the 2020 American Book Fest Award for Best Mystery/Suspense Novel. Additionally, he has teamed up with Heather Graham for a science fiction series that began with THE RISING (winner of the 2017 International Book Award for best Sci-fi Novel) and continues with BLOOD MOON. He has also written six books in the Murder, She Wrote series of mysteries and has more recently taken over Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes series, beginning with Murder on the Metro in February of 2021. A graduate of Brown University, he received the 2019 Rhode Island Authors Legacy Award for his lifetime of literary achievements. Land lives in Providence, Rhode Island.