A book group discussion: Murder at the Library of Congress, by Margaret Truman

July 17, 2008 at 10:00 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction) ()


Or is it, in fact, written by Margaret Truman?

This turned out to be one of the main points at issue at a recent meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Club. Margaret Truman, who passed away in January at the age of 83, had already penned several books of nonfiction before Murder at the White House appeared in 1980. It was followed by a string of successful crime stories, all set in Washington D.C. and its environs. But all along, there has been the underlying question: Did she write the books on her own, or with help? Did she perhaps contribute the research? Or did she merely lend her name to an enterprise that was carried out by someone else?

Murder at  the Library of Congress is my first Margaret Truman mystery. (I actually listened to it; the reading by Richard Poe was quite good.). As a light entertainment, the novel worked very well. To begin with,  I liked the lead character. Annabel Reed Smith is a lawyer who, in the fine tradition of “following your bliss” has left the legal profession and now owns an art gallery. She and her husband MacKenzie live at the Watergate. They are busy, successful professional people, but at the same time they possess a warmth and artlessness that I found very appealing. In addition, Mac and Annabel have a loving, solicitous, aand caring relationship. (One group member found it a bit too good to be true. I guess I’m easier to convince, plus I was genuinely pleased to encounter such connubial felicity in a work of fiction, where I have not alas, in recent days, been finding it!)

The somewhat confusing, overly complex plot concerns a journal and a map., which, if found, would be incredibly valuable. Both are associated with one Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish Dominican priest and missionary who supposedly sailed with Christopher Columbus. Now Bartolome de Las Casas was a real historical personage – click here for the Wikipedia entry – but in this novel he functions chiefly as Hitchcock’s memorably christened “MacGuffin;” namely, a somewhat obscure point of scholarship that provides the excuse for subsequent murder and mayhem.

Our discussion was led by a gentleman who has served as a docent at the Library of Congress. He was able to attest to the accuracy of the novel’s depiction of that august institution; moreover, he added many interesting additional facts concerning the “LC.” There is no doubt that reading a mystery with such vivid local associations added to everyone’s enjoyment. Having a discussion leader with extensive knowledge of the venue was a big plus for the discussion – Thanks, Leo!

[Library of Congress]

[Main reading room of the Library of Congress]

(Many years ago, when I was researching my Master’s thesis, which I eventually obtained from Georgetown University.I spent many hours in the library’s main reading room. The subject of my thesis was the fiction of D,H, Lawrence. Alas, in the process I became so surfeited with that author’s works that I have read nothing more by him since that distant time. On the other hand, I had some terrific professors during that period. I particularly remember courses in twentieth century British literature and Elizabethan drama, and a seminar on the works of T.S. Eliot. I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve always thought of as my sojourn among the Jesuits at G.U.)

So, finally – what about the question of authorship? One of our group members whose daughter works in the publishing business said that it is acknowledged in professional circles that Margaret Truman did not, in fact, write the crime fiction that is ascribed to her. An internet search turned up nothing definitive. Donald Bain has been credited as the real author, but he denies it. Bain has authored numerous works, some ghosted, some under his own name. At present, he is probably best known as the author of the “Murder She Wrote” series of novels based on the television character created by Angela Lansbury. For example:

(Rather amusing, the way Jessica Fletcher is listed as Donald Bain’s co-author!)

Here is an interesting article written in 2002 by critic Jon L. Breen on the subject of ghostwriting in general and the Margaret Truman/Donald Bain conundrum in particular. Before I finish, I have to recount this  anecdote Breen references from a memoir by Donald Bain. A fan of the Murder She Wrote series apparently wrote to Bain to say that it was “”…amazing how much Angela Lansbury looked like Jessica Fletcher.'”

Ah, that wavey/slippery line between reality and make believe!

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