D.C. thriller goes above the Beltway, finds success

First-time novelist David Corn proves you don't need a pepper pot to make a page-turner.

By Craig Offman

Published November 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

In the winter of 1997-98, when David Corn was showing his Washington thriller, "Deep Background," to editors, the prospects for it must have seemed dim. The novelty of Joe Klein's "Primary Colors," another D.C. page-turner, had worn thin, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which had the country mesmerized, boasted a plot that few novelists could have invented.

"Editors told me that the book read well and it was fast-paced, but it was behind the headlines," says Corn, the Washington bureau chief of the Nation (and an occasional contributor to Salon). "What's murder in the White House when there's sex in the White House? It seemed tame in comparison."

But Corn waited out the storm in Washington, and in the end he prevailed. With his first foray into fiction (he is also the author of "Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades"), the 40-year-old writer seems to have found critical and financial success. "Deep Background" recently received glowing reviews in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and its publisher, St. Martin's, has ordered a rush printing to keep up with sales.

Corn's book focuses less than Klein's does on dishing thinly veiled figures and more on novelistic invention. At the outset, an assassin blows the president's brains out and then swallows a poison pill; a whole new grassy knoll of intrigue is afoot in the feverish court intrigue that follows.

Not that it's all invention. Corn's president is a Southerner who's had a land deal go sour. Other characters resemble House GOP conference chairman J.C. Watts, House majority whip Tom DeLay and political consultant Dick Morris. But the novel also features a complicated aide, Nick Addis, through whose conscience we watch the seamier side of Washington come into view.

The president's wife is a Lady Macbeth who immediately seeks the presidency upon her husband's death. But Corn claims to be innocent of any allusion, conscious or otherwise: "I wrote that long before the first lady considered running for public office," he says.

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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