The President’s Shadow

Image of The President's Shadow (The Culper Ring Series, 2)
Release Date: 
June 16, 2015
Grand Central Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Meltzer’s political thriller finds where bodies are buried at the White House.”

Brad Meltzer digs into the history of the U.S. Presidency and his lead character, archivist Beecher White, in his thriller The President’s Shadow and reveals political cover-ups and plenty of entertaining backstabbing.

Like most of Meltzer’s stories, this third novel in the Culper Ring series blends little known historical facts from his meticulous research with fiction. He consulted with former President George H. W. Bush on how the secret service protects the president’s family and the hidden safe houses around Washington, D.C.—the use of a certain cemetery was particularly ingenious.

His story also takes the reader to one of the most remote national parks, the Dry Tortugas a good distance from Key West, for blistering action on Fort Jefferson. The Civil War-era fort that encircles nearly the entire island has a rich history with notorious prisoners involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Meltzer adds it to by making it the key to Beecher learning why his father died so young.

Beecher is part of the Culper Ring, a secretive spy ring organized by George Washington to protect the presidency. The problem is Beecher has a prickly relationship with President Orson Wallace. He doesn’t trust the man and the feeling’s mutual.

“Relax, son. I told you. I’m here with an opportunity. A good one,” President Wallace told Beecher.

“Define good. Because last time I saw you, you pounded your big desk and swore you’d stomp out the Culper Ring and me along with it.”

Wallace turns on the politician’s charm when he needs a favor. The First Lady discovered a freshly severed arm in the White House Rose Garden, and it was clutching a historical coin that only an archivist like Beecher can decipher.

Is the president’s life in danger? It’s never quite clear. His family rattled by the gruesome gardening find, President Wallace wants Beecher to identify the person who evaded the Secret Service and got on the White House grounds—hard to imagine that really happening.

Beecher has his own motivation. He’s eager to learn why his father died not long after joining a secret military unit called the Plankholders. Two of his childhood friends also had their fathers in that unit and they came away mentally scarred. President Wallace dangles the secret file of Beecher’s father as a reward for helping him. Connecting the two plotlines, the coin found in the dead hand apparently refers to the Plankholders. Since Beecher can’t sit on a good mystery, he sets out to solve both at once.

Meltzer keeps the reader guessing whether characters are Beecher’s friends or foes. Does childhood friend turned break-in artist Marshall Lusk, whose skin is burned like candle wax, really want to help Beecher or does he have a hidden agenda? Is the Secret Service trying to find who caused the breach or cover it up? Clementine, another childhood friend, is a wildcard as she’s literally falling apart from cancer and is desperately hoping her psychotic father Nico can cure her.

Nico, a surviving Plankholder who knew Beecher’s father, is an unpredictable killer that Clementine freed from a mental institution. He’s engaged in constant banter with the ghost of a first lady he assassinated. He believes Clementine’s cancer came from the activities of his military unit, and Nico has a not-so-gentle way of getting answers from his former commanding officers. His methods will make manicurists cringe.  

The other threat on Beecher’s radar is the sneaky Ezra, who seems to blend in as a spy despite his white eyelashes and bald head at a fairly young age. He’s been snooping around the White House and following Beecher. Ezra has aligned himself with another real-life historical group, the Knights of the Golden Circle, and set out on a mission. The question is, Whose blood is he after?

Despite all the danger around him, it never feels like Beecher’s life is truly in peril or the president is imminently under siege. You won’t see Beecher and Wallace shredding baddies with machine guns and trading one-liners like a Hollywood blockbuster. The president sums up nicely what Beecher is about when he tells him, “The moment you see someone being hurt, or some sort of injustice, even when it puts you at risk, you can’t turn your back to it. You have to help. That’s a beautiful trait.”

The suspense in The President’s Shadow is around who Beecher can save and who he can’t. That he isn’t the strongest and the toughest makes it interesting because his mind is his best weapon.

As for his personal quest to discover the truth about his father, Beecher learns that some things in the past are so painful they are best kept hidden.