Phillip Margolin is an equal opportunity mystery writer. After involving a sitting president then a Supreme Court justice in murder plots, he now moves the action to Capitol Hill in his latest thriller. If you’ve already read Executive Privilege and Supreme Justice, then don’t wait to dive into Capitol Murder. Not yet enjoyed the first two? Then start from the beginning and plan to burn some serious midnight oil.
This trio of mysteries features a returning cast of characters—a damaged police woman, a determined F.B.I. agent, a young attorney who is constantly getting in over his head, and a serial killer who collects gruesome souvenirs from his victims. Mystery writers often fall into one of two categories, those whose novels are plot driven or those who concentrate more on character development. Some do both and Margolin manages that feat well. We care about the heroes in his books and learn more about them as the series unfolds. We also get caught up in the story lines where nothing is ever as simple as it seems. After the killer is caught, there’s always another twist.
While Margolin sets his mysteries in Washington, some of the action also happens clear across the country, in the small towns and rugged terrain of Oregon. These are the areas that Margolin knows well. Originally from New York, he graduated from American University and New York University Law School. He clerked for the chief judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals, and in private practice specialized in criminal defense, arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Oregon Supreme Court, and the Oregon Court of Appeals. He may not have worked in the West Wing or in Congress, but he does his homework and brings us inside the corridors of power.
Use of power, abuse of power, these are the themes that drive Margolin’s books. He taps into our distrust of politicians. Against the backdrop of recent scandals involving elected officials, Margolin’s plots seem all too believable. We may truly never know what goes on behind the scenes in the White House, the Supreme Court, or on Capitol Hill, but we can imagine what could happen, thanks to his plausible scenarios.
In Executive Privilege we meet Dana Cutler, a police woman who survived a horrendous encounter with meth dealers. After a lengthy leave of absence, she leaves the force and becomes a private investigator. Any thought, however, that her work will now become less dangerous is quickly dismissed when she is asked to tail a woman, campaign worker Charlotte Walsh, who is having an affair with the president and then turns up dead. Was she murdered by serial killer, Clarence Little, or did a copycat killer set it up to look that way? Brad Miller, an associate in one of Oregon’s top law firms, is asked to take on a pro bono case, proving that Little did not kill Walsh. What begins as a routine, although creepy assignment, will reach into the highest levels of government and place Cutler, Miller, and anyone they care about, in harm’s way.
Cutler and Miller barely have time to catch their collective breath when they are plunged into another crisis in Supreme Justice. Miller, after his visibility in the Walsh case, finds himself clerking for U. S. Supreme Court Justice Felicia Moss, feeling somewhat out of his league, going up against the Ivy League graduates who populate the ranks of the court’s clerks. Appearances, however, are deceiving and Miller soon discovers the other clerks are not spending their time writing memos. When the court is asked for a writ of certiorari to grant a new trial for a woman on Oregon’s death row, Miller finds himself, once again, in the line of fire. Miller turns to the trusted associates who had helped him before—Cutler, F.B.I. Agent Keith Evans and his partner, Maggie Sparks. As with Executive Privilege, going up against those in power is risky business. Brad endures the trial of his life.
Until book three, Capitol Murder. Still determined to work in Washington, Brad takes a job working for Oregon’s Senator Jack Carson. Newly married to Ginny Striker, a lawyer and his comrade in arms, the two believe they can finally settle into blissful domestic life. Fate has other things in store for them, however. Serial killer Clarence Little escapes from prison. When a woman’s body turns up in a Georgetown townhouse bearing Little’s signature M.O., Miller fears for his own safety, as well as for Ginny’s. Senator Carson turns up missing and Miller discovers that his boss was hiding dark secrets that threaten national security. It’s round up the usual band of good guys as Brad, Ginny, Dana, Keith, and Maggie battle the powers that be to save the U.S. And the world. It’s never quite clear, however, who wears the black hat. Margolin keeps the reader guessing until the last page.
There are only three branches of government, but we hope that Margolin has plans to branch out to other Washington centers of power. Margaret Truman used this vehicle well, setting her mysteries in everything from the Kennedy Center to Georgetown to Embassy Row to the National Gallery. We aren’t ready to say goodbye and godspeed to Brad, Dana, and the gang. We hope Margolin isn’t either.