Books

Readorama: Margaret Truman’s ‘Capital Crime’ murder series on its 28th mystery

“Internship in Murder,” published in August, is the 28th in the Margaret Truman mystery series. It was written by her veteran collaborator, Donald Bain.
“Internship in Murder,” published in August, is the 28th in the Margaret Truman mystery series. It was written by her veteran collaborator, Donald Bain.

The first Margaret Truman mystery, “Murder in the White House,” appeared in 1980.

The latest, “Internship in Murder,” published this August, is the 28th in the series. It is the 27th Margaret Truman mystery written by Donald Bain, a veteran author whose collaboration with Margaret Truman Daniel began with the series’ second book.

One reason for the success of the Margaret Truman “Capital Crime” mystery series, Bain said recently, is that it has indulged the reader’s resentment of Washington. As a president’s daughter, Daniel was an insider.

Readers can revel in how members of the Washington elite come to grief, in a variety of ways and at many Washington landmarks, as reflected in the titles.

There has been “Murder on Embassy Row,” as well as “At the Pentagon” and “At the Watergate” and “On K Street.”

The series began when a publishing executive brought together Daniel with author William Harrington.

The first book, which detailed how a secretary of state had been found strangled in the White House, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and later was made into the film “Murder at 1600.”

For the next book Daniel collaborated with Bain, who at the time had written or ghostwritten about 30 books, several of them in the crime genre.

Daniel, meanwhile, had written a biography of her father. Her parents gave her a clear-eyed view of Washington loyalties.

“I knew she had kind of a jaded view of Washington, like her father, who once said that ‘if you want to have a friend in Washington, get a dog,’ ” Bain said from his Danbury, Conn., home. “I remember when we first met, Margaret told me, ‘I want the speaker of the House killed.’

“We just went from there.”

The subsequent books, featuring murders at the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and elsewhere, followed at a pace of about one a year.

Bain would meet with Daniel several times a year for lunch. They would discuss scenarios for the next installment and then huddle together over drafts.

“I did the actual writing, but I always tell people that every day that I sat writing I felt that she was looking over my shoulder,” Bain said.

Following Daniel’s 2008 death, Bain signed on with the Daniel family to continue the series.

The cover of the Margaret Truman mystery “Experiment in Murder,” published in 2012, included Bain’s name for the first time at the bottom of the dust jacket.

Occasionally over the years, Bain said, a reviewer or columnist would attempt to ding Daniel for her books being ghostwritten.

“Didn’t bother her in the least,” Clifton Truman Daniel, the eldest son of Margaret Truman Daniel, said recently.

The Truman family’s regard for mysteries can be documented back more than a century.

The Truman Library holds a copy of a 1907 anthology, “The Mystery,” that bears Harry Truman’s signature inside the front cover. The future president turned 23 years old that May.

The library also holds, in Truman’s personal book collection, three mysteries by “Perry Mason” author Erle Stanley Gardner.

The author inscribed a copy of his book “Two Clues” for the president in 1947. Truman himself inscribed the two other books, “The Case of the One-Eyed Witness” and “The Case of the Vagabond Virgin,” marking them as his personal property.

Three other Gardner books are listed in the 22-page inventory of books lining the shelves of the former president’s library and office at his Independence home, maintained by the National Park Service.

Other mystery or crime story authors represented there are Margery Allingham, Delano Ames, Bill Ballinger, Ben Benson, Jonathan Latimer, Howard Mason and Dorothy Sayers.

“Grandpa normally read history, but every now and then he liked to read something in which villains were caught rather than elected to another term,” Clifton Truman Daniel said.

The big mystery fans in the family, however, probably were Bess Truman and her daughter, who often recommended titles to each other.

“Soon we were shipping each other tales of murder and mayhem by the box,” Daniel wrote in her 1986 biography of her mother.

When Margaret Truman Daniel published her first mystery in 1980, her mother’s failing eyesight prompted her nurses to read it aloud to her. Bess Truman died in 1982.

“I did not expect — or get — extravagant praise,” Daniel later wrote. “She just said it was a ‘good job.’ 

For the record, “Murder in the White House” has received shelf space in Harry Truman’s home library.

To learn more about the Margaret Truman mystery series, go to donaldbain.com.

Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree

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