More Forrestal Fiction
Secrets of Glenn Cooper, a Review
Has any author ever revealed more of himself and his unseemly lust for wealth and renown than Glenn Cooper with his debut novel, Secret of the Seventh Son?
"What's up with the book, Laura?"
"All systems go. I'm waiting on the galleys and preparing myself for a life of fame and fortune."
His character might have been speaking with tongue in cheek, but Cooper could hardly be more obvious that the big F & F are what he's after with his writing career.
"Write what you know." It's the common advice given to new writers. Cooper has taken it to heart. He studied archaeology at Harvard, and his modern New York City murder mystery turns on the 1947 discovery in an Isle of Wight abbey of a mysterious trove that dates back to the 8th century.
Now in his mid-50s, Cooper began his working life as a physician, has had a career in medical research, and has been a biotechnology chief executive officer. It's clear from his background, and from his polished writing, that Cooper is a really smart guy. Along the way, he would have also rubbed shoulders with a lot of really smart people. One of the book's principal protagonists is a Harvard-grad near-genius. The genius yearns for something more than his secret government work, so he writes screenplays as an avenue toward greater recognition, toward fame and fortune, if you will.
One can almost hear the old American saying nagging at both the character and his creator, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"
Surprise! We also learn from the author's blurb in the back of the book that Cooper has written "multiple screenplays." Unsaid is whether or not Hollywood has used any of them.
Cooper also seems to know a great deal about high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and self-destructive drinking and womanizing. Hmm? Maybe he does have what it takes to become a famous writer.
Are we being unfair with our initial assertion? Could it be that Cooper just wants to do something with his life that's more personally fulfilling and might make a larger contribution to society than he could make through medical research? Only a passing acquaintance with the book will put that notion to rest. It's pure formula, a mélange of Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming, and any number of Hollywood thrillers, with the best of Dan Brown thrown in to be on the safe side.
The man knows his audience, and we're not just talking about the American public. We're talking about the opinion molders in the country, the folks who run the book publishing and movie making industries. If you make your government agents and operatives larger than life supermen and, at the same time, you can find a way to trash the Catholic church, your manuscript will certainly find favor somewhere in the halls of publishing power. Cooper's chosen hero is an FBI agent and the Catholics of the Middle Ages come across as members of a really weird cult.
It also won't hurt a bit to salt in reinforcements of prevailing public belief, like this throwaway line on page 20, "She was sitting behind his old desk in his old office, which had a nice view of the Statue of Liberty, thanks to Mohammed Atta..."
So eager is Cooper to curry favor with the power elite that he actually weakens his story line by going out of his way to perpetuate the popular belief that America's first defense secretary, James Forrestal, committed suicide. It is a press-encouraged notion that lacks even the imprimatur of the government, which concluded in its official investigation only that Forrestal died from a fall from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. It did not offer an opinion as to what might have caused the fall.
Hopefully, we won't give away anything by asserting that the plot would have been improved had Cooper stuck to what has been reported about Forrestal's death and not made things up himself. Referring to Forrestal's broken body found atop a third floor roof, Cooper dramatically concludes his sixth chapter:
In his pajama pockets were two pieces of paper. One was a poem from Sophocles's tragedy, Ajax, written in Forrestal's shaky hand: (Here he repeats the morbid lines found in several books and repeated on the Forrestal Wikipedia page.)
The other piece of paper contained a single penned line: Today is May 22, 1949, the day that I, James Forrestal, shall die.
The poem transcription exists, although it was not said to have been found in a pajama pocket and it was clearly not written in Forrestal's hand, shaky or otherwise. Those things we know from papers released by the U.S. Navy only in 2004. But they never reported where the transcription was found or who found it. The second piece of paper is a Cooper invention, and it looks rather stupid and pointless. Why bother to write that you're going to die on the day that you're going to kill yourself? It's as redundant as hanging oneself from a 16th floor window, which is the press's explanation for the bathrobe sash found knotted tightly around Forrestal's neck. The official investigation reached no conclusion as to its purpose.
Forrestal biographer Arnold Rogow did report on page 9 of his book, "Arriving at Bethesda [Forrestal] declared that he did not expect to leave the hospital alive." The passage is later repeated by biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley. Why Forrestal might have believed that or how he might have known that he would die at the Bethesda Naval Hospital is left open to speculation, and that ambiguity would have worked much better for Cooper's purposes (Never mind that Rogow, typically, has no reference for his passage, which has several other controversial assertions in it.).
There's an interesting irony in Cooper's big literary effort. Like many who have attended elite universities or have been through demanding graduate programs, he clearly holds sheer mental facility in great esteem. For such people, to say that someone is "really bright" is about the best thing they can say about anyone. But such people will not enjoy this book. They're sure to figure out the central mystery before they have read very far, and it's going to spoil their fun, sort of like knowing how a magician does his trick.
In sum, Secret of the Seventh Son is a book about smart people, written by a smart person, but written for people who aren't very smart.
October 1, 2009