SHOOT THE PRESIDENT, ARE YOU MAD? by Frank McAuliffe (Book Review)

Shoot the President, are You Mad? (The Outfit, 2010) is the long-awaited fourth book in the Augustus Mandrell series by Frank McAuliffe, and is actually the first full length novel of the bunch. The first three books in the series were essentially collections of novellas detailing the first person adventures of the Englishman Augustus Mandrell; Of All the Bloody Cheek came out in 1965, Rather a Vicious Gentleman in 1968, and For Murder I Charge More in 1971. Shoot the President was written in 1975 but has never seen publication until now. McAuliffe’s daughter Liz, who played a large role in getting the book finally published, explains in the Afterword:

“My dad wrote this book in 1975 and sent it off to his publishers, Betty and Ian Ballantine. Even though it had been twelve years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the mutual consensus was that the American people were not fully healed, were not ready to make light of the demise of an individual whom [sic] held possession of the highest office in the land. The manuscript was boxed up and closeted for thirty years.”

I haven’t read the previous books so I was somewhat unprepared for what was in store. The main character, Augustus Mandrell, is “the founder, president, chief executive, principal employee, and treasurer” of the firm Mandrell Limited. Just what then is Mandrell Limited beyond, as our narrator describes, a “service organization”?

The firm of Mandrell Limited is in the business of insuring that selected individuals move from this life on to the next life not on a schedule arranged by Mother Nature or by mischance, but rather on a schedule dictated by an “interested party” (my customer).

In other words, Augustus Mandrell is an assassin. He is also a master of disguise possessing myriad other talents that come in handy in the most ridiculous of situations.

Not much can be discussed about Shoot the President without spoiling the twists and turns of the plot. It opens with Mandrell dropping an unfortunate Portland, Oregon businessman named Clifford Waxout off a cliff.

Before Clifford Waxout died escaping my arms, he screeched “…bastard…you lousy bastard…” It was a farewell fraught with genealogical inaccuracy, but one of enviable vigor, under the circumstances. (The brisk descent from the picturesque cliff; the sudden, definitive embrace of the rocks….)

Mandrell assumes Waxout’s identity for the entire book, and puts into a motion a plan that takes him from Oregon to Washington, DC, where he is to complete his contracted assassination. Along the way he must keep those people who know Waxout from being suspicious even as he sows the seeds of odd behavior for them to report on in recollection, presumably when they are interviewed in the wake of his successful mission. His plans also require the seduction of the virginal opera diva Consuela DiMartino, she who possesses “the most dramatic derriere in opera today,” so that he can get close to the president. The president referred to in the title is named only as “Old 76.” The Chief Executive has a thing for the number 76; he does 76 push-ups every morning, has 76 suits in his closet, keeps 76 brands of beer in his refrigerator, has 76 presidential advisers, etc. Mandrell’s plan to execute his dark deed requires he be one of 76 guests at the opera star’s special performance for the president. The only way he can see achieving that is if the opera star is on his arm.

Shoot the President is an interesting read that takes a little getting used to. As a narrator, Mandrell is prone to meandering descriptions and frequent asides that refer to previous adventures (presumably detailed in earlier books in the series) or unrelated topics altogether. His words drip with arrogance, and he has a solution for every possible problem. As the story steamrolls forward, the difficulties that rise up to challenge his efforts become more and more far-fetched, and his successful workarounds increasingly absurd. Still, as farce and satire it works, and is actually quite fun. If it were a movie, it would be a screwball comedy with some darker moments. After all, it is about an assassin, so there are scenes of violence and bloodshed. A couple plot twists keep the outlandish story interesting, right up until the closing lines of the book.

What I found particularly interesting, in light of today’s news, is the idea that Waxout is a leading member of an organization called America’s Americans. This is a fringe political group criticizing the president for being, among various other crimes, soft on Communism. This affiliation of Waxout’s is a large part of the reason he is the man whose identity Mandrell chose to assume, since it makes sense that he could potentially be an assassin, keeping the blame from falling anywhere near the firm of Mandrell Limited. I thought it was amusing how this idea is echoed in today’s America.

Shoot the President is anything but a typical “novel about an assassin.” It is more comedy than action story, about a character so unbelievably ridiculous that one can’t help but cheer for him. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a fan of comedic novels, but in this case I make an exception. The crazy plot and the circumstances that Mandrell must get himself into and out of make for a charming read, and this is a book whose availability is certainly long overdue.

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