Review: Winter Warning by Jerome Charyn

Winter Warning by Jerome Charyn is the climactic conclusion to the iconic Isaac Sidel mystery series, which finds Charyn’s acclaimed hero facing his toughest showdown yet—this time as commander-in-chief.

An accidental president who’s the target of determined assassins—is this stranger than fiction, or does it reflect “our own world like a volatile funhouse mirror?” Throw in some very disreputable characters like “a mysterious billionaire who belongs to a brotherhood of killers and counterfeiters” (a Russian!) and you’ll realize that the 1980s setting of Winter Warning reflects the axiom that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In the spring of 2017, Chris Whipple’s illuminating book The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency was published to wide acclaim. Whipple interviewed every living chief of staff, all males. President Isaac Sidel would surely have an ironic respect for Whipple’s observations, particularly given that Sidel is at war with his Chief of Staff, Ramona Dazzle—a manipulative, aggressive woman.

The chiefs of staff, often referred to as “the gatekeepers,” wield tremendous power in Washington and beyond; they decide who is allowed to see the president, negotiate with Congress to push POTUS's agenda, and—most crucially—enjoy unparalleled access to the leader of the free world. Each chief can make or break an administration, and each president reveals himself by the chief he picks.

The initial chapters of Winter Warning are almost a day in the life of POTUS. There’s a line from Kojak, “Who loves ya, baby?” Substitute respect—or trust—for love. Isaac respects an old Israeli warrior/former prime minister, Ariel Moss, who unexpectedly arrives on United States soil. The powers that be in the West Wing are not happy.

But Isaac trusted Ariel’s roundabout summons more than he did the advice of his intelligence chiefs. And Ramona must have sensed this. Her boss was a hopeless romantic and a loose cannon. And now she tried to ruffle Isaac, catch him off guard, while he stood in her office with his Glock.

Isaac shuts down Ramona Dazzle when she says she’ll have Moss shut down. No way, says the president: “You’ll have our thugs leave him to wander as much as he likes.” 

Her lower lip trembled. She couldn’t find her magic potion with Sidel. “We’re not like the Russians,” she said. “We don’t employ thugs. Some of our best agents have PhDs.”

Yes, Isaac muttered to himself, they can whack you on the ears while they recite one of Hamlet’s soliloquies.

“He shouldn’t have been allowed to get on a plane. He has forged documents. We’ll find him.”

The conversation between the president and his Chief of Staff deteriorates further. Isaac thinks longingly about escape. But where? In all truth, given the vicissitudes of Isaac’s day, it's no wonder he wants to escape to Camp David. 

There was no territory now, in Isaac’s mind, except perhaps Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego, and he had little desire to go there. He was stuck in this “great white jail” with a chief of staff who was plotting to dismantle him.

If you said “Who was Harry Truman, the 33rd president?” when answering which president labeled the White House a “glamorous prison” and the “great white jail,” you win presidential Jeopardy. After Ramona Dazzle clocks him with a mighty wallop, Isaac decides—like presidents since Franklin Roosevelt—it’s time to retreat to Camp David. What could be safer or more serene?

He instructs his favorite helicopter pilot, Stefan Oliver, to take him to his “dacha,” aka Camp David. The presidential weekend getaway is nestled in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland; it doesn’t even appear on maps. But be careful what you wish for because, for this president, Camp David is anything but a tranquil refuge. 

His only companions in the capital are the captain of his helicopter fleet and a sexy naval intelligence officer who realizes that something has gone amuck at Camp David, when a band of mercenaries arrive with their sights trained on Sidel.

Isaac Sidel is a fascinating character: a former police commissioner and mayor of New York City and a world citizen with views on governing that make him a man with a target on his back. Sardonic banter combined with nail-biting tension, Winter Warning never lets down the tension.


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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