Although he was sickly as a child, Theodore Roosevelt went on to lead a most vigorous adulthood. He worked as a rancher and deputy sheriff in the Dakotas, organized a regiment of Ivy Leaguers, athletes and cowboys (the “Rough Riders”) to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and served as New York City police commissioner before being elected as the governor of New York, vice president of the United States and the nation’s 26th president. Roosevelt even led expeditions through East Africa and Brazil’s forbidding Amazon basin. “His ‘love of the hurly-burly’ that enchanted reporters and their readers,” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, “was best captured by British viscount John Morley, who claimed that ‘he had seen two tremendous works of nature in America—Niagara Falls and Mr. Roosevelt.’”
But as energetic as he was in real life, Theodore Roosevelt—or “TR,” as he’s known—has been no less so in imagined escapades. Together with Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (his distant cousin) and John F. Kennedy, and the Republican Party’s other most-admired chief executive, Abraham Lincoln, he’s become a familiar figure in fiction. Gore Vidal offered a memorable confrontation between him and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst in Empire (1987). Brian Garfield’s Manifest Destiny (1989) found TR in the Badlands in 1884, defending Dakotan ranchers against an unscrupulous French empire builder. In Harry Turtledove’s alternative-history series, Roosevelt battled an invading army from Canada and—as the 28th Democratic president—led the United States through World War I. And like Honest Abe (in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Roosevelt took a whack at terminating the undead, in James Fortescue’s 2012 e-book, Theodore Roosevelt: Vampire Slayer.
It might be over the field of mysteries and thrillers, however, that he’s cast the longest shadow.
What brought this to mind was the recent release of Roosevelt’s Beast, Louis Bayard’s haunting novel about TR’s ill-fated effort to map Brazil’s mostly uncharted, rapids-rampant Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt. Anyone who read Candice Millard’s outstanding 2005 nonfiction work, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, is familiar with the rudiments of this tale. In late 1913, Roosevelt—having failed in the previous year to win his third-party bid for re-election to the White House—joined what was to be a scientific exploration of the Rio da Dúvida, a mysterious waterway through the Amazon wilderness. Among the other members of his party were his second son, 24-year-old Kermit, and Brazilian adventurer Cândido Rondon. Starvation, disease (particularly malaria), exhaustion and worries about being attacked by hostile natives made the canoe journey less than carefree. Three men died along the way, and it’s a wonder TR, then in his early 50s, wasn’t among them; he so feared his weakness would endanger the survival of his son and their fellow men, that at one point the ex-president entertained thoughts of committing suicide. (He’d evidently packed along a lethal dose of morphine, should such an exit become necessary.)
Out of those basics, Bayard (Mr. Timothy, The Black Tower) has concocted a historical thriller-cum-horror story. Roosevelt’s Beast is told from the viewpoint of Kermit Roosevelt, born into privilege but under pressure to someday live up to the example of his famous sire. When we meet him and his fellow travelers, they’re suffering through demoralizing rains, the black river’s redundant hazards and the frequent necessity of having to portage canoes overland. One night, TR—or the Colonel, as Kermit refers to him here—gets it into his noggin to shoot a monkey for their food supply. But soon after he and Kermit leave camp, they are kidnapped by the Cinta Larga, a primitive, cannibalistic people who, as history records it, remained invisible to the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition. In these pages, though, the Cinta Linga have different plans. Kermit awakens in the company of a naked young woman, Luz, who, against all the odds, speaks Portuguese, a language Kermit also knows. It seems she was an outsider, adopted by the tribe many years ago after the death of her missionary parents. Now she’s to serve as the Roosevelts’ interpreter and guide in a dubious pursuit of the strange creature that’s been preying upon this tribe, a monster known to disembowel and suck the blood from its victims, yet leave no footprints behind. Only by tracking and doing away with that killer—a task that will demand no small degree of detective work—can the Colonel and Kermit regain their freedom. The Cinta Linga aren’t concerned for the well-being of these two white interlopers; they figure them to be another breed of beast, and surely the creature won’t harm “one of its own.”
Bayard is adroit in using flashbacks to illuminate Kermit’s role in his family and explore his relationship with the ambassador’s daughter he is bound to wed. More intriguingly, the author crafts his plot in a way that provides an alterative and understandably secret (if unlikely) explanation for the depression and alcoholism that will eventually lead to Kermit’s untimely end. Although the Colonel is always the bigger personality, and there are moments here when he exceeds his caricature of confident bluster and a daredevil’s resolve, it’s really Kermit who gets the best of Bayard’s Beast.
One thing readers might be surprised to learn is that Louis Bayard isn’t the first wordsmith to have teased the seeds of a mystery from Roosevelt’s Amazonian exploits. Mr. President, Private Eye, a 1988 anthology of short-stories featuring U.S. chief executives as sleuths, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins Jr., included “The River of Doubt.” That whodunit by the once-prolific Edward D. Hoch finds TR “laid low by an attack of malaria and dysentery,” but still quite capable of investigating the slayings of two members of his exploring party. “This is something of a war in miniature,” he says at one point. “We battle the river and an unseen killer.”
While that South American outing appeals to some crime-fictionists, others have found inspiration in Roosevelt’s years (1895-1897) as a police commissioner.
Consider, for instance, William L. DeAndrea’s spirited 1980 standalone, The Lunatic Fringe. Set in New York City in 1896, at the height of a local newspaper circulation war and amid a national presidential contest (Democrat William Jennings Bryan vs. Republican William McKinley), the novel introduces police officer Dennis Patrick Francis-Xavier Muldoon. Summoned by shrieks of “Help! Murder! Police!” from a tenement landlady, Muldoon breaks into an apartment where he finds a man sitting in a wingback chair, dead from a gas leak. He’s Evan Crandall, who—as “E. Noon”—had been an editorial cartoonist for Hearst’s ambitious New York Journal, but only recently vacated that post in a supercilious snit. Probing further, our hero makes a still more shocking find: a beautiful young woman, “jaybird naked,” tied up in the bedroom beside a canvas on which her fair form had been painted. Embarrassed, Muldoon quickly releases this Pink Angel, who insists that Crandall’s demise wasn’t accidental. Muldoon goes for help, but before he can return, she flees down the fire escape with his gun and the painting in tow.
Muldoon’s superior, Capt. Ozias Herkimer, being quite unimpressed by these shenanigans (“You,” he growls at the junior copper, “are the biggest fool God ever made!”), soon boots Muldoon from his employ. But that doesn’t end things. Concerned that the possibility of Crandall having been murdered is not being taken seriously, and that his errant Pink Angel might be in danger as a result, Muldoon turns for support to Roosevelt, the reform-minded president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners. Together, those two embark on a search for the furtive Angel as well as Crandall’s killers, one that will lead them to a band of mansion burglars, anarchists bent on blowing up the Croton Reservoir, a wealthy newspaper proprietor’s lush hideaway and a scheme to assassinate candidate Bryan. Rich in historical atmospherics and suffused with humor, The Lunatic Fringe is a crazy-fun romp.
Also set in 1896, but more serious in tone, is Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (1994). The action here begins with the discovery of a boy’s corpse on the Williamsburg Bridge, a then unfinished leap of steel across the East River, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Called in to assess the horribly mutilated body is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a renowned psychologist (or “alienist,” according to the terminology then in vogue). The victim, it turns out, is a male prostitute known for attiring himself as a girl. Such salacious slayings might have been swept under a convenient rug during that era, but Kreizler and commissioner Roosevelt both believe this tragedy bears resemblance to other open cases. So with TR’s encouragement, Kreizler enlists the aid of New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, police department secretary Sara Howard, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, two brothers skilled in the coming science of criminal identification. As the corpses multiply, Kreizler, Roosevelt and their associates dig for clues in both the evidence and psychological reasoning, hoping to form a clearer picture of the person responsible for these atrocities. If they can glean enough information, while staving off interference from powerful forces determined to keep this violence out of the press, they just might put an end to a series of killings as shocking as Jack the Ripper’s.
For somebody who, during his lifetime, wasn’t known to focus his pince-nez on crime or mystery novels (though he was acquainted with Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Anna Katherine Green, the author of 1878’s The Leavenworth Case), Theodore Roosevelt has had a noticeable impact on the genre since then, if only as a fictional player. He did another turn as a hands-on police commissioner in Lawrence Alexander’s The Big Stick (1986) and Speak Softly (1987). In H. Paul Jeffers’ The Adventures of the Stalwart Companions (1978), he helped Sherlock Holmes—in the absence of Dr. John Watson—get to the bottom of political skullduggery and an assassination attempt on President Rutherford B. Hayes. And in Kenneth Cameron’s Winter at Death’s Hotel (2013), Conan Doyle’s wife, Louisa, tries to convince TR to look into the mutilation of an unidentified redhead in Manhattan’s Bowery district.
Where will TR turn up next? I have no idea, but I am sure that his afterlife as a participant in this genre is far from over. Bully for that!