Ed McBain gets metaphorical in this 1973 edition of his 87th Precinct crime series, taking on then-President Nixon in the person of Randy M. Nesbitt, leader of a gang on a killing spree.
As a time capsule, "Hail To The Chief" is a sometimes interesting read. As a police procedural, it's weak. The leader of the "Yankee Rebels" (one of many symbolic nods to Nixon perfidy) Nesbitt is presented to us as a guy elected to his second term in office, fighting a war he inherited without much enthusiasm but that he is intends to finish because, as he piously insists, he is a man of peace. "I pray to God every night that I'll always do the right thing," Nesbitt insists.
McBain has at Nixon both in terms of Watergate, then blowing up but still a year away from its final resolution with Nixon's resignation, and particularly with U.S. troops in Vietnam, just then being brought back home. The opening scene, of men, women, and an infant lying in a ditch, deliberately conjures up the My Lai massacre and similar atrocities which Nixon was seen by many to be complicit in, even though My Lai took place during the previous administration. You keep waiting for Nesbitt to tell someone he is not a crook. He doesn't, but that's about the only button McBain misses.
Subtlety is not his goal here, nor is humor. Both are missed. While McBain criminals can be quite deep and multi-faceted (more than the cops often) it quickly becomes clear to anyone reading this novel that Nesbitt is a knuckle-dragging moral leper, a boil on the face of humanity, unable to see beyond his own colossal egotism. When he condemns his fellow gang member's girlfriend (a character named Midge, based on the wife of John Mitchell who talked to reporters during the height of the Watergate investigation) to what becomes her doom, he insists that there is no blood on his hands. He only gave the orders. [Cue the Nazi marching music here.]
As a polemic, McBain offers meat to chew on. But "Hail To The Chief" is a police procedural featuring the 87th Precinct, and it's an ill-fit seeing the familiar environs of Isola playing host to a doctrinaire political parable. McBain had been writing about gang violence since the first 87th Precinct novel two decades before, and before that, under his real name Evan Hunter in the classic "Blackboard Jungle." Maybe he wanted to jazz up the old formula. But the Yankee Rebels can't work as satire if they don't work in the reader's mind as a real gang, and they don't. For example, how Nesbitt, a pious, paranoid blowhard with a marked aversion to obscenities, sex, and drugs, got to command a street gang is never explained.
It's sometimes fun to pick up on the Nixon references. Nesbitt has a bug installed in one of his rivals' headquarters, known as "Gateside" rather than "Watergate." His chief negotiator is called "Doc," (i.e. Dr. Kissinger) and he works on a policy of triangulation against two rival gangs much like China and the Soviet Union. In the end, Nesbitt is done in by his own paranoia, and it's something of a credit to McBain he seems to beat Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate's conclusion.
But the book just doesn't work as crime fiction. There is no mystery to solve here, just dead bodies lying around and a gang too drunk on bloodletting to cover its tracks. By the time Nesbitt explains how his "second term as president" was his mandate for seeking peace through strength, we got the point long ago. One good thing about Nixon resigning the next year - it meant McBain had to go back to writing about real crime.