Oursler asked Roosevelt if he’d ever considered writing a different kind of story himself. “To tell you the truth, I have often thought about it,” the president replied. “In fact I have carried the plot for a mystery story in my mind for years.”
That night, Roosevelt revealed his idea. His protagonist was a wealthy man who felt trapped — mired in middle age, tired of a decades-long marriage, skeptical of the superficial people around him. (It’s fair to wonder whether Roosevelt’s hero was basically Roosevelt himself.) The story needed to supply a clever escape, but here the president was stumped. “How,” he asked, “can a man disappear with five million dollars in any negotiable form and not be traced?”
Oursler proposed a series of solutions, but Roosevelt found flaws in each. A man with such a fortune would need to cover his tracks — to fool the people who would miss him, or his money, dearly. Eventually, the editor suggested recruiting a roster of mystery writers to solve the puzzle, assigning a different chapter to each one. Roosevelt let out a big laugh. “That would be fun!” he said. “Go ahead. The idea is yours — and theirs.”
So Oursler did, fleshing out Roosevelt’s plot and assembling a team of six experienced authors. The tale’s first installment ran in Liberty in the fall of 1935, with the president’s image on the cover and, beneath it, these words: “The President’s Mystery Story: Plot by Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
A book version came next and managed a brief appearance on the Book Review’s best-seller list; a movie adaptation followed. Honestly, though, “The President’s Mystery Story” was better stunt than story. While Roosevelt had provided a fresh scenario, Oursler’s writers tackled it in the same purple prose. (“The taxi spurted out from under its shelter, into the storming Nebraska night.”) They added murderers and detectives; the hack’s habits die hard. The novel was reissued in 1967, with a new chapter by Erle Stanley Gardner featuring his most famous character, Perry Mason. But not even Mason could save the book. The Book Review called the reissue “one of the worst suspense novels ever written.” The book has long since been forgotten — by mystery buffs, Roosevelt biographers and everyone else.
Still, there’s an insight lurking in it. At each stage, Roosevelt’s motive was perfecting his plot. That’s true of most presidents; in praising and criticizing mystery fiction, they almost always focus on the mechanics of the plot and not on character, language or themes. Consider how one of Lincoln’s contemporaries described his relationship to Poe: “The absolute and logical method of Poe’s tales” appealed to “the bent of his mind.”
The historical record offers remarkably similar descriptions of Hoover, Wilson, both Roosevelts and, yes, Bill Clinton. And this suggests another reason presidents may be drawn to the mystery genre: It’s escapism for the control freak. It tempts people who like solving problems — and who like the authority that problem-solving entails.
Which brings us back to Clinton’s new book. Perhaps this is a case of a president delighting in the power of a good mystery. But maybe it’s a case of a president missing a different kind of power.