Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Ah, political machinations, financial shenanigans, international arm-twisting for war or peace, a plot to kill former president Teddy Roosevelt while he’s on an African safari. Crack open James A. Ross’s novel, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt, kick back, and settle down into a romp through a blend of history, true facts, fictional facts, and an ill-fated romance.
J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and William Randolph Hearst plot to keep the ex-president in faraway Africa for a year. Morgan wants TR off the political stage, permanently, so he can undo Roosevelt’s trust-busting laws that are a thorn in Morgan’s wallet. Carnegie wants to harness for world peace TR’s passion for anti-crime and anti-corruption, but without Teddy “Rough Rider” Roosevelt, who enjoys killing animals and fighting wars. Hearst wants the adventuresome TR abroad causing headlines so he can sell more newspapers.
Morgan does not want TR to run for a third term in 1912, so he arranges for an assassin to be slipped into Roosevelt’s safari security detail. Hearst sends a muckraking reporter to find her way onto the safari; she happens to be Roosevelt’s first teenage heartthrob, first kiss, and first heartbreak. As for Carnegie’s world peace, Roosevelt, while blundering around East Africa, which was being colonized by England and Germany, hatches a plan to stop WW I.
Ross neatly wraps the novel’s underlying subject of raw survival in politics, business, and colonization in a metaphor: Two scorpions face off on a man’s belly. The man is terrified but helpless, of becoming collateral damage, as the enemies battle to the death. The metaphor also works on another level: The man, the hired assassin, turns the winner scorpion into a weapon to kill Roosevelt, an ironic twist on Roosevelt’s quest to kill wild animals.
The female reporter kicked off the safari, finds ingenious ways to get back to Roosevelt’s side. The assassin, New York-bred and out of his depth in deep Africa, has the bedeviling problem of how to kill TR and make it look like an accident. There are no carriages to push the victim under, no dark alleys for a fatal mugging. And, he keeps inadvertently saving Roosevelt’s life from a gigantic snake or other perils. Roosevelt returns the favor by preventing the now trusted bodyguard from drowning or being eaten by a crocodile, whichever came first.
Nevertheless, the assassin persists in trying to murder TR, motivated by a personal grudge. Roosevelt, as New York City Police Commissioner, oversaw a campaign to rid the city of political and police corruption. The assassin’s brother, a city cop, was sent to prison as a sacrificial lamb to deflect attention from politically corrupt Tammany Hall. The brother would be released, as part of the deal with Morgan, when Roosevelt had been killed.
Morgan becomes impatient with the lack of results he expects. The real J.P. Morgan was a hard-nosed tycoon; the novel’s J.P. Morgan is a cold-hearted killer, who, as a competent CEO, brutally coerces an underlying to do the dirty work. He sends a second would-be assassin,exposeé a Wall Street scrivener, to kill Roosevelt. Morgan’s final order, Succeed or die.
Meanwhile, back in Africa, the idealistic reporter sends to Hearst an exposé of Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo, along with her TR headline stories. She admires Roosevelt, wants him to run for a third term, and continue his efforts to root out corruption, create and preserve national parks, and broker a European peace. He will not have the power to achieve those goals without the political position of the presidency. He must ally with Hearst, whose support he’d need to win the White House. Roosevelt and the journalist are at loggerheads, not over strategy, but over tactics. Roosevelt and Hearst shared a visceral dislike for each other.
Entwined throughout the narrative is the real-life relationship between Roosevelt and his son Kermit, who at nineteen medicates his depression with alcohol. How to help Kermit conquer the disease is a conundrum as formidable as any political challenge TR has faced. The father-son passages ring true of authentic parent-child love for each other.
One night, TR and the journalist, sharing a tree branch to be safe from prowling lions, discuss strategy and tactics, and consider the ember of their 30-year-old romance flickering back to flame. But the carnal transcends into Higher Purpose—get Teddy back to America and into the political ring.
Ross, a skilled storyteller, keeps the tale roiling along through the final chapters with savage hippos, blood-thirsty crocodiles, predatory bandits, a charge up a substitute San Juan Hill for a heroic rescue, a solo dash across the desert to Khartoum to send the story, the fates of Assassin 1 and Assassin 2, and an epilogue that would be good fiction, except it’s true–given artistic license with the dialogue.
Reading this well-crafted, smartly paced novel is like eating a bowl of salted peanuts—hard to stop.
Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books. His crime mystery, Stealing Fortune’s Brick, The Audacious Tea Heist, was published June 2020. His newest novel, Warrior Love, Silas Loves Lili Weirdly Lili Loves Silas will be released Spring 2021.