Since I am a Sidewise Awards judge, I should make an effort to read more books and stories that earned the Sidewise stamp of approval. I think a good place to start is the recent Sidewise Award winner for the long-form award, The Enemy Within by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. The book is actually an expanded version of Rusch’s 2008 Sidewise winning short story “G-Men“, which was originally published in the anthology, Sideways in Crime, which I own, but for whatever reason I don’t remember the plot details. Wanting to judge The Enemy Within on its own merits, I decided not to reread the original short story. So what did I think of The Enemy Within?
The story centers around the death of J. Edgar Hoover, first director and founder of the FBI, and associate director Clyde Tolson, three months after the assassination of JFK. Both of their bodies were found in an alley next to a building known for homosexual parties. While the NYPD homicide detective Seamus O’Reilly tries to control the crime scene, the FBI sends out disgraced agent Frank Bryce to keep a lid on things to prevent Hoover’s secret lifestyle from becoming public knowledge. Meanwhile, as news of the director’s death spreads throughout the halls of power, Attorney General Robert Kennedy moves to secure Hoover’s personal files that contain all the dirt he has dug up on anyone who has coveted power in the United States. He hopes to use this information not only to secure the presidency himself one day, but also to find out who was the real murderer of his brother and he increasingly expects that the mob was ultimately behind it.
Part crime drama and part political thriller, The Enemy Within is what happens when fear and paranoia takes over after a nation loses two important political figures within months of each other. Many characters suspect a bigger conspiracy at work in both deaths and their suspicions seem reasonable. That being said, unlike JFK where we were told it was a lone wolf killer and many instead believe there was a conspiracy, with Hoover we know its a lone wolf killer, but everyone is told its a conspiracy. Although that may sound like a big spoiler, its not. Hoover’s death and the identity of the killer become inconsequential in the face of the actual conspiracy that begins to form in the post-Hoover world.
I have disagreed with the Sidewise judges in the past about the best novels of the year (i.e. The Windsor Faction), but I have to say I could find nothing wrong with their choice of The Enemy Within. To be honest I am struggling to find anything to criticize. Admittedly it was on the short side, but that just means there was less padding or pointless scenes. The characters were well developed and interesting, the pace was good and all the decisions made regarding the alternate history could be seen as plausible given the circumstance. Rusch didn’t pull her punches either when it came to discussing the controversial aspects of various historical figures, such as Hoover’s sexuality and blackmail files, the mob ties of Kennedys and the dirty politics of LBJ.
As a book reviewer, I read a lot of novels of varying quality. Some are bad, many are good and a lot are just okay. The Enemy Within is one of those few books that is near flawless. It deserved to win the Sidewise Award and it deserves your time when you are looking for a new book to read. My only hope is that I can read more books like it during my tenure as a Sidewise judge.