The Coup
By Jamie Malanowski
(Doubleday, $23)

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Most mystery novels set in the White House and in other Washington, D.C., environs fall flat. It is difficult to know why, but novelists attempting to simultaneously capture the workings of government and sustain a compelling, believable narrative almost always trip up somehow. Jamie Malanowski, though, is a welcome exception. Currently the managing editor at Playboy magazine, he has also worked at Time, Esquire, and Spy. Precisely which of those postings helped him develop his knowledge of political byways is never explicitly spelled out in his brief author's bio. Maybe none of those jobs set the stage for him; maybe every fictional scene filled with real-life verisimilitude was derived completely from his imagination. Whatever the case may be, it works. The plot of the novel is far-fetched, a common trouble in such works. What's more, it's problematic as well as intricate, which often means the writer will lose the way and forget to tie up the loose ends. Malanowski avoids these traps, though; despite it all, he never loses sight of plausibility.

Driving the plot is Godwin Pope, an intelligent, handsome, eligible bachelor who, having made a fortune in business and having served four years in the Senate, tries for the presidency of the United States on the Democratic ticket. His campaign falls short, but he ends up as vice president in the administration of Jack Mahone, a smart campaigner who otherwise has little to offer the American public. After a year in the White House, Mahone is in trouble politically and showing bad judgment personally, especially regarding his faltering marriage. Pope decides that he would serve the country better than his boss does, so he begins to plan Mahone's exit. The strategy is subtle - if Pope's plan works, nobody will ever suspect his role in the president's downfall. As part of his scheme, Pope uses magazine reporter Maggie Newbold. She has won the highest journalistic honors for her investigative journalism from overseas, but she has sunk to the bottom of the journalism hierarchy because of allegations that she gained information in an unsavory manner. The combination of Newbold and Pope is The Coup's true strength: When they meet, the chemistry is almost tangible. The result of their torrid affair surprises them, leads to a new course for the United States, and is quite likely to entertain readers thoroughly. - S.W.