by ZJ Czupor

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Mary Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008) was a college junior when her father Harry S. Truman (1884-1972, 33rd U.S. President) was thrust into the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. With her blue-green eyes and dimpled cheeks she became a favorite “first daughter” with the media.

After graduating from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history, she embarked on several careers including that of a classical soprano, actress, journalist, radio and television personality, New York socialite, and author of critically acclaimed intimate biographies of her father and mother and histories of the White House. In 1956, she married Clifton Daniel, who was then assistant to the foreign news editor for The New York Times and later its managing editor. They had four sons and five grandchildren.

But, for our purposes, what is of special interest is she also authored popular mysteries, or did she?

Mystery novelist Margaret Truman

Her murder mysteries were known as “The Capital Crimes” series, in which her novels were set in and around Washington, D.C. While they were published under her name, they were ghostwritten either by William Harrington (according to Harrington) or by Donald Bain, who denied it. More on this mystery in a minute.

In her lifetime, Margaret Truman authored twenty-four mysteries in “The Capital Crime” series from 1980-2008.

Truman said she loved reading mystery novels and had lost interest in writing a nonfiction piece about White House children. “I was with my agent one day, and I told him I had an idea for a mystery: ‘Murder in the White House.’ I don’t know where those words came from.” Her agent encouraged her to write the book.

That first novel, Murder in the White House (Arbor House, 1980) was about a corrupt secretary of state who is found dead in the Lincoln bedroom. The novel made the best-seller lists, including The New York Times, became a Book-of-the Month Cub alternate selection, and was purchased for $215,000 by Fawcett for paperback rights. Film rights were sold to Dick Clark Cinema Productions. Fifty-four editions of this novel were published between 1980-2015 and in five languages.

Despite the novel’s success and popularity with readers, critics were mixed about her writing style calling her “stodgy, melodramatic, with arbitrary resolutions.” Others said her stories had reasonably interesting characters with complicated fast-moving plots and gave her credit for being a “stickler for authenticity.”

Robert Gottlieb, former editor at The New Yorker, writing in The Observer (Aug. 6, 2012), said, “Margaret Truman, gone from the White House for almost 50 years, writes not as an insider but as an observer; her impersonal novels take us all over Washington – murder strikes at the Smithsonian, the C.I.A., the Supreme Court, in Georgetown (I would think so); on the Potomac, Embassy Row, Capitol Hill; at the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Watergate, and just across the street at the Kennedy Center; even at the National Cathedral. Tourists beware: Apparently you’re not safe anywhere at all in the nation’s capital.”

As far as whodunits go, there is another mystery afoot about who wrote Margaret Truman’s novels. Supposedly, she wrote the first one but after that is where it gets sketchy.

Ghostwriter Donald Bain

Two-time Edgar award winning author Jon L. Breen wrote an article for The Weekly Standard called “The Ghost of Miss Truman” (Nov. 18, 2002), in which he claims that Donald Bain, author of more than 140 books, is the most likely to have ghosted Truman’s novels. However, Bain publicly denied this, and Truman never offered a hint she relied on a ghostwriter, collaborator, or literary mentor.

In his 1995 non-fiction book on crime fiction, Allen J. Hubin claims outright that Bain wrote Margaret Truman’s mystery books, a claim he says is based on “reliable sources in the publishing industry.” (Crime Fiction III: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1749-1995, Locus Press).

After Truman died in 2008, Bain admitted that in the early 1980s, he began secretly collaborating with Truman. Six novels were published posthumously by Margaret Truman all written by Bain.

Bain spent five decades as a ghostwriter and published novels, biographies, westerns, and historical romances either under his own name or pseudonyms. His best seller was the 1967 satire, Coffee, Tea or Me (Bartholomew House) about two fictious and lusty airline stewardesses. The novel is bylined by fictious authors Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones. He wrote the novel while working in public relations for American Airlines. The book spawned three sequels. Bain said, “…the four books sold more than five million copies worldwide and became my annuity for almost 17 years.”

Murder She (or He) Wrote

However, Bain is most well known as the author of the Murder She Wrote mysteries, which he spun off from the crime drama TV series starring Angela Lansbury as the fictional mystery writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher. He began writing the 46-book series in 1989. His wife, Renee Paley-Bain, received co-author credit for three of the books; and his daughter, Laurie Bain Wilson, collaborated on three of the novels.

Bain said it took him fifty years to see his own novel published but it wasn’t due to a lack of ideas or writer’s block. “…I didn’t want Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) to consider me a blockhead.” He was referencing English writer Johnson who once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” (Publishers Weekly, 2014).

Samuel Johnson is most noted for writing A Dictionary of the English Language(1755).

Ghostwriter William G. Harrington

Then, there is author William G. Harrington (1931-2000) who claims to have ghostwritten Truman’s novels.

While his writing career lasted thirty-seven years, he published twenty books under his name, including a series of six novels in the 1990s which he adapted from the long-running television series, “Columbo,” about the famous rumpled L.A. homicide detective starring Peter Falk.

Harrington also ghost wrote, Murder at the President’s Door (2001) for Elliott Roosevelt (1919-1990), son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. That novel was the 20th and last in the “Eleanor Roosevelt” series of mysteries, in which Elliott’s mother is the amateur detective.

The “Eleanor Roosevelt” mystery series ran from 1984 through 2001. But only the first eight novels were published in Elliott’s lifetime. It’s believed that Harrington wrote the other sixteen, but he’s only credited as the author of the final book. In one of Roosevelt’s earlier novels, he thanks Harrington saying, “my mentor in the craft of mystery writing has given me invaluable assistance with the First Lady mysteries.”

Harrington is best known for his 1982 thriller The English Lady (Putnam), about an English heroine and confidante to Winston Churchill and Hitler, who Churchill sends to Germany on a mission to assassinate the Fuhrer.

Prior to his writing career, Harrington was a successful practicing attorney in Columbus, Ohio and one of the principal developers of Lexis-Nexis, the worldwide computer system used in retrieving legal and general information, and the database lawyers rely upon every day.

Despite his many achievements, Harrington lived a troubled life. In October 2000, he walked outside his Greenwich, Connecticut home and committed suicide with a German pistol. He was 68. In the obituary letter he wrote himself, he took credit for writing books under the names of Elliott Roosevelt, Margaret Truman, and Harold Robbins (1916-1997).

Robbins, by the way, wrote 25 best-sellers, selling more than 750 million copies in 32 languages. His best-known is the 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers (Simon & Schuster).

But Harrington’s longtime agent, who was also a literary agent for Truman, said Harrington had overstated his literary contributions and would simply scout information on these books. “In all these cases,” the agent said, “none of the people needed a writer.”

While Harrington is not all that well-known as an author and there’s sparse information available about him, one source in particular is worth reading. This no-holds-barred, sad, yet empathetic essay by Harrington’s nephew, Stona Fitch, also a novelist, gives us a well-defined picture of the attorney, pilot, author, hard-drinking and hard-living man. Fitch says Harrington found writing to be a decathlon of disappointment. He called his Uncle Bill “a good father and a perverse uncle. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He lived high and he died low.”

Fitch says, “I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers—of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand…He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn…as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.”

Ghostwriter Jon Land

Fast forward to modern day and we learn that both the Truman series and the “Murder She Wrote” series are alive and well.

Award-winning thriller author Jon Land, who has penned more than fifty books, has taken over writing Truman’s “Capital Crimes” series. The latest, Murder on the Metro, debuted this year. (Forge Books, 2021).

Land has also written six books in the “Murder She Wrote” series, bylined as Jessica Fletcher, and co-authored by Jon Land. The latest, A Time for Murder (Berkeley) debuted in 2019. Land took over the series following Donald Bain’s death.

Breen, in his Weekly Standard article posits that ghostwriting is a time-honored profession and “Writing is such a hard way to make a living, it’s tough to blame the ghostwriter for going where the money is.”

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s Notes:

  • Besides Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, another president’s child has authored mystery novels with a ghostwriter. Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford (1913-2006), has a two-book “First Daughter Mystery Series.” Her ghostwriter is MWA member Laura Hayden, who is openly listed as the co-author. Incidentally, Hayden lived in Colorado Springs for a while and served as president of Pikes Peak Writers from 2002-2006, and 2013 before moving to Alabama.
  • The “Murder She Wrote” TV series ran for twelve seasons from 1984-1996 (CBS). The title is derived from Murder, She Said, the 1961 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s (1890-1976) Miss Marple novel 50 from Paddington (Collins Crime Club, 1957). In British style, the time is written as “4.50” and denotes the time the train is scheduled to leave the station. In the U.S., the novel was first serialized in 36 installments in The Chicago Tribune (Oct. 27-Dec. 7, 1957) as Eyewitness to Death. U.S. Editors at Publisher Dodd, Mead didn’t think London rail stations were well known and therefore changed the novel’s title to What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!