The Republican field is supposedly winnowing down after the Iowa caucuses, but it remains far too large heading into Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate and Tuesday’s primary. If we exclude Jim Gilmore, who’s stayed steady in the polls at zero percent, then there are still eight GOP candidates plying their wares in New Hamp shire, and possibly seven (everyone but Carly Fiorina and Gilmore) on stage during the debate. It’s a large enough number to encompass the cast of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, where a large assortment of characters meet in a fixed space (an island, a train, a mansion) and one gets killed while the rest are suspects.
The parallel with a locked-door mystery isn’t just a matter of the large number of characters in play. There is enough animosity among the Republican candidates to fuel an entire shelf-full of novels about foul play.
Consider what would happen if—purely hypothetically—Ted Cruz were found poisoned in the green room before Saturday’s debate. Where would a Hercule Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes even begin to start collecting evidence, given the well-documented fact that Cruz is one of the most hated men in American politics?
Even if such a detective tried to create a short list just focused on rival presidential candidates, it would be hard to figure out who had the most ill will toward the Texas senator. Donald Trump, himself a man with few friends in politics, expressed the matter accurately when he noted that Cruz is “a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.” This is one of the few things that George W. Bush and Trump agree on. “I just don’t like the guy,” Bush said about Cruz.
A murder mystery with Cruz as the victim would suffer only from an over-abundance of motives; even narrowing down the list of suspects would take hundreds of pages. But what’s true of Cruz also applies to many of the other leading Republican candidates. There’s no dearth of reasons why his competitors wouldn’t want to knock off Trump—one simply has to run down the list of nasty insults he’s applied to each of them. Perhaps the only candidate who wouldn’t be a likely murder victim is Ben Carson, whose quickly deflating sideshow candidacy belongs in a story about grifters, not killers.
Rubio, however, would make both a perfect victim and a perfect killer. As the young, charismatic figure who is pushing aside his elders to get to the crown, he has given his rivals plenty of reasons to hate him, and also demonstrated the naked ambition needed to be a villain. Speaking on Morning Joe today, Chris Christie complained that “Marco Rubio hasn’t accomplished one thing in his entire career.” Not one thing but earning the ire of Chris Christie.
The murder mystery offers a fine model for thinking about the wellspring of anger that exists in the Republican field. Raymond Chandler famously criticized the locked-room mystery as being excessively genteel, featuring “puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.” In his own hard-boiled noir novels, Chandler wanted to portray crime that took place on the gritty and real streets, not in secluded English country homes.
Yet Chandler misjudged the appeal of the locked-room mystery. The contrast between the upper-crust characters and their homicidal intent wasn’t a bit of fantasy so much as a social critique. The message of these novels is that even upper-crust, well-to-do people who have proper manners harbor deeply anti-social feelings inside their heart.
Throughout the Republican primaries, we’ve seen hints that even a coddled preppie like Jeb Bush is capable of deviousness; consider the covert way he’s been trying to knee-cap his former protégé Rubio, using Chris Christie as a front-man who does the dirty work while Bush stays quietly in the background.
It’s not too difficult to recast the Republican contest as a murder mystery: Behind all the political rhetoric we will hear on Saturday night, there is a potentially murderous mix of resentment and anger. The only thing missing, so far, is a corpse.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed George W. Bush’s words, “I just don’t like the guy,” to Jeb Bush.