Review: It's Deadly at the Top


By Robert Gillespie

At a Connecticut country-house party, top executives of a giant textile corporation crave the division president's job. Hormones of ambition being as prevalent as hors d'oeuvres, it's no surprise when the prez turns up dead in a 15-foot hole.

Killer of Presidents has one foot in the genre of the lighthearted country-house murder. Everybody in the company is suspect, especially Matt Harris, a young executive on the fast track. All evidence points to Harris when the replacement president also is bumped off.

Harris's general cheekiness makes the cops predictably grumpy and eager to haul him in. What's a fellow to do but engage in witty repartee with a local lovely, Peg DeWitt. Although the aptly named DeWitt doubts Harris's innocence, the two indulge in the saucy banter of courtship.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit meets The Thin Man.

On the less sprightly side, Cohen draws on his many years in the textile industry for the sociology of business: sales orders, performance bonuses, insider secrets, alpha males and alpha females jockeying for place in the division's pecking order, failed expectations of advancement.

Sardonic authorial asides on the way things are done in American business spice up the narrative (the term "president" has been killed off by the proliferating number of people in command and control positions). Ambition in action is always arresting.

Cohen cranks up the pace of the story to an all-out sprint with gleefully strung-along sentences (more commas and occasional white spaces to signal transitions would clear up some thickets) and staples of suspense such as a car chase and a climax in a pitch-black house, the power cut off by the evildoer. Catch the killer, you catch the girl.

Lippincott published Cohen's first novel, The Bright Young Man, in 1966. Killer of Presidents is his first suspense novel. Wouldn't it be something if an author were nominated for a "best" original paperback at the age of 91?