Book Review: 'Big If,' By Mark Costello | This week, following a series of security lapses, the Secret Service director resigned. For a look at the agency beyond the scandal, author Ben Dolnick recommends the novel Big If by Mark Costello.


Behind The Sunglasses: The Lives Of Secret Service Agents

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Some members of Congress took a break from their recess this week to ask what is happening with the Secret Service? The agency is being scrutinized for the lapses which allowed a man to get into the White House with a knife. Then we learned that a felon with a gun had shared an elevator with the president. On Wednesday, the director of the Secret Service resigned. For insight into the agency beyond the scandal, we're turning to literature. Here's Ben Dolnick with this week's must-read.

BEN DOLNICK: Secret Service agents are like referees; you don't think about them unless something has gone wrong. And this week, something did, which makes it an ideal time to read Mark Costello's novel, "Big If." As far as I know, it's the only great novel ever written about the Secret Service. Part thriller, part black comedy, it won't make the headlines any less scary or infuriating, but it should make them a little more understandable. The book follows the vice president as he campaigns in New Hampshire, but we're not focused on him. We never even learn his name. Instead, we follow the agents assigned to protect him. Together, they form what they call the Dome - a moving bubble of frantically maintained safety. We see the logistical nightmare that is a suburban jog, the terror of a rally in a city center, the dread of setting foot inside a stadium. We meet VI, who can't stop scanning for threats even when she's safe in her brother's house. And Gretchen, whose young son is bewildered and terrified by the realization that his mother would actually die for a stranger. And Tashmo, who was guarding Ronald Reagan and whose thoughts drifted to his mistress just at the moment when Hinckley took his shot. This book probably won't inspire a rush of Secret Service applications, but it will give you a dose of empathy for the men and women who have chosen this strange and vital profession. We don't like to be reminded that these agents are flawed, distractible and prone to errors. And we certainly don't like to think that even the best protected of us remain vulnerable. As Costello writes, there were only 16 humans in the world under the protection of the Secret Service. Imagine that - an entire agency organized around 16 beating hearts. This is the stuff that sleepless nights - and, it turns out, great novels - are made of.

BLOCK: We were hearing about the novel "Big If" by Mark Costello. It was recommended by Ben Dolnick. His latest novel is "At The Bottom Of Everything."

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