Published: 1989 (this edition 2015)
Time for my first review after an exam related hiatus: House of Cards by Michael Dobbs. I’m sure many of you, like myself, are familiar with the Netflix series of the same name, but it’s important to remember that this is the book that started it all. Like its adaptation, the novel charts the rise of a power-hungry politician, and the lengths he will go to in order to achieve his aims, although in this case the action takes place in Britain. It’s an undeniably thrilling read, leaving us reeling as we wonder just what Chief Whip Francis Urquhart will do next, and whether his crimes can really go unpunished.
Another thing that can’t be denied is just how captivating a character Dobbs has created in Urquhart. Readers are more than aware of his dark side, yet we remain enthralled by his misdeeds as we wonder just what he’ll do next. It could even be argued that there is a part of us that wants Urquhart to succeed, just so he can pull off another, preferably even more outrageous, stunt. Needless to say, as anyone who has seen the TV series will guess, this part of us is pleased by the novel’s end. Dobbs has succeeded in creating a character who fulfils every dark fantasy we might have harboured over politicians who aren’t as nice as they seem, or will do anything to achieve power. If you’ve ever wondered whether a politician could do something and get away with it in order to achieve their aims, then Urquhart probably does whatever scenario you’re picturing over the course of this novel. And yet, I would argue it is virtually impossible to hate him, due to the sheer, almost sick, pleasure we feel when anticipating his next move, and the shock we so often feel when his unpredictable side fools us yet again, allowing him to perpetrate acts we couldn’t even imagine. Even more darkly humorous is the fact Dobbs ensures the audience understands, through his sharp, ironic comments, that Urquhart feels no remorse for anything he has done, so long as said act brought him success. This first novel in the House of Cards trilogy is similar to the television adaptation in the way Francis is portrayed in a light that makes him seem inhumane to the point of being almost sociopathic.
Where this novel differs from the TV series is its depiction of Urquhart’s wife Mortima (other wise known as Claire Underwood on the show). Viewers have grown used to seeing her American counterpart as a strong, calculating woman, who is always aware of, and supporting, her husband’s many schemes. In many ways, the couple’s intellects and the power they yield are equal. Yet in this case, Mortima seems to have been whittled down to little more than a stereotypical ‘politician’s wife’ character, with no obvious career except supporting her husband. Her narrow role consists of little more than boosting her husband’s confidence, encouraging him to embark on an affair with a much younger journalist so he is able to plant stories in the press, and being wheeled out whenever he wishes to play the charming ‘family man’ for the media. It is easy to imagine that Dobbs intended her to satirise many a political wife, mocking the fact one often feels they have found themselves being used to score political capital by their husbands in an otherwise loveless, mundane marriage. Personally, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of development of Mortima’s character, as I had been looking forward to see how the scheming exchanges she shared with her husband would play out in print, and the lengths she would go to to aid his rise to power. Instead, readers are presented with a shallow character, but one who seems to have been frustratingly underdeveloped and ignored by Dobbs, who could easily have created the ‘power couple’ dynamic that is so compelling in the adaptation. It is easy to see why producers of the show chose to increase her role from one of a long-suffering wife to one of a power-hungry political accomplice to her husband.
The strong female character of the novel is in fact Mattie Storin, the young reporter with whom Urquhart embarks on an affair, hoping to manipulate the content of the press as he seeks first to smear the incumbent Prime Minister, and secondly to win the subsequent leadership contest. She proves herself relentless in both her determination to forge a relationship with Urquhart, allowing her to access confidential Party information, and later her determination to prove that someone has attempted to sabotage the outgoing Prime Minister, proving her intelligence by being the only one who comes to a correct conclusion (and pays the price in spectacular fashion). One could be forgiven for suggesting that part of the reason Dobbs made Mortima seem so bland could be to show why Urquhart finds himself so infatuated with Storin, although I would still argue that, had Mortima been a stronger character, it would be intriguing to see them vie for his affection.
As for Dobbs’s actual style of writing, I must confess to having mixed feelings. On the one hand, I loved the feeling of dramatic irony he was able to evoke by allowing his audience an insight into Urquhart’s thoughts, making us feel like a trusted accomplice as we knew his next move. Plus, it is equally entertaining to receive Urquhart’s real thoughts on his ‘esteemed’ political colleagues, who he views as little more than pawns in his many schemes. Yet, I must confess to feeling frustrated by the book at times. The description is helpful when informing us of how Urquhart thinks, yet it can also be incredibly, and unnecessarily, dense, giving the narrative an over-dramatic, pretentious air. A little less description, and a few more blunt indications of Francis’s humorous opinions on his colleagues, would go far in House of Cards.
As for the plot, this is very much a novel of two stages, the first focussing on Urquhart’s destruction of the incumbent Prime Minister. Fans of the TV series will remember that Frank Underwood (the American equivalent of Urquhart) brought down the President by implicating him in a series of extremely complex, and hard to follow, financial scandals. In this case, the undoing is much simpler, as Urquhart uses the Prime Minister’s weak point, his alcoholic brother, to connect him to a series of scandals. I personally preferred this storyline, as I felt it was far easier to follow, and to anticipate the next move. The second stage of the book begins once, shock horror, Urquhart’s repeated sabotage has forced the Prime Minister to announce his resignation, sparking a leadership contest. After being ‘persuaded’ to run by his admirers, Urquhart proceeds to go to extreme lengths to ensure his victory. The most amusing part of this undoubtedly stems from watching him using information he obtained whilst serving as Chief Whip to ruin his oblivious opponents, turning them into little more than bewildered pawns in his plan as they wonder who has leaked their secrets, although it does have one negative… Is it really believable that a senior politician could get away with committing murder on the very day of his election? That’s one for the readers to decide, yet it should be considered that, for me, House of Cards is a book that stays on the ‘just about believable’ side of far-fetched. It may not seem probable that a politician could be so corrupt, but if said politician was as clever as Urquhart, it also doesn’t seem impossible. And that is what makes this one of the scariest books you’ll ever read!
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 (4.5/5)