Spacey isn’t playing the first political villain named Francis, however. Instead he’s playing the American incarnation of a character who first appeared 25 years ago in an English novel. This week, Sourcebooks is re-releasing House of Cards as an e-book. (The print edition arrives March 11.) The author, Michael Dobbs, has revised his bestselling novel (which was turned into a BBC miniseries starring Ian Richardson). In a new afterword, Dobbs explains that he reworked the novel because he wanted to make “the narrative a little tighter, the characters more colourful and the dialogue crisper.”
The novel – both its 1989 and 2014 incarnations – is a delicious wallow in British bad behavior, public and private. At the center of Dobbs’s story stands the aristocratic Francis Urquhart. He’s all snob, no soul, and smoldering with banked ambition. (Imagine Richard Nixon with an Oxford education and no social insecurities.) A Member of Parliament (MP), Urquhart is also the Chief Whip – sort of head boy/enforcer to the Conservative Party. (House of Cards the novel manages to explain the British parliamentary system – in which party MPs, not the voters, elect the Prime Minister – without once slowing its pace.) Dobbs was a top aide to Margaret Thatcher; his insider’s expertise is on full display in the novel.
Each chapter opens with cynical bons mots such as these: “All members of a Cabinet are referred to as Right Honourable Gentleman. There are only three things wrong with such a title.” House of Cards details how Urquhart deposes the current Prime Minister, destroys his rivals, manipulates the media, blackmails the weak, and ends up at No. 10 Downing Street himself.
Possessing a savage honesty, a satanic charm, and an acidic wit, Urquhart is an alluring villain. His evil deeds delight the appalled reader. The other characters include an ambitious woman reporter; a cocaine-addicted public relations executive; Urquhart’s Wagner-loving wife; and a slew of British politicians and press barons every bit as narcissistic, sleazy and hungry for power as their American cousins.
You’ll find their accents plummier, of course, and their sense of class distinctions sharper. But no translation skills are required to make Urquhart’s novel a yummy treat for any Anglophile – or any fan of the new House of Cards.