The Perfect Candidate

  • By Peter Stone
  • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mary Bird
  • December 10, 2018

This debut YA mystery has all the right elements: a desirable DC setting, a lighthearted romance, and intrigue.

The Perfect Candidate

Cameron Carter arrives in Washington, DC, after high school graduation to work as a summer intern for his local congressman. He settles into the daily routine of making friends with fellow interns and learning the ropes from office staff until things take a mysterious turn: The staffer he knows best, Ariel Lancaster, is killed in an alleged drunk-driving accident, and Cameron is approached by “Memo,” a purported FBI agent, and asked to work undercover for the bureau to find out what really happened to Ariel.

At the age of 18, most of us would have loved a summer away doing something fun and having time to soak in the sights. Throughout The Perfect Candidate, author Peter Stone captures this attitude via descriptions of Cameron’s travels around the DC area, including to such obscure statues as the one of George Mason. The Lincoln Memorial is compared to a “giant, gleaming Styrofoam cooler of a monument.”

Cameron makes good use of the Metro system, describing the stations along his commute between Capitol South and George Washington University and reminding the reader of the “walk left, stand right” rule. Stone’s descriptions give the reader a vivid and familiar sense of place. The authentic local atmosphere is sealed with his apt depiction of the weather in July:

“Washington, DC, did heat with great pride and creativity. Every summer day, the city found a new combination of temperature, humidity, and furnace-like breezes to make people question whether they would actually die before walking another street block.”

Cameron relates frequent memories of his mother’s time working in the nation’s capital as a young woman before she was killed by a drunk driver when Cameron was 4 years old. He sees himself as following in her footsteps but is insecure about his modest background in rural California and plan to attend community college rather than an Ivy League school.

This background, however, is the basis for his selection for the undercover assignment. As Memo explains, “Cameron, no offense, but you are the diversity pick for a summer internship… no one is going to think you’re capable of researching or even interested in [solving a crime].”

After Cameron is drafted into the FBI — a feat the author credibly carries off — he quickly learns when to keep his mouth shut, when to listen in, and how to find clues others have missed. Myriad characters are set up as the likely culprits in Ariel’s death: the congressman, his chief of staff, an intoxicated driver. Cameron receives anonymous clues about suspicious deaths from years earlier and works to link them with the current one.

Meanwhile, he strikes up a friendship with the daughter of the Mexican ambassador and brings her into his confidence as she works to unravel the mystery alongside him. This proves a crucial relationship as the story comes to a head and he hides out in the Mexican embassy.

As Cameron uncovers clues and unearths mysteries from years ago, the plot moves along at a steady pace to keep the reader wanting more. He gains confidence and bravado as he learns more of the unsavory background of the congressman and his associates, and he manages to dig up evidence where others never did.

Finally, the summer comes to an end, the murderers are found, and Cameron returns to California. One final twist at the end comes across as unrealistic, but does set up the possibility of a sequel in which Cameron can take on another “assignment.” Stay tuned for Peter Stone’s next book.

Mary Bird is a voracious reader with a particular love of mysteries and thrillers. However, she does indulge in anything written by Georgette Heyer, her favorite romance novelist.

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