THE PROBLEM WITH political fiction from an inside point of view is that authors, in their quest for intrigue and excitement, usually give us Washington at its worst -- as if it had no best,or even a medicore. Characters are motivated by power, ambition, survival, greed and lust -- staples of human conflict since long before Pierre L'Enfant arrived on the banks of the Potomac. And the action inevitably harks back to Darwinian theory.
Most people know the picture isn't that bleak, that Washington has its share of white as well as black hats, plus a lot of people who are simply trying to make an honest living in a onee-company town. But knowing that doesn't have to prevent us from enjoying the misadventurees of the worst among us -- in fiction, if not reality.
Two of these books aren't really Washington novels. One is a thriller, the other a sort of thriller-roman a clef , with Washington as a backdrop. the third, a Political Affair , comes closest to being a Washington novel, even though it's set in California. Mickey Ziffren, the wife of a Democratic National Committeeman, has been involved in politics since the days of Helen Gahagan Douglas, and she knows her subject.
Since a Political Affair is the story of a hardfought senate campaign, there's a hint of those days in the book: Norah Ashley encounters nasty smear tactics when she runs against California senator Richard Hardwick, who is motivated by power, ambition, etc. But the story is not a rehash of the past, and to belabor the point would be to underrate Ziffren's considerable skill as a writer of fiction.
As the campaign begins, Hardwick is thought to be in no trouble politically. (His private life is another matter entirely.) He's also considered a shoo-in for his party's presidential nomination two years down the road and an odds-on favorite to unseat the incumbent president.
But the president isn't planning to let that happen. He summons Norah, a retired movie star, to challenge Hardwick now, for the senate seat. And if he has no hope that Norah can win the election, he does think she can take the air out of Hardwick's inflated position as a presidential contender. The president doesn't mention his other reason for seeking Hardwick's political demise, a dark secret from his own past, Nor does Norah tell him (or her husband) her secret: that years ago she and Hardwick were lovers. (
Ziffren mixes elements that make readers turn pages -- Hollywood glamor, political corruption, murder, illicit sex -- with a good dose of practical idealism, for a winning combination. Her story is well put together and develops logically to a suspenseful conclusion. The characters are convincing -- especially Norah, who is a rare breed among fictional politicians (though not, I think, in reality). She's an honest candidate, championing underdog causes as a matter of personal conviction. But she's no naive do-gooder. Norah is wise, witty and independent, and also tough. She's up to the fight, as she proves in the end.
The 65th Tape is yet another reel from the Nixon collection, but thriller fans shouldn't let that put them off. Frank Ross (a pseudonym) has woven a gripping conspiracy here that has nothing to do with Watergate, beyond the fact that Nixon (codename: Waterboy) is a character in the book.
With the death of John Roper Anson, a distinguished American diplomat, a letter arrives at the home of Lucas Garfield, who heads a secret watchdog committee over the CIA and was Anderson's long-time friend. It's a deathbed confession in which Anson reveals his part, however unwitting, in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
He further reveals that the organization behind the assassinations, the Matrix, is still active and about to achieve its ultimate goal, the White House. A respected senator, the clear front-runner in the upcoming presidential election, is one of the conspirators. And proof, of course, exists on the tape.
Garfield has to stop the senator and destroy the Matrix, no easy task since its members are all powerful leaders of one sort or another, including the CIA director. But are Garfield's tactics an improvement on those of the group he seeks to destroy? Do ends justify means? Questions of situational ethics, a mainstay of the suspense genre, are raised once again by Ross.
Meantime, The 65th Tape offers a well-plotted adventure, full of murder and mayhem and even a bit of romance. Though not quite as well done as the author's last thriller, The Sleeping Dogs , it is still highly entertaining.
Watergate rises again in John Lutz's Lazarus Man, a roman a clef thriller that suggests new dirty tricks afoot for the 1980 campaign.
Wilson Capp, mastermind of the break-in at Gateway Trust and the only Gateway conspirator who never talked, is fresh out of jail and bent on revenge against those former colleagues who offended his sense of ethics by talking to save their own necks. The first to go is the first who squealed -- the one-time White House counsel, he of the "forever boyish" face (though "faintly rodent-like features"), who meets his end while taking his morning shower.
Capp and a pair of Cuban expatriates pick off the rest one at a time -- the former domestic affairs advisor, the former chief of staff, the former attorney general.
And the former president?
Capp's ultimate target, ex-President Andrew H. Berwin, is plotting to raise himself from the political dead in 1980. But Capp's vendetta and Berwin's rebirth both cannot be achieved, and therein lies the conflict of Lutz's story. There is one nice surprise near the end. Otherwise, Lazarus Man never really gets up off the ground. Lutz began with an intriguing idea but failed to develop its dramatic potential. His characters are flat, like newspaper pictures under last year's headlines. Berwin's plan for for his own return to power is not laid out clearly enough to pose a serious threat. And Capp simply lacks menace; he's a paperdoll killer. It's hard to care who survives in the end.