Something happens when the hot wind of scandal hits Capitol Hill. It doesn't matter if the scandal involves money, sex, bribery, or kickbacks: the same drumbeat of retribution sounds for the breach of trust.

-- William S. Cohen and Gary Hart in their 1985 thriller "The Double Man"

The rumor surfaced in London late last week, flitted across the Atlantic into New York publishing circles and ended up on Capitol Hill. Yesterday it traveled across the country to Denver, where novelist and on-again presidential candidate Gary Hart abruptly reopened his national headquarters last week.

There was an "uncanny resemblance," the Guardian reported yesterday in London, between the 1985 spy novel Hart wrote with Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) and a 1978 book by New York author Thomas Gifford titled "The Glendower Legacy."

By noon, everybody involved in "The Double Man" -- including Hart, Cohen and their New York editor and agent -- was denying that its plot was lifted from the earlier novel. A reading of both novels shows that the similarities between them are superficial at best.

Hart, who campaigned in Cheyenne, Wyo., yesterday, reportedly discounted all talk of plagiarism. "I talked to Gary about it this morning," Sue Casey, Hart's de facto campaign manager, said yesterday in Denver. "He said it's ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. If anybody wants to bring a lawsuit for plagiarism, they'll find out that this is all baloney."

The issue is a sensitive one, especially because Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) dropped out of the presidential race after it was discovered that he had borrowed liberally from a British politician in his speeches. Hart may have his sins, said New York publishing agent Bill Adler, who marketed the book for Cohen and Hart, but plagiarism is not one of them.

Gifford, who is now working on a novel about the Catholic Church, seemed puzzled by the alleged plagiarism hoopla. "It has become such a big deal, and before I have even read the other book," he said.

Two television networks flew crews out to interview Gifford yesterday in Iowa, where he is spending the holidays with his family. And Cohen, first alerted to the possible connection late last week, was astonished when his press secretary called at midnight Sunday to warn him that a network news crew was planning to stake out his home the following morning.

"It took four years to write the damn thing," said Cohen, who added that he and Hart conceived the plot while waiting out a filibuster in the Senate Dining Room during the wee hours one night. "I'll show you all the drafts so you can see what agony goes into writing a book over four years.

"If there are any similarities, it would have to be a coincidence," he said.

Pick any two spy novels off a bookstore shelf, and some of the same elements are likely to be there. In the tradition of most espionage fiction, for example, the main female character in each of these stories is bright, seductive and independent, with striking eyes and secrets to keep. Each, as it happens, is also fond of her cat.

Both of the leading men are cerebral, tall, dark, generally handsome and caught up in a web of intrigue involving both the CIA and the KGB. The clearest similarity between the two stories is that each protagonist has the same last name -- Chandler.

"It's a good name, a memorable name, a name without any ethnic tone," said Adler. "It was perfect for the book."

Maria Guarnaschelli, Hart and Cohen's editor at William P. Morrow & Co. in New York, added that the name of the main character (a U.S. senator from Connecticut) was changed from Bret Thompson. "I thought, my God, that sounds like a soap opera name," she said.

Cohen said the character's name -- Thomas Bowen Chandler -- was a composite made up from the names of two 19th-century U.S. legislators: Sens. Thomas Mead Bowen of Colorado and John Chandler of Massachusetts and Maine.

"Basically it's a genre novel," said Guarnaschelli, who at first hung up on a reporter who attempted to question her about Hart. "There are tons of similarities between {mystery writers} Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers."

In the Cohen-Hart novel, the protagonist heads a terrorism task force that investigates links between drug smuggling out of Cuba and Miami, the killing of the secretary of state's family and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Chandler, working with a beautiful Senate aide named Elaine, delves into secrets that the directors of the CIA and FBI would rather see kept secret.

To tell more would be to spoil the surprise twist at the end. Both books, by the way, have them.

Gifford's story is set in Boston, where Harvard Prof. Colin Chandler is inadvertently drawn into a U.S.-Soviet dispute over the true nature of an ancient document that might prove George Washington to have been an English spy. Gifford's Chandler, working with a beautiful television reporter named Polly, ducks both the CIA and the KGB in an effort to expose the truth.

A crucial difference: Sen. Chandler gets the girl, then loses her. Prof. Chandler gets the girl and gets to keep her.

Gifford, who professed to be "absolutely intrigued" at Hart's reemergence on the political scene last week, said he has no plans to sue anybody. He didn't even bring up the subject, he said, noting that "I really can't accuse the guy of anything until I've read this book."

"I haven't read my book since I wrote it," he added.

Cohen, Guarnaschelli and Adler all said they suspect the sudden flood of interest in one reporter's plagiarism theory has everything to do with the controversial nature of Hart's presidential candidacy and virtually nothing to do with the merits of the case.

"What is offensive about it is how low someone will go to try to attack a candidate," said Cohen. "It is not only petty, but almost insidious."

Guarnaschelli said that when she first heard from Guardian reporter Stuart Wavell, she thought he was trying to draw similarities between the main female character in the novel and model Donna Rice, whose relationship with Hart contributed to his decision to withdraw from the presidential race last May. "We've come to expect the worst from reporters in regard to Gary Hart," she said.

There is one more crucial difference between the books. Gifford's was made into a movie.

Gifford now calls "Dirty Tricks," the 1980 Elliott Gould film based on his book, "certainly one of the worst movies I've ever seen."

Washington Post staff writer T.R. Reid contributed to this story.