THE BIG SECRET

By Pete Earley

Forge. 302 pp. $24.95

First-time novelist Pete Earley is a former Washington Post reporter who has written seven books of nonfiction, including "The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison"; "Circumstantial Evidence," which won the Robert F. Kennedy Award; and "Family of Spies," which became a CBS miniseries. "The Big Secret," his first attempt at fiction, would be a routine political thriller except that, in presenting one character, Earley launches a rather violent attack on one of America's best-known journalists, The Post's Bob Woodward.

Earley's narrator is Nick LeRue, chief investigator for the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the opening scene, at the behest of his boss, a Democrat, he has gathered information that is embarrassing to a Mississippi Republican senator named Nehemiah Peterman. But LeRue's mind is less on politics than on his unhappy love life. His live-in girlfriend of five years, Heather Cole, star reporter for the Washington Tribune, has left him to move into the Georgetown home of America's most celebrated investigative reporter, the Tribune's Andrew Middleton. In parting, Heather made it clear that she intends to be a famous and powerful reporter, that LeRue is a nobody and she's leaving him for a somebody.

The lovesick LeRue is thus stunned when a woman he takes to be Heather approaches him one day but proves to be her twin sister, Melanie, who insists that Heather is in Mississippi, where someone is trying to kill her. He is even more bewildered to learn how Melanie gets her information from Heather: It seems that the identical twins can communicate in their dreams. Melanie says Heather has gone to Mississippi because reporter Middleton has given her information that may expose the truth about a 1955 lynching. LeRue is persuaded to accompany Melanie to Mississippi, where Heather does indeed turn up dead. The evidence indicates that she was killed by a racist who took part in the lynching. However, LeRue and Melanie refuse to accept this story and return to Washington to continue their search for the truth.

One of their suspects is Sen. Peterman, whose Mississippi home is near where Heather's body was found. Their other suspect is her boyfriend, who is described as "one of the most famous investigative reporters in the nation. In the early 1970s, his reporting led to the resignation of a U.S. president. Since then, Middleton has written a half dozen insider books about Washington." In case we don't get it, we are also told that Middleton has "a dimple in the center of his chin and a nasal tone to his voice." In short, this Middleton is a Bob Woodward clone in just about every detail except having a partner named Bernstein, which we are mercifully spared.

LeRue becomes convinced that this celebrated reporter deliberately sent Heather to her death in Mississippi. Middleton is endlessly denounced on a personal and professional level. One character calls him a "ruthless lying lout." We are told that his famous source in the presidential scandal, "the Wizard," did not exist and that Middleton has been, ever since his Army duty, a CIA agent in deep cover. Eventually, he meets the fate that such a villain deserves. But long before that, the long shadow of Bob Woodward has overwhelmed this lightweight novel. What is Earley up to? Is there a grudge involved here? Or did he simply think the Woodward connection might sell books?

One hint of Earley's motivations comes when he introduces a character much like himself, a former Tribune reporter who has written a book about spies that became a television miniseries, and who claims that the duplicitous Middleton, out of jealousy, conspired to have him fired from the paper. This inspired me, after finishing "The Big Secret," to check Google, where I found an interview Earley gave recently to the New York Post's Page Six gossip column. In it, he angrily charged that Woodward forced his resignation from The Post in 1986 and declared: "I do deeply resent that Bob Woodward betrayed me and did it in the cruelest possible way." Well, that provides a clef to this roman a clef, but it doesn't make the novel any easier to take. If there is a dark side to Woodward that has escaped public notice for 30-odd years, by all means let Earley or some other reporter reveal it, but as a reporter, in a newspaper or magazine, not by changing Woodward's name and dishing up dirt under the guise of fiction. As a reader, I don't care what may have happened between the two men 18 years ago, but when I pick up a novel I hope to enter the realm of the imagination, and I don't like being constantly distracted by ancient newsroom gossip.

Woodward aside, Earley spends far too much time rehashing well-known Washington history, not just Watergate but sex scandals, the Janet Cooke case, the mysterious death of a former CIA director and, in a tour of Georgetown, the never-to-be-forgotten time "one of the wives of former Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke caused a sensation by leaping onto the hood of a fleeing Jaguar sports car being driven by her much younger male companion during a raucous night out." All this grows awfully tiresome. And I'm not even going to tell you about the time dead twin Heather takes over the body of live twin Melanie and has sex with LeRue from beyond the grave. There is a long and honorable tradition of reporters writing novels. It includes Ernest Hemingway and John O'Hara, and today's Thomas Harris and Michael Connelly. But not every journalist has the turn of mind needed to make the leap to fiction. On the evidence of "The Big Secret," I would say Earley's talents are more suited to the challenges of nonfiction.