Pity the poor political novelist. After all the real-world skullduggery of recent decades — Nixon’s Watergate, Clinton’s intern — how can fiction possibly compete with reality?
Washington lawyer Allan Topol can’t beat those odds, but in “The Washington Lawyer” he’s given us a lively insider’s portrait of political mischief featuring a senator who is a traitor and perhaps a murderer, a nominee for chief justice of the United States who is desperately trying to cover up his own misdeeds and a gang of Chinese spies eager to bribe or, if necessary, kill our politicians to obtain the Pentagon’s innermost secrets.
Political fiction wasn’t always this dark. Allen Drury, whose “Advise and Consent” (1959) remains one of the most admired novels of Washington politics, respected the Senate (which he had covered as a reporter) and thought our government was swell, at least if those pesky “better red than dead” liberals who populate his books could be beaten back. But after Vietnam and Watergate, many novelists grew cynical — or realistic, some would say.
James Grady’s “Six Days of the Condor” (1974) featured rogue CIA agents who imported drugs and killed people who threatened them; Edward Stewart’s “They’ve Shot the President’s Daughter!” (1973) imagined a Nixon-like president who had his daughter attacked to shore up his political support; my own “The President’s Mistress” (1976) offered a presidential affair and coverup and moved certain journalistic elders to declare presidential infidelity unthinkable and the author of such a work clearly depraved; Michael Halberstam’s more genial “The Wanting of Levine” (1978) proposed an as-yet-untested way out of the political wilderness: the first Jewish president.
Topol, who has written 10 other thrillers, stands with the pessimists in this outing. His story begins with 55-year-old Sen. Wesley Jasper relaxing on a beach in Anguilla with his gorgeous 34-year-old staff member and mistress. They drink wine, she puffs on a joint, they rejoice over their energetic sex life, and finally she demands his promise to divorce his wife and marry her. He reluctantly vows to do so after his reelection the next year. She sensibly doesn’t believe him and warns that she secretly recorded a compromising conversation he had with a Chinese official and that unless he marries her, she’ll ruin him. Although furious, the senator repeats his promise to make an honest woman of her, whereupon she goes for a moonlight swim.
The scene shifts to an elegant Washington dinner party in a mansion on Foxhall Road. Host Andrew Martin is a Washington lawyer who is a front-runner to replace the retiring chief justice. His equally distinguished guests include the (female) secretary of state and the speaker of the House. The dinner recalls all those scenes in Drury’s novels where everyone in sight is a towering mover and shaker.
Trouble strikes. Martin takes a call, hoping it is the White House informing him of his nomination. Instead it’s his old friend Sen. Jasper, calling from Anguilla to explain in near-hysterics that his girlfriend has drowned; he says he tried to save her and has her body on the beach. We learn that Martin owns the beach house the senator has borrowed for his love nest. The senator begs for help, lest he be ruined by scandal, and rejects the lawyer’s advice to call the police and report an accidental drowning. Finally, impaired by several glasses of wine, Martin agrees to call an influential friend on the island who can fix things. As a result, Vanessa’s body is moved elsewhere, and the police buy into a coverup.
Enter the dead woman’s more virtuous twin, brainy archaeologist Allison Boyd, who smells a rat and hastens to Washington to seek the truth. Soon she, Sen. Jasper and some bloodthirsty Chinese spies are all searching for the recording that would prove the dead woman’s charge that the senator had accepted millions of dollars from the Chinese government in exchange for U.S. military secrets. (He claims to need the money for his reelection campaign, but why does he turn to the Chinese? Why not to the Koch brothers, generous fellows who ask nothing at all in return for their largesse?)
“The Washington Lawyer” has its faults — occasional clunky dialogue and improbable events — but it moves along nicely. Topol deftly portrays office politics at a major law firm, as partners compete with one another and associates vie for the partners’ favor as they dream of making partner themselves. The novel flirts but never fully engages with an important issue: the way people atop the political heap can be corrupted by their hunger for ever more money and power. Ideally, the novel would focus not on Allison but on Martin, the would-be chief justice, who unwisely tries to help a friend and soon sinks deeper and deeper into a moral quagmire. His struggle deserves more serious treatment, but Topol’s version is entertaining and at times has the ring of truth.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
THE WASHINGTON LAWYER
By Allan Topol
SelectBooks. 276 pp. Paperback, $16.95