Lehrer's writing is smoothly suspenseful. . . . If you're seeking a punchy read, White Widow is just the ticket.
[P]rovides comic relief in a turbulent political season. . .[and] probes deftlyif not too deeplyinto. . . corruption of idealists and the triumph of hypocrisy. The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
PBS newsman and veteran novelist Lehrer (White Widow) neatly interweaves ruthlessness, hypocrisy and CIA intrigue in this disarming political thriller. Ex-CIA operative Charlie Henderson comes out of retirement to clear the name of his friend and fellow spy Josh Bennett, whose nomination for CIA chief has Republican Senator Marty Madigan frantically digging for dirt. It seems Madigan is following orders from Senator Lank Simmons of New Mexico, who is being blackmailed, in turn, by a Texas senator who has New Mexico's water supply under his thumb and happens to back a certain undesirable candidate for the Supreme Court. Lehrer gains satirical mileage by narrating the same events from the viewpoints of both Charlie and Marty. Although Marty comes off as a slick, aggressive opportunist in Charlie's version, he earns the reader's sympathy in his own account as a young, ambitious politician caught in a complicated power struggle between his self-interested superiors. As the opponents wrestle their way toward a gratifying resolution, Lehrer deftly exposes duplicity and pettiness on both sides through smart (if occasionally overblown) dialogue that spoofs their simultaneous lack of communication and merciless competition for powers great and small (such as the "purple dots" on license plates, which prevent car towing in Washington). Lehrer maintains admirable objectivity: no character is ultimately sympathetic or completely tarred and feathered by the end of this pointed portrait of Capitol Hill. (Oct.) FYI: In October, Doubleday will publish Breaking News, the third novel by Lehrer's longtime (and now former) collaborator on The News Hour, Robert MacNeil.
Taking off some time from newscasting, Lehrer crafts a political thriller about the confirmation of a CIA director with a protagonist who's sharp, witty, and over 65.
What ought to be the routine confirmation of a new CIA director spins predictably, and entertainingly, out of control in newscaster Lehrer's dark D.C. comedy. There's no reason that Joshua Bennett's confirmation shouldn't breeze through the Senate Intelligence Committee, thinks Josh's old friend Charlie Henderson. As the Agency's deputy director, he's eminently qualified; he was too young to get dirtied in Watergate, out of the country during Iran-Contra, and mercifully uninvolved with Aldrich Ames. It's true that there was the dicey episode of the Czech defector, but only Josh and Charlie know how that man got killed, or so Charlie thinks, until one Marty Madigan, eager-beaver Committee minority counsel, turns up at Charlie's B&B full of hints that he knows about the canceled Czech and airily demanding to know more in the name of the Constitution of the United States of America. Meeting with other Blue Ridge retirees (a former tech services agent has gotten a bunch of them settled in the area), Charlie soon decides that Josh is being put on the hot seat because despicable CIA director of operations Russell Bushong has passed all the dirt on him (yes, there's still more) to Marty's boss, Senate Minority Whip Lank Simmons. Josh is ready to fold, but the Blue Ridge retirees advise going on the offensive and promptly blow up Bushong's beloved Jaguar XJ6.
At livid Bushong's vowing revenge, Lehrer (White Widow) abruptly switches from Charlie's to Marty's point of view, revealing a comically sinister side to the witch-hunt against Josh, broadening the satire (much hearty laughter about Marty's inability to keep his mind on the diffident liberal counsel he's determined to make his bride) but focusing on an evergreen target: the eternal Washington culture of lying, which makes every citizen inside the Beltway prevaricate reflexively about every subject under the sun, even though precious few are ever fooled by one another's whoppers. The whole courtly farce is so gentlemanly and understated, right down to the final twist, that most readers will be inoculated before they even feel the sting.
Read an Excerpt
"Good evening, one and all," he said. "I may look like George Washington but I'm not. I am one of the two proprietors of this home and enterprise. The other, as you surely know by now, is the attractive woman who sits across from me. She is not George Washington either. Who we are is Mary Jane and Charlie. What we are are your host and hostess for this weekend. And in that capacity I hereby welcome you, one and all."
Charlie raised his glass of wine, a 1990 chardonnay from the nearby Piedmont Vineyard, and so did everyone else. "To a great weekend at Hillmont," he said. Everyone else, including Madigan, joined in the toast.
"And speaking of George Washington," Charlie continued, "he did actually have a meal in this very room. It was
on March 10, 1791. He stopped here to have dinner with an old friend before proceeding on down the road another two miles to spend the night at Harewood, his brother Samuel's home. We have a blown-up facsimile from Mr. Washington's diary entry for the evening that proves it happened. It's framed and on the wall of the library, where we'll be going after dinner. Charles Town, the town two miles back the other way, is named for another George brother. So we are in the middle of Washington country and we are all better off for it."
"Hear, hear," said the husband of one of two older women.
"Eat and drink well tonight, as George did before you," Charlie said before sitting down. "And again, welcome to Hillmont."
There was a quiet round of applause and waiters swept in the fish course--pan roast of Rappahannock oysters with sweet potatoes allumettes.
The Agency? Who is this guy?
Is he Agency? Charlie, in his thirty-sevenyears of doing all kinds of jobs, had found answering that question to be among the most difficult. Two agents in deep cover cross paths by accident; a dangerous situation arises. How do they establish quickly and believably that they are not only on the same side, they are drawing paychecks from the same employer? There were many frightening stories about missed signals and close calls. Charlie even had a couple of his own to contribute.
Charlie turned immediately to the woman on his left, a Pittsburgh attorney in her forties, and answered her questions about this particular part of West Virginia and its role in the Civil War, as well as in the Revolutionary War and the Colonial period.
If he is Agency what is he doing here?
Charlie kept up the history conversation through the end of the oysters. Simple courtesy and good manners required him then to turn back to the woman on his right, and therefore in the direction of Madigan.
Charlie said only a few words to the woman between them before Madigan struck again.
"You and Bennett have known each other a long time, haven't you?" Madigan said.
"What is your interest in all of this?" Charlie asked.
"Yes, yes. Yes, indeed," said the woman between them.
"It's an occupational one," Madigan said.
The main course, venison noisettes with a sauce of pinot noir and lingonberries, Spätzle and glazed spring vegetables, was now before everyone.
"This is about as close as it is possible to get to authentic eighteenth-century food, to what George might actually have eaten here in 1791," Charlie said to the woman, in a voice loud enough to be heard around the table. Everyone quieted down and Charlie said to Mary Jane, "Why don't you explain?"
This was not part of their regular routine but Mary Jane loved this kind of spontaneity. So she picked up the cue and explained to all how Wes and Paul had gone to Mount Vernon and to the Library of Congress, as well as to the Jefferson County Historical Society and other local places, in search of menus and recipes from the period.
Charlie faked rapt attention.
When Mary Jane began to wind down her story, he said, "Tell them about the wines."
"Oh, yes, the wines," Mary Jane said. And she told everyone about the many high-quality vineyards in the area, particularly down the road in Loudoun County, Virginia, near Middleburg and Leesburg, where they bought the wines they would be drinking all weekend.
A couple of the guests had a few questions and the conversations stayed mostly tablewide and general throughout the main course.
It was not until the middle of the salad--field greens with Stilton cheese under a raspberry-walnut vinaigrette dressing--that the conversations went small again.
And it wasn't but a few counts later that the woman on Charlie's right asked Madigan the right question. "What is your occupation?" she said. Charlie wanted to hug her.
"You might say I work for the government," Madigan replied, a slight hint of mystery in his voice.
So. He definitely is not Agency. No Agency person would ever say anything so stupid and say it so stupidly. Real Agency overts say cleanly what they are and the coverts go cleanly to their cover identity and occupation.
"Which government?" said the woman. "Ours, I hope."
She laughed and Madigan laughed.
"I understand you and Bennett share a special interest in Jesus hats," Madigan then said to Charlie.
It hit Charlie like a rifle shot.
Without even a glance at Mary Jane, he stood up and announced: "Coffee and an ever-so-light Shenandoah Valley apple soufflé follow now in the library--we call it the Washington Room."
As Wes and Paul's waiters saw to the other guests, Charlie asked Madigan to join him for "a breath of fresh air" outside.
It was a stunningly quiet October evening. A three-quarter moon lit up the sky and the light came down through the trees like beams from many soft spotlights. This time of year--deep autumn, as it was called in West Virginia--was Charlie's favorite. He often told people that they would know he had been appointed God when all of the other eleven months became just like October.
Charlie led the way toward the barn some fifty yards behind the house.
"Who are you and what are you up to?" Charlie said to Madigan as they walked.
"I am who I said I was. Marty Madigan. I'm the chief minority counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee."
Charlie stopped. Madigan stopped.
"Keep talking," Charlie said. "And talk fast, please."
"We are beginning our inquiries about Joshua Bennett in preparation for his confirmation hearings as director of Central Intelligence--"
"He's a great man, a great intelligence officer, right up there with Dick Helms, Leo Spivey and the other great ones. He will make a terrific DCI."
"We've been told that he almost cost you your life in West Berlin in 1971."
"You've been told a goddamn lie!"
"Would you mind telling me what happened?"
"Yes, I would mind."
"We can subpoena you, Mr. Henderson."
Charlie's heart was beating like a hammer.
It had been a long time since Charles Avenue Henderson had done physical violence to another human being with his bare hands. Had the time finally come to use the one technique he had never had occasion to use in the line of duty? Should he utilize the easiest, fastest and surest way to kill Martin V. Madigan? Should he crack the top of this man's nose with a karate chop and then, using the same hand in a quick follow-up move, push the nose-bone fragments up into his brain?
Or should you calm down, Henderson?
He said to Madigan, "You are now going to march back into that house, go right up to your room, gather up your belongings, come right back down, tell my wife you have a bad case of the stomach flu, climb into your Republican car and drive your filthy young butt out of here and out of my sight before I do something that will make both of us sorry."
Madigan shrugged. "We will meet again, Mr. Henderson."
"You can count on it, friend," Charlie said with a bravado that exhilarated him.
"You make that sound like a threat."
"Take it any way it fits, Mr. Madigan."
Charlie decided to call Josh from the pay phone at the Handi-Mart down the road from Hillmont. In addition to having security concerns, he did not want to alarm Mary Jane, who was already upset enough about Madigan's sudden departure. She had not bought the story about a stomach flu. Wes and Paul had prepared one of Charlie's favorite breakfast feasts--yellow grits with white cheddar cheese, pheasant sausages, homemade cinnamon buns that were out of this world and three kinds of fresh fruit juices.
Josh was already at his office at Langley when Charlie got him on the phone. Saturday morning was just another work morning for most of the higher officials of the Agency. It was part of the culture.
"Let's do this on the egg machine," Charlie said.
"Hey, Charlie, come on. Ain't nobody here but us
"Goddamn it, Josh, put us on the egg machine!"
The "egg machine" was the secure-communications
system that scrambled telephone conversations for everyone except the two parties doing the talking.
It took Josh only a few seconds to get the call switched over.
Charlie told him about Madigan.
"I know him," Josh said. "He's harmless."
"Why, then, are the Republicans fishing for dirt, Josh?"
"Let 'em fish. There is none."
"Yes, but why are they looking?"
"I'm in great shape with all of the Republican senators on the committee. Madigan is freelancing or something. He's nothing. I promise, Charlie."
"He knew about our Jesus thing, Josh."
"I loved the hat, by the way. I should have mentioned that earlier . . ."
"Did you tell a lot of people about the hat and what it all meant, the stuff in Nice and all of that?"
There were a couple beats of silence. Then Josh said, "No. The hat just came yesterday."
"Think about it, Josh. Think about how Madigan knew about it."
"Charlie, your imagination is on the loose."
"Somebody right there on the seventh floor is feeding information to somebody on the outside."
"He also knew about West Berlin and the Czech."
"Nobody should know about that."
"Exactly. Nobody but somebody with access to a lot of our old secrets. Nobody but somebody with harming you on his mind."
That drew another couple of beats of silence.
"Charlie, every source, private and public, tells me there are no nobodies or somebodies on the committee who are opposed to my nomination. They have all concluded that a clean career man is better than an outsider after all. Everything we have points to a unanimous vote for confirmation. They're even talking about a unanimous voice vote when it goes to the full Senate."
"Then how do you explain Madigan?"
"I can't. But I will look into it. It's got to be absolutely nothing."
"It doesn't have to be anything of the kind, Josh, and you know it."