As I post this, it’s forty years today since Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States. Whatever you think of Nixon’s presidency, his politics, or the scandal that brought down his administration, it’s hard to deny the impact of his resignation, at least in the US.
Of course, there’d been scandals before at very high levels of the US and other governments. But this was the first time for the US that a scandal led to a presidential resignation. What’s more, the investigation into Nixon’s activities and those of other members of his administration were very public – on television for the world to see. For many people who’d always trusted their government, the Nixon resignation was a rude shock and a bitter lesson that sometimes that trust is misplaced.
But if you look at crime fiction, you see that high-level government scandal has been around for a long time. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre; space only permits me a few. But I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of many more than I could anyway.
A few of Agatha Christie’s stories feature government scandals. One of them is the short story The Incredible Theft. In that story, Lord Charles Mayfield hosts a house party that consists of himself, his secretary Carlisle, Retired Air Marshal Sir George Carrington and Carrington’s wife Julia and son Reggie. Also present is an enigmatic American Mrs. Vanderlyn. During the visit, Mayfield and Carrington want to consult about the plans for a new air bomber. Those plans have been kept top secret since they would be of great interest to England’s enemies. During the evening, the plans are stolen. Recovery of the plans is essential in order to protect them, and it’s got to be done quietly, too. Otherwise the scandal and the insinuation that someone powerful is aiding the enemy could bring down the government. So Sir George calls on Hercule Poirot to help find the plans.
Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life concerns a case from 1963. Cissy Kohler was arrested and imprisoned for her involvement in the murder of her employer’s wife Pamela Westropp. At the time, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested and convicted in connection with the murder. As the novel begins, Kohler has recently been released from prison, and new hints are surfacing that suggest that she was innocent. More than that, they suggest that the investigating officer Wally Tallentire know that and hid evidence of it. When Superintendent Andy Dalziel finds this out, he’s determined to prove those allegations false. Tallentire was his mentor, and he has absolute faith in the man’s integrity. So Dalziel looks into the case again and from a different angle, so does Peter Pascoe. One interesting thing about this case is that it was tried in the same year as the famous Profumo case, in which John Profumo’s relationship with Christine Keeler was made public and eventually led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In fact that scandal is mentioned in the novel as a way of explaining public attitudes towards the Westropp case, and the assumption that Kohler was guilty.
In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is recovering physically and psychologically from his last case (detailed in Dead Set). His plans are to work on his Ph.D. thesis and have a normal life, whatever that means. But he’s drawn back to AFP work by a double murder at Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra. The victims are Alec Dennet, a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. As the investigating team learns, Dennet and Starke were working on Dennet’s memoirs at the time of their deaths. Since the manuscript has disappeared, it looks as though someone committed murder to be sure it wouldn’t be published. And that suggests several possible suspects. For one thing, there are some very highly-placed people who don’t want everything about the Whitlam government’s activities to be known. For another, there are some very nasty groups from other countries too who would very much like that manuscript, not just for the information it may contain, but also for its monetary value. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at the effects of a scandal years after it’s broken.
And then there’s Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. Washington-based former cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired by prominent attorney Dale Perry to follow a young intern Charlotte Walsh and report on where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler doesn’t see why a ‘nobody’ intern could be of interest to anyone, but a fee is a fee. So she begins her work. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot, is picked up in another car and is taken to a secluded safe house. Cutler is shocked to find that Walsh is meeting with US President Christopher Ferrington. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh’s body has been found in her car, which is still in the parking lot. Now Cutler is an important witness – and a target for some very powerful people who don’t want the young woman’s death investigated. It turns out that Charlotte Walsh’s murder is connected with another murder and a common experience the two victims had.
There are also several books by Margaret Truman, including Murder at the White House, in which scandal at the very highest levels of government is explored. But Nixon’s resignation didn’t just change people’s attitudes about government and its leaders. It also made heroes out of journalists such as Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered what was going on in the Nixon administration.
The perception of journalists as interfering annoyances (you see this attitude come up in some classic crime fiction) changed for a lot of people during the Watergate investigation. And we see that shift in some modern crime fiction. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter who breaks several high-level scandals in the series that features her. One of the recurring characters in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is journalist Linda Hiller. She helps Irish bring down some very powerful people in Bad Debts, and even though she doesn’t appear in all the novels, she’s presented in a positive light, as a someone who’s working to stop corruption. And of course to get herself a major story. And Ian Rankin’s John Rebus co-operates more than once with journalist Mairie Henderson. The image of the reporter/journalist as the gutsy, heroic protagonist may not have originated with Woodward and Bernstein, but it certainly got a boost as a result of their Watergate investigation.
The Nixon resignation had powerful and lasting effects, and not just on those directly involved. It was one of the pivotal US events of the 1970s. Little wonder that scandals are still given nicknames that end in ‘-gate.’
ps. If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you know that I almost always take my own ‘photos. But this one’s far better than any I could take. Thanks, Channel One News.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Young Americans.