Shedunit Book: Barbara Mikulski and her accomplice, Marylouise Oates, might not make a killing with their tale of intrigue in the nation's capital. But it's clear the pair enjoyed the deed.

August 24, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- She's a plain-spoken, Polish-American, U.S. senator and feminist who likes crab cakes, went to Mount St. Agnes College and has a doting mother who calls her "Hon."

Sound familiar?

If you guessed Baltimore's own Barbara Mikulski, you're very close. The dynamic political newcomer is her fictional alter-ego, Eleanor "Norie" Gorzack, star of Mikulski's first novel, "Capitol Offense." (Dutton, $23.95)

Mikulski co-wrote the political mystery with former Los Angeles Times society columnist Marylouise Oates, and it debuts today at a 2 p.m. signing session at the Fells Point branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. On Tuesday, the publisher will sponsor a breakfast book-party for the authors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Early reviews have been mixed. In tomorrow's book-review section of the New York Times, Reed Massengill writes: "The authors have managed in 'Capitol Offense' to pull off something rare indeed -- a novel that remains interesting and involving while also deftly touching on important issues."

But last month, Kirkus Reviews dismissed the book as "a feeble attempt at a Washington suspense novel that reads like a hand-me-down episode of 'Murder, She Wrote.' "

A cross between Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith" and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Gorzack is an idealist trudging through the cynical swamp of Washington politics. Between votes, she is also trying to solve a pair of murders.

When the 312-page novel opens, Gorzack, the public-health director for Pennsylvania, has just been appointed to the seat of a senator who has died during a polka marathon. No sooner is she sworn in than people around her start dropping dead.

The suspects include Sen. Randall Baxter, a pompous Southern Democrat who doesn't want Gorzack on his committee investigating MIAs, and Larry Joe Wiggins, a Florida tele-evangelist who is running an MIA-charity scam and helping to fund Baxter's re-election.

At times, Gorzack seems like a figment from a politician's daydream. When a Vietnam vet tries to warn her of impending danger but collapses dead on the tracks of the Capitol's subway system, Gorzack shouts, "Let me out! I'm a nurse," and rushes from the subway car to try to resuscitate him. Later, after she resolves the fate of 16 MIAs -- including her husband, Jack -- she makes the cover of Newsweek.

"I love Norie Gorzack," says Mikulski, 60, comparing her qualities of courage, loyalty and fortitude to those of Gen. Colin Powell and Cal Ripken.

Some of the other creatures of Capitol Hill don't fare as well. The authors skewer control-freak congressional aides, megalomaniac Senate leaders and deceitful fund raisers.

But the greatest contempt seems reserved for sleaze-bag reporters. Mikulski, who has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the media, puts her fictional journalists at the bottom of the political food chain.

The working press

Diane Wong, for instance, a "barracuda" from CNN, sandbags Gorzack with a question during her first day on the job.

"You're a really nice person," Gorzack says later, sarcastically. "Not at all like your reputation."

Asked if she has it in for the fourth estate, Mikulski says no; the anecdotes are just exaggerated examples of situations she's dealt with in Washington.

"You'll be interested to see what happens to reporters in the next book," Mikulski adds cryptically, referring to the second Norie Gorzack mystery already under way, "Capitol Venture," which is about the fictional senator's election campaign.

With its recognizable landmarks and natural tendency toward intrigue, Washington has proved fertile ground for politicians who aspire to write mysteries.

Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Maine Sen. William S. Cohen co-wrote a 1985 spy thriller, "The Double Man." Margaret Truman, daughter of president Harry S. Truman, has been littering her fictional Washington with dead bodies for years.

Anyone looking for a roman a clef in "Capitol Offense," though, won't get any hints from Mikulski. She says all the senators are composite characters. "[We] wanted to avoid obvious comparisons," she says.

Mikulski, who is in her second Senate term, says she has always wanted to be a novelist. Growing up in Highlandtown, she read Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie.

But it was at Sen. Ted Kennedy's 60th birthday party four years ago that the idea began to take root. Oates was there with her husband, Bob Shrum, a well-known media consultant who worked on both of Mikulski's Senate campaigns.

Mikulski told her that she wanted to write a book. Oates, who had written a 1991 novel about the Vietnam anti-war movement called "Making Peace," suggested they collaborate.

Mikulski and Oates spent a year writing "Capitol Offense" and received a total advance for the two books of less than $50,000. Money, though, was not the object, they say.

Working here and there

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