The game referred to in the title of Leonard Downie Jr.’s debut novel, The Rules of the Game, is, unsurprisingly, journalism. The author was executive editor of the Washington Post for 17 years, after all, so it makes sense that much of the plot centers on a newsroom—specifically the efforts of the mythical Washington Capital to uncover a scandal involving Congress and military contracts. In that respect, the game is politics as well; chief among the many politicos swimming in Downie’s dense plot is Susan Cameron, a vice president who rises to the Oval Office following her running mate’s death. That subplot is engaging enough, but Downie knows that those themes aren’t enough to make for an interesting thriller. If he wanted to expound on what it’s like to play hardball with military and intelligence agencies, he’d be better off writing a memoir, and if he wanted to talk politics he could have saved himself a lot of typing and gone on C-SPAN, referring readers to books by his former staffers (“Newspaper editor turned novelist” and “special guest on Washington Journal” generate about the same celebrity wattage). So, to keep things moving as a work of fiction, he embeds a third game—inappropriate fucking. There are plenty of sideways references to horny, high-powered Washingtonians—apparently they like to gather in a mysterious house in Arlington—and sex is a crucial plot point regarding the book’s heroine, reporter Sarah Page. As the novel opens, she’s arrived in the Capital’s newsroom in semi-disgrace, shifting beats from Annapolis to national politics after sleeping with an editor. “He wasn’t really my editor,” Page tells her new boss during a job interview, and that, combined with her investigative skills, is enough to justify the promotion. In time, though, we learn that while Page is brilliant at following the money, she’s essentially lobotomized when it comes to selecting bed partners. She once hooked up with a lobbyist-consultant attached to the scandal she’s now covering, and she is charmed by the Congressman leading an investigation her stories prompted. “Why did romantic entanglements keep jeopardizing her work?” Downie writes of Page. “Why did she keep ignoring the risks?” Well, because her behaving otherwise would make for a pretty wonkish novel about money laundering and the squabbles that occur when a politician or military contractor want a story suppressed. Downie makes these elements feel less homework-y than they could be, and despite Page’s convenient sexual weakness, it’s clear he has deep empathy for how stressful and isolating the life of an investigative reporter can be—one of book’s best sections follows Page the day she publishes one of her first major stories, which nets her rewards in the form of a death threat, more leads to follow, baffled parents, and dinner for one at McDonald’s. Downie wraps up the drama with all various rights wronged, albeit a little strangely when it comes to Page: She’s so hardworking, the Capital’s editor tells her that “it’s not surprising that you keep winding up romantically involved with colleagues or sources.” Odd as it is to see a heroine treated so condescendingly at the book’s close, Downie knows what game he’s in—so much genre fiction, like so much investigative journalism, is about broadcasting the rules of good moral and ethical living.
Leonard Downie Jr. discusses and signs copies of his work Monday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.