In the wake of the 1973 Watergate scandal, Washington buzzes with speculation on the fate of Richard Nixon. In the middle of it all, reporter Ray Hartley lucks into a potentially big story when his friend Tom Cranston calls to set up a secret meeting. A liberal Senate staffer, Cranston claims to have a tape that incriminates the President. But Cranston’s found dead of a gunshot wound to the head before Hartley can meet him. Ironically, this turn of events provides Hartley with a bigger story and a cover for finding the possible killer. Probing Cranston’s recent work and his even more recent death, he unearths as much evidence of dicey sexual dalliances as of political corruption. Either activity could provide a motive for Cranston’s killer (or his suicide). It seems more than coincidence that Cranston’s estranged wife Elaine, the beneficiary of his will, has recently returned to the Beltway and is nearby at the time of his death. The two murder theories converge when Hartley learns that Cranston and Beverly Turner, one of his several lovers, set up a tryst-and-sting plot with White House employee E. Richard Hershon. Other suspects include the spouses and lovers of all the aforementioned, a homogeneous and barely distinguishable group.
Written as a memoir from the fictional Hartley’s 2002 perspective, A Watergate Tape—half–social history, half-whodunit—is more successful as the former. Still, Hoopes (When the Stars Went to War, 1995, etc.) provides a rich, incisive portrait of a specific time and a singular event that quite overshadow the uninteresting mystery.