by Tim Hodson
There is a new addition to that small genre of mystery novels set in state capitols and involving legislatures. Fair, Balanced …and Dead is the first novel by Steve Swatt, a long-time political reporter, now retired, for a Sacramento television station. Swatt is following the path of John Feinstein (Running Mates) and Tony Hillerman (The Fly on the Wall) both of whom were political reporters whose early novels featured political reporters investigating murders. In Swatt’s case, of course, the hero is a TV reporter confronting both deadly political games and a news industry increasingly disinterested and disdainful of political coverage.
A veteran U.S. Senator has died and the Republican Governor of California must select a replacement. Various candidates emerge but the strongest are Johnny Callahan, the young charismatic Speaker of the state Assembly, whose conservatism is tempered by pragmatism and an acute awareness of being a Republican in a Democratic majority state, and Harold Barnes, an older legislator who is the champion of the right.
Allegations of a sex scandal involving the Speaker surface and TV reporter Jack Summerland is forced by a ratings-driven station to report the story. The story proves to be untrue, embarrassing Summerland but allowing Callahan to appear the aggrieved victim. More damaging stories follow leading Summerland to investigate the allegations, their source and a body found floating in the American River. Dirty tricks by Barnes? Machiavellian tactics by the Speaker’s staff? Ancient grudges? The work of a group of Southern California millionaires anxious to launch Callahan on a path to the White House?