Congressman Zachary Taylor Harris, chairman of the House Committee on Subversive Activities (SUBACK), faces a dilemma.
Should he ignore, at his peril, the investigation into political corruption being conducted in his District by Tom Daley Jr., the ambitious young District Attorney, a dangerous rival? Or should he acquiesce to the Speaker’s desire to put an end to SUBACK’s witch hunting, thereby earning the wrath of the Director, head of the country’s most formidable investigative agency?
But Congressman Harris by his own lights is a man of consummate political skill and surpassing influence. Presidents and corporate chairman return his phone calls, bureaucrats tremble before his committee, the nation’s leading newsmen write stories about him. He is wise to the inner workings of Washington and is at home with its nuances and linguistic subtleties.
INQUISITION opens with Harris searching for and finding what he believes is a way out of his dilemma. After an exacting analysis, the Congressman decides he can have it both ways. He can shut off the investigations of the political upstart by defeating his political ambitions, and can earn the Director’s confidence and full support by launching a new assault on subversives.
He devises a strategy to safeguard the secret, which has fueled his to rise to power in Congress. To achieve his far-reaching ambitions and to free himself from dependence on his wife’s wealth, Harris has entered into a corrupt bargain with the Russo organized crime family, which in the 1950s is expanding into eastern Pennsylvania from its base in New Jersey. In return for a steady source of funds to defeat all rivals and support his political ambitions, Harris protects the family’s enterprises by using his influence to thwart any federal investigations into their emerging interstate business activities.
As the Speaker’s longtime confidante and ally, Harris is compelled to give the appearance of ending the Committee’s paranoid investigations. He finishes on a high note with expert historical perspectives on the Committee’s accomplishments and failures provided by Professor M.A. Burnham, the State Department’s leading Soviet affairs consultant, whose knowledge of international communism extends back to his coverage of the Spanish Civil War as a writer and journalist.
After adjourning the committee sine die, Harris turns his attention to deflecting the Director’s opposition to retiring SUBACK. Harris offers the Director, in return for advance notice of federal investigations in his congressional district, a new assault on his old enemies - Reds and leftists - through new and unprecedented televised hearings; the first ever conducted outside of Washington in major cities around the country. His pact with the director puts him on a collision course with the Speaker, the one man he cannot defy.
The Director, delighted with the new hearings, gives Harris a long dormant file on Professor Burnham’s wartime OSS activities, which the Director describes as those of a Soviet double agent. Moreover, the lifestyles shared by Burnham and his wife, Elaine, a talented abstract expressionist of decidedly proletarian outlook, provide irresistible targets. Thus the Burnhams become entangled in the deadly web Harris spins to assure the secrecy of his corrupt bargain
Harris launches the nation’s first televised grass roots subversive hearings in Philadelphia with Burnham forced to defend himself against accusations of treason and subversion. Harris pursues the professor and his wife, charging them with perjury, treason and contempt of Congress.
Back story shows Harris’s rise to power through his reliance on the wealth of his wife, Marion Hanson Harris, to finance his political ambitions. The situation has created an intolerable condition for the congressman by thrusting his wife into the middle of his independence and decision-making. Harris finds the answer to his problem in the frailty of his law partner and campaign manager, Tad Daley Sr. The congressman, unaware of the true purpose of private immigration bills Daley asks him to sponsor, inadvertently discovers that their law firm has been receiving monthly payments from an emerging crime family headed by Gaetano Cavalieri Russo. Harris confronts his partner and threatens to expose him. Facing criminal prosecution and disgrace, Daley takes his own life. Harris informs Russo that he must now deal with him to thwart any federal investigation into its activities. Blackmailing the suborners gets Harris the money, independence and power he craves.
Shifting to contemporary time, the novel shows Daley’s son, now the aggressive district attorney running for reelection with his own political agenda, launching anti-corruption investigations in Bessemer City, the gritty blue-collar steel town in the heart of Harris’s congressional district. Harris, ever mindful that the prosecutor could turn up the Harris-Russo arrangement sets out to preempt Daley’s investigations and future rivalry by defeating him for reelection. He arranges this through a cunning and venal old political operative, Lloyd Kressman.
The sub-plot shifts the action to scenes showing Russo and a group of hit men planning the murder of a family operative, who has been skimming the weekly gambling take in Bessemer City. Detective Lt. John Maggio, alerted by FBI wiretaps, tries to prevent the hit, but is frustrated by an internal leak. Hamstrung by departmental politics, he resigns in disgust.
As the action moves forward, Lt. Maggio is recruited to another, more compelling assignment involving the unsolved murder and Daley's corruption investigations. While stung by his defeat Daly keeps his investigation alive through a small but powerful group of associates.
The story explores Harris’s relationship with his paramour, Lenore Price, a Democratic Party secretary, and introduces several pivotal characters, including his wife, Marion Hanson Harris, Charlie Miller, the political writer of the Bessemer City Star-Times, Robert Bird, the Congressman’s chief of staff, Lt. Maggio and Special Agent Frank Jordan, head of the FBI’s Newark, NJ field office.
Unknown to Harris, as he opens the hearing in Philadelphia, the Burnhams are also linked to his wife’s secret love affair with Burnham’s friend and State Department colleague, Hobe Tenley. Mysterious financial records are unwittingly discovered by the Congressman’s aide, Robert Bird, who seeks advice from his mentor, newsman Charlie Miller. Miller recognizes their content immediately and turns to his friend, Lt. Maggio, now a member of the former District Attorney’s investigative team. Maggio, with cooperation from the FBI field office in Newark, helps Bird to obtain incriminating photographic evidence of documents the congressman has long concealed. The Director, playing both sides, gives the photos to the Speaker.
Earlier, Harris had tried to assuage the Speaker’s ire over reopening the hearings by using Lenore Price as a go-between, but the Speaker sees through the stratagem. A tough, tenacious man of powerful rectitude and unassailable character, the Speaker confronts Harris with the damning evidence and demands his immediate resignation for bringing disgrace and discredit to the House. Having failed to move the Speaker with contorted argument, Harris returns to his office depressed and despondent to find a medical report indicating that a persistent respiratory problem is actually the manifestation of a life-threatening illness. Taking the same weapon used by his late law partner from his office safe, where he has kept it locked and loaded for years, Harris attempts suicide. But someone has removed the bullets. He collapses at his desk in a convulsion of coughing to be found unconscious hours later. He is rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital, but fails to regain consciousness. All stratagems exhausted, he is alone at the end except for Lenore Price, the woman who loves him.
As the novel unfolds, flashbacks show Congressman Harris and his young and wealthy wife as they gain influence in the drab years of Depression Washington. We see the congressman rising to power in the House. We see his gradual disaffection from his marriage and the long term plan he devises to advance his career. We catch a glimpse of the idealists, who as college students joined the Communist Party or signed up with the American brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and the accusations of subversion and disloyalty they faced a decade later. We see the coming of World War II, and Marion’s love affair with Tenley, the ex-journalist and close friend of Professor Burnham, who loses his life on an intelligence mission in the Balkans, triggering her deep remorse and crushing depression. We see Harris back from duty in the South Pacific and his arrival at real power as a committee chairman. We see him arranging the corrupt bargain. We see glimmerings of his undoing as the bargain begins to unravel. We see Harris cynically using his Committee to cover his tracks. We see Lenore Price, a woman who knows the secrets of influencing powerful men, putting the congressman’s perfect stratagem into play. In the end we see justice prevail through the instincts of the shrewd Charlie Miller, who has solved the puzzle of Zachary Taylor Harris and puts the answer into the hands of his friend Lt. John Maggio.