Life In The Shadows

IT WAS QUITE A PLACE, MIDCENTURY Washington. That's difficult to understand now, long after the struggles against Hitler and communism. The capital seems somehow sterile, its downtown hotels anonymous and its suburbs clogged with tract houses. But you can still glimpse what used to be: along the red-brick sidewalks of Georgetown, maids sweep the stoops of houses where Kennedys and Bundys and Alsops once lived at the center of a world in which America had common enemies and a coherent cadre of warriors to fight them. The most romantic battles unfolded in the shadows--in what CIA mole-hunter James Angleton called "the wilderness of mirrors."

Two excellent new novels are rooted in the old order: Ward Just's Echo House (328 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $25) and David Ignatius's A Firing Offense (335 pages. Random House. $23). Washington has never been a rich literary source, but for these writers--Just is a former reporter for The Washington Post and NEWSWEEK; Ignatius is a Post editor--the capital is a profitable hunting ground. Washington, Just's narrator muses, is like a hand of cards: "You won or you lost but you stayed at the table, because the intrigue was there... You lived in this manner for years, until one momentous night when all the chips were on the table, wagered on the turn of a single card--a vote in the Senate, a vote in the jury box, a vote at a national convention, a telephone call announcing that the White House was on the line."

Just, the Trollope of the Beltway, creates a vivid fictional family of senators, fixers, lawyers and spies. The novel--Just's 12th, and his best--chronicles the Behls, members of what Just calls "the community," people who shared "a specific gene that predisposed a man to public service, a life inside the government, a gene not unlike the one that determined musical talent." But there is a cost: these were men who operated in secret, executing morally ambiguous covert operations. They break rules in the service of their cause--and in Just's telling they pay with suicides and broken marriages.

Ignatius chooses a trickier task: defining a new Washington ethos. This is a thriller (Tom Cruise has already bought the movie rights) that deftly dissects present-day Beltway culture, from pampered reporters to rogue CIA agents. Ignatius's villains--China and international financiers--are revealing: without a cold war we're reduced to fighting over the direction of a globalized economy. But the book rings true--and with so many new foes, it's possible our own age may be a much more confusing "wilderness of mirrors" than we had counted on.