An alternate history. J. Edgar Hoover dies in 1972. His long, long-time secretary, Ms. Gandy — seriously, his secretary for 54 years — does not make Mr. Hoover’s secret files disappear (as in real history) and then whistle and look innocent.
No, in this alternate history she disappears, and the secret files, full of blackmail for half of America’s highest, disappear along with her.
Now, your standard historical thriller would have a disgraced FBI agent called in by the very President to hunt her down, and the novel would resolve without overt alterations to the timestream.
That would be boring.
No, instead Ms. Gandy stays disappeared, and over the next few months all manner of newspapers all over America start receiving letters and packages, each with enough punch to sink a politician, or to destroy an actor or activist. Conservative papers get files about liberal characters, and vice versa; after a moment of hesitation the presses roll, and heads start rolling too.
The FBI is not particularly happy about this; neither are the politicians, who are intently remembering all their little mistakes, and the big ones. After a prominent senator resigns, probably to spend time with his newly revealed seven illegitimate children, there’s some hurried legislative action and sending mail becomes a much slower process.
The mysterious sender of letters switches to using commercial couriers; and the first new packages carry a note: “JUNE 17TH, THE PRESIDENT.”
This happens at the beginning of that June, 1972; Hoover died at the beginning of May. Here the supposedly clever historical in-joke is June 17th would be the date of the real-history Watergate burglary.
Even at this point, the novel could revert to the usual thriller form: a rough-and-tumble ex-FBI man hunts down the evilly America-destabilizing file-possessing crook, learns an amazing secret about the president, and then in a suitably coincidental accident witnesses all the files destroyed, allowing history to go on more or less as in real life. Possibly he saves the presidential file, and then tosses it in anyway, musing that a little bit of Nixon is better than upsetting all of America. Then Watergate, Nixon falls anyway, dramatic irony, finis.
That would be boring, too. Not a boring novel; but a boring plot.
Come to think of it, if one want to pander to the homophobe eedjit demographic, one could write this: A novel as above, where J. Edgar was a closet gay, and this is his final nefarious plot, designed to paralyze America and ensure the victory of the homosexual agenda.
Critical line: “It’s worse than prissiness and snappy dressing — all FBI agents are homosexuals! Doom chord!“
Come to think of it, in the other direction, maybe the core plot is Nixon has the files — the threat to reveal things about him is a trick to fuel hysteria and righteous indignation. His goal is to get such police state powers that he gets to win the November 1972 election for sure — because when you’re the president you want to keep being the president, and when you’re Nixon, you don’t go for half measures.
Critical line: “Wait a minute — Pennsylvania Avenue 1600? I know who lives at that address!”
Come to think of it, also, if one wanted a really old-fashioned plot, the files would be in the hands of the Communists. Because it’s always the Communists, isn’t it? The political holocaust caused by the files, and especially the impending nervous breakdown and downfall of Nixon, is designed to make things perfect for the Communist presidential candidate, a Mr. Satan Babyeater.
Critical line: “Flexing his mighty American thews, Chuck Powers flung the Commie stooge off the helicopter, and watched with eagle eyes as he hit the turbine. ‘Red mist. How fitting.’, he muttered.”
Finally, a tediously moralistic plot would cease with the revelation that there were no files, the newspapers were making the letters up just to stir things up (and to get rid of their own “crazy shit we heard” files), and Ms. Gandy was just golfing in Florida. Everyone sings Kumbayah, and President Nixon says, “rrrremember, the newspapers were the crook!”
Post-finally, there’s also the plot where the atmosphere of hysteria and the continual demolition of American icons causes the majority of the populace to lose all trust in the decency of their fellow men, and America descends into howling cannibalistic barbarism, employees turning against employers, patients against doctors, constituents against elected officials, children against parents, et cetera. Civilization dissolves; humanity is doomed; the end of this lately great planet Earth comes; a lone Frenchman is left saying, “Great, another novel where America is the world. Bugre moi with a baguette!”
Let us take a different approach.
That was in 1972: On June 17th, Nixon’s pre-Watergate indiscretions came to light, and shortly after he resigned. The Nixon file was the last one to surface: if there were more, they stayed locked somewhere, by someone.
That was thirty years ago.
Nixon’s resignation months before the election throws electoral America into chaos. Spiro Agnew becomes the new Republican presidential candidate, and is trounced by the Democrat George McGovern.
The nation is saved the trauma of Watergate, but has to instead deal with the episode and the continuing mystery of the Truth-Teller — some hokey folk-generated pseudonym is inevitable. It becomes a cottage industry among demented old ladies to “come out” as Helen Gandies to explain the affair; but the real Helen Gandy never appears. Most people believe, for no particular reason save romance, that she was innocent, lured somewhere along with the secret files, and killed.
In other circles, an elaborate conspiracy theory forms, asserting the whole affair was Hoover’s parting gift: the puritan had gotten so fed up with corruption he chose to wipe it out with his last breath. FBI Director Mark Felt is pointed to and named as the real Truth-Teller; he is indignant about this.
The McGovern administration — a two-termer — is followed in 1980 by the Republican Ronald Reagan’s smashing victory over a lackluster Jimmy Carter. During the run to the election, it becomes an accepted truth in the more unhinged Republican circles that the Truth-Teller was a Democrat, had to be a Democrat.
Whether or not this is true, a secondary “truth” develops on the Democrat fringe — that the Gandy Archive had, among all the other smut, a sex film of Marilyn Monroe and a certain dashing young actor now seeking the Republican nomination. When the rumor reaches Reagan, he reacts with ten minutes of uninterrupted laughter and then says, “No.”
As a reaction to this, the said Democrat circles begin speculations involving horses.
By 2002, that too is ancient history. Thirty years have passed since Hoover’s death, and eighteen years since the 1984 quip that cost Reagan his presidency and destroyed Helsinki…
Oh, what quip? Well, preparing for yet another weekly radio address, he tested microphone with this: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
This is broadcast, accidentally, and relayed by Soviet listening stations to the heart of the Red empire. There the deciders first say, “Fucking capitalists! It’s Soviet Union, Soviet Union, not Russia!”, and then lazily inquire if the missile warning station has anything.
A lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Oko satellite warning station sees a blip, teeters for a moment on the edge of calling it just a bug in the machine, and then, recalling the tone of the question, says he probably has a launch. Nuclear holocaust is narrowly averted when cooler heads prevail at the HQ — all heads involved turning out to be cool, except for a lone general that storms away, muttering something about sissies, real men and purifying thermonuclear fire.
Subsequent investigation finds he did what he could, and authorized the launch of a single “Serpukhov” city buster missile from a battery at the arse end of Lake Ladoga, probably hoping to provoke some real, all-out nuclear combat, toe-to-toe with the Capitaliskies.
Americans, terribly confused by this solitary launch, do nothing — and the Serpukhov launch crew, a wee bit worried by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union bellowing in their ear, direct from Moscow, push the abort button post haste.
The lone missile falls down towards the city of Helsinki, Finland, and due to the abort circuit not being designed for actual use due to some cynicism in the weapons industry, explodes. Helsinki is levelled; Finns rejoice in finding endless feed for both their hunger for world attention and their towering inferiority complex.
America is more worried with their share in causing this; President Reagan hangs in office for a week and then resigns when certain elements of his party start demanding he do the trick again, but for reals this time.
As said, by 2002 that is history, relevant to few except the Tourism Board of Finland; even the newest American crisis isn’t a child of Helsinki — no, instead it is the continued Republican challenge to President Lieberman’s legitimacy, following the unfortunate death of President-Elect Gore in a tragic yet hilarious air conditioner accident.
This all is backstory and background for the actual plot of the novel.
The actual plot is about a senile, doddering Ronald Reagan, who gets a hint about the location of the remains of the Gandy Archive and sets out to find and destroy it, driven by the uncertain hunch of a feeling of a half-memory that he may have acted in an improper movie with a horse once upon time. What at first seems like a crazy road trip fuelled by dementia and conservative medication, turns deadly serious when Ronald is kidnapped by a sentient elephant and informed he has been tasked with restoring America’s greatness.
Is this all just the hallucinations of a very old and tired man?
Or is the elephant really very good with the hiding, and on a mission from God?
And what do D. B. Cooper and the mysterious Indian chieftain Machus Red Fox have to do with it? And what about the Alaskan hermit “Whip” Boggs, who claims to be a lost Congressman, his plane shot down with radiation by J. Edgar’s goons in 1971? Was Helen Gandy a robot? Was J. Edgar a Gray? Is capitalism just a Communist plot? And who stole the Hoover secret files, and do they really contain a film of a man dallying with a horse, or, worse still for a Republican, with an ass?
(Spoiler: A horse. Which also shot JFK.)
Critical line: “Ronald watched the water in the glass. He could see by the ripples, the rings that the elephant’s footsteps were closer. ‘I’m too old for this shit’, he muttered.”