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Barbara Mikulski: Senior Senator, Appropriator, Crime Novelist

“I walked the few yards to the escalator, then rode down to the overlit brilliance of the subway platform.

“The Senate subway looks like a Disneyland ride. The cars to Hart and Dirksen resemble some futuristic monorail, the passengers enclosed in plastic and metal, while for some reason unknown to me, the cars to Russell are open. All the cars carry about a dozen passengers, constantly shuttling back and forth, underground, between the Capitol and the office buildings.”

Any senator could have written those words just a week ago, but they date to a 1997 work of fiction — and the routine Senate subway trip is soon disrupted by the murder of a Vietnam veteran.

CQ Roll Call’s ongoing exploration
of novels set in Washington, D.C., would be incomplete without a couple of 1990s volumes written by none other than the longest-serving female senator in history.

A decade after being elected, but before becoming chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barbara A. Mikulski briefly moonlighted as a crime novelist.

The Maryland Democrat wrote two novels with journalist Marylouise Oates — “Capitol Offense” and “Capitol Venture” — about a crime-solving female senator from Pennsylvania (who, of course, went to school in Baltimore).

The novels are told from the first-person perspective of fictional Sen. Eleanor “Norrie” Gorzack. Gorzack is serving as the Keystone State’s director of public health when the governor appoints her to serve out the term of a senator who dies unexpectedly.

The first novel, “Capitol Offense,” starts with a lot of narrative setting up Gorzack’s first impressions of what it’s like to be in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Gorzack is not Mikulski, as the real-life senator told The Washington Post at the time of publication.

“She’s 5-feet-4,” Mikulski said. “I’ve always wanted to be 5-feet-4.”

The Post explained that the novel came about at a predictably Senate-centric occasion, a birthday party for the legendary Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

While there’s no shortage of dated references (the books are more than a decade old, after all) many elements still ring true.

In the story, Pennsylvania’s governor seemed to think he was appointing a placeholder before running for the seat himself — much like Sen. Joe Manchin III did as governor of West Virginia when he appointed Carte Goodwin to hold the seat vacated when Sen. Robert C. Byrd died.

“Capitol Offense” deals with an issue that has not gone away: U.S. military personnel reported missing in action. Gorzack’s husband disappeared in Vietnam, which made MIA affairs her first key focus as a senator.

In the course of digging into MIA issues, Gorzack and her staff come upon an MIA advocacy group with a shadowy pattern of financial contributions to a senior senator. The group, which calls itself YANKS, begins to show connections to a growing body count. One of Gorzack’s young staffers turns up dead. The worm turns.

Like many a good novel, “Capitol Offense” ends with a twist not easily predicted by the reader. Gorzack’s theories prove correct, but her perceptions about the assailant are woefully off.

The second volume, “Capitol Venture,” digs into another series of bizarre events, including the murder of a Pennsylvania House member. Gorzack decides to run for a full term in the Senate, thanks in part to her national media profile as a crime-solving senator.

Few books written by senators would be on the top of anyone’s reading list — unless, perhaps, you’re a law student with an Elizabeth Warren bankruptcy textbook.

But if you can dig up copies of the Mikulski novels at a used bookstore or at the Senate Library in the basement of the Russell Building, they’re worth investigating.

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