Capitol Punishment

In this presidential election year, Ohio once again figured as a crucial state. That’s also true of the fictional 2016 in Capitol Punishment (Ohio University Press), the fast-paced, witty detective novel by Andrew Welsh-Huggins ’83 P’17. If a national election is the backdrop for this story, however, the larger message is that all politics are local, and local politics can be crazy convoluted.

A veteran reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, Welsh-Huggins knows Ohio’s capital city inside-out — and knows its history, neighborhoods, landmarks, subcultures, simmering conflicts and, yes, politics. He has deployed that knowledge with verve in a series of mysteries set in Columbus and featuring Andy Hayes, a disgraced Ohio State quarterback turned private eye.

In this, the third Andy Hayes adventure, a freelance journalist named Lee Hershey hires Hayes to protect him. From? Well, it quickly becomes apparent that Hershey is a skilled muckraker with an obnoxious, confrontational personality, and the book’s opening scenes introduce a long line of potential enemies. Those enemies turn into suspects after Hershey is found bludgeoned to death in the Ohio Statehouse, on a night when Hayes was supposed to show up to protect him — but someone has slipped a knockout drug into the private eye’s beer.

The drama quickly becomes complicated, as Hayes threads his way among legislators, staffers, lobbyists, union officials and reporters. His sleuthing takes him to the office of Ohio’s Democratic governor (remember, this is fiction), who may soon become his party’s vice presidential pick. The hot political issue around which these figures swirl is the (historically very real) problem of school funding in Ohio.

The governor has proposed a reform initiative called Fair Funding Focus. (The name provides one of the book’s running jokes, as the governor’s allies realize that FFF isn’t particularly good shorthand for an education bill but can’t get anyone to use the new name they devise, ABC.) The success of FFF is critical to the governor’s vice presidential ambitions. Everybody, from his Republican adversaries, to charter school proponents, to casino operators, has an interest in the bill. And it seems that Lee Hershey knew all of their motives and secrets.

The colorful characters in Capitol Punishment range from a wizened Statehouse tour guide whose ancestor killed a reporter, to a grumpy police lieutenant who bears an uncanny resemblance to Commodore Perry of the Battle of Lake Erie, to a state Supreme Court justice who raises a rare breed of pigs and hides a secret that could embarrass him in an upcoming election. The Statehouse itself becomes a kind of character, as Welsh-Huggins leads us through its labyrinth of hallways and chambers and up the hidden staircase to its cupola.

A second murder and two close calls heighten the suspense. And the back stories that emerge include bribery, extortion, tainted government contracts, unhappy love affairs, ugly divorces, career-ending scandals, hints of scandals yet to be revealed and political spying — in short, business as usual, if maybe a little bit intensified.

Private eye Andy Hayes observes this world with a wryness that reflects his creator’s experience with the ironies of public life. A profiteering charter-school corporation, for example, has the quaint name Little Red Schoolhouse. “The company’s website featured an actual red schoolhouse on a grassy hill. … The real headquarters [in a] seven-story glass-windowed cube … looked like the kind of place where people on headphones spent their days denying patients’ insurance coverage.”

If Capitol Punishment does little to dispel cynicism about the practice of politics, it also offers an enjoyable escape from the realities of this political year. Here, the truth comes out, and we, the readers, have fun in the process. After all, it’s fiction.

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