As I watch Donald Trump’s National Security head, his lawyer/fixer, and his one-time campaign manager seek plea deals with the Mueller investigation, I find myself thinking of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. There we find a classic example of someone flipping on his boss and, in the process, revealing extra information that turns the entire case upside down. Will Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort do the same? The suspense, as in Fielding’s masterpiece, is intense.
Coleridge declared that Tom Jones had one of the three most perfect plots in literature (the other two were Sophocles’s Oedipus and Ben Jonson’s Alchemist), and I remember staying up all night reading Part 18 of Fielding’s 900-page novel. Everything’s a mess, including the possibility that Tom has slept with his mother, and then we get our happy ending in an immensely satisfying finale.
Key to resolving the confusion is an attorney loyal to no one’s interests but his own. We first encounter Dowling when he shows up at Squire Allworthy’s house with a letter from his dying sister. In it Bridget Allworthy reveals that she is Tom’s mother, but we don’t know that until the final chapters. Tom’s half brother Blifil, who hates him, persuades Dowling to give him the letter and conceals it so that Tom will not reap any advantages from the connection.
From then on, Blifil uses Dowling to do all his dirty work, including getting people to swear falsely about Tom’s part in a sword fight that almost kills a man. Think of him as Blifil’s fixer. Unfortunately for them, however, a crack opens: Allworthy discovers Dowling’s skullduggery and confronts him on it.
Before I describe the scene, I quote an earlier observation about the power of surprising a witness. Keep in mind that Fielding was a judge and so knows what he’s talking about:
There is nothing so dangerous as a question which comes by surprise on a man whose business it is to conceal truth, or to defend falsehood. For which reason those worthy personages, whose noble office it is to save the lives of their fellow-creatures at the Old Bailey, take the utmost care, by frequent previous examination, to divine every question which may be asked their clients on the day of trial, that they may be supplied with proper and ready answers, which the most fertile invention cannot supply in an instant. Besides, the sudden and violent impulse on the blood, occasioned by these surprises, causes frequently such an alteration in the countenance, that the man is obliged to give evidence against himself.
Now for the scene, in which Dowling tries to avoid a straightforward answer when Allworthy confronts him with a woman who has witnessed his plotting:
Allworthy, without making any answer to this, bolted the door, and then, advancing with a stern look to Dowling, he said, “Whatever be your haste, sir, I must first receive an answer to some questions. Do you know this lady?”—“That lady, sir!” answered Dowling, with great hesitation. Allworthy then, with the most solemn voice, said, “Look you, Mr Dowling, as you value my favor, or your continuance a moment longer in my service, do not hesitate nor prevaricate; but answer faithfully and truly to every question I ask.——Do you know this lady?”—“Yes, sir,” said Dowling, “I have seen the lady.” “Where, sir?” “At her own lodgings.”—“Upon what business did you go thither, sir; and who sent you?” “I went, sir, to enquire, sir, about Mr Jones.” “And who sent you to enquire about him?” “Who, sir? why, sir, Mr Blifil sent me.” “And what did you say to the lady concerning that matter?” “Nay, sir, it is impossible to recollect every word.” “Will you please, madam, to assist the gentleman’s memory?” “He told me, sir,” said Mrs Waters, “that if Mr Jones had murdered my husband, I should be assisted by any money I wanted to carry on the prosecution, by a very worthy gentleman, who was well apprized what a villain I had to deal with. These, I can safely swear, were the very words he spoke.”—“Were these the words, sir?” said Allworthy. “I cannot charge my memory exactly,” cries Dowling, “but I believe I did speak to that purpose.”
Then the flipping begins. Imagine Robert Mueller asking versions of this question to Flynn, Cohen or Manafort:
“And did Mr Blifil order you to say so?” “I am sure, sir, I should not have gone on my own accord, nor have willingly exceeded my authority in matters of this kind. If I said so, I must have so understood Mr Blifil’s instructions.”
Since Dowling is still evasive (“If I said so, I must have so understood”), Allworthy lays out what he is offering in return for the truth:
“Look you, Mr Dowling,” said Allworthy; “I promise you before this lady, that whatever you have done in this affair by Mr Blifil’s order I will forgive, provided you now tell me strictly the truth; for I believe what you say, that you would not have acted of your own accord and without authority in this matter.
Dowling at this point comes clean, quoting Blifil’s own words. When prosecutors look for intent—did Trump intend to collude with the Russians? did he intend to obstruct justice?—this is the kind of evidence they are looking for. And then Dowling drops another bombshell: he mentions the letter to Allworthy that Blifil has concealed.
If I’m on the Mueller team and suddenly get information like this, I do a little dance, at least in my head (or behind the one-way mirror):
“What letter?” cries Allworthy.—“The letter, sir,” answered Dowling, “which I brought from Salisbury, and which I delivered into the hands of Mr Blifil.”—“O heavens!” cries Allworthy: “Well, and what were the words? What did my sister say to you?”—“She took me by the hand,” answered he, “and, as she delivered me the letter, said, `I scarce know what I have written. Tell my brother, Mr Jones is his nephew—He is my son.—Bless him,’ says she, and then fell backward, as if dying away. I presently called in the people, and she never spoke more to me, and died within a few minutes afterwards.”
For all his truth telling, however, Dowling is still ducking and dodging. Perhaps Flynn, Cohen and Manafort have done the same although I have more faith in Mueller than in Allworthy to see through evasions. Dowling may say that Blifil imposed on him, but Fielding notes that he knew exactly what was going on:
We have remarked somewhere already, that it is possible for a man to convey a lie in the words of truth; this was the case at present; for Blifil had, in fact, told Dowling what he now related, but had not imposed upon him, nor indeed had imagined he was able so to do. In reality, the promises which Blifil had made to Dowling [to become his personal attorney] were the motives which had induced him to secrecy; and, as he now very plainly saw Blifil would not be able to keep them, he thought proper now to make this confession, which the promises of forgiveness, joined to the threats, the voice, the looks of Allworthy, and the discoveries he had made before, extorted from him…
In other words, Dowling calculates that it’s time to make one of those plea deals we’ve been hearing so much about. In Dowling’s case, however, he has to do it on the spot, given that he has been “taken unawares, and had no time to consider of evasions.” One can’t help but admire his dexterity.
So justice prevails, with the virtuous lifted high and the guilty cast low. Tom is released from prison, becomes Allworthy’s heir, and marries the fair Sophia.
And Blifil? Well, he goes into politics.