Pete Hamill's Tabloid City begins in a newsroom and ends in a church — for protagonist Sam Briscoe, there's not much difference between the two. Briscoe is the devoted editor in chief of the New York World, the last afternoon tabloid in New York. The man lives for news, despite running a paper with a bare-bones staff and dwindling morale that is living in the shadows of days when newspapers were great; even Helen Loomis, a longtime Briscoe compatriot and female "rewrite man" is said to have "nothing left but cigarettes and loneliness."
But from two minutes past midnight, when we find Briscoe stuck at work trying to fit the story of a model student shot dead onto the front page, until 9:16 the following night when all the smoke clears, Hamill's exhilarating thriller explores a world where newspapers are as soaked in adrenaline as they are in ink.
With a doomsday meeting he can only assume is about the paper's (lack of) future looming, Briscoe's life is thrown into sensational mayhem when his girlfriend, the literary doyenne Cynthia Harding, and her assistant, Mary Lou Watson, are brutally butchered after a fundraiser in Harding's tony West Village townhouse. As police and reporters scramble to solve and cover the story — which required Briscoe to juggle mourning and printing an additional 100,000 newspapers to cash in on the tragedy — we follow the ensuing exploits of Watson's extremist son, his pregnant girlfriend, Harding's grieving protege and a scrum of shady wheelers and dealers that stretches from deepest Brooklyn all the way to the Bronx. And as anyone familiar with yellow journalism knows, there's never just one part to a grim story.
This tale is told through the eyes and experiences of that bulky cast of characters, from wheelchair-bound Iraq war veteran Josh Thompson to crooked businessman on the run Myles Compton; gossip blogger Freddie Wheeler to artist Beverly Starr (Hamill has always been great with names). As different as they all seem, each of the players has a vital and well-crafted place in the story. And when that double homicide — at an upscale address, no less — takes place, Hamill's round-robin technique becomes a vital way for readers to experience the wide-reaching effect of the crime without losing track of the other threads that give the book its texture and make it much more than another hard-boiled crime novel in a fedora.
Tabloid City's subplots really shine — this is where Hamill's attention to detail and talent for writing memorable characters are most apparent. Whether it's Briscoe's relationship with his Paris-based daughter, Mary Lou's top cop husband's harrowing experiences or even the way Richard Elwood, former World intern and the paper's current publisher, tarnishes his family's legacy, each piece of the story is thoughtfully crafted and written with care and cutting caricature. The frequent dropping of names — socialites, politicos and bankers all make the cut, but a special fondness is reserved for whiskey-soaked journalist's haunts — adds a personality and tabloid-style punch that Hamill, who has been editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and New York Daily News, clearly delights in.
Tabloid City is, at its core, exciting to read. The story is engaging and the characters distinct and fascinating. The only thing missing is a bit of ambition. After having written 20 books now, Hamill seems here to have settled into a familiar nook, doing what he does so well without reaching much outside of his comfort zone. It's not a stretch to imagine the author himself as Briscoe or to recognize Helen Loomis — "a straggler at a late-night party that was already over" — cub reporter Bobby Fonseca or even slaughtered society fixture Harding. This is not to say that the characters are in any way undeveloped; Hamill takes pains to keep this from being the case, only that the same determination is not applied to treading new ground.
Still, as a love letter to a time when there was "the muffled sound in Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room ... his editor's hands using calipers to pluck lines of lead from the bottom of stories. Everybody smoking, crushing butts on the floor. Hot type. Shouts. Sandwiches from the Greek's," perhaps greater striving isn't necessary. Tabloid City, just like the New York World, captures what Briscoe himself calls New York's "knowledge and intelligence and — for want of a better word — genius" and does so without unnecessary fanfare or flourish. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.