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Book review: Hamill's ‘Tabloid City’ more than just a thriller

By James E. Casto

"Tabloid City." By Pete Hamill. Little, Brown. 278 pages. $26.99.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a young man, Brooklyn-born Pete Hamill wanted to be a comic book artist. Later he tried his hand at painting. Then he switched his career goal yet again. He decided to become a writer. It would prove to be a fortunate decision -- for Hamill and for his legion of fans who have been delighted by the many books he's penned.

In 1960, Hamill went to work as a reporter for the New York Post and began to learn his craft. In 1962-63, a prolonged newspaper strike led him to writing magazine articles and soon he was in Europe as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post, roaming the continent and interviewing actors, movie directors, novelists and ordinary citizens.

Returning home, he resumed a newspaper career that would go on for decades, at the Post, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice and New York Newsday. He would serve briefly as editor of the Post, and later as editor in chief of the Daily News. His longer journalistic work has appeared in an impressive list of publications, including the New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone and New York magazine. Much of his work has been published in several nonfiction collections.

In 1968, Hamill published his first novel, a thriller called "A Killing for Christ," about a plot to assassinate the pope. Since then he has published nearly a dozen novels. Most -- like his latest, "Tabloid City" -- are set in New York. Over the years, Hamill has lived in Spain, Ireland, Mexico City, Puerto Rico, Rome, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, but sooner or later he has always returned to New York, a city he clearly loves.

The centerpiece of "Tabloid City" is a double murder at a plush Greenwich Village townhouse, but to describe the book as a thriller is a bit like saying "Moby Dick" is a book about a man chasing a whale. Technically that may be true, but there's so much more going on.

The opening paragraph of "Tabloid City" introduces the reader to Sam Briscoe, the gruff 71-year-old editor of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. As he enters the paper's city room, Briscoe doesn't know it, but he's on the threshold of the worst 24 hours of his life.

Briscoe is aware that his paper is on life support. What he doesn't realize when we first meet him is that this day's edition will be its last. The paper's young, wet-behind-the-ears owner is pulling the plug. Briscoe guesses as much when he's summoned to the young man's office.

"Christ," Briscoe tells himself, "I've lived too long. I'm being summoned to the palace by a twenty-eight-year-old. The dauphin. A kid who spent two summers here as an intern, couldn't get a fact straight. And earned his place at the top of the masthead because his mother died."

Briscoe regrets the paper's passing not so much for its impact on his own life. After all, he should be retiring anyway. But rather for the body blow it will be to his staff members -- and the void he knows it will leave in the city's daily life.

But as Briscoe struggles to come to terms with the paper's death notice, there comes an even more traumatic blow. He learns that one of the two victims in the Greenwich Village slayings is Cynthia Harding, a wealthy socialite who for years has been, aside from his grown daughter, the only woman in his life.

More than a dozen characters wander in and out of "Tabloid City" as the murder investigation unfolds and their paths intersect. A few too many characters for this reader's liking. Some of them play only bit parts. Others come dangerously close to being mere stereotypes.

But, despite this coming and going of other characters, this is very much Briscoe's book. And make no mistake, Briscoe is only a thinly disguised stand-in for Pete Hamill, who has given us a gritty snapshot of New York and a tribute to the journalists who cover the city's dark corners.

James E. Casto was a reporter and editor at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch for more than 40 years before he retired.


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