'Tabloid City' Spins A Thriller From The Newsroom

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
 
Tabloid City
By Pete Hamill
Hardcover, 288 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt

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.

Pete Hamill has written and edited for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. i i

Pete Hamill has written and edited for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Deirde Hamill/Quest Imagery hide caption

itoggle caption Deirde Hamill/Quest Imagery
Pete Hamill has written and edited for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Pete Hamill has written and edited for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Deirde Hamill/Quest Imagery

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.

Excerpt: 'Tabloid City'

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
 
Tabloid City
By Pete Hamill
Hardcover, 288 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $26.99

12:02 a.m. Sam Briscoe. City room of New York World, 100 West Street.

Here comes Briscoe, seventy-one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty- six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and MSNBC. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn't look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty.

–We got the wood yet? Briscoe says.

Logan smiles and runs a hand through his thick white hair and gazes past Briscoe at the desks. Briscoe thinks: We live in the capital of emptiness. Logan is fifty-one and in some way the thick white hair makes him seem younger. Crowning the shaven face, the ungullied skin.

–The kid's still writing, Logan says, gesturing to his left. Maybe you could remind him this is a daily.

Briscoe grunts at one of the oldest lines in the newspaper business. Thinking: It's still true. He sees the Fonseca kid squinting at his computer screen, seeing nothing else, only the people he has interviewed hours earlier, far from the city room. Briscoe leans over Logan's shoulder, glances up at the big green four-sided copper clock hanging from the ceiling, a clock salvaged from Pulitzer's World. Thinking: Still plenty of time.

–What else do we have? he says, dropping coat and jacket over a blank computer monitor. The early editions of the morning papers are scattered on the desk, the Times, the Post, the News. Logan clicks on a page that shows four possible versions of the wood. The page 1 headline. Briscoe thinks: I'm so old. He remembers seeing page 1 letters actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf- mutes, signaling to each other by hand. Paul Sann trimming stories on the stone counters beyond the Linotype machines, 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. All gone forever.

One possible front page says Jobs Rising? With a subhead: Mayor Says Future Bright. New unemployment numbers are due in the morning. The AP story will lead what they now call the Doom Page, always page 5, the hard stuff about the financial mess, with a sidebar trying to make the recession human. Names. Faces. Losers. Pain. If they have jobs, it's a recession. If they don't have jobs, it's a depression. Foreign news is on page 8, usually from AP and Reuters, no overseas bureaus anymore, plus features bought from a new Web service that has correspondents all over the planet. Obama Mourns Afghan Deaths. Plus a thumbsucker out of the one- man Washington bureau. The problem is that most readers don't give a rat's ass. Not about Iraq, not about Afghanistan, only about whether they can still feed their kids next week, or the week after. Two more suicide bombings in Baghdad. Another bombing in Pakistan. A girls' school. More stats counting the dead, without names or faces. It has been months since foreign news was used as wood.

–What else ya got? Briscoe says.

Logan picks up a ringing phone, whispers to the caller, but keeps clicking on the various page 1 displays. Bloomie's Lament. All about more city job cuts, the need for a fair share of the stimulus package, the crackdown on parking permits for well- connected

pols, the assholes in Albany grabbing what is not nailed down. And closing libraries while heading for the limousines. News should be new. This is all old. With this stuff, Briscoe thinks, we might even achieve negative sales. Logan gets off the phone.

–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he's shot dead in the street. Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing

–That's the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.

She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.

–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.

–Yeah. We don't have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that's the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.

Logan points to a young man's body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.

–Then he's dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.

–Why?

–The usual shit, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there's a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They're gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.

Excerpted from Tabloid City by Pete Hamill. Copyright 2011 by Pete Hamill. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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