Pete Hamill comes from that school of gifted journalists who took their literary skills into the world of books. Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote. Hamill, particularly, writes with his finger on the pulse of the Big Apple, a city he knows and loves and wraps virtually all his works around.
"Tabloid City" is no different. It's centered at The World, an old-fashioned New York City tabloid newspaper struggling to stay alive in the digital age. Its characters are from the old school, newsroom-smoking, typewriter-banging types who produce screaming headlines of murder and mayhem at the roar of a police siren.
And Hamill writes as if his novel were a tabloid newspaper, that Daily News/Post-genre of publications designed for easy reading on subways. He abandons quotation marks, preferring to set aside dialogue with dashes. Very often verb-less sentences: thoughts introduced not by words but by colons.
It's a story told in staccato tones, almost a stream-of-consciousness rendition written sometimes in the present tense, sometimes in the past tense. All would have been an acceptable literary endeavor had the story itself been riveting. It wasn't.
Hamill follows a timeline in telling the tale of the murders of a wealthy socialite, who happens to be the paramour of the newspaper's editor, and the socialite's housekeeper. He introduces too many characters in confusing fashion as they appear in the timeline, preventing the reader from latching onto one as the story unfolds.
It's almost as if he were writing a series of short stories and then trying to tie them together through the murders.
Except for the aging nearly-blind artist who meets the now-impoverished model he once bedded, and provides for her and her family as he dies. They had no connection to the murder.
Neither did the legless war veteran who wheels through the city vowing revenge with the Mac-10 hidden under the blanket on his lap. He doesn't do it, though, instead finding solace in a church.
So why did we meet them, the reader wonders.
The others were connected: the editor; the reporters who cover the story; the police officer whose wife was the murdered housekeeper; their son, the radical Muslim; and the young professional black woman befriended by the socialite. Her lover, by the way, was also murdered by those he bilked in a Ponzi scheme.
Hamill weaves into "Tabloid" his knowledge of literature, art, music and exotic places. Impressive, but it's not enough to salvage the tangled story lines.
In the end, what's billed as a mystery really isn't. Only one suspect ever emerges, and he emerges early, unlike the murder, the centerpiece of the tale, which doesn't take place until the reader spends nearly a fourth of the book trying to figure out what all these characters are doing here.
The melodramatic ending even lacks the sophistication Hamill aficionados have come to relish. Sometimes, it's difficult to determine if "Tabloid" really stands as Hamill's lament for newspaper days gone by. In that vein, "Tabloid" chronicles more than just the death of the socialite and her housekeeper. The newspaper also gets it when the editor, as he mourns his paramour's death, learns the young publisher has decided to dispense with print and make The World all digital.
Lee Coppola is the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.
By Pete Hamill
Little, Brown and Company
288 pgs, $26.99