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Miss the Good Ole Days of Journalism?

Pete Hamill’s thriller is an obit to old-school

Pete Hamil's 'Tabloid City'

Pete Hamill’s 11th novel, Tabloid City, is a crime story — and its twist, for better or worse, is that it keeps you wondering which corpse you’re supposed to care about most.

Should it be the socialite who is killed one evening in Manhattan?

Or the young woman who dies in labor after she’s locked in a  room by her jihadist boyfriend?

Or might the body in question be more of an abstraction? Over the course of this hyperactive novel, Hamill suggests we are witnessing the death of reading, the death of art, even the death of working-class dignity. Regardless, the book’s most intriguing corpse — the one we meet first, and the one Hamill spends the most time palpating — is journalism, symbolized by the fictional afternoon daily newspaper whose throat gets cut halfway through the action.

If anyone has earned the right to make broad statements about the profession, it’s the 75-year-old Hamill. As a reporter and editor for tabloids such as the New York Post and New York Daily News from 1960 to 2003, Hamill specialized in the sort of blood-in-the-gutter fare that once made papers fly off newsstands. His skilled emotional observation yielded brash, deeply researched stories about boxers, mafiosi and movie stars, not to mention Pete Hamill himself: A Drinking Life (1993) is a classic of the memoir genre.

As it happens, the hero of Tabloid City bears some decidedly Hamillesque traits: Sam Briscoe, editor-in-chief of the New York World, indulges in occasional reveries about the good old days of newspapering and “the tabloid joy of murder at a good address.” But there’s little time for war stories: In the course of the novel’s 24 wintry hours in Manhattan, Sam will lose his paper, a former lover and his general sense of well-being.

The “murder at a good address” involves Cynthia Harding, a fundraiser for the New York Public Library, who is fatally stabbed in her Greenwich Village home along with her assistant, Mary Lou Watson. From this grisly hub radiate some convenient spokes: Mary Lou’s son is a militant Muslim whose father happens to sit on the NYPD’s anti-terrorism task force. Sam and Cynthia, meanwhile, turn out to be former lovers.

Devoted thriller readers will easily tolerate those co-inky-dinks. Tougher to swallow is that the murder allegedly propelling the plot does not occur until 100 pages in. Rather than using that stretch of prose to create an intricate web of intrigue, Hamill gives us chapters featuring two, three … 14 different characters.

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