Review: Paul McHugh's second novel, Deadlines, is less of a mystery than a character study from an insider who clearly knows the newspaper business, inside and out.
Sebastian Palmer blew into The City late in the summer of 2007. By City, I actually mean California's "Babylon-by-the-Bay" — as a Post-Dispatch newspaper columnist once dubbed it — San Francisco.
Palmer is a newspaper neophyte from Florida, eager to make a name for himself as an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Post-Dispatch, just not sure he wants to start at the bottom writing press releases on upcoming events. He stumbles onto an interesting story when he takes a call from Beverly Bancroft, an elderly woman who tells him she's being threatened by members of the Cornu Point Association, which manage the coastal land given by her family to the state to preserve as a park. She offers to send him some information to support her claim, and he agrees to look at it. But the potential story takes a deadly turn when the next day Beverly Bancroft is accidentally killed by a rider on a horse while walking with her dog on Cornu Point. Palmer decides to look into the matter further and discovers there are those who found the old woman more than a little troublesome and may have had a motive for murder.
Deadlines uses the "Columbo" strategy of detailing the whodunit, howdunit, and, for all practical purposes, whydunit in an opening prelude, allowing (in this case) investigative reporter Sebastian Palmer to lay the groundwork for the authorities to identify the culprit. Assisting him are Elle Jatoba, a woman he meets at a rock climbing gym, and Colm MacCay, a long-time columnist, who the paper's new management would like nothing more than to see leave, voluntarily if possible. The book is largely narrated in first person from the point of view of MacCay, though some early chapters are written in third person, as if MacCay is providing background information to the reader. It's a little confusing initially, since MacCay was obviously not present to relate, for example, the conversation between Palmer and Elle while they're rock climbing, or the details of when Palmer first visits Cornu Point.
When all is said and done, however, the book is about MacCay. Palmer, the murder, the investigation, are all used to help define MacCay as a character, a Pulitzer Prize nominee (three times!) who's gotten cynical and jaded, who fondly recalls the glory days of the power and influence that newspapers once wielded and now fears what the future may hold for the medium, who relishes the fact that he can't be fired from a job that he obviously loves but seems to have grown to hate, and who sees in Palmer a younger version of himself and wonders how he came to be the man he is today. The subtitle of the book is "a novel of murder, conspiracy, and the media", which it most definitely is, but Deadlines is mostly a novel about the life journey of a journalist … and one has to wonder how biographical this tale may be.
Acknowledgment: Paul McHugh provided a copy of Deadlines for this review.
Review Copyright © 2010 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Location(s) referenced in Deadlines: San Francisco, California
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Deadlines by Paul McHugh
Publisher: Lost Coast
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: February 2010
List Price: $16.95