By Tom Rosenstiel
Ecco. 368 pp. $26.99
Reviewed by John Timpane
Normally, it would be hard to believe a book as good as Shining City could be anyone's first attempt at a thriller.
But the author here is Tom Rosenstiel, longtime Newsweek and Los Angeles Times journalist. He also helped found the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in 1997, and he is executive director of the American Press Institute. His nonfiction creds are immense, with important books on the election (Strange Bedfellows) and impeachment (Warp Speed) of Bill Clinton, and a career of informed reportage on politics.
Now he has written Shining City, an adult thriller with an authoritative vision informed by Rosenstiel's experience covering Washington. It's lucidly, often vividly written. People have straightforward, informational conversations, the kind that real people don't ever have but that thrillers always do. It's always interesting, often fascinating, with the right hair-raising momentum uphill to the finish. For my last sitting, I had 130 pages to go and they seemed to flip themselves.
Setting: Washington. Democratic President James Nash wants to nominate Edmund Roland Madison to the Supreme Court. A distinguished judge and scholar, Madison is also an odd duck. With a 53-47 edge in the Senate, Republicans, split between moderates and extremist conservatives, could cripple the nomination over the merest quibble. Groups such as Common Sense on the right will try to derail it because Madison is too liberal. Groups like Fair Chance for America on the left may do it because he's not liberal enough.
Nash calls in Peter Rena and Randi Brooks, partners in a firm of "fixers." Their job is to research Madison and find issues before anyone else does. Rena is conservative and Brooks is to his left. As characters, Rena is better rendered, although Brooks eventually comes into her own. Both care about truth; both are drawn to the light and to "the darker side of the city" that makes them "want to fight more."
This is the world of power politics, both the business-as-usual kind and the covert, nasty, soulless kind. We meet Gary Gold, a competitive go-getter of an investigative reporter. We meet Josh Albin, "the conscience of the political right, the enemy of compromise," the founder of Citizens for Freedom, an aggressive opposition research group. And we meet senators and representatives.
Some of the book's best moments are its snapshots of origins, power, character. Lewis Burke, Republican senator from Michigan, is from automobile money and derives "much of his power . . . operating behind the scenes, guiding actions in surprising ways and doing favors in unexpected places." He moves freely as a "northern Republican with a secure seat."
Such stuff is what makes Shining City not just a rip-snorter but also a persuasive picture of the clash of powers at the heart of our institutions. A little slip can crucify you. Bending the rules is both a danger and a necessity. Knowledge of how things work drives narrative, motives, action, the very weather. Rosenstiel puts what he has learned as a reporter to good use as a thriller master.
See what I did? I got through this review without touching on the other major plot, the twists and turns, what we learn about the law, the past, what can heal and what can't. It's all sustained, carefully paced, concrete. In a superb summing-up, Rena looks out his window at waves of young, idealistic, brilliant people striding to work, "A city of the exceptional, the best of their generation, come to give back, to make a difference. It is one of his favorite things about the city, and one of the things that makes it feel tragic." It's hard to believe this novel is so good - or that it will be Tom Rosenstiel's last.