By William Heffernan

Morrow. 276 pp. $24

Reviewed by Steve Weinberg

Novels about journalists almost never work. Non-journalists who write them frequently demonize their characters beyond reason. Journalists who write them frequently glamorize their characters beyond experience.

That is especially true of the novels that feature investigative reporters, a small subset of real-life journalists. In real life, investigative reporters occasionally ferret out significant corruption within government or the private sector. Normally, though, investigative reporters come up empty, or at best find questionable behavior that never crosses over into illegality. They are by nature observers, not participants.

In novels, on the other hand, investigative journalists usually have a lot of sex on the job, betray their sources, become murder targets and -- amid all the hoo-haw -- manage to solve murders often enough to obviate the need for police in some parts of the country.

Until now, I have read only one novel with an investigative reporter as protagonist that mostly rings true. It is The Fly on the Wall, written by Tony Hillerman in 1971, before he became famous for his mysteries set in the American Southwest and featuring an Indian sleuth -- in other words, a non-journalist.

A decidedly unglamorous investigative reporter myself, I know whereof I speak when it comes to my fictional counterparts. That is because I collect novels with journalists as protagonists. The collection of about 2,000 books (and growing) resides at the University of Missouri library. So imagine my surprise while reading this novel by William Heffernan, his 12th. One of the previous 11, Acts of Contrition (1986), features a journalist. She is Jennifer Brady, a beautiful (of course), streetwise reporter at the New York Globe who uncovers the unsavory details behind the rise of a labor union leader. It was mostly a forgettable book. Heffernan, despite or because of his former life as a New York Daily News reporter, fell into the usual traps.

Not this time. Cityside, set in the New York Globe newsroom circa 1975, works. Flawlessly plotted, seamlessly written, it portrays investigative reporting accurately.

Heffernan's protagonist is reporter Billy Burke, a handsome (of course) journalist whose career has been derailed by womanizing, a hair-trigger temper and heartbreak over an institutionalized autistic daughter. Burke's editor is Lenny Twist, a calculating, venom-filled contemporary who wants the newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize. Twist dislikes Burke's handsomeness, easy way with women and disdain for authority. She is smart enough, however, to recognize Burke's talents. So when a disgruntled, whistleblowing nurse offers the newspaper a tip about wrongdoing at a New York City hospital, Twist assigns the story to Burke. In return, Twist expects nothing less than a Pulitzer Prize.

From that point, almost nothing fits the formula, and I mean that as a compliment. Burke does not fall in love with the nurse, nor does he sleep with another beautiful woman who walks into the story soon thereafter. Burke does not become a murder target. Burke does not solve a murder, either.

What Burke does is attempt to ferret out corruption in the medical community by following the trails that real-life journalists would normally follow. Do things go unrealistically smoothly? Yes. Are some characters and situations overdrawn? Yes. But does the novel ever depart totally from the realm of verisimilitude? No. To achieve that while carrying a compelling plot line is quite an accomplishment.

One of Heffernan's smartest decisions is setting the novel in 1975 rather than 1999. Investigative reporting had become hot by 1975, thanks to Watergate. Journalists in newsrooms all over the country were feeling their way, trying to adjust to their new role and new image. Heffernan uses that period of uncertainty to drive the story.

Despite its successes, Cityside is not the Moby-Dick of journalism novels because Heffernan is no Melville. But the book at least approaches the work of Hillerman.

Steve Weinberg is writing a biography of Ida Tarbell, the turn-of-the-century muckraking author, from his home in Columbia, Mo.