In fact and fiction, crusading, risk-taking, often wise-cracking reporters have long been luminaries of our popular culture.
The muckrakers of the early 20th century exposed corruption and forced historic reforms. In 1928, Chicago reporters Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s play “The Front Page” introduced devil-may-care reporter Hildy Johnson, whose antics delight us still. During the Watergate era, The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward helped bring down a president, wrote a best-selling book and were miraculously reborn on film as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. In 1996, in his novel “The Poet,” ex-reporter Michael Connelly sent his fictional alter ego in pursuit of a serial killer and sent his own career into orbit.
Novelist Brad Parks works in this venerable tradition. He was a reporter for this newspaper in the 1990s, moved to the Newark Star-Ledger and when he turned to fiction, he created as his alter ego, Carter Ross of the Newark Eagle-Examiner. “The Player,” the fifth novel in his Ross series, makes clear why Parks has won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty crime-fiction awards. It’s both an exciting look at how a reporter can challenge big-city crime and an often hilarious account of the complexities of one young man’s romantic life.
In “The Player,” we first glimpse Ross when, on a slow day in the Eagle-Examiner’s newsroom, he takes a call from an unknown citizen. He reflects for a moment on kook calls, which all reporters know can arrive from self-promoters, conspiracy theorists, the drunk, deranged and demented or even, on occasion, from people with something of interest to say.
This call is from a young African American woman who reports that a mysterious illness has killed her grandmother and made 20 or more of their inner-city neighbors desperately ill. Ross hurries to the scene and soon suspects that the illnesses are caused by toxic waste released from a nearby construction project that’s supposed to bring high-rise luxury and much-needed jobs to the community.
Ross’s investigation reminds us how closely connected commercial interests, political corruption and organized crime can be in our cities. He meets the would-be tycoon — the player of the title — who’s behind the construction project but may not be as high-minded as he purports. Ross suspects that environmental laws have been violated and the local mob may be involved.
He encounters a rich, eccentric environmentalist who lives to organize protests and a shady lawyer who plans to sue the tycoon for millions on behalf of people who are sick and dying. The businessman’s hard-drinking father, angry ex-wife and conniving mistress further complicate matters.
Throughout, Parks gives us a crash course on how a reporter can use fair means and foul to shine light on hidden secrets. He educates us on the origins and dangers of toxic waste and the difficulties of proving the harm it causes. But he finds that the most dangerous toxicity arises from greedy humans; two people central to the story are murdered, and Ross must investigate that, as well.
Parks deftly mixes the serious business of crime with the humor that he finds in the Eagle-Examiner’s newsroom and in his hero’s romantic life. Ross is 32, tall, blue-eyed and handsome, all of which leads him into endless hot water, particularly since he’s prone to newsroom romances. At one point, he confesses, “As a member of the bigger-but-dumber half of the species, I am not necessarily endowed with the greatest instincts when it comes to dealing with the smaller-but-smarter half.”
The reporter takes us on an extended tour of his newsroom and the colleagues he considers his “extended, mildly dysfunctional family.” He’s fond of the paper’s interns, whom he views as “cheap labor and eager helpmates,” but he has sworn off romantic interludes with the young women because of past disasters.
Staff buyouts have lowered the newsroom’s average age to about 24, he reports, although one old-timer is “far too cantankerous to give us the pleasure of seeing him quit.” We glimpse an inscrutable executive editor whose “interest in a story was often described in terms of the intensity of the erection it gave him,” and we meet the tough but gorgeous colleague whom Ross has inadvertently impregnated. He starts dreaming sweet dreams of fatherhood, but the lady in question intends to pursue motherhood without him. After one dispute, he tells us, “She gave me a look people usually save for backed-up toilets.”
As the story races to a close, Ross struggles to deal with the mother-to-be who wants him out of her life and mobsters who want the life out of him. It’s all neatly resolved. “The Player” is a highly entertaining tale and one of the best portraits of a working reporter since Connelly’s Jack McEvoy went after that serial killer in “The Poet.”
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.