“Shining City” (Ecco/HarperCollins), by Tom Rosenstiel
Ex-Army investigator Peter Rena was in the Special Forces, but now he is a fixer at a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., “with a quiet and vaguely menacing quality about him.” And he’s not your typical problem-solver in the nation’s capital but “the guy who comes in when PR won’t work.”
Rena and his partner Randi Brooks are pulled into a challenging new assignment from the president after the death of an aging liberal Supreme Court justice, who keels over on the golf course with a heart attack. They get the difficult job of screening a potential judicial nominee to replace him, with the added pressure of making sure he gets confirmed.
The process of checking out a potential Supreme Court nominee might not seem the stuff of political thrillers, but author Tom Rosenstiel goes about it by offering perceptive details of the complex process, a smart cast of political and media characters and timely shifting from one chapter — and location — to another. And running in a parallel plotline is a shadowy West Coast character with a taste for homicide.
How these two plotlines are related is a mystery through most of the book — and keeps the pages turning.
While Rena, pronounced rehn-nah as he occasionally reminds his clients, has a fascinating background, he leads a less than compelling life these days, recently divorced and childless. When not out working on assignments, he spends most of his time when at his Civil War-era home near Georgetown, “reading, working and, too often, falling asleep in his den.”
Rena, who is Republican, and his partner Brooks, a liberal Democrat, have the job of helping a Democratic president get a federal judge from northern California cleared to face the high hurdle of confirmation to the Supreme Court. The bipartisan nature of the Rena-Brooks team is one of many Washington details that ring true because businesses here are often set up to appeal to those from either political party as long as they can pay the tab.
The team of Rena and Brooks track down Judge Roland Madison in his rustic home in a town near San Francisco, where he lives with his daughter Victoria, a tanned and athletic young lawyer, who soon develops an attraction for Rena.
As the book shifts from one plotline to the next, it soon becomes clear that the menacing West Coast killer has some interest in the activities of the judge and his daughter.
At the same time, Rena and his partner gradually piece together details of the judge’s background from earlier days that could become a problem for a nominee to the high court.
Rosenstiel skillfully shifts from one scene to the next as he offers fascinating details of life in the capital and outlines many of the hurdles that must be navigated in an assignment like getting a Supreme Court nominee through the thicket of Washington.
And the two plotlines converge as the pace quickens and the story takes a chilling turn.
The author of “Shining City” is a veteran journalist and news media analyst who has written numerous nonfiction books about the intersection of media and politics. His experience in Washington helps create a very realistic, though often cynical, view of what Washington is like.
Perhaps the best measure of his first novel is that it will leave many readers eager to see what comes next for Peter Rena and friends.
Will Lester, a political writer for The Associated Press for a dozen years, is an editor in the AP’s Washington Bureau.
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