Washington, D.C., is the “Shining City” of journalist Tom Rosenstiel’s skillful and memorable first novel—a place of big egos, self-righteous ideologues and dysfunctional government. “No one survives long in the city counting on it to be better than it is,” thinks Peter Rena, the book’s “pragmatic idealist” protagonist. “That doesn’t mean . . . you should make it worse.”
Rena, an ex-Special Forces soldier, does his best to make things better as a private crisis consultant for business, legal and political clients: He’s “the guy who comes in when PR won’t work.” It’s a daunting opportunity for Rena when his small firm is hired not only to vet the maverick judge whom the president wants to fill a Supreme Court vacancy but to make sure that he wins Senate confirmation.
It doesn’t help that the jurist in question is a gruff-spoken Bay Area “public intellectual” with no obvious support and a history of unconventional statements. Even as Rena and his team lead the recalcitrant judge through tough mock questioning, they scour his past for any obscure words or deeds that might surface to embarrass him. Alarm bells ring at the discovery of the recent murders of at least two people connected to a homicide case the judge presided over decades ago: Are these deaths coincidental or part of a revenge conspiracy that may target the nominee himself?
“Shining City” has the excitement of a courtroom thriller. Its 24-hour attempt “to solve murders three thousand miles and three months apart” delivers the excitement of a police procedural. And its sketches of a host of D.C. types have a nice satiric edge (“Contrary to the caricature his critics make of him, the man is a good deal more than the sum of his resentments”). Finally its hero’s ruminations on politics as the art of the possible give readers much to ponder. “On balance,” a poker-faced Rena concludes, “I think it’s better not to have liars and criminals in government.”
Keep your friends close but your political enemies closer. Peter Rena and his partner, Randi Brooks, are “fixers” who are known for being extremely effective in making problems go away. That’s difficult in Washington, DC, where the struggle for political power is ruthless. When a Supreme Court justice dies suddenly, Rena and Brooks are hired by the president to vet his replacement nominee. Judge Roland Madison is a political maverick, which makes the proceedings even more difficult for everyone. The nomination process then takes a deadly turn when Rena uncovers a series of seemingly random killings that might be connected to Madison. Could Madison also be a target? Rena and Brooks must race to figure out who is behind the murders as they try to protect the president from any political fallout and save Madison’s life. VERDICT Veteran journalist Rosenstiel’s debut novel “shines” with page-turning intensity that will make readers hope that this book is the beginning of a new series. Highly recommended for legal and political thriller junkies and fans of David Baldacci and John Grisham.
-- Library Journal, Starred Review
Rosenstiel is out to write a roof-rattling thriller, and he’s brought it off in doubles. Peter Rena is a Washington, D.C., operator whose special skill is making problems disappear. This time his client is the president of the U.S., no less, and the problem is the background of the chief executive’s potential Supreme Court nominee. Could he be too radical? He did, after all, protest the Vietnam War. As Rena digs into the past of this man, “who looks like a wholesome Peter O’Toole,” a serial killer goes to work, and we discover, as Rena does, that everything is connected. What’s really fun here is watching old-hand Washington observer Rosenstiel drop insights about the Kabuki world of the nation’s capital. A restaurant hostess doesn’t take drink orders—it’s a status thing. To keep an interview subject ignorant of your agenda, “make him mad at you.” The thriller plot returns, hammer and tongs, for a fine action finale, but what we remember most is characters like the vice president. He’s taken on a gaunt look from attending too many funerals. Give this one to fans of the late, great Ross Thomas.
Rosenstiel “makes his fiction debut with this polished, entertaining political thriller. President James Nash hires Washington, D.C. spin doctors Peter Rena and Randi Brooks to “scrub” potential Supreme Court nominee Roland Madison. Their researchers reveal a 1960s radical taint in Judge Madison’s background, providing red meat for challenges from Nash’s opponents—in particular the founder an ultra-right wing group Citizens for Freedom. But a more alarming problem arises when the murdered bodies of Madison’s colleagues start turning up. Rena and Brooks must now expand their investigation to hunt for a serial killer. The conservative Rena and the liberal Brooks are an engaging team and Rosenstiel does a brilliant job of dramatizing how Washington’s sausage is made…”
-- Publishers Weekly
Reading a political thriller during the Trump administration is like watching the actions of the Oval Office from the wrong side of the looking glass. Conspiratorial senators, nosy news reporters, secret deals made with international power players—that all just seem so normal these days. But the genre is still great fun to read, especially when the book is as well-observed and sharply written as Tom Rosenstiel's Shining City.
Its plot, even when reminiscent of a more predictable Washington, still speaks to the current moment: President Nash seeks to appoint a controversial justice to the Supreme Court but fears his political adversaries will find something disqualifying in the candidate's past. That's where Peter Rena and Randi Brooks come in. A conservative ex-soldier and progressive lawyer, respectively, the duo is a strange match by Washington's standards.
Their differences are what make them one of the city's most sought-after fix-it teams. They solve the problems of D.C.'s most powerful by investigating potentially problematic nominees and devising ways to thwart the press. But when they're hired to vet Roland Madison, the president's Supreme Court nominee, Rena is immediately suspicious—why would the president choose a moderate judge when his cabinet wants someone more liberal? And why would he hire outside the White House for such a high-profile vetting job? The questions haunt him as he, his partner and their team of researchers delve into Madison's background.
When the investigation turns up a history of Berkeley radicalism and possible connection to a member of the Weather Underground, Rena feels his fears justified. Neither Democrats nor Republicans would confirm a judge with a record like that.
It's here that Rosenstiel's talent for balance departs from the genre's norm. He doesn't take sides—readers of all political stripes will enjoy this book. Rather, he focuses on the complex machinations of federal government. "Two Madison positions seemed to be causing the most trouble with conservatives--his repudiation of the Court's recent decisions on free speech and his criticism of strict constructionism on original intent," Rena muses to himself has he plots his team's next move. "But Madison had support from some conservative scholars, and there were signs at least on important political group, the National rifle Association, might support." With hair-splitting like this, Shining City rises as one of the smartest thrillers in recent memory.
Between the investigative chapters, another perspective emerges—that of an unnamed killer. At first his victims seem unconnected to the main story, but as Rena and Brooks connect more dots, they begin to question whether Madison might be the killer's next target. The possibility of murder quickens an already fast-paced story, but the plot never slips. Each chapter balances cut-throat action with fascinating insider observations, and line-to-line, Rosenstiel's writing is sparkling clear, even when parsing Washington's confusing matrix of ideology and special-interest groups. The dialogue is also well-written. It drives the story forward, and the characters speak like real people.
The novel further achieves verisimilitude with its analogs to real-world persons of influence. A conservative group that calls themselves the Common Sense movement echoes the Tea Party in both its platform and political tactics, and a Vermont senator with a New York accent, the "most liberal person in the Senate," appears as a member of the Judiciary Committee. But, thankfully, the book never teeters into parody. Each character is uniquely motivated, and together, they form a refreshingly original cast.
Rosenstiel's background surely influenced his writing. The co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, he worked for over 30 years at media powerhouses like the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, where he served as chief congressional correspondent. And he is the author, co-author, and editor of seven works of nonfiction, including 2011's Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload, and most recently, The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century (2013). Unsurprisingly, Shining City is at its best whenever the press has more information than it should.
With its slam-bang pace, richly-drawn characters, and intricate examination of political skullduggery, Shining City is more than a thrilling adventure—it's a hard look at how and why Washington so often falls short of its shiny, hill-top ideal.
Outside of presidential elections, the most intense zero-sum partisan rock fight in American politics is the occasional anointing of a new Supreme Court justice.
With his smart new political thriller, “Shining City,’’ journalist, media critic, and first-time novelist Tom Rosenstiel shows great timing. His murder mystery, set against the backdrop of the vetting, nomination, and delicate political sales job for a new Supreme Court justice, is launching just as America is about to endure the real thing.
In Rosenstiel’s Washington, the president, a nominal Democrat whose actual leanings are “harder to define,’’ aims for something bigger. He wants to restore the court’s independence by picking a nominee that defies political ideology, someone “of independent judgement and moderate pragmatism,” as Rosenstiel writes, the kind of judge that partisans on both sides can hate equally.
Meanwhile, there’s an apparent serial killer running around smashing people with rocks. Rosenstiel, a former correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, is the executive director of the American Press Institute. He has consulted for The Boston Globe and other newspapers on initiatives to rethink how papers cover the news.
“Shining City’’ ’s protagonist, Peter Rena, is a military special-forces veteran who has become a Washington political fixer. (In fiction, special forces guys never retire to go into woodworking or accounting.) Rena helps powerful clients get rid of problems, such as a scandal-tainted Republican congresswoman who needs to be eased into retirement to limit the electoral damage to the caucus. Rena’s firm, one of the few of its kind that takes work from both parties, is hired by President Nash to discreetly scrub the background of a potential nominee and manage the administration’s effort to get the judge confirmed by the US Senate.
Though he can’t seem to stop looking over his shoulder for a double-cross, Rena puts his firm’s prestige on the line and throws himself into the job.
In 2010, as part of the Washington press corps, I witnessed the Supreme Court confirmation process first hand, while covering the battle over Elena Kagan’s nomination. I can attest that Rosenstiel nails the tense atmosphere of DC during a “scotus’’ battle — the desperation of warring partisans with so much at stake amid competing pressures exerted by factions within their parties. Most of all, he captures the cynical sense that the parts of the ritual the public gets to see are just shadows in Plato’s cave, with the real confirmation taking place behind ornate oak doors.
Yet “Shining City’’ is not an ideological book. The reader sees the players through shifting points-of-view, so we see them as they see themselves, in their best light.
We likewise get inside the murderer, for a killer’s-eye view of the crimes that keeps the identity of the perpetrator properly hidden.
Rosenstiel writes well, sometimes even beautifully, and his sketches of scenes and characters are thoughtful and vivid. But at times it feels as if he gives too much — every bit character has a first name, a last name, and a smidge of history or defining detail.
Crime fiction fans trained to suss out clues in this kind of information may wonder as I did: Am I supposed to keep track of all these people? It also takes some time for the court confirmation storyline to intersect with the murder mystery, but the reader is in good hands, and Rosenstiel delivers a satisfying wrap-up.
Rena, the fixer, operates in the world of politics, but his creator is a journalist, and it is easy to see where Rena gets his ethics. “Above all Rena believed in facts,” Rosenstiel writes. “Facts were real and had a habit of sticking around. And when there were a sufficient number of them, you could know the truth about something. Maybe not all of it, but enough.”
It is a world view that has always been true, but in an era of alternative facts, when notions of verifiable truth are under assault, it reads like something that should be chipped into stone somewhere in Washington.