Quick Review: SHINING CITY by Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco)

RosenstielT-1-ShiningCityUSPolitical intrigue and machinations surrounding a SCOTUS nomination. And a killer looking for revenge…

Peter Rena is a “fixer.” He and his partner, Randi Brooks, earn their living making the problems of the powerful disappear. They get their biggest job yet when the White House hires them to vet the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Judge Roland Madison is a legal giant, but he’s a political maverick, with views that might make the already tricky confirmation process even more difficult. Rena and his team go full-bore to cover every inch of the judge’s past, while the competing factions of Washington D.C. mobilize with frightening intensity: ambitious senators, garrulous journalists, and wily power players on both sides of the aisle.

All of that becomes background when a string of seemingly random killings overlaps with Rena’s investigation, with Judge Madison a possible target. Racing against the clock to keep his nominee safe, the President satisfied, and the political wolves at bay, Rena learns just how dangerous Washington’s obsession with power — how to get it and how to keep it — can be.

This is a very fine debut novel. It is the story of a judicial confirmation, the personal and political aspects of such a fight, colliding with a quest for vengeance. If you’re looking for an intelligent political drama, then Shining City is for you. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

I first started reading this during the 2016 presidential election, which was not a great idea. I felt I was overloaded with politics — so much of it awful — that I had to put it aside for a while. When I finally got around to re-starting, I was very quickly hooked. Rosenstiel’s background is in political journalism and ethics, and the story is packed with interesting details that enhance the story, characters and highlight many of the forces operating in Washington, D.C. There’s a healthy amount of cynicism, too, reflected in this reference:

What was it that Lily Tomlin once said about Washington? “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

The story moves at a fair clip, but isn’t rushed. The pacing is reminiscent of Michael Connelly’s Bosch series, in fact. The author spends time with the characters, properly introducing us to Rena and Brooks — two very different partners, each of whom brings their own strengths to not only their fictional operation, but also the story. Rena is the primary character, and it was so refreshing to read a Republican moderate character — after so many years of watching the GOP’s gradual, inevitable capture by the Tea Party and more-extreme forces, Rena was like a breath of fresh air. (Now that I think about it, I think reading this during the campaign months was just depressing — it gave me a sense of “Whither the sensible alternatives?” maybe.)

The novel is not, however, a partisan story. Rosenstiel directs his ire and criticism towards the process and performance aspects of politics, as opposed to taking on Democrats and/or Republicans and their specific politics. It is the culture of Washington, therefore, that is put under the microscope. As a result, the novel, often through Judge Madison, offers a good deal of commentary about American political processes, as well as some interesting little bits of history that many either won’t know or at least have forgotten.

“You know that the hearing process is a sham, don’t you?” Madison says. “The senators ask questions to curry favor with interest groups. The nominees score points by not actually answering them. No one learns anything. It’s become a disappointing, meaningless ritual. Surviving it says nothing about whether someone would be a thoughtful constitutional jurist.”

Or, as in this following example, nods to history that aren’t integral to the plot:

1820 Jefferson Place, more for history than convenience. Theodore Roosevelt and his family had lived here during the Harrison administration, when Roosevelt was working for the Civil Service Commission. The charm of that connection may have meant less to their employees, who are spilled over the narrow house’s four floors. But Washington, D.C., was a city of anonymous thirteen-story office buildings adorned in a brass and marble style that suggested high Soviet Union or maybe low Donald Trump.

[Given the typical path to publication, I think Shining City would have likely been finished before Trump even declared his candidacy.]

The secondary plot, that of a killer on a quest for vengeance, was interesting although at times I felt it wasn’t necessary. That being said, I’m obsessed with American politics and history, so I would have been happy with just that side of the story. The inclusion of a crime element does give the novel wider appeal, and it is well-done. We’re left guessing about the connection between the murders and the Judge (it’s obvious that there’s a connection, so I don’t think that’s a spoiler), and we learn as Rena and Brooks do Madison’s vetting.

I really enjoyed Shining City, and I’m glad to have discovered, via Twitter, that Rosenstiel is working on a new novel (The Good Lie). There are many other things I could have picked up on in this review — especially his commentary on politics and politicians — but ultimately what you need to know is that this is just a damn-good political novel and drama. If you’re a fan of The West Wing, Allen Drury’s Advice & Consent series, or Richard North Patterson’s Kerry Kilcannon novels, then I think you’ll enjoy Shining City.


Tom Rosenstiel’s Shining City is out now, published by Ecco. Rosenstiel’s next novel, The Good Lie, is coming soon.

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