Book Review: Journalist spins riveting tale of murder and intrigue along the California coast

Special to SF Public Press
 — Aug 11 2010 - 1:37pm

A conservationist is trampled to death by a horse on the seaside wildlands of Cornu Point, donated to the state by her father as a nature preserve and now so manicured and exclusive that the public is discouraged from walking its trails.

An intern reporter at The San Francisco Post-Dispatch discovers that the victim is the same elderly woman he spoke with on the phone just days before — a caller dismissed by newsroom veterans as a nattering crank. 

The reporter investigates and is beaten into a coma when he trods onto the no-man's land that separates the elegant  park from the secretive and scruffy enclave of Castello, a community whose mania for privacy is enforced by vigilantes known for the unbridled application of their fists.

Enter Colm MacCay, the anti-hero of Paul McHugh's novel "Deadlines" (Lost Coast Press, $16.95), a besotted, arrogant and wildly insecure newspaper columnist beyond his prime, who swaggers and staggers onto the story and wants to make it his own. Unraveling the murder and the assault before the competition scoops him, could resuscitate MacCay’s faltering career -- and, of course, bring a measure of justice to the victims.

Is he driven by ego, idealism or remorse? MacCay's rationale is as much of a mystery as the motives for the crimes. In fact, the question of "why" is even more important than "who" in McHugh's quick-paced tale of abused personal and public trust. It's the latter that lies at the heart of the story.

In "Deadlines," the transformation of protected wildlands into a luxury resort is just as heinous as the slaying of land activist Beverly Bancroft and the beating of reporter Sebastian Palmer.

"It's said that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom — actually, it's the price of everything," McHugh said at a reading at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. "Ripping off the commonwealth is not just the crime of the century; it's been the crime of the last 10 centuries."

McHugh's sense of justice and adventure, as well as his experiences as a newsman at The San Francisco Chronicle (where we both worked for more than 20 years), inform virtually every aspect of his novel.

Though Cornu Point, like the town of Castello, is fictional, its inspiration can be found in reality. In the mid-1990s, McHugh's exposé on the Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey led to an overhaul of the operation and state practices. It was a call from a reader, ignored by his colleagues, that prompted his investigative articles.

The template for Castello can be found in seaside communities on the San Mateo County coast that were the favored spots for rum-runners in the days of Prohibition — as well as in a North Bay town once notorious for pulling down road signs so that anyone who didn't live there couldn't find it.

McHugh, who was the co-editor and main feature writer for the Chronicle's Outdoors section, is well versed in the Bay Area's back roads and their lore, lending the novel a keen sense of place. His experience as a skilled outdoorsman emerges in the athleticism of some key characters, and those whose only physical exertion involves elbow-bending also ring true. Surviving denizens of the M&M Tavern, a reporters' hangout once just steps away from the Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, may wax nostalgic over McHugh's description of the sawdust- and debris-strewn floors at the S&S Pub frequented in "Deadlines."

While veteran newsies and newsmakers may recognize certain endearing or appalling traits in McHugh's characters, none is the fictional embodiment of a past coworker, he insists. Fictional or not, the characters already have a fan base among readers, says McHugh, who promises that a sequel is in the works.

Engaging and entertaining, "Deadlines" is a must-read for mystery lovers — as well as anyone with a deep affection for San Francisco, the greater Bay Area and its newspapers. 

A version of this article was published in the summer 2010 pilot edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.