Sam Briscoe
Created by Pete Hamill

SAM BRISCOE is a tough freelance reporter who is as quick to punch a jaw as he is to punch the keys of his typewriter (yeah, typewriter—these books were written back when that ancient device was still in wide use and word processors, PCs, etc. were still in their infancy). Nor is he above reaching for (and using) a gun from time to time.

This series by acclaimed newspaper reporter and author Pete Hamill should have been a big hit. It came out from top-of-the-line Bantam paperbacks, had great writing, great packaging, a big push from the publisher, and seemed to be a very sincere and loving effort by all concerned.

In a sort of Afterward to Dirty Laundry (1978) the first book in the series, there is a short piece titled "Pete Hamill Talks About The Sam Briscoe Series" in which the author conveys his long-standing affection for the series format and the enduring characters it has given us. He specifically mentions Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, and Travis McGee.

He then goes on to describe his entry own into the field, calling Dirty Laundry "the first in a new series of thrillers".  He draws many parallels between his own life and Briscoe's—late thirties, divorced, a disillusioned socialist, a skeptic but not a cynic; a reporter who has covered wars, riots, assassinations, and the last execution at Sing-sing.

But Briscoe is a fictional character, Hamill reminds us, who "has a better time than I do. Of course he gets hit on the head once in a while and he has to kill people from time to time. The CIA and the Feds and various other bureaucrats are usually after him … But he has all these women, and this loft in SoHo I suppose his relationship to me is antimatter to matter. It's a parallel life and an exciting one."

As much as anything, it was this afterward that attracted me to these books. It was so damned refreshing to hear an author (and an already accomplished/acclaimed one) talk about genre series fiction in such a positive and eager way—as opposed to others (both then and now) who seem to view genre fiction merely as a stop gap to writing "real literature" or tend to look down their noses at it (attitude being "I may not be capable of great literature but I can surely can do this") even while practicing it.

But I digress. Excuse the mini-rant.

The three books in the series—Dirty Laundry, The Deadly Piece (1979) and The Guns of Heaven (1983) -- are all face-paced, exciting, filled with colorful people and places, and very well written. The stories take Briscoe all over the world; from his comfortable SoHo loft (with Charlie Parker cranking on the stereo and Red Emma, his Jaguar XJ-5, parked just off the living room via a freight elevator) to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Israel, and Ireland. Wherever he goes, Sam seems to have some kind of contact from previous dealings as a globe-trotting reporter. Many of these contacts have somewhat shady back-grounds. On the flip side, Sam often has trouble dealing with Feds, law enforcement types, and "authorities" of all kinds.

The books have plenty of fist fights, gun fights, killings, mysteries to be unraveled, and encounters with beautiful women. In fact, about the only thing lacking is that Briscoe seldom ever gets around to acting like a reporter—which is to say, actually writing anything. But that's a minor quibble. (After all, how exciting would it be to read about Sam pecking away at his typewriter?) As far as I can recall, the only time Sam spends in such pursuits are some passages in The Guns of Heaven, the final book in the series, where he kills time in his hotel room by writing some B-copy while waiting for an appearance by the Irish rebel known as "Steel".

As to why there were only three books in this series—the first two coming quickly in 1978 and '79 and having a uniform "series look", but then the third appearing five years later and looking totally different, almost like a stand-alone—I can only guess. Most likely sales were disappointing. Whatever the case, it's a shame. This is good, solid stuff and more of it would certainly have been welcomed by this reader.

The Guns of Heaven was re-published by Hard Case Crime in 2006 and therefore is probably the easiest to find. But the two earlier titles are definitely worth also checking out.

Respectfully submitted by Wayne D. Dundee., March 2010.

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NEVER SAY NEVER DEPARTMENT:

Wayne was right -- the three Briscoe books are all well worth tracking down. But they aren't the whole story, it turns out. In March, 2011, Little, Brown published Tabloid City, a swirling Bonfire of the Vanities-like thriller that kicks off with the murder of a wealthy socialite and soon involves a terrorist plot, a possibly unstable Iraq war vet hell-bent on revenge and a disgraced Bernie Maldoff-like character taking it on the lam. But best of all is the veteran editor of the struggling New York World tabloid who's out to get the story and possibly save his paper from extinction: Sam Briscoe.

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Respectfully submitted by Wayne D. Dundee. Update by Kevin Burton Smith.