A Killing for Christ
By Pete Hamill
Akashic Books, 266 pages, $27.95
Pete Hamill is one of the greatest authors to call Brooklyn home, born in the borough in 1935 and he recently has moved back.
Hamill is the author of many best-selling books, including the novels Forever and Snow in August, as well as the memoir A Drinking Life. His writing in the New York Post, Daily News, and New York magazine has brough the city to life for millions of readers.
There is a new fiftieth-anniversary edition of his debut novel, A Killing for Christ, a thriller centered in Rome, available now.
In early 1968, at a time of acrimony over the Vietnam War and the direction of the Catholic Church, a number of contentious people arrived in Rome, including American voluptuary James Rail; Richard Harwell, a rabidly anti-Semitic Jew; and Father Robert Malloy, an Irish priest, who is there with his Italian lover Franca.
Malloy, who is comfortable in high social circles, learns about a plot to assassinate the Pope, and as Easter and the assassination date approach, Malloy wonders what he can do to prevent it.
Hamill has written a brand-new introduction to A Killing for Christ, and he writes of what influenced this landmark work, “I loved Rome, its sensuality, the sense it exuded of knowing every variety of sin – and forgiveness too. In Rome, time itself was visible, not an abstraction. This suited my own beloved profession. As a reporter in my native New York, I had seen many varieties of horror and violence, treachery and delusion. But I also learned the limits of the craft. My first great editor, Paul Sann of the New York Post, said to me once, ‘Remember: if you want it to be true, it usually isn’t.’ Yes. In journalism. In life. Romans could have embraced that line, preferably in Latin.
“I had been reading as a writer for a long time when I entered my thirties. Hemingway, of course, Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, James T. Farrell, and Irish writers too. (My Catholic parents were immigrants from Belfast, driven to exile in Brooklyn by Ulster bigotry.) But many kinds of writing had helped shape me: The Story of Babar, the Bomba the Jungle Boy books, Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, The Count of Monte Cristo. They fed my curiosity about the world beyond Brooklyn, and helped to drive my emerging wanderlust. I was a familiar figure at the local public library, which had been put there by my favorite rich guy, a Scottish immigrant named Andrew Canregie. He was a man who didn’t want to be the richest person in the cemetery and used his money to open more than 1,600 public libraries in the United States.
“I was also a student for two years at Regis High School in Manhattan. It was run by the Jesuits, whose standards were rigorous. They gave me great gifts: exactitude, wonder, pity, irony, and, many years later, my most prized possession: an honorary diploma. They also gave me doubt. Its enduring challenges are all over this novel.
“Another huge influence in my boyhood was comic books, then in their first golden age. i was a fan of Will Eisner (The Spirit), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson (DC Comics’s Batman). All could have become movie directors or novelists.
“For this book,I helped lay out the big plot moves as if planning a comic book – in panels (then on index cards and eventually on storyboard pads). This visual plan showed me if I had too many static scenes in a row, and needed to dissolve (or cut) into a street scene or an action scene. All I had to do at my typewriter then was fill in the blanks. Or so I thought.
“From the beginning, I was giddy with a sense of freedom. In journalism, the writer must adhere to the knowable facts. Fiction was a work of the imagination. And unlike a movie script, in a novel the writer (with guidance from an editor) would have the final cut.
“Until A Killing for Christ, I had never tried a story of such length (my first book was a paperback biography of Ernest Hemingway, written in collaboration with Alfred G. Aronowitz after Papa killed himself in 1961.) I had learned how to write magazine pieces by writing them. But the experience of this novel more closely resembled setting down a fiddle and picking up a cello.”
A Killing for Christ has a secret agent out of John le Carre and a spoiled priest-hero out of Graham Greene, and Pete Hamill created a novel of suspense that is all his own, and that is why he is a Brooklyn treasure.