Expect to be entertained when writer Paul McHugh does a benefit reading from his new novel “Deadlines” on April 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Mt. Shasta Public Library.
“Being as it’s April 1st, I'm sure I'll tell a joke, but the entire reading will not be a joke,” McHugh said during a recent phone interview.
McHugh's talents as a writer are no joke. Deadlines is both a murder-mystery and a look into the world of big city newspapers. It's packed with colorful descriptions of people and places, intriguing plot twists and complex characters who face deadlines both professional and personal.
A wonderful storyteller, McHugh spent 22 years as co-editor and main feature writer for the Outdoors section of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1985 to 2007.
Even while answering questions about “Deadlines,” his second novel, McHugh tells stories. Columbo, Hitchcock, Sam Spade, Jack Dempsey and Hamlet are among those who appear in his answers.
Like the stories told in the Columbo TV series, McHugh calls Deadlines “a multi-level mystery.” The reader finds out quickly who dies, who did the killing and why. “The mystery is in who we are as individuals, what drives us,” McHugh said.
The discoveries made by the characters in Deadlines crack a case that the authorities never knew existed. A prime piece of California coast is thus saved from exploitation, while a jaded journalist who has lost his way makes a life transition.
The sleuths who face great perils in search of the truth include an idealistic intern fresh out of school and a lesbian rock-climbing teacher who wants to be a cop.
McHugh's taut writing moves the action swiftly forward while offering plenty of detail about the characters, scenes, the city of San Francisco and the inner workings of a struggling newspaper industry.
The book's story of embezzlement, harassment and misuse of workers resulting from the private operation of public resources with a lack of oversight is similar to an investigative news series McHugh worked on that made front page news in the 1990s.
McHugh said his work on the real investigation led to “so much discovery for me as an individual and a journalist. It was my first exposure to a particularly hypocritical form of evil.”
For the book, McHugh said he put the story in a modern context, “Then I let my imagination run wild — to see how bad can this be?”
Deadlines is loaded with violence, vindictiveness, greed, tragedy — and humor.
“My theory is everything I know about humor I learned from the gravediggers in Hamlet,” McHugh said. “You can't have unrelieved tragedy or horror. It's because of the gravediggers that we learn about the lighter side of Hamlet, that we see the side of him that just wants to be a happy young guy.”
The story in Deadlines is told through voice of Colm MacCay, a longtime liberal columnist in a liberal city who is demoted by a new editor.  MacCay is then assigned to mentor a newly hired reporter, Sebastian Palmer, who initiates a newspaper investigation into the death of an elderly land-use activist.
McHugh says the hard-drinking MacCay is both “a playful human being” and “a wounded soul.” Describing his personal deadline, MacCay realizes, “Bad stuff, even terrible stuff, comes to everyone. The trick is to not let it pull you down, not allow your existence to be about constantly reliving a tragic moment. To defeat this loop, you must commit to possibilities.”
Though MacCay at first lets the inexperienced Palmer down in a disastrous way, he rebounds to team with Palmer's friend Elle Jotoba. As described at www.paulmchugh.net, “Their search for clues takes them from waterfront bars to smugglers’ den, from downtown San Francisco to corridors of power in Sacramento, from the glitter of Las Vegas to an isolated monastery on the Big Sur coast...”
Author McHugh says his own transition from reporter to novelist was “very freeing.” As a journalist, he said he wrote feature articles using a style that set the scene, told a story and gave a sense of character. “My instinct was narrative journalism, so it was not as big a leap for me to go to fiction. This was fancied up journalistic writing. I used strong ledes, brisk description and tight quotes.”
TV anchor and newsman Dan Rather said of Deadlines, “Every reporter worth his or her notepad is a sleuth at heart. Paul McHugh brings this truth to life with crackling suspense and a true, ink-stained veteran’s eye for the newsroom.”
San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey said, “People who love San Francisco and appreciate a good mystery will find Paul McHugh's Deadlines a page-turner with unforgettable characters and a realistic view of crime.”
McHugh's April 1 appearance in Mount Shasta is co-sponsored by the Mt. Shasta Writers Series and Friends of the Library. It will begin with an open mic session for local writers, then a brief talk by McHugh about his book. After a reading from Deadlines, he will answer questions and sign books. Refreshments will be served. The Writers Series will receive 20 percent of the evening’s gross sales.
While working for the Chronicle McHugh wrote occasional outdoor pieces involving the Mt. Shasta area, which he describes as “one of the most beautiful places.” His resume of activities includes fishing, hiking, sailing, skin diving, rock climbing, ski mountaineering, bow hunting, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, sea kayak racing and surfing.
His first novel, “The Search for Goodbye to Rains” was published in 1980, shortly after he came to northern California from Florida. He also published a non-fiction book, “Wild Places,” with Foghorn Books during his years at the Chronicle.
McHugh said a second printing has already been scheduled for Deadlines, and he recently completed recording an audio version of the novel.
He’ll follow his appearance in Mount Shasta with an interview on Jefferson Public Radio's Jefferson Exchange on April 7, then an appearance April 8 at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland on the first day of the Ashland Independent Book Festival.