Paper Chase




Since snagging their first major coup by unearthing the restraining order against bachelor Rick Rockwell of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? fame, the guys at The Smoking Gun have continued to hit pay dirt. Just one look at the website — a collection of legal documents, morgue reports, FBI files, and arrest affidavits featuring the goings-on of celebrities and average joes — and it’s clear how long the paper trail twists. Now, The Smoking Gun has steered its online grit back into hard copy. The book’s material, some old and some new, is the kind of juicy fodder readers have come to expect.

Founded in 1997 by former Village Voice reporter William Bastone and freelance journalist Daniel Green, The Smoking Gun was born out of an excess of documents. Over the years Bastone, an investigative journalist who covered politics and organized crime, had amassed hundreds of public records, including Freedom of Information requests that never materialized into stories. With Green, he decided to publish online, and the rest is headline-hitting history.

The book features a breadth of bizarre material. The more humorous reports include Burt Reynolds’s debts to hair merchants and air force experiments with bladder relief for its F-15 lady fighter pilots. The more visceral tales cover incidents of severed penises, a man throwing his intestines at his arresting officer, and one estranged husband’s birthday message to his wife. “I’m going to give you a birthday like you never will forget, you little whore,” reads the note, attached to her cat’s skull.

For print enthusiasts, the book is a welcome complement to its online cousin. Somehow, the paper trail seems more real when it’s just that — paper. And The Smoking Gun‘s timing is good. Putting cyber content into print is a growing phenomenon. Last June, published the book Gig, which grew out of a weekly column on work, and currently has Rough Draft, a look at American pop culture.

The book’s greatest drawback is aesthetic — it just doesn’t look as good as the postings on its low-tech site. Instead, there’s page after page of photocopied transcripts and reports with the tiniest of paragraphs to introduce them. The book works better if one thinks of it as grungy bathroom reading material: great for a few minutes of intense, uninterrupted concentration, a few pages at a time.