All the Whodunit That's Fit to Print

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By Jeffrey Frank,
a senior editor at the New Yorker and a former editor at The Washington Post whose most recent novel is "Trudy Hopedale"
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BLACK AND WHITE AND DEAD ALL OVER

By John Darnton

Knopf. 351 pp. $24.95

John Darnton spent some 40 years at the New York Times, so it would be a little surprising if his new novel, a murder mystery set mostly in the newsroom of a Manhattan daily newspaper, did not borrow a bit here and there from the experience. But Darnton does more than borrow; he unashamedly steals from Times lore, and he poaches the quirks of its personnel. He uses this material to fashion a very funny roman à clef in which the roman and the clef may be enjoyed separately or together.

To put first things first: "Black and White and Dead All Over" is a perfectly capable whodunit, and that old-fashioned word describes an old-fashioned, even Agatha Christie-like narrative. There is a murder, and then (this won't spoil things) at least one more, fiendishly executed; naturally, there are suspects, red herrings and more suspects; and, finally, there are corporate intrigue and a lightly told movie-style romance, whose denouement is probably not all that important, but keeps things moving.

Along the way, Darnton has written an affectionate, romantic and at moments sentimental book about newspapers, or at least newspapers as they were before the Internet intruded -- how much fun they could be for a lucky breed of men and women. "You woulda loved it, kiddo," a veteran reporter says. "You'd pound out your lede and yell 'Copy' and rip it out of the typewriter, and some kid would come running and grab it. . . .These days, with those damned computers, the place is too quiet. It's like a goddamned insurance office."

That is not to say that Darnton's New York Globe exists in anything but the present; there is a war in Iraq and allusions to Sept. 11, 2001, and there is no escaping the economic pressures that torment newspapers of every size and caliber. The Globe is having a particularly hard time of it, not only because the stock is tanking, advertising is shrinking, and a serial killer seems to be eyeing the staff, but also because a predatory New Zealand media mogul named Lester Moloch has set his sights on the franchise. Moloch is one of many characters who bear no resemblance to persons living or dead. The blogger Nat Dreck, "who got four million hits a day and was not overly fastidious about his sources," is another who comes immediately to mind.

"Black and White" will be especially amusing for people who know something about the Times, but you probably don't have to know a lot to identify the joyfully mean-spirited inspiration for certain players, such as the book critic Vera Slaminsky, who is found scowling at the latest Updike novel and pronounces it "an abomination, a putrid excrescence," and continues, "There was a conference at Amherst on the death of the American novel. . . . Enjoyed every minute of it." Nor is it hard to imagine whom Darnton had in mind when he introduces Hickory Bosch, "the former executive editor whose regime had collapsed in scandal" and had insisted that the Globe needed to be "reborn" with "a new digestive tract." (After Bosch was fired, he "pulled up stakes and settled in an old saltbox cottage on the shore of Cape Fear, where he indulged his passion for clamming.") There is a reporter who is probably meant to be Judith Miller; one who is certainly, and lovingly, based on the late R.W. (Johnny) Apple (the "Falstaffian" Jimmy Pomegranate); and several whose traits will not be recognized beyond a building that until last year was situated on West 43rd Street. (The Globe is on West 45th.)

During his career at the Times, Darnton worked as a reporter and an editor, and the spirit of "Black and White" makes clear that his heart was always in reporting. He gets almost everything about newspapering right, notably the atmospherics of a gossipy newsroom, with its discontents and ambitions, a place where it seems impossible to get anything useful accomplished. He has witnessed the tics of editors -- particularly those who exist only to drive their writers slightly mad: "queries began pouring in from both the backfield and the copy desk. . . . Everyone wanted something placed higher up in the article." Actually, the only thing he gets really wrong (I say this in the spirit of Vera Slaminsky) is mixing up Elmer Fudd, who doesn't stutter, with Porky Pig, who does. Call the ombudsman!


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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