Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Review: Black and White and Dead All Over

John Darnton
NY: A.A. Knopf, 2008.
ISBN: 978-0-307-26752-8 (0-307-26752-0)

Michael Sedano

Back when I was a kid, someone told me a homophone joke, "What's black and white and
read all over?" A newspaper. Shortly thereafter came the "sick joke" version, "What's black and white and red all over?" A dead nun.

I can't believe it's taken almost sixty years for some writer to use one or the other of those jokes as a title allusion, but it has. The culprit is John Darnton, and he's used both jokes to signal a newspaper-based murder mystery--there's neither convent nor nun. In keeping with the jokester heritage of the title, Darnton writes Black & White and Dead All Over as a roman à clef comedy that's well worth putting up with some cutesy stuff and an early give-away of the murder's identity.

Since a whodunit revolves around characters, Darnton elects to give his silly but often illustrative names. The predator mogul who wants to swallow up the newspaper is a New Zealander, Lester Moloch. The first murder victim is an unpopular editor surnamed Ratnoff. Less obscure, perhaps, are the detectives who unravel the crime. The police investigator is one Priscilla Bollingsworth--attractive but not readily approachable--and the reporter, Jude Hurley. For her, think homophone vulgarity, balling; for him think literarily, Hardy's character Jude Fawley.

After a brisk opening--the first body drops in the first pages--Darnton slows down the action, giving over lots of space to introducing the names of his characters and their foibles. I'm sure there are tons of newspaper in-jokes flying here. Darnton explains the ones that require more than insider knowledge, allows others to fly past. Some of this backgrounding is necessary to the story, like the vicious Ratnoff's penchant for savaging poor reporting, and his hardly compensatory practice of scribbling a one-liner of praise in purple ink. When Ratnoff's body is discovered, the murderer has spindled into the corpse that same one-liner in purple ink. But some of the characters, like Bavardez--such an unusual name--simply disappear, leaving the reader wondering what all the fuss was about.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. There are only three murders, but they are spectacular. The spindled editor in the City Room, the gossip columnist wrapped in bailing wire in the basement, the cook poisoned and flopped into her pear soufflé in the studio kitchen. But then, the "dead all over" could as well archly refer to Darnton's subtext, the death of print journalism and the rise of the internet. With the murders all occurring on the premises, the board locks out the frightened employees. Jude turns to the web-based paper to pursue the case and publish his stories. In fact, Darnton points to tabloids and web publications as reflections of what readers read and where journalism is making its last stand. Jude's paper, The Globe, populated with old-fashioned writers and colorful characters, is on its last legs.

With all the importance names have in this novel, the dead give-away of the fiend's identity comes at the absence of a name. When the gossip columnist sees her murderer, not yet realizing what his presence implies, she recognizes him by announcing, "Oh, it's you." In a world marked by camaraderie and spirited repartee, "you" offers a telling indicator of status and contempt. Then, in the next chapter, Jude has a similar encounter with a character, whom Jude recognizes with the same tell-tale, "Oh, it's you." That's right, "you," it turns out, is the killer. That is not a spoiler revelation. Readers will find Darnton's name play thoroughly enjoyable, so when a person pops into the story and is deprived of a name, that telegraphs significance. Too bad Darnton doesn't name that person Butler.

There are a couple of subplots running--a bastard heir, Moloch's spies, Jude's courtship of Bollingsworth, the impending death of newspapering--that keep the story running at an enjoyable pace. Several laugh out loud moments will be rewards beyond the sense of authenticity--or perhaps comfortable stereotypes--for newspapering Darnton weaves into the fabric of the novel.

It's interesting that there are several outstanding newspaper motion pictures, but not many newspaper novels. Kinky Friedman has a colorful columnist character, but for novels, I wracked my brain. The only other newspaper novel I can remember is The Last City Room, by the LA Times' Al Martinez. It's thus a pleasure now to add one more to the list, John Darnton's Black and White and Dead All Over. Got others? Leave a comment and recommend it.


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Paul Lamb said...

Why do you date the period for 60 years? Is this the time since you first heard the joke perhaps? But couldn't the joke have lain unused for decades before then? Just asking!

msedano said...

For all we know, Bishop Usher may have coined the bon mot just after calculating the headcount of angels dancing on a pin. I do not know what Usher did with the remainder of the angels. And thus, as you surmise, the joke may indeed have remained unalluded long before I first giggled at it some 60 years before Darnton took it on.

But, for all we know, mayhaps Fudu Tobar coined the joke the day she told it to me and I didn't know the answer.

Thanks for asking, Paul.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if any of the bloggers here would consider writing a review of a forgotten book for my blog project on this. You can see past Fridays Forgotten Books at http://pattinase.blogspot.com
It can be any length and on any book you believe needs to be remembered. My email is aa2579@wayne.edu. I welcome any and all of you to contribute one.
Thanks. Patti Abbott