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07.30.08

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Phaedra

Black and White and Dead All Over

By Michael S. Gant


Veteran foreign correspondent John Darnton gets rid of what must be a lot of frustration in the guise of satire in his mystery novel Black and White and Dead All Over. A famously draconian editor ("A dangling modifier led to a verbal lash of the whip") is found murdered in his office, stabbed with the ceremonial editor's spike that he used to demonstrably kill reporters' stories. Pretty much everybody at the fictional New York Globe is a potential suspect, as ace reporter Jude Hurley, who is assigned the "slay" story, knows full well. The Globe is a very thinly disguised version of Darnton's own paper of record, The New York Times. Among the newsroom malefactors is a Jayson Blair type who steals whole passages from other papers and even from War and Peace; a former editor has to resign in disgrace over the paper's unthinking coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. The mystery itself—which involves several murders at the paper's office—feels like an afterthought. What Darnton does best is expose the inanities and anxieties that dog all ink-stained wretches in a world increasingly devoted to celebrity gossip and unsourced websites. Bad headlines over cringeworthy stories abound: "Blackout Plunges City Into Darkness"; a feature on Buddhist nannies is subtitled "They're Buddhists, They're Quiet, They're Nurturing" ("Sure enough, [the author] had found a trend: three examples"). Particularly galling are the happy-face denials by management about the state of modern journalism. At a staff retreat, the HR department offers a seminar called "Your pension's not really dwindling. It's just growing less quickly." Another session: "Why not give readers what they want?" At times, Darnton indulges a wince-inducing fondness for punning character names—a food critic named Dinah Outsalot, a vicious book reviewer named Vera Slaminsky—but all is forgiven when a sharkish press baron named Lester Moloch turns up. A quick and often very funny read, Darnton's book also pays enough tribute to the good old-fashioned print reporter to remind us of what we are about to lose in the blogosphere. (By John Darnton; Knopf; 351 pages; $24.95 hardback)


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