Saturday, October 18, 2008

Black and White and Dead All Over

Darnton, John. Black and White and Dead All Over. Knopf. 2008.

When I first picked up this book, the October choice for the Connecticut mystery book discussion group, my initial thought was, "Oh no, it's another The Alienist," which is a book I read but didn't really like all that much by the time I got to the end of it. Then I examined it a little more and thought, "No, looks more like Original Sin," only it takes place at a newspaper publisher instead of a book publisher. I liked Original Sin (by P.D. James) very much when I read it shortly after I began my career in book publishing, but I don't remember much about it at all.

Well, turns out, this book was neither of these. In fact, although murders take place in the book and multiple characters try to solve these murders, I think of it more as satire than mystery. Reading it is like watching a really fun play in which all the characters are over-the-top, spot-on exaggerations of people you absolutely know, also quite a lot like watching News Radio in its heyday or 30 Rock today.

I've mentioned in the past that I had a very brief journalism career (1 1/2 years, to be exact. I often refer to it as my fake journalism career), working for a small legal newspaper in Connecticut. However, this newspaper happened to be part of a larger group of papers from around the country, all owned by the infamous Steve Brill. I interacted with colleagues from all those other papers, on occasion, and quite often with those in New York. We frequently had editors from the two New York papers visiting the Connecticut office. I had friends who "graduated" to jobs at other journals when they left. I know all about editor/reporter relationships (which the book publishing editor/author relationship can sometimes resemble). Basically, the editors thought the reporters were Prima Donas, and the reporters thought the editors didn't know what they were doing. The struggle between the two is epitomized in passages such as this one, which I found quite amusing:
In describing [one victim's] postmortem state, Jude eschewed the word statue and tried sculpture. That was knocked down as "too artsy," so he tried effigy; when that was eliminated because it sounded "political," he reached for relic, which was nixed because it made [the victim] sound like a tourist spot; finally he come up with phantasmagoric likeness, which was blocked as being "too poetic." (p. 157)

I had to laugh at myself as an editor. I do that to poor writers all the time (sermon writers as well as math and science writers).

The book, which takes place at a not-even-thinly-disguised New York Times called The New York Globe opens with the murder of the sort of pompous, self-important character everyone loves to hate. And, of course, because that's who he is, the sky's the limit when it comes to the number of possible suspects. Soon, there are more murders, and the skeletons in multiple closets decide it's time to dress up and come out to play. Besides all the caricatures, one of the things I liked most about the book was the struggle between the old-timers and the new world of online publishing. You've just got to love this portrayal of a group of people the police investigator notices when she sits in on the page-one meeting the morning of the first murder:

Others sat on hard-backed chairs that lined the walls. Among them were six stern-looking young people in blue jeans and T-shirts. They wore designer stainless steel water bottles attached to one side of their belts and cell phones in Velcro-fastened pouches on the other side, like six-shooters in the Old West. "They're from the web site," whispered Toothy, who was on her left... (p. 39)

Ahh, those "guys from the web site," always separated off from everyone else. Darnton doesn't miss a beat in his description of their uniforms, does he? Throughout the book, the tension between the Old Guard and the web-siters is palpable, as I'm sure it is in the real world of journalism these days. No one who's been in the business for a long time wants to admit that print media is probably going to go the way of the dinosaur.

Darnton's cleverness is admirable. Not only is he good at caricature; he also has his eye on all the different angles in newspaper publishing's very strange 21st-century geometric shape. There's print v. web site. There are celebrity columnists (long gone are the days of gentlemanly reporting, when bylines weren't published). There are Rupert Murdochs -- I love the names Darnton chose for his own characters who represented different sorts of recognizable real-world figures. In this particular case, it's Moloch -- who have no shame in their almighty quests to grow the bottom line. Darnton observes it all with a wry eye. And you know? I couldn't help thinking what fun it must be to fictionalize your own place of employment, skewering everyone.

I wondered, though, as I got more into the book if it would hold my interest. After all, I read Max Barry's Company and loved it until I was about halfway through it and then began to feel the joke was getting old. I managed to finish it, but I wasn't all that impressed. I then tried, for another book discussion group, to read Joshua Ferris's And Then We Came to the End and never even finished it. Maybe my attention span for satire is only as long as a two-hour play or a Mark Twain short story. Satire, unless you happen to be Jonathan Swift, is pretty difficult to sustain for 351 pages. But Darnton didn't disappoint. If the book had ended differently, I think I might have come away with the same feeling I had about Company, but instead, he gave me probably the best satirical moment in the book with his revelation of whodunit and why. I should have guessed if I'd really been paying attention to the whole book and what it was instead of allowing myself to get sucked into thinking I was reading a real mystery. All I can say is "Touché, Mr. Darnton."

It was difficult for me to read this book without thinking about the publisher and the publishing industry. Knopf is one of my favorite publishers, and I recently finished reading a very good biography of Ross Macdonald (by Tom Nolan) whose books were published by Knopf. Talk about old v. new. While I was reading that book, I found it very interesting to discover that, when Macdonald first started writing in the 1940s, the big trade publishers of the time like Knopf shied away from the mystery genre, that mysteries were not likely to land on bestseller lists. Publishers didn't pump much money into them, saving their marketing dollars for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. As the years during which Macdonald wrote progressed, the change that would take place in book publishing was beginning to emerge. The importance of the bottom line overtook the importance of publishing reputable, literary works. Today, bestseller lists are dominated by mysteries and thrillers. I can't help but wonder what Alfred Knopf himself would have thought of such a work as this one, which is not only a satire of the newspaper industry but also of the whole mystery genre. Would he have found it funny, or would it have angered him? And I have to give the publisher (and also the author, since he's an editor) its due: I was very hard-pressed to find typos and grammatical errors in this book, which is rarely true with most of the contemporary books I read (especially mysteries).

My overall impression? If you're a hardcore, purist mystery fan, you're probably not going to like this one too much, especially if you've never worked at a newspaper. If you've ever worked at a paper, I dare you to read it without cracking a smile. If you go into it expecting satire, my guess is you won't be disappointed. And, now I'll leave you with this quote (it's a testament to why I've already made the step of eschewing most print book review media for what I can find online) while I go off finally to read what Dorr and Becky had to say (I've been waiting to read their thoughts until I'd written my own).

She moved with the grace of an eel. Everyone, inside of publishing and out, was petrified of her. Her reviews were incisive -- the way shark's teeth are incisive -- and they cut deep because they were so intelligent. Mortally wounded authors could only take to their beds. (p. 201)


Rebecca H. said...

Well, it would have been cool to have you at the meeting so we could have a dissenting voice instead of all agreeing! I don't know what I would have thought of the book if I'd come to it with no expectations (or fewer expectations, since no expectations is impossible). Not hearing what others thought and not reading it for a mystery group might have changed things. But I don't think I would have liked it as much as you no matter what -- I tend not to love satirical writing unless it's really short.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, Iyes, wish I'd been. (Of course, maybe I would have felt like an idiot, being the only one who liked it.) I don't tend to have too much patience with really long satirical works, either, and this one was JUST bordering on losing my interest, but then all that mistaken identity/comedy of errors stuff happened and got me back into it in time to meet the murderer.

knitseashore said...

I love the last quote, but to state the obvious, print reviews can be so political, I'll take a recommendation over at Good Reads any day. I think Amazon is even tainted by now.

Emily Barton said...

Ms. Knits, you're absolutely right. Those of us on the inside know how the publishing industry and reviews work. Meanwhile, I can't seem to find you on goodreads (even via your email address). Could you help me out, please?