Any great newsroom worth its salt is an ink-stained asylum, a toxic landfill, a college of cranks and a museum of misfits who never learn, despite years of broken promises to weary spouses, that they will not be home for dinner.
I've had the luck of seven newspaper jobs in my career, and every one has been an unhealthful and joyful addiction, the cluttered newsrooms memorable for their dishwater lighting, stained carpets, asbestos particulate and pathologically committed journalists with tiny work spaces, huge egos and even larger insecurities.
And that was before the industry tanked, leaving herds of highly educated dinosaurs bemoaning their demise, pointing fingers at idiot owners and ungrateful readers and confronting their undeniable lack of marketable job skills. They are naturals, in other words, for dark comic fiction.
In his deliciously sharp, wise and hilarious new novel, "Black & White and Dead All Over," John Darnton ("Neanderthal," "The Darwin Conspiracy"), a longtime scribe and editor for The New York Times, has created a menagerie of newsroom wags working for the fictional New York Globe -- and turned a serial killer loose to feast upon their sagging, pasty flesh.
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"Ratnoff's eyes were closed," Darnton writes of a detested editor -- loathed for spiking good stories and dumbing down the struggling paper -- whose lifeless, bloody body is discovered one morning in the newsroom by a mortified colleague. "His face looked peaceful. But there, in the center of his chest, was a four-inch-wide green hunk of metal. She recognized it immediately. It was the base of an editor's spike, used in the old days to kill stories."
And so it begins, like a game of Clue narrated by Agatha Christie, with an entire staff full of suspects. Naturally, there is much gallows humor.
"Good riddance," one reporter says when hollow-legged hacks gather at a bar near the Globe offices in midtown Manhattan before the body is even cold. "Let's have a show of hands. Who here had good reason to kill Ratnoff?"
Nearly everyone, of course.
The assignment to cover the homicide falls to Jude Hurley, to the surprise of an editor who thinks him a loose cannon.
Her superiors beg to differ. "He's a ... terrier. He sinks his teeth in, he won't let go," says overheated metro editor Bernie Grabble. "At times like this, you need to get to the bottom of it. Find out what happened. That's what you want. That's what you need. Get it?"
Hurley is a terrier with creeping doubt about his future. At 35, with nine years of reporting behind him, he still gets a rush working on a big story but feels he's in a rut in both his professional life and his love life. Should he and Elaine make a commitment? At certain flush times the idea holds some appeal. But Elaine has a fatal flaw. She expects Hurley to love her as much as he loves his job. Silly woman.
In real newsrooms, unfortunately, true characters are a dying breed, with more minivan bores racing home to microwave frozen organic victuals for the kiddies. But the likes of Hurley are still around: a prisoner of the chase, a zombie under the spell of Page 1 pay dirt. To make the adventure all the more delectable, Darnton gives us an attractive NYPD female homicide detective who's trying to make her bones on the case. She quickly realizes that she and Hurley can help each other grab the prize.
After two more murders, each more grisly than the last, the pressure mounts on both of them, as well as on the paper's wormy editor, who finds the leadership thing a bit tricky despite his ex-foreign-correspondent swagger.
The publisher, meanwhile, is a tone-deaf ignoramus who married into the job and has no feel for the Fourth Estate or its mission; as profits shrink, a tabloid competitor is plotting a hostile takeover.
And they call this fiction?
In one of the book's most hysterical scenes, the contemptible publishers find themselves at a conference on the industry's death spiral. The keynote speaker is a 15-year-old girl who has signed a $2.5-million contract with Bloggselvania. The empty-headed little cupcake is drawing 1.5 million hits a day at teenage.snivel.com, where she chronicles her quotidian activities.
"Like, the first thing, I get up. ... Sometimes I brush my teeth, sometimes not. ... Whatever," she tells those gathered.
"Black & White and Dead All Over" isn't flawless. With so many suspects and parallel conspiracies, Darnton's roman à clef bogs down at times and doesn't always satisfy when it comes to the payoffs (though the setups are delicious). Non-journalists may not absorb the full genius of Darnton's skewering of current and former colleagues, including plagiarists and self-important failures, nor will they fully appreciate that this book is at its heart a love letter to an endangered species.
But don't worry. This is a fast-moving whodunit. You don't have to work for a broadsheet to enjoy the twists and turns, the creepy sexual dalliances or the satirically macabre carnival of greed and ambition. You read "Black & White and Dead All Over" knowing that, like the newspaper business itself, the story will end all too soon.