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September 11, 2008

Dead All Over

John Darnton has a hobby, which turns out to be a reasonably lucrative one. He writes thrillers. The first one, "Neanderthal," was a crackling good read and was optioned by Steven Spielberg, but never made into a movie. There were three others, somewhat less well received but with solid enough sales to warrant more. Now he's written yet another, about a man murdered at work and the unravelling of whodunnit.

So far, so uninteresting, at least for someone like me who takes no particular pleasure in thrillers or detective stories. But quite apart from the fact that I know John, which inspired me to read "Neanderthal," this one is different. John Darnton is a lifelong New York Times journalist. He won a Pulitzer for his reporting from Poland, he did this and that, but I worked with him (as Sunday Arts & Leisure editor) when he was cultural news editor at the Times, which job he held from the mid-90's until his official retirement in 2005. (He still has a relationship with the paper as director of its public lectures and panel discussions.)

I mention all this because I would be fascinated to hear how journalists who never worked at the Times, or just plain ordinary human people, will respond to his latest, which is called "Black and White and Dead All Over." It's a roman a clef, with more or less thinly veiled portraits of every sort of Times character, from publisher and the publisher's idiot sons to predatory Australian newspaper barons to executive editors to all manner of swashbuckling editors and reports to utterly crazed critics.

Quite apart from its virtues as a novel and my resistance to the genre, I loved it for all the obvious reasons, being able to pick out who was who. But what if you don't know the cast of characters? Will the novel hold up? And is John still friendly with some of his more trenchantly drawn targets (there is a cartoonish aura to most everything, starting with the fanciful names, which should purge most resentment).

I suppose every writer harbors a secret wish to skewer people in semi-secret. John Darnton has now fulfilled that dream, but I do wonder who besides us Timesians will get it on every level it's intended. Maybe newspapers, or corporations in general, attract similar assortments of weirdos, so that these particular ones will resonate beyond the Times. Anyhow, John surely had fun writing up this fun-house mirror of his professional life. 

September 11, 2008 2:55 PM | | Comments (1)


I enjoyed it a lot too, for some of the same reasons; and I had some of the same questions in mind after I read it. But I think it's worth noting that the book is at bottom a big sloppy love letter to newspaper journalism, warts and all.

As to whether characters created as parodies of specific figures can appeal to a wider audience, I give you one word: Dilbert.

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