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Onyx reviews: Black and White and Dead All Over  by John Darnton

"When he walked into a room, other men sometimes felt a tingling in their gonads." That's how John Darnton (author of The Darwin Conspiracy) describes Theodore S. Ratnoff, assistant managing editor of The New York Globe, a thinly veiled version of The New York Times (for whom Darnton was a reporter, editor and correspondent for four decades).

This is but one example of the caustic wit Darnton brings to Black and White and Dead All Overl. The book's title is, of course, another—a pun on an old joke. The first chapter ends with Ratnoff's murder. To add insult to lethal injury, an editor's spike—historically used to kill stories—is sticking from his body, along with a note indicating that the killer was familiar with Ratnoff's editorial style. Murder isn't exactly funny business, but in Darnton's hands, it can be pretty darned amusing.

Jude Hurley is assigned to cover the murder for The Globe. His job—which could make or break his career—is to report fairly and thoroughly, without dragging his employers through too much mud. He has to interface with the police, interview his coworkers and dig into the editor's past to keep the story from going cold or, worse, getting scooped by the rival tabloids. The fact that Ratnoff was stingy with praise and lavish with criticism means that the list of suspects includes just about everyone on the Globe staff, including Jude. Many of his coworkers have profound secrets—liaisons, conspiracies, plots—not all related to the murder, but all of which are jealously guarded. There's also a covert struggle for control of the flagship newspaper. The identity of a secret heir to the throne is scheduled to be revealed a few weeks after Ratnoff's murder.

This is a whodunit that would have made Agatha Christie proud. However, the book could have used a dramatis personae like Christie used to include at the front of her more convoluted novels so readers could refresh their memories about who's who. The cast of characters is large and their sometimes-humorous names (gossip columnist Peregrine Whibbleby, food critic Dinah Outsalot, and two brothers, Rosen and Guilder, whose names bring to mind Hamlet) do little to enhance their memorability.

Darnton's history as a reporter arms him well to paint a convincing and informative portrait of the workaday lives of reporters and editors, while lampooning them at the same time. By the end of the book, readers will be familiar with ledes, slugs, inserts and the way obituaries are prepared and updated in advance, often to the dismay of their subjects. Even the name of Jude's dog is a nod to reportage: TK, journalistic shorthand for "to come," because he couldn't think of a name right away.

Readers outside the journalist's beat may suspect that they are missing out on a boatload of inside jokes—is the mercenary mogul with the demonic name Moloch any other than Rupert Murdoch, for example—but Darnton's skill and deft hand keep the book interesting and amusing even for outsiders. Darnton uses the murder investigation as a way to examine the chaotic life in a newsroom and the changing climate in the publishing business—drops in sales, decreasing ad revenue and the upsurge of web-based reporting and blogs, along with related issues, such as plagiarism.

Darnton isn't content to do in upper management. Over the course of the next 350 pages, the bodies start to pile up—all of them belonging to high-profile Globe employees. The killings are dramatic, making it clear that the murderer, who calls himself The Avenger has a personal gripe with the Globe and its management. He taunts the staff and police with messages, literary quotes and defaced websites.

Rival newspapers have a field day chronicling the murders while Jude struggles to hold onto the story and figure out where he stands with the detective in charge of the investigation, the alluring Priscillia Bollingsworth. Jude isn't used to be on the giving side when it comes to information, but when his best friend becomes one of the chief suspects and the reputation of his employer—already precarious— plummets, Jude re-evaluates his long-held approach to dealing with the police. Because of an earlier article about police malingering, Jude isn't exactly welcome around the city's precinct houses. Jude is also dealing with pressure from his girlfriend to make more time for her and to commit to taking their relationship to the next level.

As the body count increases, so too do the red herrings, and the risk to Jude becomes more immediate. Black and White and Dead all Over ultimately cannot sustain itself in the long run, collapsing into a series of improbable events and indecision over whether it's a murder mystery or a roman á clef, but it's so much fun getting there that Darnton can be forgiven.

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