The mysteries of newspapers
Then Gregory McDonald, author of the Fletch novels, died. Finally, a colleague and I talked about Black and White and Dead All Over, a mystery novel by the New York Times reporter John Darnton that he had just read.
When newspapers mattered in America more than they do now, movies, plays and novels were often set in newspapers. That is not to say that these movies, plays and novels were about newspapers. Mostly they were about reporters and, since I'm a copy editor, those fictional worlds had little to do with my real one.
When was the last time you read a newspaper novel or saw a newspaper movie that had a copy editor in it? I thought so. When was the last time you read a newspaper novel or saw a newspaper movie that offered an accurate picture of newspapers? Same answer.
Anyhow, McDonald has stuck in my mind since I read a scene from one of the Fletch books that recounts the character's failure as a newspaper obituary writer. Why did he fail? Because he made the mistake of writing an accurate obituary. I don't have the book at hand, but I believe the fictional obit included the phrase "a life distinguished by absolutely nothing."
Darnton, meanwhile, though a reporter, takes the highly unusual step of acknowledging, at least implicitly, that copy editors exist. His novel's first victim is an editor found dead with a spike bearing a note driven into his chest. The note is a mocking imitation of memos this editor used to send when he wanted to find out who had written a particularly good headline: "Nice. Who?" Since copy editors write the headlines, that note, even if it is the extent of copy editors' involvement in the book, is still a hell of a lot more acknowledgement than fictional depictions of newspapers usually give us.
Of course, Darnton doesn't take this accuracy thing too far. According to my colleague, the novel includes a reporter who lost his job because he wrote poorly. If Darnton thinks any reporter ever lost a job because of poor prose style, he has moved beyond fiction into fantasy.
What's your favorite novel, movie, story or play set in a newspaper? It it's a crime story, so much the better.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008