Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The mysteries of newspapers

Three recent events have me thinking about mysteries set in newspapers. First, I started Garbhan Downey's Running Mates, a comic political crime novel in which newspaper editors and publishers are part of the political web.

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

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Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I just finished Andrew Klavan's The Rain, which is a hardboiled mystery with a newspaper reporter taking the place of the private eye. It was published in 1988 and won an Edgar award for "Best Paperback Original" in 1990. There's an editor in it, but he plays a pretty minor role. I think that most of his dialogue involves monosyllables and grunting.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Colin Bateman's Belfast Confidential centres around Dan Starkey's new dayjob, chief-editor of the magazine, Belfast Confidential. It's a cracker.

Why's that guy not won a bunch of awards yet?


September 23, 2008  
Blogger patrick foster said...

Deadline by Gerry Boyle is a terrific murder mystery set in small town Maine, starring disgraced new York Times reporter Jack McMorrow as the editor of the local weekly. A great read-

September 23, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Your post sheds fascinating light on your line of work, Peter.

Clark Kent at the Daily Planet of Superman. I know it's silly, but the first image that came to this screenwriter's mind.

Btw, agree with you on Kate. Much credit to her standing up to a weight/beauty oriented industry!

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, I haven't read Bateman yet, but maybe his lack of awards is a result of that old lack of respect for comedy.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick: Thanks for the recommendation. That's an interesting spin on the more usual motif of the big-city police officer who goes to work in a small town.

When did Boyle write that book? Since the American newspaper landscape will soon consist of two or three large papers, including the New York Times, plus a great number of weeklies, small-town dailies and shoppers, perhaps we'll see more novels about disgraced or otherwise former New York Times reporters. This could be due to creeping realization on the part of Times reporters that they are just one step away from unemployment or the Philadelphia Inquirer. Or it could be the idle fantasy of the well-off, the same way a fabulously wealthy person might yearn for the simple life as long as he is at no risk of ever having to lead it.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, the dream of shedding light on my current line of work sustains me through the dreariness of doing that work, or rather what that work has become.

Clark Kent is as good an example as any, and I wonder if that particular clean-living, earnest reporter was a reaction to sleazier, harder-living fictional reporters of the time Superman was created.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I like the premise of The Rain, and I enjoyed the dialogue you quoted in your review. In retrospect, the American newspaper scene in 1988 is like the Roman Empire in the early third century or Irish resistance to the English in 1600: It appears strong, but it is in for a brutal decline very, very soon.

September 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a novel, movie, story or play:a song.Stan Ridgway's Newspapers.


I work for the newspapers
Any news is good news, I always say
But I don’t write no daily column
Talk is cheap, and so’s my pay
And when my workday’s over
I pocket five or ten from the tray
And then I start it up again at five a.m.
I stack ’em up just to throw ’em away

Now lately, I’ve been thinkin’
What would the world do without the news?
You wouldn’t know when wars were started
Or when they ended win or lose
It’d probably be a much better world to live in
But the question would be whose
And what side you’re on, or who’s right or wrong
You’d never have to choose

Sometimes, late at night
I can see the streets like no one else can
There’s a lot of things goin’ on here
That even newspapers don’t understand
Some people got too much money
Some rob with a gun or a ballpoint pen
Maybe I’ll get me a big black cape
And then they’ll be runnin’ from me
Lookin’ over their shoulder for me

What’s buried in the back pages
Was on the front page yesterday
And old news never dies
Though they say it just fades away
Crime and murder, business and politics
And international strife
It’s all the same, find someone to blame
It’s there in black and white

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A bit whiny and nihilistic, or at least it so looks, but refreshingly different from the reporter-centric attitude of most depictions. Now I'll have to go find a recording to I can hear the song. Thanks.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...




September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep. Howard Hawks' name came up in this space recently, and His Girl Friday is an ornament to Hawks' reputation, way better than Lewis Milestone's version of The Front Page.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Libeled Lady is pretty good, too. I've never been as big a fan of The Philadelphia Story as others seem to be, but you're right, newspapers figured quite prominently in movies of the 30's.

How come TV didn't take up that role? I prefer to just forget the TV version of The Front Page, Switching Channels.

Will we see website movies soon?

September 23, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

The Bottoms, Joe Lansdale.

September 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never seen Libeled Lady, and I am no great fan of The Philadelphia Story based on the one time I've seen it. I never much liked Katherine Hepburn.

How come television never took up that role? Perhaps because it was primarily an entertainment medium with nothing like the social prestige and importance that newspapers had.

I think it will be quite some time before anyone makes Web site or blog movies, worse luck for me.

September 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've only ever read one short story by Joe Lansdale, and it scared the hell out of me, so I ought to read more of him. The opening of The Bottoms sure sounds good. Thanks.

September 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Tony Hillerman wrote "The Fly on the Wall" before he started the Leaphorn/Chee books; it was about a wire service stringer investigating a crime, as I recall. Since my uncle was once a UPI employee in Phoenix, it resonated with me.

September 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The world of wire services could introduce a number of wrinkles. Presumably there would less baloney about loyalty to one's own newspaper and such. What should I know about that book?

September 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Shoot. Can't immediately find my copy. Here's the Amazon link. Reporter murdered, notebook with tax scam info found by another reporter, another murder...

September 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I like the opening: good atmosphere, good suspense.

September 24, 2008  

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