Sure to get media tongues a-wagging when published on July 31 is the new John Darnton novel, Black & White and Dead All Over. A newspaper editor is slain in the newsroom and, as the cover copy puts it in headline type, there are "Too Many Suspects." But it gets better. Darnton, of course, is the longtime and much-honored New York Times reporter and editor. And just in case anyone who got an advance copy might miss the point, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Phyllis Grann, includes a little card inside that simply reads: "A fabulous send-up of 'the Gray Lady.'"
The dead editor's name? Theodore Ratnoff. The publisher: Elisha Hagenbuckle. A tabloid publisher, who hails from (wink, nudge) New Zealand is named Lester Moloch. The lovable, fat roving reporter who loves to eat is named Jimmy Pomegranate (do we need to even recall Johnny Apple?)
Then there's the aging prima donna "globe-trotting" writer named Edith Sawyer who sleeps with sources to get the big story. She has started making "mistakes" and knows many of her colleagues hate her and wish for her an "ignoble end." Because many of her famous interviews "were sometimes conducted in dubious places, like secluded tents in the desert, and lasted quite a while," Darnton writes, "there were those who spread rumors that she was putting out more than hard work." Couldn't be Judy Miller, right?
In the novel, Ratnoff (Allan Siegel?) is assistant managing editor for style. The executive editor is one Skeeter Diamond (Bill Keller?) who, Darnton explains, dreams of happier days as a foreign correspondent when he was "the best hack going....Where had it all gone?" Now the "oldtime reporters and editors...denigrated him, just because he tried to liven up the paper."
Darnton, in an author's statement tucked inside the review copies, explains that some have suggested that the novel is a roman a clef and he understands why: "Such a rumor may have come form the fact that I have worked over four decades at the New York Times and I have never worked at any other newspaper." But he cheerfully points out that the Times until recently was on West 43rd Street in Manhattan between 7th and 8th Avenues while his "fictional" paper, The Globe, is on West 45th Street between 7th and 8th avenues.
Publisher Hagenbuckle (oh, you know) is "clueless...He hunts for big game but has now become quarry himself," Darnton explains in his author's note. In the novel he calls him a "man of action" who "liked to imagine--incorrectly-- that he had more than passing acquaintance with Shakespeare." He took over the paper from his father-in-law.
Kirkus in its review revealed that "A venerable New York newspaper becomes a crime scene in this multifaceted, gloriously entertaining thriller....Nobody liked Ratnoff. Not only is the editor a petty tyrant, he had the goods on the entire staff. Still it was a shock to see his murdered corpse in the Globe newsroom, wirth a note using one of his pet phrases. And inside job, from the looks of it....
"There's an intriguing lineup of suspects. Star reporter Edith Sawyer was about to be fired by Ratnoff for plagiarism. Head of security Engleheart, once a rogue cop, might have known Ratnoff was overseeing a big story on police corruption. There's even dirt on Jude's good buddy O'Donnell, an embittered old-timer."
Eventually there are three murders in all, two suicides and "a skeleton bursting out of Hagenbuckle's closet and an attempted coup by Moloch," Kirkus observed.
Publishers Weekly calls it "William Randolph Hearst meets Agatha Christie."
Greg Mitchell's new book also critiques The New York Times. It is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of E&P.