Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton

Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton.jpg

Black and White and Dead All Over
by John Darnton
Knopf, 2008

Fairly ominous, when a book’s very title is a cliché, a pun, or a play on words. More ominous still when it’s all three, as in John Darnton’s new novel Black and White and Dead All Over, in which the ailing print newspaper trade forms the backdrop for a series of murders. In the newsroom of the New York Globe, an editor is found dead, and Smart, Ambitious Female Detective and Crusty, Righteous Guy Reporter team up to find the killer. 

In the course of their investigations, SAFD and CRGR encounter all the faces of the publishing industry, from wacky publishers to wacky reporters to a wacky billionaire tycoon-tyrant (tyrantoon?) whose name is Lester Moloch (any guesses on his real world template?). There are more murders, and readers not in it simply for the plot will soon stop reading, assaulted on all sides by prose like this:

"Jude hurried to his cubicle. It was messy, but hardly the worst in the room. Manilla folders and books were piled on the floor, but the walls were relatively bare. Next to the computer was pinned a photo of Elaine that he had taken during a week in Scotland eight months ago. She was standing straddling a bike, her hair blowsy in the wind against a backdrop of heather and wildflowers. Sexy-looking."

Assess all that’s wrong with that paragraph, and you have the failings of Black and White and Dead All Over: the lazy sentences, the lazy descriptions (Jude’s cubicle is compared to cubicles that haven’t been described; walls are bare relative to nothing; Elaine’s hair has to settle for being blowsy – which hair cannot be - because the author stopped on that word instead of the correct “blowing”; Elaine manages to have a backdrop – not background – of ground-flowers despite the fact that she’s standing up, straddling her bike; rather than describe her, Darnton simply tells us she’s “sexy-looking” … and so on), lazy everything. 

Print newspapers are dying precisely because of this kind of lazy contempt for their readers. Darnton’s editor – if such an individual exists and would dare to come forward – deserves a pink slip.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is