First of all, the Slaves of Golconda reading group is picking its new book for the next go-round, so go take a look and consider joining in! The group is open to anybody who wants to read along. You can post about the book on your own blog if you want, or you can participate in the discussion board, or you can do both. Or just post comments on other people’s blogs — whatever you like. Litlove has some fabulous choices for the next group reading, so go check them out and cast your vote for what sounds good.
And now, on to John Darnton’s crime novel Black and White and Dead All Over. In short, this book kind of sucks. Sorry for the bluntness, but it’s incoherently plotted and badly written. What saved it for me is that I went into it with low expectations and so appreciated what I could about the story and the context and let the rest wash over me.
The novel is set in New York City and describes a newspaper modeled on the New York Times. The main character is a reporter, Jude Hurley, who is asked to write the story after a powerful, much-hated editor is murdered. Working sort of alongside him, sort of against him, is detective Priscilla Bollingsworth. These two share information when they think they have something to gain from it, and otherwise are involved in a competition/flirtation as they work toward solving the murder. The murder soon turns into multiple murders, though, as reporter after reporter is killed off, each in a particularly gruesome way.
This sounds like a promising premise, which makes Darnton’s failure to do anything with it particularly disappointing. But the book’s flaws are numerous. The main one is that the characters aren’t interesting; most, really all, of them are stereotypes. Jude is work-obsessed and ambivalent about the future of his relationship with his cardboard cut-out girlfriend, who does nothing but complain that Jude does nothing but work. Their conversations are painful to read — painful not because there is any emotional pull to them but because they are horribly written. The detective is similarly work-obsessed but also surprisingly attractive, capable of letting her hair down and belting out a blues tune when the moment is right. The reporters and editors at the newspaper are a collection of nasty people, from plagiarists to malingerers to gossip-mongers — well, they are all gossip-mongers — and they might be interesting, if they weren’t very hard to distinguish from one another and very hard to care about.
Even the resolution of the mystery fails to be interesting; I was surprised when I learned who the murderer was, not because it was an exciting plot twist, but because I was given no reason to care. The resolution seemed to come out of no where, and there was no way anyone could have figured it out ahead of time. The explanation for the motive was full of information readers didn’t have access to ahead of time, and it felt haphazardly pulled together.
I did like reading about the world of newspapers and learning a little about how the process of story-writing and publishing goes on, but when I met with my book group to discuss the book, two of the members who have newspaper experience said even there he didn’t get all the facts right. Our conversation turned to the mystery of how this book got such good reviews and why an editor didn’t shorten it drastically. It could have been a much better book if it were shorter, with fewer characters and fewer incidents that didn’t add much to the plot.
It’s frustrating to think that in a time when it’s so hard for good writers to get published this sort of low-quality writing gets attention. But this is his fifth novel, and he seems to have had success as a novelist, so something he’s doing is appealing to readers. I just don’t get it, though.