Black and White and Dead All Over

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.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Black and White and Dead All Over

  1. Dorothy, you are so kind and generous, as anyone can tell from reading only a paragraph of your writing, that when I got to the part where you wrote ‘this book kind of sucks’ I laughed out loud. And I thought, wow, this book must really have sucked. Stuff like this gets published because the concept is good, but alas, a good concept does not inevitably produce a good book. I’m going to have a moan about it over on my site in a bit, I think.

  2. I was suprised to find “This book kind of sucks” in a review here, and like Litlove thought wow it really must! I hadn’t heard of this novel, but would be interested to hear from anyone who has read and enjoyed it.

  3. verbivore

    Skipping over your review (which made me laugh – especially the “this book kind of sucks” comment) those are some wonderfully tempting books on the Slaves of Golconda list this month…looking forward to see which one you all end up picking!

  4. Like the others, “this book kind of sucks” made me laugh out loud. Sometimes you just have to lay it out there because there is no way other way to put it.

  5. I’ve never heard of this author before–how did you end up reading him? I’m working on a mystery myself that is sort of disappointing and I’m sorry to say I keep looking to the back and seeing how many pages I have left to go. I’m almost finished! Just out of curiosity–is this a mass market paperback?

  6. Good for you for honestly telling how you feel about the book, LOL! I’m reluctant to do that with some of the mysteries I’ve read lately, though they are very similar to what you describe: stereotypical characters that you don’t care about, disjointed plot, bad editing, etc. It really does make you wonder how the author got the contract.

    Mr. Suitcase reviewed a book on his blog a while back, and actually had the author pop up to comment on his comments about it! And I have heard stories about people reviewing knitting patterns and receiving challenging comments from the designers. It makes the free expression we’re entitled to on our blogs a little daunting.

  7. You really pull off a negative review, Dorothy! I understand your disappointment and so glad you’re honest about it!

  8. musingsfromthesofa

    As you know, I agree entirely. And was very amused by your unusual, but apposite, bluntness!

  9. Litlove — I read your moan over at your site and am so sorry that the publishing world isn’t more fair! In a fair world the Darnton novel wouldn’t get the treatment it’s gotten and some brilliant new writer would have gotten published instead. I suspect it’s his connections to the NYC literary world (or something similar) that did the trick for him.

    Sarah — well, there are some positive reviews, but I haven’t yet met anyone who liked it (although Emily from Telecommuter Talk might have a different view). I can’t help but wonder if the people who wrote positive reviews know the author or something …

    Verbivore — yes, Litlove’s choices were great, weren’t they? I’m looking forward to seeing the result too.

    Stefanie — you’re right! Sometimes there’s just no point in beating around the bush!

    Danielle — I read it for my mystery book club. Nobody in the group (those who were at the meeting at least) liked it. The people who chose it are familiar with the newspaper world, so the choice makes sense, but they were very disappointed. It’s a very nicely packaged hardcover, which makes the situation worse (Becky from Musings from the Sofa wrote about this) — if it had been a mass market paperback it wouldn’t have been so bad!

    Debby — yeah, it’s a little unnerving to think of an author showing up here. I wrote about an online essay once and the author showed up to comment, but I haven’t had an author of a book appear — oh, wait, Rosy Thornton commented on my review of her book, but that was entirely positive, so it was a good experience. I don’t want to distress any author, but I also do want to say what I think. My feeling is that Darnton probably wouldn’t care what I wrote — and probably won’t ever find it, as he portrays technology pretty negatively and trashes bloggers in the book. He might not be searching the blogs looking for reviews!

    Smithereens — I do value being honest about what I think, even if it’s negative, so I’m glad you appreciated it! :)

    Musings — glad to amuse you :) I’ll be over to read your review soon.

  10. I can check another one off my virtual TBR. Second review that I’ve read and trust that said it ‘sucks’. Next!

  11. I tried to read his first book (after all, there are less than 100 of us Darnton’s around the world so somehow or another he has to be a relative) and gave up halfway through for very similar reasons. I’m certainly not going to pick up this one and I’m definitely not in any hurry to explore the familial links any further!

  12. Wow, it’s as if we read a different book! I agree with you that it could have been shorter, but I still found it very amusing.

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