Fiction: “Black and White and Dead All Over” by John Darnton

black and whiteI picked this book up at the library on a whim. The dust jacket implied that it would be like the TV show Castle, which I enjoy a lot: female detective must work with famous author (in the novel’s case, journalist) to solve a murder. Lots of hysterical banter and the author/journalist shows up the detective and is the hero.

It was nothing like Castle, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Jude Hurley is the journalist in question, working for the New York Globe, which is clearly supposed to be a front for the New York Times. The paper’s readership is declining, as well as the content the paper is publishing; it’s slowly becoming a “tab”, or tabloid. And then Theodore S. Ratnoff, assistant managing editor, is killed, with an editor’s spike rammed into his chest. Jude is put onto the story, and he works closely with Priscilla Bollingsworth, the lead detective from NYPD.

This is a very dense, thought-out mystery. The murder is about more than just revenge for the editor’s horrible opinion of everyone – or is it? There’s a scandal of plagiarism, and a takeover for the Globe; all of these motives turn pretty much everyone into a suspect.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries ‘in my day’ (don’t worry, I’m scoffing at myself). I grew up on Sue Grafton and Dick Francis. Darnton’s mystery is a mix between Grafton and Jane Haddam (another mystery writer I adore), with regards to formula.

Sue Grafton’s formula is: A person comes to Kinsey for help. She doesn’t really want to help, but her rent’s due (or something), and she agrees. She does a little digging, and then it turns out that the case is much bigger than she had anticipated. She asks a lot of questions, there’s usually some breaking and entering (or impersonating a city worker), and it’s not until the penultimate chapter that she realizes whodunit. (Sidebar: I can’t believe that ‘whodunit’ is not a misspelled word.) The final chapter is the confrontation, and she usually has to escape by the skin of her teeth before the bad guy gets arrested/gets killed/etc. If there is a murder, there’s only one dead body.

Jane Haddam’s formula: The prologue is an introduction to all the main characters, who are all involved in an enterprise/going to a large get-together/members of a family. The first ‘act’ introduces Gregor Demarkian to the large group of people, either as a guest, or brought in on behalf of his former FBI credentials. The first act ends with a dead body. Second act begins, and Gregor begins investigating, and now there’s a second body to contend with. With Jane Haddam, you can count on at least three bodies, and then Gregor catches the culprit at the end of the third act; the Epilogue is where Gregor explains to Bennis Hannaford and Tibor why he/she did it and how.

Darnton has more than one body, each killed in a more gruesome (yet not gross) way, and a large cast of characters from which to pull suspects. The confrontation/Poirot parlor scene is condensed into the penultimate chapter, and there’s never really any horrible danger to our hero, Jude (and while I know instinctively as I read Sue Grafton’s books that Kinsey Millhone isn’t really going to die at the end, there’s always a chance she writes her epilogue from a hospital bed. I never had that feeling while reading this regarding Jude).

The book was very well-written. Some of the characters felt a little flat, but with such a large cast of characters, it’s almost to be expected.

I would definitely recommend this to any fan of mysteries.

Grade for Black and White and Dead All Over: 3 stars.

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