Black and White and Dead All over

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-08-11
  • Publisher: Anchor
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From the author of the bestselling "Neanderthal" comes a cunning, pitch-perfect portrait of the declining--if not yet murderous--newspaper industry, and a mystery that entertains from first to last.

Author Biography

John Darnton has worked for forty years as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He was awarded two George Polk Awards for his coverage of Africa and Eastern Europe, and the Pulitzer Prize for his stories that were smuggled out of Poland during the period of martial law. He is a bestselling author whose previous novels include Neanderthal and The Darwin Conspiracy. He lives in New York.


Ellen Butterby had never before seen a dead body. So she was not at all prepared for what she found on that mid-September morning.

It was a chilly day, mist turning to rain. She emerged still groggy from New York's Port Authority bus terminal on Eighth Avenue--she had napped on the bus from Montclair--and angry that she had left her umbrella at home. To be unprepared ran against her character. Her gray hair was already covered with tiny droplets, a spider's web glistening with morning dew.

She walked to the open-air coffee wagon on West Forty-fifth Street and joined the line behind five people. She seethed that it was moving so slowly, depriving her of the shelter of the wagon's metal sideboard, propped up to provide a roof for only the first two or three customers.

Finally she reached the service window. From inside, Bashir flashed a smile.

"Some day, isn't it?" he remarked.

She nodded curtly by way of reply.

He had anticipated her order, one hand holding the container with the Lipton tea bag, the other bent at the wrist, pulling back the hot-water tap. On days like this, when the windows of his wagon steamed over and he hunched down to make change from the coins scattered on a towel beside the window, the Afghan struck her as a troll in his lair.

She picked up the container and set off down the block, leaning into the now-quickening rain. She reflected on the fact that she was rarely pleasant to Bashir. Perhaps, she mused, she was something of a snob. She felt a vague stab of emptiness. What did she have to be snobbish about? Childless, unmarried, fifty-seven years old, and living with her bedridden mother, she had not drunk deeply from life. As a young woman fresh out of secretarial school, she had answered a help wanted ad, appeared in the cavernous lobby of theNew York Globe,and was hired at ninety dollars a week. That was thirty-six years ago, and she had been there ever since. What had she accomplished? Like everyone else, she had given everything to the paper, that bottomless pit. She was aware, on days when she scanned the obits, that she wouldn't merit a single paragraph.

But lately, it seemed, the newspaper was beginning to repay her. She had risen through the ranks to a respectable position, administrative assistant to none other than Theodore S. Ratnoff, theGlobe'smuch-feared assistant managing editor. Ratnoff was famous for the dressing-downs meted out to subordinates, especially copy editors, who labored in suffering obscurity like half-blind medieval monks churning out illuminated manuscripts. He was in charge of style, standards, and usage--the coin of the realm--and he enforced his edicts with Torquemadan unrestraint. A dangling modifier led to a verbal lash of the whip, a pejorative anonymous quote to a figurative stab with a red-hot poker. Headlines of unintentional ambiguity--so-called two-faced heads--brought out the rack. But on substantive issues--like pandering to the reader with puff pieces--he was among the worst.

Two things were notable about Ratnoff. One was his intelligence, which made his remarks all the more cutting; he was rarely wrong, and on those rare occasions when he was, no one below the masthead called him on it. The other was his imposing demeanor and fastidious dress. He was tall and blond, of German extraction on his mother's side and Hungarian on his father's, with a crew cut like a ship's prow and cold blue eyes. His black pinstriped suits were bespoke and the white cuffs of his Turnbull & Asser shirts were clasped by diamond-chipped links. His shoes were polished to the patina of a black tulip. Such an outfit might turn a smaller man into a dandy, but in Ratnoff's case it accentuated his naturally dominating presence. When he walked into a room, other men sometimes felt a tingling in their gonads.

Among all the reporters and editors, only Ratnoff was permitted to use a purple flow pen.

Excerpted from Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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