I’ve been doing the blog thing for nearly seven years between this and the predecessor blog, so I don’t have to enter the latter.
As for the former, that “no plot” thing, as you know, has been my downfall. The standard advice is to write what you know, which precludes me from what I’d rather write, detective fiction. My eyesight deteriorated below police levels somewhere in middle school (thus leading to poor hand–eye coordination and bad aim), so other than having covered crime of various sorts, and investigated none of said crimes, I have no ability to write detective fiction. If this were National Book Writing Month (“NaBoWriMo”?), I could just take a month of this blog, and presto! Instant book!
Since you’re probably wondering after three paragraphs: What prompted me to write this was news that author Ron Franscell’s book about a newspaper publisher/editor, Deadline, is being rereleased in early November by WildBlue Press:
A dying convict’s last request thrusts Jefferson Morgan, a small-town newspaperman into a deadly maelstrom as he explores a fifty-year-old case of child murder – a wound this town still isn’t ready to re-open. Amid threats from unexpected foes and under the most important deadline of his life, Morgan struggles with his own conscience to dig deep into the town’s past, tell the truth no matter the consequences, and unveil a killer who managed to remain unmasked for almost 50 years.
(Are not all maelstroms deadly?)
You may remember that I reviewed Deadline, and generally liked it (as did other reviewers), though I found a flaw with a subplot. One of the hero’s antagonists is the banker who is financing the newspaper’s purchase. The banker has to be there as a plot point (apparently because the bank isn’t a big enough advertiser; that should be enough of a conflict right there) when most purchasers of newspapers not by corporations are by seller financing. Had I written it, I would have made the banker a big advertiser who threatens to pull his advertising, but that’s just me. I have not read Franscell’s sequel, Obituary, but I will have to.
As you know, I’ve been underwhelmed for years with fictional depictions of journalists as heroes. (Perhaps journalists are not heroes.) One of the Deadline reviewers called it “newspaper noir.” I’m a fan of film noir and detective fiction, but I had never heard of newspaper noir. If you’re familiar with film noir, newspaper noir fits this description, though Deadline does not:
Perhaps the darkest of these is Ace in the Hole, a 1951 indictment of mass storytelling starring Kirk Douglas, who plays Chuck Tatum, an unforgivably dishonest newspaperman who knows what the people want. The people, mindless cattle that they are portrayed as in this film, do not necessarily want journalists to “tell the truth,” as the quaint needlepoints hanging in Tatum’s Albuquerque newspaper office instruct. They want, above all, a classic tale—preferably unspooled over many days, with heroes and villains and dramatic suspense and a thrilling ending. If that requires Tatum to keep a man trapped inside a mine shaft for six days so that he can spin a serial, proto–Baby Jessica yarn about a mountain that is cursed by ancient Indian spirits, a devoted wife who is praying for the man’s rescue, and a desperate multiday bid to drill a hole through the top of this cursed mountain (Tatum’s idea, the trapped man could have been pulled out in a day if other methods were used)—if that’s what is required to hook the people, boost subscriptions, and revive Tatum’s career, then so be it.
This being noir, everything ends badly for everyone involved, including the mindless cattle-people who, having read Tatum’s dispatches in papers all over the country, descend upon the dusty plain in front of the cursed mountain and while away their days of suspense with the help of speedily arrived circus entertainers and carnival rides. In one of the final scenes, Tatum stands on the mountaintop—a disheveled, alcoholic anti-Moses—and speaks his commandments to the people through a microphone. It will not spoil anything to say that these commandments are simple, grim, and ultimately not very likely to drive up newspaper circulation. There is no mass story, this film teaches, and therefore no credible mass media—only human frailty and mass manipulation.
Just as depressing, but far more entertaining, is The Big Clock, which features a rotund, time-obsessed media mogul named Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), who presides with ruthless efficiency over a Hearst-like media empire. His building’s lobby boasts—in addition to the big clock itself—many smaller clocks telling the time in Janoth’s 43 foreign bureaus (bureaus that stretch “from Reykjavik to Cairo, Moscow to Buenos Aires”) as well as a statue of Atlas, weight of the world on his shoulders, muscles straining at the difficult task of carrying around reality as humans know it. But, oh, what a profitable task this carrying of reality to its proper destination can be! Style Ways, News Ways, Crime Ways—these and other popular titles have brought Mr. Janoth a considerable fortune, although a new “recession” in circulation is worrying him. “Dynamic angles!” he barks during a meeting early on in the film. “We live in a dynamic age, gentlemen, with dynamic competitors—radio, newspapers, newsreels. We must anticipate trends before they are trends. We are, in effect, clairvoyants.”
Murder and mystery ensue, and both are well worth the time it takes to resolve, but the most delightful part of the movie has already passed. It is, quite simply, the sad absurdity of the proposition that any lumbering, giant, Hearst-like institution, then or now, could ever be dynamic enough for a truly dynamic age.
I had a detectivish piece started for a previous NaNoWriMo, also called Deadline (an Amazon.com search of books with the word “deadline” in the title returned 2,851 matches), about a small-town newspaper reporter who finds out something nefarious. It is on a non-functioning laptop (when I started writing it Google Drive didn’t exist), but it wasn’t good enough to be upset about that. The premise of NaNoWriMo is that if you write around 1,700 words a day for a month, you will get a 50,000-word novel at the end of the month. Writing that much in a day isn’t difficult for me (what you’ve read so far is about 950 words), but doing that every day around the rest of your life is not easy, even if you’re not working. And if you miss a day, or if your day’s output doesn’t hit the daily word count, you have to make that up the next day.
I subscribe to The Rap Sheet blog, which covers detectives famous and obscure in print and in movies and TV. It’s a worthwhile read (as are The Thrilling Detective and Criminal Element), covering such subjects as writers of yore whose output would shame Stephen King and James Patterson, as well as creators of the lurid yet attention-getting covers of said detective novels. The Rap Sheet author throws out a few liberal snippets, which he’s entitled to do, but it’s a bit annoying for those expecting to read about detectives instead of slams upon non-liberals.
Which brings to mind this aside: The Rap Sheet’s author writes approvingly of detective-fiction writers who insert a liberal point of view into their work. There is, for instance, Stephen Greenleaf, whose lawyer/private detective John Marshall Tanner thinks ill of the Ronald Reagan 1980s. More recently, he wrote approvingly of a British author whose hero, an in- and out-of-work British reporter, investigates the disappearance of the daughter of a high Church of England official. (Hint: The father comes across very badly.) The theme of more novels than I can count features someone downtrodden by a rich and powerful antagonist, which seems a fundamentally liberal point of view. I’m not suggesting that every mystery should be as right-wing as Mickey Spillane’s work. It does make me wonder, though, if those writers are writing for their audience, or if they’re indulging their inner political/cultural commentator.
Back to the actual point of this piece: Irrespective of the fact that no journalist I know or have ever met is tough enough to be believable as a detective, private or otherwise, the fact is that watching journalism take place is as interesting as watching cars rust. Consider the job functions of someone working at a weekly newspaper:
- Talk to people, either in person or on the phone.
- Sit at government meetings while other people drone on.
- Take photos.
- Use a computer (email, looking for something on the Internet, writing, page layout).
Of those five, only the first might be interesting to watch. So since the journalism process is visually dull, you have to substitute plot, and not only do I have a problem creating an A-to-Z plot, creating an A-to-Z plot with a journalist with detective skills as a believable hero is beyond my limited creative abilities. Remember, unlike real life, fiction has to make sense.