June 19, 2014
(++++) THE FRONT AND OTHER PAGES
The Ways of the Dead. By Neely Tucker. Viking. $27.95.
Neely Tucker is no Ben Hecht or Charles MacArthur, but he certainly knows how to channel them and darken their vision considerably. When Hecht and MacArthur wrote The Front Page in 1928, newspapers were in their heyday, rapid-fire dialogue was in the ascendant, and extracting comedy from corruption and venality seemed like a natural (or naturally twisted) thing to do. Fast forward to 2014, though, and newspapers have lost most of their relevance, many of their advertisers, a great number of their readers, and an entire generation of potential users – who gravitate to instant news sources and could not care less about the investigations of political and administrative corruption in which newspapers have long excelled and on which they have long based their reputation as protectors of the public (which is itself a laughable notion to many today). Small wonder that in a recent survey of the 200 worst jobs in the United States, based on such factors as pay, hours and ability to control one’s own workplace destiny, “newspaper reporter” placed 199th (ahead of lumberjack).
So Tucker, a Washington Post reporter, reverses gears a bit, going back 15 years or so, to a time when newspapers were not quite on the way out yet and not quite as irrelevant as they have since become, in order to portray a very-old-school investigative reporter whose noir world is filled with corruption and double-dealing and venality about which there is nothing amusing whatsoever. It is as if Tucker runs the Hecht/MacArthur sensibility through that of Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown, transplanting the events from Chicago in 1928 and Los Angeles in 1937 to Washington, D.C., at the turn of the 21st century.
The nominal story is about the killing of the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent D.C. judge who is expected to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the real story is about the requisite tough-but-fair, hardened-and-damaged-but-upstanding clichéd reporter who will stop at nothing (including gun-toting, breaking and entering and more) in pursuit of truth, justice and the American (or at least Washingtonian) way. This is Sully Carter, onetime war correspondent, wounded in both body and soul in Bosnia, a man with a disfigured face, a limp, and a hole where his heart should be (figuratively, that last item): “It was better when he was on one continent, sending stories back to his newspaper on a different one. That was swell.”
Sully really is a walking, talking, hard-boiled cliché: “He knew where he was going and what he was going to do. There was risk attached, yeah, but if he’d learned anything from eleven years in the worst hellholes on earth, it was that reporting without risk was an oxymoron.” This book is not for anyone who doubts the sincerity of those sentences or, worse, laughs at them. Sully is 100% sincere, 100% of the time. The book’s title comes from his “hand-sketched homicide map of the city,” on which he notes where murders occur and what sort of people’s lives are claimed. “It was his manner of understanding the living, by studying the ways of the dead…”
The oh-so-world-weary Sully needs something to ground him, other than the Basil Hayden’s bourbon that he drinks incessantly (settling for beer or wine if he must), because “it had all gotten out of hand, this story, his life, everything, since he’d come back from Bosnia, from Romania, from Afghanistan, from Gaza, from Nagorno-Karabakh. He had lost the ability to draw lines, to compartmentalize, to keep one part of his life separate from another.”
Indeed, Sully would not be the bold, unstoppable-but-flawed good guy of countless murder mysteries if he did not have an unsatisfactory love life (because of a disastrous loss in wartime) and a bunch of powerful enemies, among them one of his bosses and the judge whose daughter has been killed. He also has the inevitable unsavory not-quite-friends, people who know the grey areas of the law and live within or just beyond them, bad guys from whom good information can be obtained in exchange for a small, hardly noticeable piece of Sully’s soul. The Ways of the Dead has much to do with the trade becoming, by the end, all too noticeable; hence the noir element.
There is nothing amusing at all in Tucker’s book, but there are occasional passages that are at last wry, as in the description of one of the newspaper management types: “He hitched his pants up slightly and his fingers found his slim golden belt buckle and fussed with it until it was perfectly in between the first and last loops of his slacks and directly beneath the point of his tie. He crossed his left arm across his chest and propped his right elbow against his left hand, holding the arm upright so that the fingers on his right hand could stroke his chin.” Most of what goes on here, though, is serious in the extreme, with Tucker delving into issues of white privilege, the dividing lines of race and income in D.C., and – oh yes – the little matter of that murder, which Sully is sure is part of a pattern. The reporter’s inevitable dogged persistence leads him down a series of blind alleys until he eventually upends everybody’s expectations, including his own, by cutting this particular Gordian knot – only to discover, this being a noir novel, that he got it all (or most of it) wrong, and cannot do anything to make matters right. At least not in this book – a sequel is inevitable.
The Ways of the Dead is better than the sum of its frequently formulaic parts, because despite the numerous clichés in the portrayal of Sully and those around him, despite the obviousness of some blind alleys and red herrings, despite the certainty that things will never be quite what they seem to be, the pacing and dialogue make it possible to look past plot holes and overdone misdirection and revel in a long-ago world (seemingly much longer ago than 15 years) in which intrepid journalistic do-gooders could face down impossible deadlines and their own internal demons in order to ensure that justice (or what looks like justice) is done, all in time for broadsheet delivery in the morning.
Much, much has changed since the time in which this book is set. A few things have not, though, such as the eternal need for better editing. Someone needs to let Tucker know that there is no such word as “alright.” The Washington Post would, one hopes, never have let that get through, as it does repeatedly in The Ways of the Dead.