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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Conner's Elderly Newsman Gets the Last Word

Dying Words
By K. Patrick Conner
  • Length: 298 pages
  • Publisher: NaCl Press; first edition 
  • (September 9, 2012)
  • via Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Read: Dec. 1, 2012-January 8, 2013

In 37 years as a reporter, nearly 27 of them at the late, great SF Chronicle, I have written a few obituaries. Some people I “buried” were famous, like blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield or jazz great Earl Fatha Hines; some were obscure, like Ed Penaat, the SFPD beat cop who joined the Army in WWII, worked his way up to the rank of major general, then quietly went back to walking a beat in the city when the war was over.

The toughest assignments were the society wives who never seemed to have done anything noteworthy but marry some big shot. Scraping together enough material on them to fill a dozen paragraphs was tough but necessary -- particularly if they happened to be married to somebody who was a friend of the DeYoung or Theiriot families who owned the paper.

Nonetheless, every single obit I wrote was fascinating -- not because I was such a hot-shit writer, but because people – particularly in this part of California -- live the most interesting lives, and a news obituary gives you the privilege and challenge of capsulizing it for readers.

In his novel, “Dying Words,” K. Patrick Conner introduces us to Graydon Hubbell, a fictional 76-year-old former investigative reporter who does just that for a living.

Let’s make this clear from the jump: this is not a review of a crime novel, although there is at least one wanted fugitive involved in the plot. Nor is it a classic roman policier, despite the fact that there are passing references to police misconduct and two cops make brief appearances in it.

So what is this review doing in a blog that mostly deals with crimes stories and other types of pulp fiction?

The short answer is, the author is a friend of mine, and since I read and liked his book and consider this blog and its companion my personal creations, I will review anything in them I damn well please.
In Conner’s novel, reporter Hubbell has been relegated to the paper’s “dead page” – the section of the paper that contains paid death notices and staff-written bios of the recently deceased – as an antiquated relic. Hubbell writes obituaries for the Voice of the West. In fact, as the paper’s lead and only  obituary writer, he does nothing else.

Hubbell's knees are shot, to borrow a metaphor from the sports beat; he can no longer cut it as a newsman for a paper that has replaced its seasoned veterans with recent J-school grads willing to accept the niggardly wages and benefits the Chronicle's penurious parent, the Hearst Corporation, is willing to pay them.

He, like his chums who infest the area of the Chronicle newsroom known as "Section 8," has only one real value: he is another warm body who can be sacrificed to the perpetual buyouts and layoffs the newspaper is using in a desperate effort to remain alive.

“Dying Words” recounts Hubbell’s short-lived triumphs and ultimate humiliation during his last days at the Chronicle, a publication that, like its obituary writer, is in terminal decline, reduced to a shadow of its former greatness, hemorrhaging readers by the bucketful and gushing enough red ink to fill Lake Merced. Conner knows his subject well: he was an editor at the Chronicle for many years and left during one of the paper’s many staff reductions.

Although Conner has fictionalized the Chronicle for his novel, it is clearly recognizable to former staffers. His brief description of its cannibalization after the Hearst Corporation bought it from the Theiriot family in 2000 has the ring of truth: I was there until 2006, myself, so I have more than a passing acquaintanceship with those facts.

(Full disclosure: I worked closely with Conner until I left and considered him one of the best editors I had at the paper. He was boundlessly enthusiastic for the stories his crew worked on and quick to defend them from critics both inside and outside the newspaper.)

Conner’s novel is strictly a slice of life.  Unlike “State of Play” or “Call Northside 777,” there is no ingenious plot line, no journalistic heroism, no exposé of dark doings at City Hall, correction of a grave injustices, or exoneration of an innocent wrongly accused. 

It also is no “Front Page.” While humorous incidents are sprinkled throughout “Dying Words,” there is little laugh-out-loud hilarity; by and large, the novel has a sober tone that is appropriate for a story about a man in a dying industry who has essentially run out his string as a professional.

What the book does have are some memorable characters, well-turned dialog and a gentle narrative arc that I think most readers will find engaging.

Not that the book has no flaws: the employee diversity committee Hubbell is summoned before is cartoonish and stereotypical, undercutting Conner’s serious point that daily newspapers like the Chronicle are dying in part because the aging, upper middle-class, largely white audience they once served is becoming extinct.

And an obituary of a long-time fugitive from the law that Hubbell writes late in the book turns out to be a fake that would have been uncovered with a single phone call to the sheriff’s office in Montana where the fugitive supposedly died in an auto wreck.  “Dying Words” never explains why Hubbell didn’t make that call immediately after being told the fugitive had been killed in a collision.

More to the point, even a newspaper that has fallen on hard times like the Chronicle would never run a page one obituary on a fugitive who evaded police for more than forty years without a whole package of sidebars and companion pieces, including a chronology or “tick tock” on the dead man’s final hours. Probably half the newsroom would be assigned to put the package together.  And once all those other reporters were unleashed on the story, does it really seem likely that nobody would call the sheriff for a detailed account of the accident that supposedly took the man’s life?

But picking apart discrepancies like these is missing the point of the book. “Dying Words” is a paean to a disappearing breed – the legendary hat-wearing, hard-drinking newspaperman; it is also a farewell kiss to a lowly form of literature that once informed and amused most of the residents of America’s urban centers: the metropolitan daily newspaper.

What Conner has given us is a fine obituary of both, marked “hold for release” when the decedent is finally ready for burial. And, like his protagonist, Graydon Hubbell, Conner makes this obit sing.

I give "Dying Words" a full five nooses.

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