Nora McFarland: M is for McFarland
Nora McFarland writes the Lilly Hawkins mysteries about a sharp-tongued and very stubborn television news photographer in Bakersfield, Calif. The latest, Hot, Shot, and Bothered, was released on August 2nd. The first in the series is A Bad Day's Work.
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A Reporter on the Case
One of the reasons I write mysteries about journalists is because I used to be one. (A journalist, not a mystery. I’m actually a very straightforward sort of person, I promise.)
But another factor is my lifelong love affair with the subgenre. Sadly, it’s been a very one-sided passion. Books, movies, and television shows can’t love us back, and when I actually entered the profession, my romantic notions were soon crushed like a murder victim pushed into a printing press—or pushed in front of a live truck, if you prefer television news.
This realistic view of journalism—it’s a boring and grungy life—is something I’ve worked hard to overcome as an author. The imaginative view—it’s never boring, and grungy in a way that appears glamorous—makes for much better reading. No one would buy a dull book about overworked people who aren’t saving enough for retirement. I write what I like to read: fun books about sharp-tongued newshounds who get the story, solve the mystery, and are changed by the journey.
Seeing the film His Girl Friday at the tender age of five probably did the most to prime my impressionable young mind for this kind of story. Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of female reporter Hildy Johnson set the archetype for me. I was completely taken by her quick wit, lust for a story, and almost manic energy. In real life this kind of journalism leads to phone-hacking scandals and other moral lapses, but in fiction, obsessed reporters who’d choose to save the morning edition over their own mothers are wonderful.
These kinds of characters thrived in screwball-comedy films from the 1930’s, but it’s a book from the fifties that puts a delicious twist on them. The hero of Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown is the editor of a small weekly paper. He desperately wants something exciting to happen in his little town so he’ll finally have a good story to cover. He longs to be the kind of journalist celebrated in His Girl Friday, just as I did, but instead he’s trapped covering church rummage sales and local divorces.
Maybe it’s my identification with his plight that makes me love this book so much. It’s a joy to read as over the course of one night the main character becomes personally involved in the hunt for an escaped lunatic, murderous mobsters fleeing the law, a bank robbery, a payroll robbery, and multiple deaths.
I also love the narrator’s voice. Despite his age and a certain amount of disappointment at how his life has unfolded, there’s a sweet innocence about the character. At one point he’s shocked to discover that a man who hates him would take advantage of circumstances to try and kill him. He’s only known that kind of hate as an abstract concept. It existed somewhere in the world, but not in his daily life.
That kind of hate is not an abstract concept to another of my favorite fictional journalists. Irwin M. Fletcher, as created by Gregory Mcdonald, doesn’t have any illusions about what human beings are capable of. Unlike the cynical early and mid twentieth-century newshounds, who knew the deck was stacked against them but still charged headlong at corruption and hypocrisy, Fletch is compelled by a loathing of the establishment that extends even to those in charge of his own newspaper.
In short, Fletch is a baby boomer.
Instead of Hildy Johnson’s manic energy, Fletch has laid-back cool. His witty one-liners aren’t fired in machine gun blasts directly at the recipient’s face. Fletch uses humor so slyly that his victims frequently don’t know they’re the butt of a joke. But the reader knows and delights as Fletch drops one of his verbal bombs and quietly walks away.
Despite all that fun, there’s something unsettling about Fletch’s character in the books. This is obviously not the case for Chevy Chase’s hysterical, but far less interesting, portrayal in the films. Mcdonald guards Fletch’s interior life from the reader just as Fletch guards it from the other characters. Humor is used to avoid direct confrontation, as well as ugly memories—and as a former marine with two ex-wives, Fletch has a lot of ugly memories.
Even more than this, though, Fletch hates. The things he hates are mostly deserving of it—corruption, hypocrisy, incompetence, the powerful who abuse their positions—but the level of feeling that emerges on the rare occasions Fletch abandons humor to directly confront someone is striking. He is very much a product of the seventies, when the baby boomers’ anger toward, and distrust of, their parents’ generation flourished.
Ironically, the incident that did the most to cement that distrust in our cultural psyche is also a truly-inspiring story about the power of journalism. All the President’s Men is what shifted my view of being a reporter from something that looked like fun, to something that could change the world.
The film, based on the equally fantastic non-fiction book, is probably the best movie ever made about journalism. Somehow director Alan J. Pakula manages to show the dogged repetition required to break a story, while still being outrageously entertaining. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so high. If Woodward and Bernstein were covering skullduggery at a carwash we might not sit on the edge of our seats while two white guys in dress shirts talk to each other and make phone calls.
Similar in look and tone, but made for television, is another favorite of mine. Lou Grant was an hour-long drama that aired for five seasons starting in the late seventies. It continued the character made famous in The Mary Tyler Moore Show as he moved to Los Angeles and transitioned back into newspaper work from TV news. Along with this career change came a striking switch in tone from situation-comedy humor to serious, issue based drama.
I think the reason Lou Grant had more of an effect on me than The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both of which I watched in syndication, is that MTMS wasn’t really about journalists. It was a work-place comedy whose characters formed a kind of family. On the other hand, Lou Grant and the reporters who worked for him at the Los Angeles Tribune faced ethical dilemmas, corruption, mystery, and all manner of personal problems. The drama is rooted in their professions and in a nuanced, but hopeful view of the human condition.
A modern mystery series that reminds me of this kind of character-based storytelling is Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake books. The main character has returned to his small Michigan town to work at the bi-weekly local paper. He left home a failure many years earlier and has returned a failure after losing his big-city-reporting job in disgrace. That’s a heavy weight to carry, and when you add that he’s emotionally withdrawn and has a tendency to avoid harsh truths, you could have yourself an unpleasant read. But Gruley is such a skilled novelist, and imbues his protagonist with so much inherent decency, that you’re riveted as the character is awakened to the ugly underbelly of his hometown.
But this has come quite a long way from His Girl Friday and the enthusiasm of my youth. Perhaps that’s because I’ve grown up. If only there was something that could blend my childlike enthusiasm with my now more-adult sensibilities.
But wait, there is! Hank Phillippi Ryan’s mystery series is about a Boston television reporter named Charlotte McNally. Charlotte is a version of Hildy Johnson that’s a little bit wiser, more grounded, and a lot more patient. She may have come by those admirable traits through the natural process of aging, because Charlotte is also fifteen years older than Hildy. That’s not a problem if you’re a print reporter, but TV news has an unfortunate tendency to prize youth and good looks over reporting skill. Charlotte handles that challenge with grace and intelligence, not to mention a sharp wit.
Despite thirty-three years, a whole lot of real life, and the weight of being an adult, when I read Charlotte’s dialogue, I hear Rosalind Russell’s voice and am five again. It really doesn’t get better than that.
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