'The Obituary Writer': newspapering, seaminess

"The Obituary Writer," by Porter Shreve. Houghton Mifflin. 216 pages. $12.

In Porter Shreve's first novel, Gordie Hatch is an ambitious 22-year-old reporter for the St. Louis Independent who dreams of the larger journalistic world beyond the obituary desk where he spends his days busily chronicling the lives of the dearly and not-so-dearly departed.


Hatch is something of a journalistic over-achiever who is haunted by the memory and journalistic success of his father, who came to prominence during the assassination of President Kennedy and died when Hatch was 5. He eventually stumbles onto a story that lands him on page one -- but not before annoying the hell out of Jim St. John, the newspaper's appropriately cranky and demanding metro editor, and the rest of paper's staff.

Set in St. Louis in 1989, the mystery novel takes a weird turn when Hatch, against his better judgment but drawn by the strange woman's entreaties, agrees to met Alicia Whiting, a petite blond adventuress and widow of Arthur Whiting, an older banker and dog breeder, whose obit he has just written.


The pace of the novel quickens considerably when the two become lovers and the ever-inquisitive Hatch decides to check into the past of the far from grief-stricken widow who is anxious to dispose of her late husband's chattels.

What the aggressive Hatch eventually learns about the "Merry Widow" makes for an interesting and well-told story that is at times taut with tension and roars to an unexpected conclusion.

However, I could have been spared such journalistic pieties as uttered by Hatch's mother, keeper of her dead husband's memory: "Your father wasn't about to break the most sacred law of journalism and betray a source."

Equally distracting at times is the author's insistence on inserting starry-eyed newspapering claptrap into the mouth of Hatch, the novel's narrator:

"It was the sixth floor, though, that harbored all of the tension and adrenaline of news reporting that I craved, and where, as absurd as it seemed, I thought I could detect my father's presence. He would descend as a kind of heat, a shiver across my scalp and down my spine. Sometimes I'd swear I could sense him looking out through my eyes, a young reporter waiting for the flare in the sky that points to the great discovery."

Shreve, a former reporter and teacher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, deftly moves this believable cast of characters through the steamy underside of St. Louis and through the chaotic city room of the St. Louis Independent, which forms the novel's backdrop. Happily, the distractions I have complained about are rare in what is a fine and entertaining thriller that is fit to be consumed while lounging on the beach or passing a hot summer's afternoon suspended in a hammock.

Frederick N. Rasmussen has, for the last eight years, been The Sun's chief obituary writer. Before that, he spent almost a generation on the newspaper's research library staff.