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2 Charlotte writers tell intriguing newspaper tales

By Pam Kelley

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  • Author appearances

    Mark Ethridge and Jon Buchan will appear at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. Ethridge will be there 7 p.m. June 13. Buchan will read at 7 p.m. June 20.



A small-town newspaper editor finds himself up against powerful political and corporate interests. What’s at stake? The town’s environmental health, among other things.

That’s the premise of not one, but two new novels from Charlotte authors. Here’s another coincidence: Both men are former Observer editors.

Despite some overlap in story plots and personal backgrounds, however, Jon Buchan and Mark Ethridge have written two very different stories about journalists seeking truth.

In “Code of the Forest” (Jogglingboard Press; $24.99), Buchan takes readers to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where Wade McNabb fights for his newspaper’s survival after he exposes a corrupt business deal involving a state senator.

Buchan, 61, was the Observer’s government editor in the mid-’80s. Since then, he has been a lawyer practicing media law, now with McGuireWoods, where he sometimes represents the Observer.

He began working on this novel, his first, more than a decade ago, stealing scraps of time to write when he could. “Every minute of it was fun,” he says, “because it was like creating this parallel universe.”

Buchan explores an intriguing subject – how friendships work among powerful people. “You get friendships in life, and people look out for each other,” he says. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But once friends get involved in politics, loyalty can morph into cronyism and even corruption. As a former political reporter and editor, Buchan has seen it happen. “Most people,” he says, “don’t think of themselves as bad people when they’re doing it.”

As a media lawyer, Buchan also knows his way around a libel case. His story culminates with a riveting courtroom drama.

On the way to the courtroom, Buchan steeps readers in Lowcountry culture, with boiled peanuts and men who wear khakis, polo shirts and cordovan penny loafers while conducting business at an exclusive hunting lodge.

Also tucked into “Code of the Forest” is a true story that Buchan has kept for years.

The anecdote, still known to some Observer staffers, involves an unfortunate reporter who bungled a story so badly that it required a lengthy correction. The reporter later lamented that he had hoped to get through his career without publishing a correction longer than a certain part of his body.

Some of my favorite lines in the book come from the morally foul S.C. Sen. Buck Ravenel, who explains how he punished a Democratic colleague who crossed him. “Before the next election,” Ravenel says, “we re-districted his ass.”

Buchan’s publisher is marketing his novel as Southern fiction. Mark Ethridge’s new book, on the other hand, is a thriller, with a car chase, murder and looming environmental catastrophe.

In “Fallout” (NewSouth Books; $19.95), Josh Gibbs, owner of a weekly newspaper in a small West Virginia town, is having some of the worst luck you can imagine.

Gibbs has already lost his beloved wife to breast cancer when he learns his 13-year-old daughter has bone cancer.

He’s got a solid ally in the town’s doctor, Allison Wright, but she has problems of her own, including patients suffering from strange skin infections.

Ethridge, 62, was the Observer’s managing editor from 1979 to 1988. He’s now president of Carolina Parenting Inc., which publishes parenting magazines.

This is his second novel. His first, “Grievances,” was recently made into a movie, “Deadline,” starring Eric Roberts. Based on an S.C. murder case he covered as a reporter, it also featured a journalist protagonist.

“Fallout” wasn’t inspired by an actual event, though Ethridge draws his setting from childhood years spent in a West Virginia town where his dad ran a weekly newspaper.

It’s hard to talk about this book without revealing key plot surprises. Let’s just say Ethridge’s long interest in bioethics issues came in handy when he needed to design a frightening disaster scenario.

“I think of it almost as an ‘Old Man and the Sea’ story,” he says. “A guy catches a story much bigger than his newspaper.”

This book includes multiple characters you’ll love to hate – heartless insurance company representatives, a congressman with a dark secret, Allison Wright’s odious and abusive ex-husband.

Occasionally, plot points strain credibility. Would a law-abiding physician steal equipment from a hospital? And why wouldn’t a newspaper have a website?

But as Allison and Josh discover evidence of a deadly cover-up, the book’s tension builds and “Fallout” takes off.

Kelley: 704-358-5271
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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