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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 2, 2007

Back in the 1970s, I received a phone call from the Style Section of the Washington Post. At the time I was teaching and doing a bit of freelance writing. The Style Section was a Big Deal, one of the leaders in the movement called "The New Journalism," of which I was trying to be a practitioner. Since then this movement has fallen into disfavor. In the story I'm about to tell, you'll discover why.

What ensued was hilarious. The Style editor told me that he had read some of my work about upper Midwestern Scandinavians. "Now that coffee prices have gone through the roof, we'd like you to get over to your hometown and see what they think about that at the Whitehall Country Club. I hear that's where most business gets done in a town like that."

I expressed some doubts about the country club, but said I'd be glad to give it a try.

"When do you need the story?"

"Right away. Just fly down there and we'll pay the airfare."

"There's no airport there."

Long silence.

"Well, you figure it out and get us a story by tomorrow."

I knew the few people at the bar at the country club would have no opinions about coffee prices, so I made several phone calls to housewives with Scandinavian names, asking them if they were cutting back on their coffee consumption. They all said no, the price meant little to them. So I called the editor and he insisted that I work the country club angle. So I called the clubhouse and got hold of a friend and suggested what the editor was looking for and as one of the great B.S.ers of all time, he was glad to oblige.

I phoned in the story, word by word, each word spelled. And on Sunday the little town of Whitehall was splattered all over the cover of the Washington Post Style Section and a few days later I got the biggest check I had ever received, before or since.

This is a long way of getting at the book which I'm now going to mention. It's called "Necessary Sins" (The Dial Press, $24), by Lynn Darling, a young free-spirited woman who worked as an inhouse writer for the Style Section when I was writing that story. Her book is a confessional, about falling in love with one of the Washington Post's greatest writers, a married man much older. All this is beautifully written, and moving. But what really floored me was her recollections of dealing with Style editors, how quixotic they were, how impractical. For years, I've wondered about the guy I dealt with. Now I know I wasn't alone.

This is a very affectionate book, but it's also eyeopening when it comes to the inner workings of one of America's greatest newspapers.

On the lighter side this week is "Alibi Man," by Tami Hoag (Bantam, $26). Hoag, a Minnesotan who set many of her mysteries in the Twin Cities, has moved to California. Her new book concerns the goings-on of the ultra-rich in Palm Beach.

Hoag's heroine, Elena Estes, was a member of the Palm Beach set, but has forsaken it to become an undercover cop and later a horse trainer. But she must momentarily give up on the equines and get back to police work when she discovers a body in a canal, a body that turns out to be her friend. The Russian mob gets into the act and Elena returns to the old society to find the murderer.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at