Here's a spooky-dooky Halloween mystery for you. I returned home Saturday night/Sunday morning in a state somewhere between keenly observant and thoroughly pickled. When I arose for my restorative, purifying jog early Sunday morning, a copy of the most recent Fortune was waiting at my door.

Whoever/whatever delivered it didn't buzz my apartment to access the building, nor did he/she/it make a peep. So unless one of my neighbors had been hoarding the issue for a day or two -- possible but unlikely, given that the envelope remained sealed -- I can only conclude that a ghost messenger delivered the Nov. 20 issue of the mag somewhere between 3:30 a.m. (2:30 after we turned back the clocks, if you want to get technical about it) and 7:20 a.m. Sunday morning. Eerie!

Don't get me wrong: I appreciate the service, especially given how much tush the issue kicks. Most Sunday mornings, my reading list is limited to the pre-game notes on, but I wound up knocking back half of Fortune before Chris Berman's globe-sized dome materialized on my TV screen. Then I inhaled many salty confections and scratched where I itched for the next 13 hours, before finishing off the mag late at night.

It's a keeper, if for no other reason than the two sublime pieces of investigative reporting that occupy a hefty chunk of the issue. I realize that we live in an era where many magazines won't run stories that exceed three pages in length, lest ADD-addled readers flick them aside for another gander at Us Weekly. That said, any publication that fancies itself reasonably intelligent ought to look at the pieces on class-action hobgoblin Milberg Weiss ("The Law Firm of Hubris Hypocrisy & Greed") and scammer Matthew Cox ("The Bonnie and Clyde of Mortgage Fraud"), and resolve to run something similarly detailed at least once every two months. Meticulously reported and slyly written -- I particularly enjoyed the description of Seymour Lazar as "a Great American Eccentric -- a wily wheeler-dealer who hates wearing socks" -- both stories read like great screenplays, while at the same time rendering complex financial and legal issues palatable to dunderheads like yours truly. Read them. Now.

The Nov. 20 issue doesn't suffer fools kindly. The feature on voting-machine manufacturer Diebold leads with "a five-step plan guaranteed to make an obscure company absolutely notorious." Similarly, the turnaround story (or so the publicist probably hoped) on new Ford CEO Alan Mulally takes out the knives in its second paragraph: "He showed little of the steel he's going to need to turn the carmaker around...His first big move is -- hold on to your seat -- a weekly business plan meeting." In the back-of-book "Investing" section (which seems to have been gutted in recent months), the mag takes a glass-half-empty swipe at Starbucks stock and rips a Fidelity fund manager who was "being hailed as a savior" six months ago.

The upfront "First" section is more hit-and-miss. While as well-written and -reported as anything else in the mag, the section comes across a bit schizo in its story choices. For every smartly diverting item (a quick take on Kellogg's move beyond cereal, a Q&A with Chuck E. Cheese entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell), there are two that have been written 642 times elsewhere, like another analysis of the Yahoo/Google competitive jousting and a piece on financial dudes playing fantasy football (helllloooo, 1998). I'm also a little confused by the tiny "this article originally appeared in Business 2.0 magazine" blurb at the bottom of the story about L'Occitane en Provence placing Braille labels on its products; I had no idea the spirit of collaboration was quite so profound within the Time Inc. family.

I also question the decision to devote 20 or so pages to a "Future of Design" special report. Though the topics are nicely diverse (a chat with architect Santiago Calatrava, a four-page "Tower of Tomorrow" foldout spread) the section finds Fortune out of its depth; it's like Architectural Digest assuming the editorial wherewithal to delve deep into the world of credit derivatives.

And as entertaining a writer as Stanley Bing/Gil Schwartz may be -- his "While You Were Out" exaggerates reaction to a McKinsey invasion, to fine acerbic effect -- Fortune could really use another sharp-'n-witty columnist or two. Granted, they don't grow on trees, but a few more distinctive voices would go a long way towards making the mag more accessible to financial dimwits (again: raising hand).

I can't make tête-à-tête-à-tête judgments among Fortune and Forbes and BusinessWeek, simply because I don't read any of the three titles with sufficient regularity. But I've always found Fortune to be the sharpest of the three: the mag was the first to examine Enron and suggest "uh, something might not be kosher here," and has consistently transcended the lazy "business magazine" tag via its expansive features. A romp through the Nov. 20 issue hasn't convinced me otherwise. I have no idea what the PIB ad-page numbers are saying about Fortune nowadays, but it remains an elite editorial property.

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