Thursday, May 16, 2019

Stop the Presses: The Journalist in Mystery Fiction. Guest post by R.G. Belsky

by R.G. Belsky 

I’m a mystery author who follows the old adage: write what you know. Me, I know about journalists. Not surprisingly then, the protagonist in all 12 of my mystery novels has been a journalist too. The most recent book BELOW THE FOLD comes out this month. It features TV newswoman Clare Carlson who investigates the death of a homeless woman in New York and uncovers long buried dark secrets involving rich and powerful figures.

Now a journalist isn’t that common in the mystery world crowded with PIs, cops, lawyers, amateur sleuths, etc.

One of the reasons for that is writing about a journalist is a lot more challenging than a traditional mystery protagonist. A cop or a PI can use a gun to catch the criminals. A lawyer can haul people into court. But a journalist has to use words to solve cases. And, although it might be true that the pen really is mightier than the sword, well…the sword is a lot easier to make exciting in a book than a damn pen!

But there are other authors out there besides me, most of them also current or former journalists, who have been very successful using journalists as their protagonists. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites that come to mind:

MICHAEL CONNELLY - This one may be a surprise to some because he’s most well-known for Harry Bosch, his LA homicide detective. But one of his finest books is The Poet, which has a newspaper reporter named Jack McEvoy chasing after a serial killer. Connelly has brought McEvoy back since then, most notably in The Scarecrow. Connelly himself used to be a journalist too, as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “I sometimes still think of myself as a journalist who writes books,” Connelly has said.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN - Ryan is another author who really writes about what she knows. She’s a popular TV reporter on Boston television who has won prestigious awards as an investigative journalist, and she’s the author of many terrific best-selling mystery novels set in the fictional world of TV news. Her two series feature Jane Ryland and Charlotte McNally. No question you’re getting the real scoop from behind the cameras when you read a Hank Phillippi Ryan book.

JAMES ZISKIN - I got to know Ziskin when we were on a panel together at a mystery conference talking about this very topic of journalistic protagonists. I was intrigued to find out that he wrote about a female newspaper reporter and did it in the first person, just like I’ve done in several of my novels. He writes a wonderful series about Ellie Stone, a woman far ahead of her time as a tough-talking, hard-drinking reporter for a small upstate New York newspaper in the early 1960s - long before women were taken seriously in the media.

JULIA DAHL - Dahl and I share the distinction of being alumnae of the New York Post, although from far different eras. I was the city editor there for more than a decade during the tabloid heydays of the ‘80s. Dahl worked as a street reporter much more recently, and then used that experience to create a fascinating journalistic character in Rebekah Roberts. Rebekah’s a young reporter at a New York City tabloid paper who investigates crimes in the Hasidic community where her mother came from.

BRAD PARKS – Parks is a former investigative reporter for a New Jersey newspaper who began writing mystery novels about, wait for it….an investigative reporter for a New Jersey newspaper. Parks say his fictional reporter Carter Ross came out of a quadruple murder story he once covered in Newark. I’ve had the pleasure of being on several panels at mystery conferences with Parks where we’ve talked about everything from serious investigative journalism to the origin of the famous New York Post tabloid headline HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR. He’s an interesting guy, and so are his books.

RICH ZAHRADNIK - Zahradnik is a longtime journalist at CNN and other places who writes about a New York City newspaper reporter in the ‘70s. Coleridge Taylor somehow manages to scoop the armies of reporters from all the other big city media on story after story from that turbulent era - which included such legendary events as the Son of Sam crime spree. I have a special affinity for Zahradnik’s books about 1970s New York newspapers - because I lived it as a journalist myself!

There’s a couple of other pretty notable authors out there who are ex-journalists that I want to mention here too - even if their characters aren’t usually working as actual reporters in their books.

Laura Lippman was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, who created the memorable character of Tess Monaghan, a reporter who loses her job and becomes a private investigator.

And Gillian Flynn wrote for Entertainment Weekly before she got laid off and started turning out mystery thrillers - including the blockbuster Gone Girl. The two main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, were ex-writers too who had lost their jobs, similar to her own real-life experience. And her book before that, Sharp Objects, did feature a woman newspaper reporter. “I could not have written a novel if I hadn’t been a journalist first,” she has said.

A lot of us feel that way.


R.G. Belsky is a longtime journalist and a crime fiction author in New York City. Belsky has worked as a top editor at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News – and covered most of the big crime stories from Son of Sam to O.J. to Jon Benet to Casey Anthony. He has also published 12 mystery novels, including his current Clare Carlson series – about a woman TV journalist. 

1 comment:

Barb Goffman said...

One more former reporter here! Good post. I hadn't heard of Zahradnik before. Will have to check him out. Thanks for the tip.