Two Crime Writers at the Bar
By James Ziskin
They say never start your story with weather, but I’ve never liked being told what to do. I’d lost my umbrella to a bully of a wind gust. A blast that broke the ribs and turned its skin inside out. I tossed the carcass into a trash can, but the wind wasn’t finished with it. Another blow and the umbrella tumbled down Forty-fourth Street like it was chasing a bus. I needed to get out of the rain and pour myself into something warm. The Harvard Club? That was a no. They’d thrown me out of there before. Something about my not being an alumnus. The Algonquin Hotel? Banned for life.
I raised my collar to the wind and crossed Sixth Avenue. A blue awning offered shelter. The fact that there was a bar through the door beneath it was gravy. Jimmy’s Corner. It wasn’t quite five, but I slipped inside just the same. The barkeep and a couple of Joes eyed me as I dripped puddles all over their vinyl tiles. It was dark, like the proprietor was too cheap or lazy to flick the switch and throw some light on this fagged-out corner of oblivion.
“Jim,” a voice called from one of the tables along the wall in the back. “Over here.”
Dick Belsky. R. G. Belsky on the covers of his books. I hadn’t noticed him when I first came in, but there he was, a shade in the dim light of the tavern’s gloaming.
I joined him at his table. “How you doing, old friend?”
The bartender showed up, wiping his hands on a rag, and said the floor show didn’t start for another couple of hours, but if I wanted a drink he could arrange it.
Dick offered to stand me a drink if I’d listen to his story. The rain was falling sideways now, pelting the front window, so I figured why not? Dick’s stories were always worth the time.
“I just finished a book,” he said. “It’s called BELOW THE FOLD. Comes out May 7.”
I’d heard he was working on the second novel in his Clare Carlson series. I’d read the first one, Yesterday’s News, and loved it. Especially the main character.
“That Clare Carlson has a rich, complex personality,” I said. “She’s tough, smart, and vulnerable, all at the same time. What makes her tick?”
“Ah, Clare Carlson,” he said as the barkeep returned with my Dewar’s on the rocks. “Great reporter, great TV news director now—Clare is one terrific journalist, even though she does sometimes break the rules a bit too much to get a big story.”
“As I recall, her personal life is a different story.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s pretty much a train wreck—with three failed marriages and a lot of other personal baggage she’s been carrying around with her for years. You know, Jim, I’ve worked with a lot of people like Clare—both men and women—as a big city journalist. Media people who are so focused on breaking the news and getting the big exclusive that their own lives suffer.”
“Sounds like maybe you modeled her on someone you know.”
“Ha! More than one. Let’s just say I’ve known a lot of Clare Carlsons in my newspaper and TV career.”
I sipped my drink, savoring the first sting and the accompanying warmth. I glanced around the bar, taking in the old boxing posters and photographs on the walls. A bushel of dollar bills were tacked up on the wall above the register like leaves on a tree. Maybe the barkeep had saved every tip he ever got.
“Is this one of those dives where all the TV and newspaper reporters hang out?” I asked.
Dick shook his head. “Nah, all those great old places are gone. Lions Head in the Village, Post Mortem when the New York Post was downtown. Last one went a year or so ago when Langan’s, the latest Post hangout, closed. But I used to come here sometimes when I was at NBC. Very funky, old fashioned, small glasses of beer and rough and ready service.”
“A place Clare Carlson might like. What else can you tell me about her?”
“Well, let’s start with integrity. Integrity is a big thing for Clare. She thinks being a journalist is a noble calling as a profession—not unlike being a priest or a doctor. Hell, I feel the same way.”
“Spoken like a former newspaperman.”
“You want to hear my favorite quote about being a newspaperman? It comes from Humphrey Bogart in Deadline, USA: ‘About this wanting to be a reporter, don’t ever change your mind. It may not be the oldest profession in the world, but it’s the best.’
“Jeez, I love that kind of stuff. So does Clare. You see, Clare is willing to compromise and break rules—maybe even a few laws—in certain situations, but she will never compromise her basic integrity. As she says: ‘There is no gray area for a journalist when it comes to honesty and integrity and moral standards. You can’t be just a little bit immoral or a little bit dishonest or a little bit corrupt. There is no compromise possible here.’”
“Maybe for her. What about for the rest of us?”
Dick downed the rest of his beer and signaled to the barkeep to bring another round. I noticed he hadn’t answered my question.
“What about sensationalism? You write a lot about that in your books. Is that the tabloid reporter in you?”
He chuckled. “Oh, no question about it! I’ve worked at the New York Post, New York Daily News and Star magazine, so sensationalism has been a big part of my professional career. Let me be clear about something here: Sensationalism is not a bad thing. It’s just about producing the stories that people want to read. That’s why there’s so much crime, gossip, entertainment and even terrible tragedies on the news. People want to know about this kind of thing. Like I’ve done with O. J., Jon Benet, Son of Sam, Casey Anthony, and so many other big crime cases.”
“Those are all fine and good. But I seem to recall you had something to do with the most sensational headline ever at the Post.”
“Yeah, I was part of the team that produced HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR. Most famous tabloid head ever. It was written by a friend of mine, a legendary newsroom character named Vincent Musetto, and went on to become a cult classic: sort of the Night of the Living Dead of tabloid headlines. But at the time we were just covering that day’s news and trying to come up with a front page that would sell. Who knew it would become this famous?”
The barkeep arrived with our drinks. I said this one was on me.
“You know, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you about these books.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Dick. “You want to know why I chose to write a first-person female narrator.”
“That’s right. How do you approach it?”
This got him going, and he read me chapter and verse on the subject.
“Actually, I’ve written 12 mystery novels, and most of them have been with a first-person female narrator/protagonist. There’s Clare; a previous TV journalist named Jenny McKay; and a newspaper reporter called Lucy Shannon.
“Why so many women? Well, Lucy started it all—she was the character in my first book. I originally wrote the story with a male reporter, but a woman editor suggested I make him a woman journalist instead. ‘Now that might be really interesting,’ she said. And, because I prefer to write in the first person, that’s how I wound up doing the first-person female narrator/protagonist.
“You have to remember something else too. In those days (this was in the ’80s), women faced a lot more challenges to make it in the media world. In the mystery world too, where there were few female characters until people like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone began to change things. So as an author it was fun to break new ground like this with a female protagonist.”
He paused to take a swig of beer, then he shot a conspiratorial grin my way. “Of course, I could ask you the same question about Ellie Stone.”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about Clare, not Ellie. Another thing I wanted to tell you is that I enjoy the newsroom gallows humor in your books. Is it really like that in journalism?”
“Hey, it’s impossible to work in a big city newsroom and not hear a lot of gallows humor. So I have this moment in BELOW THE FOLD when Clare almost gets killed during a shootout, then rushes back to the newsroom to put the story on air. ‘No video?’ an editor complains. She points out that shooting a video in that dangerous situation might have cost her her life. ‘Yeah, but at least it would have been good video,’ the editor points out. Is Clare offended by the sick joke? Hell, no! Clare laughs louder than anyone because it’s the same kind of joke she would make in the newsroom.”
A television in the back of the bar was showing a local news station. A story about a missing child. I asked Dick about the “ripped from the headlines” stuff in his books.
He nodded. “People always ask me where I get the ideas for my novels. Do you know what I tell them? I say: ‘I just go to work in the newsroom every day.’
“Like that story on the screen over there now about the missing child. Well, my first Clare Carlson book was about a legendary missing child case, inspired in part by the Etan Patz disappearance in the late ’70s which I covered as a young journalist. This new one, BELOW THE FOLD, draws a bit on the Bernie Madoff financial scandal and also a lot from the sex scandals involving charismatic politicians I’ve reported on like Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump, etc. There’s a lot of sensational material out there, my friend—both for news coverage and mystery novels like mine and yours.”
“The sex scandals aren’t always the career killers they used to be. But then there’s #MeToo now.”
“Tell me about it! When I was at Star magazine, we broke the first Bill Clinton sex story—his affair with cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers—just before the opening primary in New Hampshire. He survived that and all the rest of his sex scandals, but I don’t think Bill Clinton would have survived in today’s political climate where other famous names—Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby—have had their careers ruined by scandal.
“In BELOW THE FOLD, I have a charismatic politician who—much like Bill Clinton—is able to survive sex scandals and plot a political comeback, in the same way politicians survived this kind of thing years earlier. No question about it, I’ve seen a lot of political scandals in the news and in my novels too. Real or fiction, political scandals are one of my favorite types of news—they’re fun to write about.”
“Anything off limits to a former tabloid journalist?”
Dick took a moment to reflect, a task aided by squinting up at the ceiling fan. “I’ve never really thought about that,” he said. “But I realize that I don’t actually write a lot of detailed violence or sex scenes in my books. I talk about them, but prefer to leave it more to the reader’s imagination instead of giving specific details. Child abuse is obviously always a touchy area—although I do touch on it a bit in Yesterday’s News. And I’ve never written anything involving animal cruelty. But basically, for me, anything goes—if I need it to tell the story I’m doing.”
“What’s next for Clare?”
“The third Clare Carlson book—tentatively titled The Last Scoop—will be published in 2020. In that one, Clare starts out investigating a city corruption scandal but soon finds herself on the hunt for a horrifyingly evil serial killer. That gives me a chance to do my ‘ripped from the headlines’ stuff about Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, and some of the other famous serial killers I’ve covered as a journalist. But—because I get to make it up—my fictional serial killer is even worse than any of them.”
“Hey, what about your character Gil Malloy? I liked him a lot. Any chance we’ll be seeing him again?”
Dick laughed. He said a lot of people have said they’d love to see Clare Carlson and Gil Malloy (his New York Daily News tabloid reporter from previous books) together in a novel.
“But I’m not sure if that would be a good idea. I think they would probably either have a torrid sexual relationship or kill each other. Actually, maybe both. We’ll see…”
We ordered another round. I asked Dick if he didn’t have somewhere else to be. He shook his head. “Not in this rain.”
“I always like to ask authors about their ‘made it’ moment. Does that apply to you, given your history as an experienced journalist? When did you feel you’d made it as a writer?”
“My ‘made it’ moment as an author happened a long time ago when I sold my first short story. To Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. It was the first time someone actually printed anything of mine. And paid me for it! I’ve thought of myself as a professional fiction writer ever since then.
“My ‘made it’ moment as a journalist happened when I was very young too: my first byline in the New York Post. I had been working there for three months, but the Post didn’t give bylines to reporters until they decided to hire you full time. One morning I walked into the newsroom, an editor pointed to my byline in the paper and announced: ‘Congratulations, kid, you’re a New York Post reporter now.’
“Both of those ‘made it’ moments were—and still are—pretty memorable for me.”
“It is a thing you don’t forget. Aspiring writers often ask me for advice. I’m never sure what to tell them. What about you?”
“One word of advice: write. It sounds simple, but not everybody who aspires to be an author does that. I’ve run into a lot of people who say they want to write a novel. But very few of them sit down and do it. Because that’s the key to being an author—sitting down every day and writing, whether you think it’s any good or not.”
“Every day? Even when you don’t feel the inspiration?”
“Don’t take it from me. Listen to maybe the greatest mystery author ever, Raymond Chandler. Chandler once said the key to writing for him was to set aside a certain amount of time each day where you don’t allow yourself to do anything but write. No TV, no reading, no paying bills or writing notes. ‘You don’t have to write,’ Chandler said, ‘but you can’t do anything else. Either write or nothing…’ I find it works.” I mean if it’s good enough for Raymond Chandler, then…”
Just then the front door opened up and some out-of-towners stepped in. I could see that the rain had stopped. That was my cue.
“Maybe I should go get some writing done,” I said. “Or at least do nothing. I can’t waste my valuable nothing time jawing with you.”
I tried to pay the bill, but Dick grabbed it first. I let him.