R. G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His newest mystery, The Last Scoop, was published in May by Oceanview. It is the third in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station. The first Clare Carlson book, Yesterday’s News, came out in 2018. It won the David Award at Deadly Ink for Best Mystery of 2018. Below The Fold, the second Clare Carlson mystery, was published in 2019. Belsky previously wrote the Gil Malloy series – The Kennedy Connection, Shooting for the Stars and Blonde Ice– about a newspaper reporter in New York City. Belsky himself has had a long career in the New York media as a top editor at the New York Post, New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News.
Welcome back to Reviews and Interviews, Dick.Please tell us a bit about your newest release.
TV journalist Clare Carlson is on the trail of a serial killer.
The scariest kind of serial killer—one you don’t know exists
It begins when Clare’s first newspaper editor, a beloved mentor who inspired her career as a journalist, tells her he’s working on a big story. But she’s too busy with her own career to pay much attention to him.
When the editor is killed on the street one night during an apparent mugging attempt gone bad, it seems like he was just an old man whose time had come.
But Clare—initially out of a sense of guilt for ignoring her old friend and then because of her own journalistic instincts—begins looking into his last story idea. As she digs deeper and deeper into his secret files, she uncovers shocking evidence of a serial killer worse than Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, or any of the other infamous names in history.
A serial killer who has killed 20 women over 30 years – without anyone even realizing the deadly crimes were all connected.
This could be the biggest story of Clare Carlson’s career – if she lives to finish it.
Because not all is as it seems during Clare’s relentless search for this terrifying serial killer.
And she soon finds herself in the killer’s sights herself as his next intended victim.
What inspired you to write this book?
1. I covered the Son of Sam story as a young journalist at the New York Post during the infamous Summer of ’77 when he murdered six people and wounded seven others in random shooting attacks that terrified the city. Our most famous front-page headline back then was: NO ONE IS SAFE.
I wanted to write a crime novel like that about a jouranalist and a serial killer – but a different kind of serial killer than Son of Sam. So instead of being a madman taunting the media and police with notes about his victims like Son of Sam or others, my serial killer works under the radar. And he’s done that – quietly and effetively – for nearly thirty years. Killing 20 women while wandering around the country – without anyone ever putting the murders together as being done by one person. Until Clare Carlson discovers this secret serial killer.
2. Also, when I was growing up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, a teenaged girl was mysteriously brutally murdered in her own bedroom in broad daylight in a quiet, normally crime-free neighborhood not far from mine. No one ever found out who killed the young girl or why. It remains one of the most baffling unsolved murder cold cases ever, and I’ve never forgotten about it. So I used that in part as my inspriration for the first murder linked to my serial killer in The Last Scoop. That’s the great thing about writing mystery fiction: You get to make up answers to things in a way you can’t do in real life.
Excerpt from The Last Scoop:
From CHAPTER 1
I was sitting in my office at Channel 10 News, drinking black coffee and skimming through the morning papers when I saw the article about Marty Barlow.
It was a brief item about the murder of a man on an East Side New York City street. It identified the victim as Martin Barlow. It also said that Barlow was a retired journalist. It did not say Barlow was the first—and probably the best—newspaper editor I ever had.
The police reported that he’d died from a blow to the head. Apparently, from a solid object, although the object itself was never found. Cops first assumed it had been a mugging, but later backed off that a bit because his wallet wasn’t taken. Instead, it just seemed—at least on the face of it—to be one of those crazy, senseless crimes that happen too often in New York City.
The article never mentioned Marty’s age—he refused to ever tell it to anyone—but I figured he must be well up in his sixties by now. He was a frail-looking man. He had disheveled white hair, pasty-looking skin and he couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds. He always wore the same old wrinkled suit that looked like it had last been cleaned during the Reagan administration.
But more than twenty years ago, when I was starting out at a newspaper in New Jersey, Marty Barlow had helped me become the journalist that I am today. He was my editor, my mentor and my friend.
Barlow was a grizzled old veteran even back then, and I soaked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could from him. He taught me how to cover police stories, political scandals, and human-interest features. “Never turn down an animal story,” was one of his mantras. “People love animal stories!” But mostly, he taught me what a noble calling it was to be a newspaper reporter—and about all the integrity and responsibility that went with it. His favorite quotation was from an old Humphrey Bogart movie where Bogey played a managing editor talking about the job of being a newspaper reporter: “It may not be the oldest profession, but it’s the best.”
I moved on eventually to a bigger newspaper job in New York City where I had a career filled with pretty spectacular moments. I won a Pulitzer prize by the time I was thirty, I scored a lot of other big exclusives and front-page stories for the paper, and became a big media star because of all that. Then the newspaper I worked for went out of business, and I moved into TV. After a few false starts there—mostly finding out that I wasn’t very good as an on-air TV reporter—I wound up on the executive side of the business. First as a segment producer, then an assignment editor and now as news director of the whole Channel 10 operation. Along the way, I found the time to get married—and divorced—three different times, too.
Marty had helped me get through the highs and lows in my life—both professional and personal—over the years. He was always there for me. He always supported me and took my side in everything. Well, almost everything. Everything except the marriage stuff. Marty could never understand why I couldn’t make my marriages work. “Why don’t you find one man, the right man, and settle down with him for the rest of your life?” That’s what Marty said he had done with his wife. “It’s not that easy,” I told him. “Sure, it is,” he said. “You make sure your marriage is as important to you as your job in the newsroom. Then the rest will take care of itself.” It was good advice from Marty, even though I didn’t always follow it.
Marty stayed on as editor of the same New Jersey paper where we’d met, doing the job he loved, until he was pushed into retirement a few years ago. At some point after that his wife died, and he came to live with his daughter in Manhattan. Even after he retired though, Marty became very active in local political and community events. He started a website that skewered local politicians and demanded more accountability/public disclosure in New York City government. Then he became a kind of local gadfly—showing up at town hall and council meetings to demand answers from politicians. That was Marty. Still looking for his next big scoop even after he retired.
We’d kept in touch and he was always asking me to meet him for coffee, but I hardly ever got around to it. Or to checking out any of the various news tips and leads he kept sending me. I never could find time for Marty Barlow anymore.
Until that last day when he showed up in my office.
What’s the next writing project?
My next Clare Carlson mystery, the fourth in the series, will be published by Oceanview in 2021. It’s called Beyond The Headlines. About a celebrity model/actress who marries a billionaire businessman – and then is charged with his murder. Clare has to figure out whether or not she really did it.
I also have a thriller coming out next month (June 8) written under the pen name of Dana Perry. It’s called The Golden Girl and will be published by Bookouture. This one features another journalist, newspaper reporter Jessie Tucker.
What is your biggest challenge when writing a new book? (or the biggest challenge with this book)
For me, the biggest writing challenge is the “dreaded middle” of the book.
I always have an idea on how to start the book, and I usually have a general idea about how I want it to end – but no real idea of how to get from one to the other. That’s true in The Last Scoop – and pretty much every book I write. I do not outline or plot anything in detail before I start. I just go wherever the story (and my character) takes me. I have found this can result in a lot of surprises, even to the author. Which I think is a good thing.
I’m always optimistic at the beginning of the book, ecstatic at the end when all the pieces finally come together – but have to work really hard in between to make all of that happen. Not that I’m the only author who feels this way. I remember Stephen King once said something about how finishing a novel was like attacking a fortress: you just threw all your forces and all your weapons and all your strength at it until you finally figured out how to beat the enemy.
I’ve always figured if that’s the way Stephen King writes a novel, it’s good enough for me too!
If your novels require research – please talk about the process. Do you do the research first and then write, while you’re writing, after the novel is complete and you need to fill in the gaps?
First off, I try to keep research to a minimum by writing about things I already know.
My books are set in a big city newsroom, and I’ve worked in big city newsrooms for most of my life as a journalist – just like my character TV newswoman Clare Carlson. So I guess you could say I’ve been researching that for most of my life.
My books are also set in New York City, where I have lived and worked since I left college so I’m very familiar with the locale. When it comes time to write a scene in another location, I pick places that I have visited for other reasons and know about first-hand. I’ve written in the past about Nantucket and the New Jersey shore, where I vacation; I’ve written about Cleveland, the Ohio city where I grew up; and I’ve written about places like LA, New Orleans, Washington and else that I have been to for either business or pleasure reasons.
So I’ve done my research basically before I start writing. If there are things to check along the way, I can do that afterward – but I try not to slow down my actual writing with any research efforts.
As a journalist, I spent many years researching the facts in stories to make sure they were accurate. As a fiction author, I get to make up a lot of the facts in the story. I find that more fun than doing research.
What’s your writing space like? Do you have a particular spot to write where the muse is more active? Please tell us about it.
Okay, I’m unusual here when it comes to author writing habits.
I don’t want to be alone, I don’t want quiet and I don’t want to avoid distractions.
So I write in crowded places (or at least I did before social distancing). My favorite spots are NYC coffee shops, parks, beaches, bars and even on the subway or commuter train. The energy and the vibes of the people in these places inspire me much better than sitting in a quiet library somewhere. That’s probably because I spent so many years writing in crowded newsrooms as a journalist. That’s the way I write mystery novels too. With lots of noise and people and energy around me. Hopefully, I’m able to use that to energize my writing.
What authors do you enjoy reading within or outside of your genre?
My favorite mystery author (and he has been for a long time) is Michael Connelly. I’ve read every one of his books over the past nearly 30 years – Harry Bosch and all the rest. I think he is without question the finest mystery writer of our time.
Other favorites of mine from the past in the mystery field include Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block and – going way back – Ross MacDonald and, of course, the incomparable Raymond Chandler.
Outside of the genre, I’ve been a big of Stephen King dating back to when I first read Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Shining in the 70s. Some people think of him as just a horror writer, but he is so much more than that. He’s put out such a wide variety of best-selling books over the years – including some with a real mystery/suspense angle. And his non-fiction book, On Writing, is a must read for an author of any genre.
When it comes to non-fiction, I mostly read sports (I’ll devour any baseball book written by Bill James) and American history, particularly stuff related to the John F. Kennedy assassination. My favorite author on this is Anthony Summers, who wrote Not In Your Lifetime: The Defining Book on the JFK Assassination.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers today?
It’s impossible to talk about putting out a new book right now without also mentioning the extraordinarily stressful and difficult times we’re dealing with today because of the coronavirus.
For an author like myself, the health crisis – and the social distancing restrictions that have come with it – take away my ability to do what I love best about this business: being able to connect personally with readers. My book launch party at Mysterious Bookshop in NYC: conference appearances at Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Deadly Ink: a Mystery Writers of America reading; bookstore appearances around the country – they’re all not going to happen now.
Fortunately, there is social media like this blog – and many others – where I’ll be doing my best to talk to readers and spread the word about The Last Scoop.
And, of course, even though many bookstores remain closed, people can still read – and order – books online.
Hopefully, one day soon we’ll all get back to our normal lives.
Thank you for coming back to Reviews and Interviews!