Below the Fold

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Below the Fold, RG Belsky

Written by RG Belsky — This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television. Clare tells the story in first-person, so you get a nice taste not only of the snappy dialogue, but also of Clare’s cynical, self-deprecating take on the events and people around her.

The story begins with a discussion about death and why some deaths – those of blonde, white females – matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time, that is, but, Clare says, “Hey, you never know.” 

She runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the reporters and staff hammer out which stories they’re going to feature that day unless a big new story breaks. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend time on, a 54-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge they discover, over time, just how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.

The first glimmer that there may be more to Gayle’s story than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar opposite – young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker – is brutally murdered. Beside her body is a list of five names, five people who seem to have nothing in common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list is Dora Gayle.

Belsky expertly rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder? Or are they potential victims? In the process of Clare’s discovery of their compelling personal stories, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed lower Manhattan.

Clare is tapped to lead the newsroom’s investigation of Mancuso’s murder and the significance of the list by the station owner, media mogul Brendan Kaiser, whose name, ominously, appears on that list. Clare tells herself she needs to tread carefully there, but doesn’t heed her own advice. The others on the list are Bill Atwood, a college president and former member of Congress well known for his extramarital hijinks; Emily Lehrman, a former public defender who’s switched to representing members of organised crime and other deep-pocket clients; and Scott Manning, an NYPD homicide detective currently assigned to desk duty while the department investigates the death of a suspect in custody.

Clare, who’s racked up three ex-spouses, finds herself attracted to Manning, and the feeling is mutual, though he’s candid about his intention to return to his wife. It provides some helpful work-life balance to the story to have this possible romance in the background. Clare’s interactions with her best friend Janet and her immediate boss, Jack Faron, in which she uses them as sounding boards and they provide ideas and advice, give the character of Clare a context and keep her grounded. They make her realistic and believable; she’s not a lone-wolf, she has contacts, relationships.

Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York. Or that you’re not part of the Channel 10 news team.

Another thread of the plot resonates with the main story and picks up where Clare left off in Belsky’s previous novel about her, Yesterday’s News. It involves Clare’s search for the daughter she gave up when she was a teenager, and you don’t have to have read the other book to understand exactly what’s going on. Clare, though trying to convey the impression that she’s a hardened New York newshound, wears her heart on her sleeve.

Though the story’s resolution is a bit of a stretch, Belsky lays his groundwork well. It isn’t a spoiler to say that in the end, it was the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, that started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”

Like books featuring an intrepid reporter? Try Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay or Scrublands by Chris Hammer.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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