By Sabina Mollot
Last year, Gramercy-based novelist Dick Belsky debuted this third series of books featuring a reporter looking to unravel a serious crime. A year later, that book’s sequel, Below the Fold, is being released on May 7 with Oceanview in paperback and on Kindle.
The original novel, called Yesterday’s News, had revolved around an ambitious woman named Clare Carlson who heads a TV station newsroom. While appearing to be successful, her personal life is in shambles as a result of her nonstop devotion to her job. In that book, Carlson is forced to faced her own troubled past when a missing girl whose case she’d covered extensively is brought back into the headlines 15 years later.
In Below the Fold, Carlson finds herself drawn to a story that she knows isn’t salacious or sexy enough to get good ratings — the murder of a homeless woman — but is nonetheless determined to find out who the victim was before her life was cut short. The title is a reference to a term in journalism referring to news stories that aren’t important enough to make the top section of a newspaper’s front page.
Belsky said he wanted to have a plot centering around this kind of story because news outlets are often criticized for giving only minor coverage, if any, to murders that don’t involve someone beautiful or famous. And Belsky, who worked as a journalist for years before transitioning to fiction writing, has personally been on the receiving end of such criticism. He’s worked as a reporter or editor for a number of companies including The Daily News, Star magazine and the NBC news website as well as The New York Post, where he helped come up with the legendary “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline.
Over the years, he’s also covered major murder cases, those including O.J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey and Jodi Arias.
“Anyone else,” Belsky conceded in an interview with Town & Village this week, “barely gets a mention. It’s impossible to cover every murder in the country or the city.”
That said, in Below the Fold, Carlson aims to turn a low-profile case into a high-profile one.
“She’s triggered by the idea that the victim’s a nobody now with no story but this person was once somebody’s little girl. She must have had aspirations. Everyone has a story and you never know until you start to dig.”
And the character’s curiosity comes with a price. After some sniffing around, she ends up learning that the victim was somehow connected to numerous important and powerful people, including the man who owns her news station.
“She knows she has to tread carefully,” Belsky said. “Her boss says, ‘Do you really want to go there?’ Clare is like, ‘I’m going to do the right thing,’ but on the other hand, she isn’t stupid.”
The character was partly inspired by women Belsky worked with at the Post. When he started at the paper in the 1970s, the Post, he noted, stood out in that there were many women employed there, covering hard news like court cases instead of being relegated to the society or fashion pages. He also took inspiration from journalists he knew whose ambition was all encompassing; it seems to a be trait in previous characters he’s written.
His last journalist character, who Belsky wrote a series of three novels about, Gil Malloy, was also an ambitious, aggressive reporter, but one who had to climb his way back up from the bottom after making a serious error in editorial judgment. In Carlson’s case, she’s someone who knows how to get married, having done it three times. She just can’t seem to stay that way. In the new book, she makes some unwise choices regarding a relationship and family, but, noted Belsky, “It was fun to write about and hopefully fun for people to read about.”
In Belsky’s view, the personality of the protagonist is even more important than the story itself; it’s often how he judges whether or not like to read more of something. A he prefers his characters to be deeply flawed.
“You can’t make a character who’s too good, too perfect,” he said.
Belsky also wrote another series in the 1990s about a female reporter named Jenny McKay. He writes under the name R.G. Belsky, which he explained he was advised to do early in his fiction career if he wanted to write women characters.
He began writing fiction over 30 years ago when working full-time as a journalist — his custom was to write an hour a day before work — and transitioned to becoming a full-time novelist about five years ago. Below the Fold is his 13th book, including a Gil Malloy novella.
A Gramercy resident on Third Avenue for around 30 years, Belsky has a tendency to reference local places in his work. Because of this, Carlson makes a number of appearances in the East Village, exploring the punk rock roots of St. Marks Place, and Yesterday’s News featured a climactic scene in Union Square Park.
“With other neighborhoods, you could give yourself away for not knowing the neighborhood too well,” Belsky said. “Google Maps is great but you can make mistakes. You can of course go online and read everything about New York City but it won’t tell you Houston Street is pronounced How-ston Street.”
Belsky, who doesn’t care for working from home, can also often be found typing away in the neighborhood, usually at coffee bars on Third Avenue as well as at the Writers’ Room near Astor Place. He is already in the editing process of a third Clare Carlson book, which will be titled The Last Scoop. He will be reading and signing copies of Below the Fold on May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Mysterious Book Shop at 58 Warren Street.