If It Bleeds, It Leads

Book review

“Below The Fold,” by fiction writer, former journalist, and TV newsroom managing editor R.G. Belsky, takes its title from a well-known phrase in print journalism. It refers to news that appears on the lower half of a page — neither breaking nor highly significant, but of interest. Sometimes, however, a below-the-fold article can “explode into a huge Page One phenomenon,” as it does in this crime novel, when the apparently meaningless death of a middle-aged homeless woman becomes related to the murder of a beautiful, wealthy young woman on the Upper East Side.

The opening line of the one-page prologue, pulls the reader right in: “She was thinking about money when the killer came knocking on her door.”

It’s the opening line of the actual narrative, however, that lays out the theme: “Every human life is supposed to be important, everyone should matter. That’s what we all tell ourselves, and it’s a helluva noble concept. But it’s not true. Not in the real world. And certainly not in the world of TV news where I work.” As for murder, it’s a numbers game for the media, especially in the world of TV news. “Sex sells. Sex, money, and power. Those are the only murder stories really worth covering.”

The speaker is 44-year-old Clare Carlson, a smart, attractive newsroom pro, a woman of integrity and heart, even though she’s the first to admit to a good friend (their dialogue is curt and cute) that her three failed marriages attest to a passion more for work than love (sex is another matter). But the homeless woman’s death deserves coverage, Clare feels, especially after she finds a picture of the woman from the mid-1980s, when she was a gorgeous young coed at NYU. What happened? Maybe the story will strike a nerve with a viewer.

Clare, who comes courtesy of an earlier Belsky book, has impressive investigative skills. In “Below the Fold,” she has been promoted to news director at Channel 10, but she misses the thrill of the chase.

Switch to the Upper East Side socialite’s murder, which was particularly brutal; she was beaten to death with a statue. Clare gets involved when it’s discovered that a list of five names was left near the bloodied corpse, and lo! One of them is that of the murdered homeless woman. The other names include an ambitious politico who’s also a serial womanizer, a handsome police detective on administrative leave (whom Clare gets the hots for), a tough-talking powerful woman lawyer who defends the mob, and the head of Clare’s own news organization. Relationships? None to see.

Belsky knows how to sustain curiosity, even if many chapters end with obvious cliff-hangers. Coming up with ingenious hypotheses that seem to point to the socialite’s killer, Clare turns each telling fact into that night’s news story that bests the competition. Ratings soar. She’s the golden girl. But the theories fall apart, forcing her to re-focus her investigation, not to mention figure out how to continue exploiting viewer attention and keep the ratings high. She engages reader sympathy, however, for her willingness to reconsider inconvenient truths and hold onto ethics.

Though her number-one mantra is the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate prompt to “follow the money,” she finds herself drifting to another mantra, “follow the heart,” something “an old newspaper editor always preached to me.” (Note: She points out that Woodward and Bernstein never said that in their book “All The President’s Men” — it was Dustin Hoffman in the movie.)

In an author’s note at the end, Belsky says that his long experience in print and TV gave him a “real-life look at what it’s like behind the scenes in the high-stakes world of news media,” and “it’s not always the same as you see on TV or at the movies,” meaning that the prime motivation in getting a story is rarely altruism.

It’s fear. “Fear of screwing up, having the competition get there before you.” And so, newsrooms engage in what’s called “feeding the beast” — making sure that no matter how successful one scoop may be, there better be another one at the ready. It also means that investigative reporters better watch their backs — hidden secrets might undo them. And so it is with Clare, who won a Pulitzer for a story about the mysterious disappearance of an 11-year-old girl, who may well have been her out-of-wedlock daughter. Belsky cleverly leaves this one dangling . . . but, hey, he’s got a series going.

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