Q&A with R. G. Belsky, Author of The Last Scoop
By John ValeriMay 5, 2020
R.G. Belsky has forged an impressive, decades-long career in writing both fact and fiction. As a journalist, he served as metropolitan editor of the New York Post, managing editor of the New York Daily News, news editor at Star Magazine, and, most recently, a managing editor at NBC News. As a novelist, he’s published fourteen mysteries (including a new thriller series under the byline Dana Perry)—with more on the way. His newest, The Last Scoop, is the third book to feature former-reporter-turned-news director Clare Carlson, who finds herself on the trail of a serial killer unknown to authorities.
Recently, the author generously offered commentary on topics including balancing backstory with standalone plots in a series, the evolution of Clare Carlson’s character and circumstances, how reporting on/researching serial killers informed The Last Scoop, the ways in which a real-life cold case inspired the story, and the similarities and differences in writing fact versus fiction. Belsky also previewed what comes next—both for him and for Clare.
The Last Scoop is your third novel to feature Clare Carlson. In what ways does the plot work as both a standalone story and continuation of the overall series arc—and how do you endeavor to incorporate backstory without disrupting narrative momentum?
The Last Scoop—like the previous Clare Carlson books—can be read as a standalone story. I work very hard to achieve that because not everyone is going to read a series in order. Yes, there are references to incidents from previous books (I believe there has to be some to maintain continuity)—but nothing that a new reader can’t understand. Incorporating Clare’s back story, which stretches over three books now, without slowing down the plot is not always easy for me as a writer to accomplish. But I think I’ve pulled it off in the Clare Carlson books. In the same way, I hope, that the authors of many other series characters I’ve read and loved over the years like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser have done. Having said that, of course, if a reader does start my series with Book 1, then 2, and finally reads The Last Scoop. . . well, that is the most complete Clare Carlson experience.
While Clare’s character remains largely the same outwardly, how has (secret) motherhood and a string of failed romantic relationships changed her internal sense of self—and in what ways does this entry bring those storylines full circle?
I always describe Clare this way: She’s a terrific journalist, but her personal life is a train wreck. That pattern certainly continues in The Last Scoop. She’s chasing after a big story while at the same time attempting to deal with the issues of her secret motherhood and her messy romantic interests. Needless to say, she’s a lot more successful with getting the story than straightening out her own life. No spoilers about the romance stuff, but let’s just say—as usual—she makes some unfortunate decisions when it comes to the men in her life. One thing I do try to do in most cases though is link Clare’s romances to the storyline. In other words, in this book—as in the earlier ones—the men she’s involved with romantically also play a part in her professional life. Will Clare ever untangle the mess in her love life? Is that a good idea for me as an author to even do? We’ll see. . .
Clare finds herself on the trail of a serial killer who has been operating undetected for decades. In what ways were you able to draw upon your own reporting (Son of Sam, etc.) and research (Ted Bundy, etc.) to develop that thread?
Yes, my involvement in the Son of Sam case as a young journalist at the New York Post certainly played a role in my fascination with serial killer stories and the decision to pit Clare against a very dangerous, cunning and different kind of serial killer in this book. I still remember that summer of ‘77 when Son of Sam terrified New Yorkers—and all the frenzied media coverage in the Post and elsewhere. (One of our headlines back then was: “NO ONE IS SAFE”). I wanted to write a book about a journalist like Clare chasing after that kind of sensational crime today. But I also did a lot of research into other infamous serial killers like Ted Bundy. I open the book with this chilling quote from Bundy: “Murder is not about lust, and it’s not about violence. It’s about possession. When you feel the last breath of life coming out of the woman, you look into her eyes. At that point, it’s being God.” That’s the kind of monstrous enemy that Clare has to take on in The Last Scoop.
There’s a cold case at the heart of this book that shares parallels to an unsolved crime from your childhood. Tell us about how the fiction of the former was informed by the facts and emotions of the latter.
When I was growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, a 16-year-old Catholic high school girl was brutally murdered inside her bedroom in broad daylight in a quiet, crime-free neighborhood. No one ever found out who did it or why, and more than a half-century later it is still one of the most sensational unsolved cold case murders ever. I decided to use that as part of the inspiration for the fictional crime of a teenaged girl that starts Clare off on her hunt for the serial killer. In real life, the murder from my youth back in Ohio will probably never be solved. But as a fiction writer, I can bring closure to my case in The Last Scoop. It’s much easier to do that in a mystery novel than it is in a true-life crime.
You had a long and distinguished career as a journalist. Despite the transparent differences, how do you view reporting the news and writing mystery novels as being fundamentally similar—and to what do you credit your sustained interest in the pursuit of truth?
Writing a news story and writing a mystery story is similar in some ways. Most importantly, you need to capture the interest and attention of your reader in both. Of course, in a news story you only need to do that for a few minutes. It’s much longer for a mystery novel. But the basic concept is the same. You want people to read the first paragraph, then the second and keep going. It’s really kind of as simple as that.
Differences between a news story and a mystery novel? Well, the biggest adjustment I had to make was to learn not to tell my story in a mystery too fast. As a journalist, especially a tabloid journalist, I was always taught to put all the main facts of the story (the 5 W’s—who, what, why, where and when) in the first paragraph. Obviously, if you put your whole story in the first paragraph or even the first page of a mystery novel, no one’s going to read the book. I had to learn how to go from the beginning to the end of a story a lot slower when I switched to mysteries. The other big difference is in facts. As a journalist, I spent much of my time checking the facts, making sure everything was true and accurate. In a mystery novel, I get to make the facts up! That’s a lot easier. And a lot more fun!
On the issue of truth, I think integrity is the most important thing a good journalist must-have. And so I have made this the overriding belief that Clare follows too. In the very first chapter of the first Clare book, 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.” Clare truly believes in that journalistic concept. So do I.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next—for both you and Clare?
The next Clare Carlson book is called Beyond the Headlines, and it will be published by Oceanview in spring of 2021. This one is about a celebrity model/actress who marries a billionaire—and then is charged with his murder when he’s found dead. Clare throws herself into the real story of whether the woman is guilty or innocent, and soon finds herself involved in a baffling mystery that stretches back more than a half-century to the time of the Vietnam war. And yes, there are more romantic entanglements for her too.
I’ve also written a new thriller under the pen name of Dana Perry called The Golden Girl. (This is my second Dana Perry book: the first was The Silent Victim in November, 2019). The Golden Girl will be published by Bookouture in June of this year.
Further Reading: Q&A with R. G. Belsky on Below the Fold
About The Last Scoop by R. G. Belsky:
Martin Barlow was Clare Carlson’s first newspaper editor, a beloved mentor who inspired her career as a journalist. But, since retiring from his newspaper job, he had become a kind of pathetic figure—railing on about conspiracies, cover-ups, and other imaginary stories he was still working on. Clare had been too busy with her own career to pay much attention to him.
When Martin Barlow 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.
This really is the biggest story of Martin Barlow’s career—and Clare’s, too—as she uncovers the path leading to the decades-long killer of at least twenty young women. All is not as it seems during Clare’s relentless search for this serial killer. Is she setting herself up to be his next victim?