Interview and Review by MysteryPeople Contributor and Reporter Scott Butki
R. G. Belsky does two things quite well as a mystery author: He shares what the news media life is really like and he tells one hell of a great story, always complete with a few fake endings and excellent twists.
As a fellow former newspaper reporter who still pays much attention to my first profession I really get excited when I saw a writer who is sharing not just the newspaper lore but more importantly shattering the stereotypes and explaining the problems rampant in the industry, particularly reporters having to do more with less.
‘…when people ask me where I get the ideas for my fiction, I’ve always said: “Hey, I just go to work in a newsroom every day!”’ – R. G. Belsky
By now I don’t think any news organization has managed to avoid layoffs which affect the rest of the group. Meanwhile, newspaper reporters are often these days encouraged not just to write an article, but also do work on other platforms, be it podcasts, television appearances and, of course, keeping stories current online.
That said, a story just telling about those changes wouldn’t sell many copies. What’s needed is a great plot, and an excellent array of characters and now you have the readers hooked and having trouble putting the book down.
I interviewed Mr. Belsky before for Mystery People about some of his earlier work with his protagonist, Gil Malloy. Those were good books, so when I saw he had a new Gil Malloy novel I arranged an interview before I started the book, certain this one too would have lots of twists and turns.
“Newsrooms – especially the ones I’ve been a part of in New York – are wonderfully crazy, exciting and fun places to be. Especially when you’re chasing after a big story.” – R.G. Belsky
I can now say, having finished the book, that this one, I think, is his best. It’s not just that this is the rare book about a female serial killer but that helps. It’s not just that Malloy’s personal and professional lives merge together, at the same time that some truth about a journalism scandal that nearly killed his career, resurfaces. But when you also add in the interactions between the brilliant serial killer and the journalist getting scoops because she is as fascinated by him as she is with her, and a great cast of characters, now we’re talking about why this book is such a thrill ride of a novel.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot for fear of giving away any spoilers.
So let’s get to the interview, which Belsky was once again gracious enough to conduct with me via email.
Scott Butki: What was it that inspired this story?
R. G. Belsky: I suppose that would have to be the Son of Sam murders. It’s probably the most famous serial killer case of my lifetime – and I helped cover it as a young journalist at the New York Post back in the 70s. The media became a big part of it, of course, with the Son of Sam killer taunting law enforcement authorities in letters to the New York City tabloids. So I thought it would be interesting for Gil Malloy to get caught up in a sensational modern day serial killer case like this. The big difference, of course, is that Son of Sam was a man killing women for sexual thrills – while Blonde Ice is a woman, a femme fatale murdering men for her own bizarre reasons.
SB: I applaud you for revealing in your books what the news consumers often are unaware of, namely that journalists have to do more (not just write a story and/or do a podcast or man a twitter and/or post video) with less due to layoffs. Are you making a conscious effort to do that in each book?
RGB: I think it’s impossible to write a book set at a newspaper today without including the massive changes in journalism brought on by social media and the disappearance of many print newspapers. And all of this is happening at a very rapid pace.
In the first Gil Malloy book, The Kennedy Connection, Gil is still pretty much a traditional newspaper reporter writing for the next day’s paper. I included some of the social media changes in Shooting for the Stars. But in Blonde Ice we see what a newsman really has to do to keep pace with the news audience today – filing on twitter, doing livestreams from the scene, worrying about traffic to the paper’s website. The days of the reporter who ran to a pay phone with his story and told the city editor: “Get Me a Rewrite” are long over. Gil’s a traditional newsman who’s trying to adapt to these changes – but still realizes the most important thing is getting the story first and getting it right.
SB: Another thing I love about your series is having Gill Malloy encounter ethical dilemmas, of which there are so many in this field. Are you going to continue doing that for each book?
RGB: Most journalists (including myself) have strong ethical standards we live by – no matter how relentlessly and sensationally we may chase after a big story. For Gil, his biggest ethical dilemma was the focus of the first book, The Kennedy Connection. He strung together a series of second hand quotes and pretended they came from a direct interview with a legendary prostitute named Houston. He crossed the ethical line there and it is something he will always have to live with in all the books. As Gil says at one point: “No matter how many big stories I break the rest of my life, there will always be someone who says: ‘Oh, yeah, he’s the reporter that made up the story about the hooker!”
SB: How did you come up with the idea of a sexy serial killer lady?
RGB: All the famous serial killers have been men. Son of Sam. Ted Bundy. Zodiac. The Boston Strangler. There have been women who’ve committed multiple murders – but it’s always been for insurance money or a nurse with some kind of “angel” complex, etc. The only thing close was Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute who murdered seven men in Florida. But she always claimed that started out as self-defense when she killed a customer who was attacking her – and then took out her anger on other men she picked up. So I thought it would be interesting to have a pure woman serial killer who murders men just for the sexual thrill of it – sort of a female Son of Sam. In this case, she’s also a beautiful and brilliant adversary for Gil, who eventually fears for his own safety from her.
SB: How much do you use past news stories you know of or were part of when writing these stories. I thought, for example, of the Janet Cooke fiasco when reading about Malloy’s Houston problem.
RGB: Oh pretty much everything I write in the Gil Malloy books is inspired by a lot of stories I’ve seen and covered over the years in real newsrooms. The Janet Cooke case was certainly a good example of a reporter going over the ethical line, but there have many others too that gave me the idea for Gil’s Houston problem. I’ve covered a lot of great stories in my lifetime. So when people ask me where I get the ideas for my fiction, I’ve always said: “Hey, I just go to work in a newsroom every day!”
SB: Are you still working as a journalist in some capacity or are you a full-time fiction writer these days.
RGB: I wrote the first Gil Malloy book, The Kennedy Connection, and the novella, The Midnight Hour, while working full-time as a Vice President for Digital Content at NBC local stations and later as a managing editor at NBC News. I now write fiction full-time.
SB: If no longer a journalist do you miss working any particular stories, like perhaps this crazy election or the Cubs victory?
RGB: What I miss most is working in a newsroom. Newsrooms – especially the ones I’ve been a part of in New York – are wonderfully crazy, exciting and fun places to be. Especially when you’re chasing after a big story. That’s why I try to capture so much of that newsroom atmosphere – the good, the bad and, most of all, the intensity – in the Gil Malloy books. I think Gil is only really at home living in a newsroom and he can’t imagine what would happen to him if that life were taken away.
SB: Why do you think readers find stories about journalists interesting?
RGB: Oh, I think Watergate (Redford and Hoffman in “All the President’s Men”) certainly romanticized journalism 40 years ago. But I don’t know that readers find journalists any more interesting than cops, lawyers, private eyes or any of the other protagonists found in mystery novels. It’s the character itself they find interesting. I think of Gil the character more than I think of Gil the journalist. I tried to create someone as interesting as the mystery characters I love the best – Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, Spenser, Kinsey Millhone – plus even Rockford or Columbo from TV.
SB: What’s it like to have best-selling authors like Jan Burke championing you?
RGB: I’ve been thrilled and honored to get support from great authors like Jan – as well as Sandra Brown, Jimmy Breslin, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Steve Berry and others. I actually met Jan at my very first Bouchercon mystery conference many years ago – and didn’t even know if she’d remember me. It’s terrific that successful authors like this are willing to take time to read my books – and even better when they like them!
SB: What’s next for you and for Malloy?
RGB: Right now, I’m just focusing on Blonde Ice and continuing to build the fan base for the series. Then we’ll see where it goes.
You can find copies of Blonde Ice on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.