Having a journalist as the main character is good news and bad news. The good news is that it solves one of the trickiest problems in crime fiction writing: if your character is not in law enforcement of some kind (or at least a private detective) and they come across some sort of nefarious activity, say, a murder … why don’t they just call the police?
If your character is a reporter, there’s a perfectly good reason. Or, at least, good enough. There are few things as devoted as a good reporter on the trail of the story. And for an author, that’s a good thing.
The bad news is that in the search for a ”relatable “or ”likable” character — if that’s your goal — a journalist may not be tops on everyone’s likability list. Think of how often journalists are described as predatory animals: vultures, hyenas, snakes and weasels. Or in groups: Packs, hordes, gangs, and circuses. It is simple — and trope-ish — to write a pejorative cardboard reporter, someone shallow, manipulative or loose with the truth. In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, at least, that bitter lush of a tabloid reporter is meant as satire. And J.K. Rowling’s Rita Skeeter is a pretty fabulous exception to my no-clichéd-reporters rule.
But when an author really grasps the deep intent and motivation of a journalist – to get to the truth, to find the story, to change the world, and to get some justice–a book with a reporter character can be especially powerful.
Fiction about reporters can also reveal some of the realities of a reporter’s life: In my psychological thriller Trust Me, it’s the realization that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth. In The Murder List, it’s how savvy politicians and law enforcement officers can wield their information as a weapon with reporters. In The First to Lie, it’s how undercover reporting can be used to advance a personal agenda. And in my upcoming Her Perfect Life, it’s how the intense and relentless pressure not only to have a blemish-free personal life but also the inevitability of devastating results if you make a mistake in a story.
I began to understand the power of a journalist character by way of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. In college, I was riveted by All the Kings Men, and enchanted by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. I worked for Rolling Stone Magazine during Watergate, where Woodward and Bernstein’s articles appeared in my morning newspaper every day. They became so iconic that even the book All the President’s Men reads like a fictional thriller.
If you love reporter books as much as I do, here are some to try, past and present.
The Poet by Michael Connelly
If you haven’t read this, just do. Reporter Jack McAvoy is obsessed with stories about murder and death. But when he comes across the work of a serial killer — a particularly terrifying one — it forces him to investigate a story that might make him the next victim. Incredibly plotted, and really … scary. The killer leaves a calling card with a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe. Yikes. Connolly is the master of suspense.
Tess Monaghan by Laura Lippman
Don’t miss her new Dream Girl, of course. Laura Lippman’s brave and unique reporter-turned detective Tess Monaghan even makes an appearance. But Lippman’s Tess Monaghan mysteries, starting with Baltimore Blues, changed the world for reporter books and for reporters writing about reporters. This series is high on the list of must-read classics.
White Collar Girl by Renée Rosen
It’s 1955, in the city room of the Chicago Tribune. And in walks a woman. A female cub reporter. Can’t you picture it? If that isn’t perfect enough, she refuses to be relegated to society news and manages to unearth some secret information about Mayor Daley. It’s about ambition, politics, and the struggle of smart women in an antagonistic workplace and it’s completely entertaining.
Three Words for Goodbye by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor
I’m particularly attracted to stories about young women who want to be reporters, and this brand new novel stars a young woman in 1937. She goes to Europe ostensibly to fulfill her grandmother’s last wish — to travel abroad with her sister, and deliver three mysterious letters. But, inspired by famed reporter Nellie Bly, budding journalist Madeline finds a passion to report on the growing threat from Hitler and Mussolini. Still, a reporter’s fondest wish is for the truth, and this is about what happens when Madeline finds it.
Invisible City by Julia Dahl
Featuring 23-year old stringer-reporter Rebekah Roberts, this book introduced us to a compelling and unique part of New York –– the Hasidic community –– and how the powers that be change the rules when it comes to certain people. A master class in fish-out-of-water, Dahl’s real-life reporter expertise shines through. Her new book, The Missing Hours, exploring the power of reporters against whom documentary makers have an agenda, is out soon, and I cannot wait to read it.
The Corpse Had a Familiar Face by Edna Buchanan
This Pulitzer Prize winner is still a classic. Someone once said, “this legendary Miami police reporter doesn’t write about cops, she writes about people,” and in her fictional series starring reporter Britt Montero (beginning with Contents Under Pressure), she finally got to make stuff up and with great success.
As the Wicked Watch by Tamron Hall
A terrific real-life journalist writes her debut thriller — about a journalist. This timely and compelling story is a treat to read. It’s a true insider’s look at real-life reporting; the stress and the politics, the relentless pressure, and the realities of race and crime. It’s also an unflinching look at the conflict between a reporter’s human passions and the need to keep an emotional arm’s length from the people in their stories. Authentic and revealing, this is the first of what is sure to be a long-running series.
Why We Lie by Amy Impellizzeri
Rising-star politician and lawyer Jude Birch is clearly keeping secrets about his past. When he’s “randomly” in the midst of a seemingly gang-related shooting, a zealous news reporter begins to unravel the secrets Jude has kept since law school. A fascinating look at what can happen when a reporter on the trail of the story might ruin someone’s life and marriage.
Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber
Are You Sleeping was so cinematic that it was made into a TV series called Truth Be Told. So the book title changed, too. If you fell in love with Serial (and who didn’t?) this is a perfect book for you. A workaholic investigative reporter with a massively popular podcast reopens a long-closed case. Uh-oh. I love the tagline because the only thing more dangerous than a lie… Is the truth. The book and the TV series are different, and it’s fascinating to devour them both.
The Red Scream by Mary Willis Walker
This one’s about an investigative reporter in Texas who has just published her first book. Talk about meta. Again, what are the dangers when a reporter realizes everything they believed to be true and everything they staked their career on is balanced on shaky ground? This groundbreaking novel won the Edgar Award and holds up beautifully.