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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ethics, Murder, & Journalism

A journalist’s job is to seek out and report the truth about... well, about whatever it is he or she is covering, no matter if that something has wide-reaching political or social implications, or is merely a recap of last night’s potluck dinner down at the local Elks’ Lodge. As long as the news is at least “interesting”--with little chance of negatively affecting any of the reading/viewing/listening audiences, personally--then most folks are satisfied. And if the news is titillating, then so much the better. (“If it bleeds, it leads” isn’t just a catchy little rhyme, that’s for sure.) 
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, however, for every fascinating story or salacious tidbit, there are a proportionate number of instances in which the people’s attitudes are unfavorable toward the press... such as when they believe themselves to have been lied to by those reporting the news. Most people also tend to get a little miffed when they suspect they aren’t being told the whole truth, that the reporter is holding something back. When public favor turns, a journalist’s life can be pretty grim.
In author David Rosenfelt’s newest thriller, Down to the Wire, one reporter experiences both the soaring highs as well as the lowest of lows. For an added little kick in the pants, he has also been targeted by a terrorist.
Chris Turley works at a small newspaper in a small New York city. He writes well enough, and has the respect of his peers. He dreams of bigger things, of course--what journalist hasn’t daydreamed of getting a Pulitzer for the big scoop, the killer story, the insightful and poignant tale that moves the hearts of a nation? Such pressure to achieve is especially keen for Chris, though, since he also just so happens to be following--but not too closely--in his late father’s footsteps. His father, who achieved nationwide acclaim during a long and illustrious career as an investigative journalist--along with earning himself one of those Pulitzers--is proving a very tough act to follow.
It seems like the most fortuitous twist of fate, then, when Chris arranges to meet an anonymous caller promising him a big tip in a little park on the other side of town one morning... only to watch as the building across the street explodes, right in front of his eyes, while he’s waiting for his informant to show up. Not so much seizing the opportunity as acting on instinct and impulse, Chris rushes over to the building and plays the hero, bravely rescuing several people who’ve been trapped inside, just before the rest of the building comes down. And, voilà! Just like that, nothing-special reporter Chris Turley is both the flavor of the moment for his heroics, as well as the writer whose work everyone wants to read, for his Johnny-on-the-spot relaying of everything that happened. He guests on major TV shows, as the interviewee rather than the one posing the questions. He’s featured in national news magazines. He gets special “star” treatment at restaurants and events; he signs autographs and has “fans”. He’s a big deal, and life is sweet. 
The anonymous tipster--who’d arrived just after the explosion that fateful day, and didn’t want to get involved in the resulting mess--once again reaches out to Chris. This time, he offers Chris part of the information on the phone that he wasn’t able to give him earlier, involving an upcoming compromising position in which the vocally-conservative mayor (with his pro-family-values platform) will soon be putting himself. Thrilled about what seems to be a fabulous scoop, Chris enlists the police; if this tip pans out, then crimes will be committed (by the mayor), and corroboration is vital. When the day comes, the mayor is caught--as promised, in flagrante delicto with a professional woman most definitely NOT his wife, along with a boatload of pharmaceuticals--and Chris is, once again, the flavor du jour, for both his eyewitness account and the exclusive scoop he got the police to agree upon granting him. His life has sped up to a ridiculous pace, but Chris is still mostly enjoying the perks of sudden fame.
All good things invariably come to an end, though, and one day Chris’s happy little whirlwind of a dream spins all the way out of control. When the next call from his anonymous-but-helpful “friend” finds him hurrying down a nearby walkway to finally meet face-to-face, Chris instead comes up-close-and-personal with a dead body, hanging from a tree over the path right in front of him. In that instant, Chris realizes that everything--EVERYTHING--has actually been orchestrated by the man feeding him these little tips... the man he now knows to be a cold-blooded killer.
The authorities quite naturally come to the very same conclusion. Chris is interrogated. All six of the basic questions taught in journalism school are asked: who, what, where, when, why, and how? (Unfortunately, Chris has very few of the answers.) He becomes a suspect, too; being the sole reporter on the spot of three huge, breaking stories seems like impossibly good luck, and no one can figure why someone else would want to help Chris’s career along in such a way.
The killer/tipster remains close-mouthed (and, not surprisingly, invisible), but starts dropping little hints to Chris about one of the questions--”why”: he’s out for revenge on the Turleys, both (Iate) father and son. Does that narrow the field any, for potential suspects the police and FBI can focus on? Not a bit; Edward Turley reported for nearly 40 years, which means about 40 years of potential suspects who were angered by something he wrote. 
The remainder of the story alternates between Chris (and a few friends at the paper) working their way through old files; the authorities tracing down any remotely-promising leads from Chris and company or from the public tip hotlines; and the killer, plotting and enacting his devious plans, getting ever closer to Chris... and ever more deadly.
I have mixed feelings about Down to the Wire. On the one hand, this is another compelling story from an author who previously has written several other entertaining thrillers (more often than not, legal ones). The “bad guy” is interesting, and has plenty of surprises up his sleeves. The twists and turns all come together in the end. On the other hand, this book doesn’t have the same narrative flow his earlier books had. (I understand why; he’s attempting to give the writing a more “newsy” feel, by using lots of abrupt, statement-of-fact sentences and employing extremely short chaptering. It’s definitely a little hard to get used to, though.) This treatment also makes certain elements feel a bit “off” in a book written for adults; the descriptions of relationships and some of the dialogue come across vaguely juvenile.
On the whole, it’s an interesting story. It’s a fairly quick read, and makes some pertinent observations about our society and the role of journalists in that society, while handing out a few thrills and chills along the way. Not too shabby, for a day’s work.
GlamKitty rating: 3.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)