Journalists make great protagonists, particularly in crime fiction. They have the skills to investigate, and we somehow grant them permission to ask intrusive questions. Unlike the police, they are not part of the official response to a crime so they are more free to go where their curiosity – and their convictions, or lack of – take them.
This selection also includes a few literary titles, where the focus of the story isn’t solving a crime, but rather on the role of the reporter and the tensions for a journalist-protagonist between reporting events and participating in them.
The Field of Blood by Denise Mina
This is the novel that introduced series protagonist Paddy Meehan. In this novel set in Glasgow 1981, she is a young aspiring journalist who gets her big break when the suspect in a child’s murder turns out to be her fiancé’s cousin.
I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s slow in getting going, with a lot of exposition about Paddy’s Catholic working-class family, but it does offer a fascinating insight into the city at that time and the very different world of print journalism in that period.
Report for Murder by Val McDermid
This was the book that introduced Lindsay Gordon, freelance journalist and mystery protagonist, to the world. In this instalment Lindsay is reluctantly covering a fundraising event at a girl’s public school when the star attraction is found garotted by her own cello strings.
It’s many years since I read this series (this book was first published in 1987) and I’m not sure I’d revisit them now, but at the time McDermid gave new life to an old genre by featuring a lesbian protagonist who was overtly political. I well remember the distinctive black-and-white spines of the Women’s Press and the way they introduced me to characters who I hadn’t read about before in either literary or popular fiction.
The Sculptress by Minette Walters
Journalists investigating a wrongful conviction are a popular theme in crime fiction. In The Sculptress, Rosalind Leigh is convinced that Olive Martin is innocent of the brutal murder and mutilation of her mother and sister, despite her guilty plea.
Olive is compellingly disturbing and was memorably played by Pauline Quirke in the BBC adaptation. And just as the truth is apparently revealed, the story resolved, justice done, Walters leaves you with a chilling hint of doubt.
Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy’s epic novel follows a huge cast of characters through World War 2 (apparently she was unable to get funding for a research trip to Russia, or it might have been even longer) including Louise Kahan, who gives up her comfortable life as a New York novelist to become a war reporter. Read my review of Gone to Soldiers
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton
This was useful background reading for me when I was working on Brand New Friend as my protagonist’s wife is an Egyptian journalist.
It follows a group of activist bloggers, podcasters and photographers as they live through the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The style is impressionistic (I listened to the audiobook which perhaps heightened the fragmentary effect) switching between the points of view of the main characters and extracts from their reports and podcasts.
It is genuinely poignant as the characters move from hope to disillusionment, and argue among themselves about the best way forward against a repressive system, while dealing with personal loss.
For another interesting novel about a journalist reporting the Arab Spring, read my review of A Single Source by Peter Hanington
Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
Clearly if you find yourself locked out of your flat, semi-naked and with a hangover the only sensible way back in is via the baroquely brutal murder scene in the flat below (complete with jobbie on the mantelpiece). Such was investigative journalist Jack Parlabane’s first appearance in the world. Parlabane had an instinct for danger, an unconventional approach to information gathering and a furious determination to take on institutions from the Thatcher government to the Catholic church.
A more subdued and reflective Jack Parlabane has enjoyed a new incarnation in the more character-driven (and supermarket friendly) later novels. It’s rather like Miss Marple coming back as a leather-clad, Uzi-waving vigilante, but despite that I quite like both Parlabanes.
1974 by David Peace
The first of David Peace’s Yorkshire quartet begins as kitchen-sink realism but becomes something more strange. Local reporter Eddie Dunford, consumed with ambition and in shock from his father’s death, is ruthlessly pursuing a story about child murders. As he becomes further drawn into a world of criminality and corruption, the violence becomes more heightened and the book takes on a hallucinatory quality.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my own novel about a journalist, Brand New Friend
BBC reporter Paolo Bennett has to investigate his own past when he learns that his friend from student days in 1980s Leeds wasn’t who he claimed to be – and his lies might be linked to two murders.