Reading his own newspaper's obituaries, veteran reporter Carter Ross comes across that of a woman named Nancy Marino, who was the victim of a hit-and-run while she was on the job delivering copies of that very paper, the Eagle-Examiner. Struck by the opportunity to write a heroic piece about an everyday woman killed too young, he heads to her wake to gather tributes and anecdotes. It's the last place Ross expects to find controversy―which is exactly what happens when one of Nancy's sisters convinces him that the accident might not have been accidental at all.
It turns out that the kind and generous Nancy may have made a few enemies, starting with her boss at the diner where she was a part-time waitress, and even including the publisher of the Eagle-Examiner. Carter's investigation of this seemingly simple story soon has him in big trouble with his full-time editor and sometime girlfriend, Tina Thompson, not to mention the rest of his bosses at the paper, but he can't let it go―the story is just too good, and it keeps getting better. But will his nose for trouble finally take him too far?
Brad Parks's smart-mouthed, quick-witted reporter returns in The Girl Next Door―another action-packed entry in his award-winning series, written with an unforgettable mix of humor and suspense.
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BRAD PARKS is the first author to win both the Shamus Award and the Nero Award for Best American Mystery for his debut novel, Faces of the Gone. A former reporter for The Washington Post and The [Newark] Star-Ledger, he lives in Virginia, and The Girl Next Door is his third novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
To anyone who says newspapers only print bad news, I say: read the obituaries.
For the most part, obits are the uplifting stories of people who led long and full lives, enriched communities with their accomplishments, died at peace with the world, and left behind many loving relatives. And sure, the subjects of these articles have to be more than just slightly dead in order to appear in our pages—that part is, admittedly, a bit of a buzz-kill. But otherwise, obits are some of the happiest news we print.
My paper, the Newark Eagle-Examiner—New Jersey’s largest and most respected news-gathering and content-producing agency—organizes its obits alphabetically, last name first, followed by the deceased’s town and age. And I defy anyone, even the most jaded cynic, to read one day’s worth of obits without feeling at least a little bit better about the state of the world.
Sometimes all you have to do is read one letter’s worth—like, say, the M’s. You start with a guy like Milazzo, Vincent, of Elizabeth, 92, the high school football star who served his country in World War II, then worked his way up to foreman at a lawnmower parts manufacturer before enjoying a long retirement. You work your way to Monastyrly, Jane C., of Wharton, 81, the beloved mother of four, grandmother of ten, and great-grandmother of eight, who was an avid gardener and won the Wharton Elks Club pie-baking contest five times. Then you finish with Muster, Edward L., of Maplewood, 77, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers who earned scholarships to college and law school, set up his own practice, and became the first black treasurer of the Essex County Bar Association.
All the wrinkles of their days on this planet have been smoothed away and turned into one seamless narrative. All their trials and struggles have taken on the aura of parable. All their successes have been magnified, while their failures have been forgotten.
And by the time they “passed on”—or “made their transition,” or “entered into eternal rest,” or any of those other wonderful euphemisms for the Long Dirt Nap—they seemed to have achieved some kind of understanding of why they walked this planet in the first place.
Or at least that’s how I like to imagine it.
There’s also something about obits that, as an unrepentant newspaperman, I find comforting. Over the past dozen years or so, my business has ceded its dominance in any number of areas—classified advertising, national and international news, sports scores, and so on—to the Internet. But we still have a monopoly on obits. So while you can go anywhere to find out if the Yankees won, you have to come to us to learn if your neighbor is still breathing. It makes the obit pages a throwback to a better day for newspapers, one part of a crumbling industry that has somehow held strong. For me, it’s just one more reason to love them.
Some folks, especially the older ones, scan the obits each day to see if anyone they know has died. Me? I’m only thirty-two. So hopefully it will be a good fifty years or so until anyone has to read about Ross, Carter, of Bloomfield. And it will probably be forty years until my high school classmates start popping up with any regularity.
In the meantime, I read them strictly for the inspiration.
So there I was one Monday morning in July, sitting at my desk against the far wall of the Eagle-Examiner newsroom in Newark, getting my daily dose of good news—once again, from the M’s—when my eyes began scanning the entry for Marino, Nancy B., of Bloomfield, 42.
I read on:
Nancy B. Marino, 42, of Bloomfield died suddenly on Friday, July 8.
Born in Newark, Nancy was raised in Belleville and graduated from Belleville High School. She was a popular midday waitress at the State Street Grill in Bloomfield. Nancy also had one of the largest delivery routes in the Newark Eagle-Examiner circulation area and was proud to serve as a shop steward in the International Federation of Information Workers, Local 117.
She is survived by her mother, Mrs. Anthony J. Marino of Belleville; two older sisters, Anne Marino McCaffrey of Maplewood and Jeanne Nygard of Berkeley, Calif.; and many other friends and relatives.
Visitation will be held today from 1 P.M. to 3 P.M. and from 7 P.M. to 9 P.M. at the Johnson-Eberle Funeral Home, 332 State Street, Bloomfield. A Funeral Mass will be offered Thursday at 10 A.M. at St. Peter RC Church, Belleville. Interment will be at St. Peter Parish Cemetery following the service.
In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in Nancy’s name to the IFIW–Local 117 Scholarship Fund, 744 Broad St., Newark, N.J. 07102.
Even though we were employed by the same newspaper, I didn’t know Nancy Marino. The Eagle-Examiner has hundreds of carriers, all of whom work at a time of day when I try to keep my eyelids shuttered.
But I have enormous respect for the work she and her colleagues do. The fact is, I could spend months uncovering the most dastardly wrongdoing and then write the most brilliant story possible, but we still rely on the yeoman paper carrier to get it to the bulk of our readers. That’s right: even in this supposedly all-digital era, our circulation numbers tell us the majority of our daily readers still digest their Eagle-Examiner in analog form.
So every morning when I stumble to my door and grab that day’s edition—always one of life’s small pleasures, especially when it contains one of those stories I busted a spleen to get—I receive a little reminder that someone else at the paper, someone like Nancy Marino, takes her job just as seriously as I do.
I leaned back in my chair and considered what I had just read. In obit parlance, “died suddenly” was usually code for “heart attack.” But that didn’t seem to fit. A just barely middle-aged woman who delivered newspapers and waited tables was probably in fairly good shape. Something had taken Nancy Marino before her time, and the nosy reporter in me was curious as to what.
By the time I was done reading her obit a second time, I had concluded that the newspaper she had once faithfully delivered ought to do something more to memorialize her passing. Most of our obits are relatively short items, written by funeral home directors who are following an established formula. But each day, our newspaper picks one person and expounds on their living and dying in a full-length article. Sometimes it’s a distinguished citizen. Sometimes it’s a person who achieved local fame at some point, for reasons good or ill.
Sometimes it’s a Nancy Marino, an ordinary person who spent her life serving others—whether it was with newspapers or coffee refills—and whose presence had graced the world for far too brief a time.
* * *
After eight years with the Eagle-Examiner, I had reached the stage in my career where I was afforded a fair amount of latitude to write what I wanted. Sure, I received the occasional assignment, but otherwise I was left to my own devices. It was a trust I gained the hard way. After earning a job at the paper thanks to a philandering state senator named Lenny Ryan—his girlfriend crashed his car into a go-go bar at what turned out to be a very opportune moment for my career—I put in several years’ hard time in a suburban bureau. After working my way to the main city newsroom, I finagled a coveted spot on our investigations team, where I had won the right to pursue the things that interested me.
Not that it meant I had some kind of blank check. Yes, I could write what I wanted. But if I actually wanted it to run in the newspaper, I had to make sure I cleared it with my editor.
And there, my life had recently become a little more complicated. My previous editor had been Sal Szanto, the assistant managing editor for local news and a gruff old-time newsman. We had forged a relatively easy understanding: he had high standards, and as long as I worked tirelessly to meet them, we got along famously.
Unfortunately, Sal had been “invited” (read: forced) to take a buyout in the latest Eagle-Examiner herd culling. In the consideration of the fiscally constipated bean counters who had been given full rein over our newspaper, Sal was “overpaid” (read: fairly compensated). His long experience and many contributions to quality journalism actually counted against him because he had accrued so many raises during the good years. Now, with the good years long gone, he was rewarded with a one-way trip to early and unwanted retirement.
His replacement was Tina Thompson, the former city editor and my former ... something. I would say “girlfriend,” but that wasn’t right because she made it clear to me she wasn’t in it for that. I would say “lover,” but that was also inaccurate because we never quite did that, either.
My interest in Tina was that, in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.
Her interest in me was more ... chromosomal. Tina, whose age might best be described as forty-minus-one, is keen on trying motherhood. But she doesn’t want to bother with the kind of pesky annoyances some women take prior to childbirth—meeting a man, courting him, perhaps even marrying him.
Tina had explained to me, quite matter-of-factly, that she long ago abandoned the idea of actually having feelings for the opposite sex. She claimed her approach was now more practical. She was looking for a tall, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered man...
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