Valerie Vane was an up-and-coming lifestyle reporter at a prominent New York City daily. Then she stumbled, rather publicly, and lost it all—her column, her fiancé, her access behind the city's velvet ropes. Now she's on the obituary desk writing death notices, and it feels like a dead end.
However, when she writes about a recently deceased once-famous graffiti artist, the phone calls start. A mysterious voice on the other end of the line tells her the artist's death was a murder—and if she were a real reporter, she'd investigate.
But can Valerie trade her stilettos for gumshoes?
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About the Author
Nina Siegal received her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was a Fulbright Scholar. She has written for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, among other publications. She lives in Amsterdam.
Read an Excerpt
A Little Trouble with the Facts
The Death Beat
It was the high mercury end of July and no one was doing any dying. I wasn't getting much work done, just moving faxes from one side of my desk to the other and finding homes for stray paper clips.
A few reporters had been sent out to cover the heat—chat with the fan salesmen, check on the polar bears at the zoo. Metro columnist Clint Westwood was under his desk pawing through old columns for new ideas. White-haired Rusty Markowitz was on the horn with a stringer he'd sent to stalk a Broadway ingenue. He was red-faced and barking, "Listen, give her the cell phone. Well, if she won't take it just shove it right up to her mouth!"
The other Pulitzer Prize winners were out in the Hamptons putting the final touches on their next historical opus or cultivating a new patch of skin cancer. It was slow. Slow as a drunkard's grin.
I was about to go upstairs for a cup of coffee when the phone rang. I took my gum out of my mouth and stuck it onto the filing cabinet with the other pieces.
"Obits," I said. "Vane."
There was no voice on the line, but I heard a siren, the rattling of steel. Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge was calling.
"Valerie Vane, Obituary Desk," I tried again. "May I help you?"
Now there was a voice, low and soft. "Yes," it said. "I want to inquire about a story that ran in your pages today." The voice was male, deep and smoky, but tentative—a controlled burn.
"Which story would that be?"
"The piece on Wallace," he said. "Malcolm Wallace."
I reached across my deskfor the morning edition and another stick of gum. Chelsea and Hillary were on the cover riding camels, next to our three-column overnighter on the heat wave—brownouts in Inwood, track fires in Chinatown, historic concessions lines at Jones Beach. I flipped past the genocide and nuclear arsenals, past the labor unrest and roaming bison, and found the story in the measly posterior of the Metro pages, one of the shorties below the fold.
"Famous for Writing His Name," read the headline with the subhead, "Artist Brought Street Life into Galleries." Malcolm Wallace, forty-two, painter—a graffiti writer self-dubbed Stain 149. The piece didn't have a byline, but I already knew who'd written it, because I happened to be chewing her gum.
"Is there a problem?" I asked the caller.
"Yes, I believe so," he said. "I'm concerned about the facts related in the story. You see, the article here says he took his own life."
I checked the first paragraph of the story, where indeed it said that Wallace had jumped from the Queensboro Bridge. "Correct," I said.
"Suicide," he said slowly.
"That's right, suicide." I said it the way he'd said it, using his rhythms, his elisions of the vowels so that it sounded like "Soo-cide." Killing of Sue.
"But that's not right," he said, and then he used the word again: "Suicide."
I did a quick mental check of the facts I'd gleaned the day before from DCPI, police press. It was my typical morning call to Detective Pinsky for updates and confirms: Wallace, Malcolm A. Deceased black male found on the rocks near base of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, Queens side. Discovered Saturday, 5:47 a.m. Time of death: approximately 2:15. Body waterlogged, bloated, no visible marks. Jump from bridge. ID in breast pocket.
"Let me see." I pushed some faxes around my desk to make it sound like I was checking. "Yep, Sue Side is what we got." Each syllable on tiptoe. "Sue Side from DCPI."
We got calls like this from time to time from people who weren't happy when they saw the cold, hard facts in dark, gray ink. My first few months on the desk, I'd get nervous and run them by Jaime Cordoba, the chief Obit editor.
Jaime was an Orthodox Jew born in Cuba, raised in Georgia, and he'd gotten enough guff for just his name ("hymie at the hymie-town paper?") that very little rattled him. He had skin the color of ginger and a mane of curly black hair he kept under his yarmulke with a few dabs of Brylcreem. When I needed his advice, he shook that mane like a just-roused lion, and spoke with a Latin southern twang no louder than a whisper.
"People don't like to accept death," he'd told me. "It's like a railway that runs on a senseless schedule and we obituary writers are station workers cleaning up after the train's already left. We're wearing an official uniform so people think we can give them answers. But here's my advice: stick to pushing the broom. Just tip your hat and say, 'I'm sorry, mister, I don't have any control over departures.' "
Since then, I'd developed a system for phoners. Step one was to comfort: "It may take a little bit of time to get adjusted to your loss," I started, but the caller wasn't listening.
"Who said suicide?" he wanted to know.
"The police reported 'jump from bridge.' "
"Malcolm just put the down payment on a permanent space for a painting school," the caller said. "A man who's going to kill himself doesn't secure a mortgage. He doesn't say he's going out for ice cream and jump into the East River."
"No," I said. "Not usually. I know these senseless acts are sometimes hard to understand. We need to try and look at the big picture . . ." This was step two: Help the caller contemplate death in the abstract.
I was laying it on thick as cement, but I wasn't much interested in the caller. I was thinking about my cup of coffee getting cold upstairs. This Wallace fellow had already gotten plenty of ink. He'd been famous in the eighties—hell, he'd even been the subject of a 1985 Sunday Magazine feature—but only for as long as it took to shake up a can of spray paint. He'd since been scrubbed from history. I figured the main reason he'd made the page was the weather: 104 by day, a sauna in the shade. Jaime had been complaining about our section "looking geriatric" and when he found the Wallace notice, he said, "Finally, some young blood," slapping the fax on my desk. "This'll be fun for you, Vane. Has to do with art."A Little Trouble with the Facts
A Novel. Copyright © by Nina Siegal. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Valerie Vane is the best thing to hit the newspaper biz since Rosalind Russell cracked wise with Cary Grant. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s sexy.”
“I know I’m only the first of many readers who will fall in love with Valerie Vane, irresistible heroine of Nina Siegal’s wonderfully witty novel. A compulsively readable debut.”
“An exceptionally well-written record of one woman’s quest for personal and professional identity. Siegal very skillfully dramatizes the styles of street artists, popular and classical art, and, most important of all, the bureaucratic tensions between the various departments of a major newspaper.”
“A novel as rich as it is eminently readable. Good luck putting A LITTLE TROUBLE WITH THE FACTS down for the night.”
“More proof that the hardboiled novel is alive and kicking: a novel that is both thrilling to read and beautifully written. Smart, fast, funny!”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a light, humorous mystery that revolves around Valerie Vane, a former society columnist for a prestigious New York paper, who, after ¿an incident,¿ has been demoted to writing obituaries. After a mysterious phone call alerting her to what might be a murder rather than a suicide of a previously renowned graffiti artist she slowly and somewhat reluctantly begins to get involved in uncovering this possible crime. As Valerie discovers more evidence and becomes personally involved with her prime source she reveals how she started out as a small town hick from a hippie commune with the unlikely name of Starburst Rhapsody Miller, and evolved into New York¿s top lifestyle reporter with the city¿s most coveted byline, only to lose it all in a whirlwind of excess. While the story is a bit heavy on the details of graffiti art and terms there¿s a nice noir-like feel to the story, which is not surprising since Valerie¿s favorite movies are those black and white noir classics with tough dames taking on the city in their tight skirts and stilettos. Valerie does that with her sense of humor firmly in place too.
Perhaps it is a classic reaction formation to her still hippie parents but Sunburst Rhapsody Miller wants fame and fortune. She assumes that fortune will come once she becomes famous. Changing her name to Valerie Vane, she begins to gain local acclaim in New York City one celebrity gossip at a time (to the horror of her DNA pool). Soon she obtains work at the prominent Paper as a style section columnist reporting on the rich and famous. However when she becomes the story during one of her cocaine temper fits she is demoted to a dead end job working obituaries.--- The call challenged her write up re ¿Sue Side¿ insisting that renowned graffiti artist Malcolm Wallace would never have jumped off the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge especially on the Queens side after taking out a mortgage and going to buy ice cream besides who jumps into the East River to die. Taking advice from her unknown caller to research not depend on cop truisms, Val begins to investigate whether Malcolm took a swan dive with assistance soon she begins to uncover official corruption that should bring her career back to life if she lives long enough. --- Taking the Hollywood glamour mysteries of Jackie Collins and bringing them to pre 9/11 Manhattan so that the shine is street gritty, Nina Siegal provides an enjoyable chick lit investigative tale. Val is fun to follow as her asides about life defined as gossip and rumor, newly found lost kin, fleeting almost fame, and Malcolm make for a delightful tale that is somewhat amateur sleuth in nature (though she is paid as a reporter). Fans will clamor for more Val Vane investigations. --- Harriet Klausner