Jeremiah Healy's John Francis Cuddy Series:
by Jeremiah Healy
Published by Pocket Books
352 pages, 1999
I was surprised recently, while thumbing through a fat new encyclopedia of mystery and crime fiction, to discover no mention whatsoever of Boston lawyer-turned-author Jeremiah Healy. How could this be, I wondered? After all, Healy has been working this genre's trenches since the early 1980s, when he was still teaching at the New England School of Law. He has 14 novels, plus one short-story collection, to show for his persistence. He's a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA). His books -- all but one of which have starred sensitive Beantown P.I. John Francis Cuddy -- have consistently been praised for their literary craftsmanship. And he's a multiple nominee (and one-time recipient) of the PWA's prestigious Shamus Award.
To ignore Healy's contributions to contemporary detective fiction seems ludicrous. Sure, he may not enjoy the fame of Robert B. Parker or write with the same captivating grittiness as yet another Bostonian, Dennis Lehane, but, to quote the Chicago Sun-Times, Healy has created "one of today's best American mystery series."
His latest entry in that series, Spiral (Pocket Books), shows what he's capable of producing. In it, Cuddy -- still reeling from an airplane accident that took the life of his longstanding girlfriend, Assistant District Attorney Nancy Meagher -- is summoned to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by Nicholas Helides, his former commanding officer from the Vietnam War. Helides' 13-year-old granddaughter Veronica ("Very") was recently murdered in his mansion's swimming pool, and he wants to know who's responsible. But to figure that out, Cuddy must first expose the depths of dysfunction in Helides' family and the previous abuses Very underwent -- especially the ways in which her own father, a depressive "washed-up rocker," deliberately shaped her into a sexually enticing singer who could renew public interest in his old band. Spiral is a tragic tale of duplicity and decadence and denial, one that tests Cuddy's optimism about both his future and the human spirit. Along with Invasion of Privacy (1996) and Shallow Graves (1992), it's one of Healy's best novels thus far.
I had the chance not long ago to discuss with Healy his writing history, the evolution of his protagonist and his plans to create a new legal-thriller series.
J. Kingston Pierce: You must still have been teaching at the New England School of Law when you first started working on your Cuddy series. Were you growing tired of teaching, wanting to find a new career?
Jeremiah Healy: I wasn't so much growing tired of teaching as finding writing to be a nice complement to it. As a teacher, you stand and perform, kind of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. As a writer, you sit in a little room and create a fantasy world by yourself. The contrast was good, but when the mysteries started blossoming, I found I was getting awfully pressed. In effect, I had two great careers and no life, so I had to choose between them, and I thought I probably couldn't become a better teacher, since my edge there was my practice experience as a trial lawyer. I thought I could become a better writer, and branch out from private eye novels, and at least I've accomplished the latter.
When you started writing the Cuddy books, did it help that you had a legal background? Or was lawyering such a distinct discipline from being a private eye that your history in the law was of negligible use?
The advantage to having been a trial lawyer is that I was able to explore as a mystery writer those cases that kind of fall between the cracks in the formal system. Accordingly, I've written about John Cuddy searching for the son of a judge when that pillar of the community didn't seem to want his own son returned to him (Blunt Darts, 1984); about whether a hypnotized person can be a competent courtroom witness (So Like Sleep, 1987); and about whether we have a right to assisted suicide, a la Dr. Kevorkian (Right to Die, 1991).
For those readers who are not familiar with the Cuddy series, give me your quick take on who your detective is and what his place is in the world.
John Francis Cuddy is someone who grew up in the Irish-American neighborhood of South Boston, then went on to Holy Cross College. He served in Vietnam as a military police (MP) lieutenant, surviving the war only to return home to the States and lose his young wife, Beth, to cancer. He stayed faithful to her memory until he found someone he thought could replace her in his life. Cuddy is a man who keeps his promises, but isn't afraid to use violence to do so.
I'm curious: You note that Cuddy was an MP in Vietnam. Did you participate in that war yourself, and is the fictional Cuddy able then to articulate some of your own feelings about that service?
While I served as an MP lieutenant and eventually a captain during the Vietnam era, I never was posted overseas. Cuddy is actually more a combination of my dad (also an MP Captain, during World War II) and my uncle (an insurance investigator). I combined the two into a composite, and updated him to the Vietnam conflict because I felt many of the vets who came home in the 1960s and 70s were assumed to be mentally defective, while in fact most simply returned to civilian life and put their military service into a compartment with a watertight door.
How do you think Cuddy has evolved over the course of his 13 novel-length adventures thus far?
I think he has become a little less the widower/loner he was at the beginning of the series and more of a rounded person. He's also grown older and therefore has to rely a little more on his wits than his fists. However, I think the reason why I've been blessed with so many female readers is that Cuddy isn't sexist. He's also honorable in his dealings with the women in the books.
Personally, I believe one of the most engaging elements of your novels is the way in which you use Cuddy to make other people reveal their hopes and dreams, fears and secrets. It's what Ross Macdonald did so well with Lew Archer.
I'm flattered you'd compare me to Ross Macdonald and Cuddy to Lew Archer. But I think that what Cuddy does in the books is basically what I had to do as a lawyer (and a member of law enforcement): encourage people to open up as a way of helping both them and me.
Let's talk about Spiral. How was that story inspired?
Spiral "came" to me as I read about the JonBenét Ramsay case in Colorado. I thought it would be interesting to investigate that kind of "closed environment" murder by having Cuddy look into the killing of a 13-year-old girl whose father dragoons her into being the provocative lead singer of his faded rock band in the hopes she can spearhead a gimmicky comeback for the group. I set the story in Fort Lauderdale, because I did most of the research for it down there.
I think it was Kirkus Reviews that described Spiral derisively as a "standard whodunit." Do you see the novel that way? And even if you don't, do you think that there is still room in this world for "standard whodunits," books that don't break new ground, but do a fine job of exploiting the genre's traditions?
I respect any reviewer's "take" on a given work. In my books, I try to portray a private eye a little more realistically and that means having Cuddy talk to more people than he shoots. On the other hand, I think most readers prefer a clever puzzle to endless violence, and therefore the label "standard whodunit" is, to me, an unintended compliment.
I was shocked to find you killing off Cuddy's girlfriend, Nancy Meagher, in the very first chapter of Spiral. They'd been together for most of your series, if I remember correctly. And yet she's suddenly dead. Had you been planning to do away with Nancy for a long time?
I felt it was time for a change in Cuddy's life. It was, to me, either arrange a marriage or arrange a funeral. And I also kind of like that Cuddy has now come full circle in his "fictional" life: from widower to significant other to someone who's grieving again. That, it seems to me, is the most realistic cycle life has to offer.
I probably will wait a while to give Cuddy another "significant other" in his life, if only because I, as the author, think that's how Cuddy, as the character he's become, would behave.
So far, you've written only one non-Cuddy novel, The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn (1998). I can't say that it was my favorite among your works, but I certainly understand that you might want to break out of the Cuddy series now and again.
What I enjoyed most about The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn was the way I could -- in a third-person narrative with shifting point-of-view characters -- delve into the heads and hearts of people other than Cuddy other than by dialogue alone. I genuinely felt stretched by occupying the psyche of a demented serial killer, a female lawyer, an ambitious politician, a disintegrating judge and a grieving father and mother who'd lost their child.
Can I assume that you're working on a 14th Cuddy book?
No, I'm currently working on a proposal for a new, legal-thriller series. As a former trial attorney and law professor, I've thought about writing legal thrillers, but until Sheilah Quinn, I didn't have a plot I thought could be told more effectively through other than Cuddy's first-person narration. In the next book, I had a second such idea, and I'm enjoying the characters so much -- and writing from the point of view of the major ones -- that I'd like to see it turn into a series. But I also plan to continue writing John Cuddy stories.
One final question: Six of your books and five of your short stories have been nominated for Shamus Awards, but you've only received that prestigious award once -- for Staked Goat (1986). What does it take for a book to win, and why do you think you haven't collected more awards over your writing career?
I've often thought about the nomination/award process, both as judge and contestant. Here's the best I've been able to come up with: So long as the awards committees are diverse within themselves and differently staffed each time around, I think a nomination shows that a consensus of informed judges felt that work was one of the five best of the year in its category. However, given diversity and turnover on the committees, it would be pretty hard to be the consensus best book of all five, year after year. I'm really proud that four of the last six Cuddy books have been nominated, as I'd like to think that shows (paraphrasing the great Ross Thomas) that I'm at least no worse than I used to be. | April 2000
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.