To Catch a Spy
by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Published by Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler
240 pages, 2002
The Toby Peters Mysteries (with his celebrity clients):
• Bullet for a Star (1977) -- Errol Flynn
For a complete list of Stuart M. Kaminsky's series works, go to the author's Web site.
He doesn't come off as a killer. Yet Stuart M. Kaminsky has been honing his homicidal talents for 25 years, leaving bodies in parks and on pool tables, plunging rusty sickles into Russian dissidents, stopping munchkins dead in their tracks and even puncturing a fledgling vampire with a wooden stake. All in the spirit of entertainment. All because he can. All because he's so damn good at it.
A film historian, former college professor, screenwriter, biographer and author of 49 murder mysteries (so far), Kaminsky first became a published novelist in 1977, with the release of Bullet for a Star. A lighthearted twist on classic, hard-boiled American detective fiction, Bullet introduced Toby Peters (née Pevsner), a disheveled, divorced and taco-loving former security officer with Warner Brothers Studio, who'd been fired in 1936 (after "breaking the arm of a Western star who had made the mistake of thinking he was as tough in person as he was on the screen"), and subsequently hung out his shingle as the most low-rent of private eyes. This job change, however, didn't greatly alter his clientele. He's continued to work for early 1940s celebrities, both Hollywood habitués and others. In Bullet for a Star, the star in question was swashbuckling hero Errol Flynn, who hires Toby to retrieve a compromising photo and, incidentally, keep him safe from any flying lead. The subsequent 21 installments of this series have found Toby working on behalf of notables as varied as the Marx Brothers, billionaire Howard Hughes, boxer Joe Louis, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, dancer Fred Astaire and -- in the new To Catch a Spy -- the terminally suave Cary Grant.
The Peters series has grown popular not only because it's rich with World War II nostalgia, madcap antics and eccentric characterizations, but because its protagonist is such a charming schmuck. Kaminsky's Jewish peeper still carries a torch for his ex-wife, Ann; has been a punching bag for his elder brother, homicide cop Phil Pevsner, for so long that he's surprised when Phil doesn't fly off the handle; has undergone enough case-related beatings that his doctor rolls his eyes every time he stumbles in the door ("Remain alive," he tells Toby, "and I'll immortalize you in the annals of medicine"); and endures a circle of oddball associates that would've sent Philip Marlowe right off the deep end. These supporting players, who frequently contribute their "talents" to Toby's investigations, include his office mate, Dr. Sheldon Minck, certainly the most unsanitary and unqualified dentist imaginable; his neighbor, Gunther Wherthman, a brainy Swiss translator and refugee from The Wizard of Oz's munchkin cast; wrestler-turned-poet Jeremy Butler; and Peters' daffy, near-deaf landlady, Irene Plaut, who "decided when I moved into her boardinghouse that my name was Tony Peelers and that I was a full-time exterminator and part-time book editor.... I had learned to go along quietly."
Kaminsky hasn't confined himself to writing humorous crime fiction, however. Since launching the Peters adventures, he's penned a pair of standalone thrillers (When the Dark Man Calls, 1983, and Exercise in Terror, 1985) as well as an intimidating four other series, all with modern backdrops and fairly serious intents.
The 1981 publication of Death of a Dissident marked the debut of Moscow Police Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, an honorable man in his 50s who, working within a system rife with corruption, has earned the distrust of his superiors and the KGB, because he doesn't always follow procedures. There are now 14 Rostnikov novels, including last year's Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express. That's more than twice as many titles as Kaminsky has yet produced in his third series, about Abe Lieberman, a crotchety but shrewd 60-something Chicago police detective. Beginning with Lieberman's Folly (1990), these novels bear a rather cynical and fatalistic edge, yet they are rich with Jewish culture, often showcased in the interaction between Lieberman and his Irish Catholic partner, Bill Hanrahan -- "the Rabbi and the Priest," as they're known on the streets. A good part of Kaminsky's interest in creating this series was its setting in the Windy City, where the author was born and lived before moving to Sarasota, Florida, 13 years ago. (He expressed his continuing appreciation for Chicago in an essay for Mystery Readers Journal.)
More recently, Kaminsky has added to his credit two novels -- Vengeance (1999) and Retribution (2001) -- built around the character of Lew Fonesca. A world-weary, 40-ish former process server with the state's attorney's office in Cook County, Illinois, Fonesca currently resides in Sarasota, survives on junk food, has an office above a Dairy Queen and is struggling to come to terms with the traffic-accident death of his wife by helping other people solve their problems. Kaminsky's oeuvre also includes a couple of original and reverential books -- The Green Bottle (1996) and Devil on My Doorstep (1998) -- starring Jim Rockford, the ever-exasperated P.I. (played by James Garner) from the acclaimed 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files.
Though he's nearing his 68th birthday (on September 29), Stuart Kaminsky shows no signs of slowing down. Ever since he gave up teaching in 1994 (he'd been a professor at Illinois' Northwestern University before heading the Graduate Conservatory in Film and Television Production at Florida State), he has spent his days writing. When I caught up with him, shortly after the release of To Catch a Spy, the author was just polishing off yet another novel, composing a novella and looking forward to getting to work on a couple of new books. Our conversation covered a diverse range of subjects, from actor Charlton Heston's accidental contribution to the first Toby Peters outing and Kaminsky's experiences in writing for Hollywood, to Jewish-theme mysteries, Libertarian politics and his foray into the small-scale publishing business.
J. Kingston Pierce: Do you think your upbringing influenced the type of writer you've become?
Stuart M. Kaminsky: Perhaps, but I'm not sure. My father was an avid reader of mystery magazines -- Shell Scott, Michael Shayne, The Saint, etc. I read the magazines when I was a kid. I also loved radio and early television mysteries. I guess the biggest contribution my parents made to my becoming a mystery writer was in leaving me alone to pursue whatever I was interested in. My parents did not push me academically, which, ultimately, resulted in my being a very good student. They didn't push my reading or viewing interests, which led to my loving serials and mysteries. However, my reading was quite eclectic. I was not limited to mysteries.
Didn't you begin writing mysteries when you were still a teenager? My recollection is that early on, you penned a series of short stories about a boy detective for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine. Isn't that correct?
I did write a series of mysteries about a 12-year-old detective for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine. [But] I was in my 30s at the time.
How many novels did you write before you finally published Bullet for a Star? What were those previous books about, and did you cannibalize their plots for later works?
Good question. I wrote five novels before my first, Bullet for a Star, was published. One, sort of Kafka-line, was about a man who is sent to a mental institution in a secret experimental plot, and tries to escape. A short story came out of it, which was published in New Mexico Quarterly. I also cannibalized a section of it and used it in He Done Her Wrong. A second novel was about a reporter who infiltrates a biological warfare research facility. It's an overly ambitious novel purposely paralleling Moby-Dick. A third novel, based on my boy detective, was a locked-door mystery set in a small town. The fourth novel was about a young man in search of the supposedly dead author of some Beat Generation novels; a group of villains does not want him to pursue the investigation. The fifth novel was set on a college campus and dealt with a series of murders being investigated by the likable but not very competent head of campus security.
You had published some non-fiction books prior to Bullet for a Star, though, right?
Yes, American Film Genres, American Television Genres, Don Siegel: Director, Clint Eastwood and John Huston: Maker of Magic.
I read somewhere that you hadn't planned to write Bullet for a Star. Rather, you wrote it out of frustration after an official biography of Charlton Heston, on which you'd been working, was cancelled. Tell me more about the circumstances there.
I had proposed a biography of Heston to Henry Regnery, in Chicago. The editor at Regnery said he wasn't interested in an unofficial biography, but that he was quitting Regnery to become an agent. He wanted to know if I wanted to be his client. He became my agent and remained so for 25 years. In any case, he suggested I get in touch with Heston. I did so through his sister, who worked with me at Northwestern University, which Charlton Heston had attended. Heston agreed. My agent got a contract. I worked on the project with Heston for about a year. It was great. Then Heston informed me that he had decided to publish his journals in addition to the book he and I were working on. My agent and publisher said this violated our contract. I said it was Heston's life, that he was an honorable man, and if he wanted to publish his journals instead of the bio, it was all right with me. Heston graciously paid me for my time and effort, and I signed an agreement that I would never release any of the more than 100 hours of taped interviews I had done with him and others.
All of this brings me to the summer I expected to be working on the Heston book and found myself with nothing to do. My agent had told me to forget about fiction, but I wrote Bullet for a Star in two weeks and sent it to him. By the way, my original title for the book was Murder in Black and White. St. Martin's liked the book, asked me to make it longer, which I did, and they published it.
Did Bullet come mostly out of your interest in detective fiction, or primarily out of your fondness for Hollywood's heyday?
For readers who haven't yet discovered the Toby Peters series, give me your impressions of the detective. And how did Toby form in your mind as the proper protagonist for your series?
As much as I love [Raymond] Chandler, I created an anti-Marlowe character, a detective who was not handsome, not particularly good in a fight, couldn't shoot straight and wasn't terribly smart. He couldn't play chess and he didn't make money. His dialogue is not hard hitting, bitter and clever, but touched with a self-understanding irony. I think he is funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently. There is more than a bit of Harry Orwell [from the 70s TV series Harry O] and Jim Rockford in him.
When you published Bullet for a Star in 1977, the number of detective novels set in mid-20th-century America and employing real-life characters was pretty small. That was three years after Andrew Bergman published his first Jack LeVine mystery, The Big Kiss-off of 1944, and six years before the release of Max Allan Collins' first Nathan Heller adventure, True Detective. Nowadays, of course, the field of similar works is much larger. Do you take credit for inspiring the growth of this subgenre?
Andrew Bergman's two LeVine novels [The Big Kiss-off of 1944 and Hollywood and LeVine] were inspirational. If he had kept writing them, I might not have come up with Toby Peters. Bullet for a Star came out before the first Nate Heller. Max Allan Collins and I are good friends. We once proposed a novel in which Heller and Toby work together. Our agent didn't like the idea.
Did this proposed Peters/Heller novel ever have a plot, or did you and Collins not get past the "Gee, what if" stage?
We proposed the idea about eight years ago. We talked about a few ideas for the plot, but didn't get beyond that.
What was it about mid-1900s America that makes it such a terrific period in which to set detective fiction?
Nostalgia. World War II is the focus of the period, both the war years themselves and the aftermath. It was a period of overtly simple ideals, which we look back on as both familiar and foreign. Romantic ideas, probably flawed and unrealistic, pervaded America and when we look back at what were essentially violent years, we do so with a belief that good and evil were much clearer then.
If time travel was possible, and you could go back to live in 1940s Hollywood, what would you do there?
I'd be a screenwriter.
Do you read and appreciate other modern detective novels set in the 1930s, 40s and 50s?
I read the Heller novels. I read Walter Mosley. I read Jim Ellroy and others recommended to me.
Many of the books in this subgenre are pretty serious, trying to re-create the flavor of Chandler's novels. The Toby Peters series is decidedly lighter, though I think you remain faithful to the conventions of American P.I. fiction. Are you criticized for not making your Toby stories more noirish?
My readers don't think the novels should be more noirish. Academics sometimes dismiss them because they don't clearly fall into that tradition. I wanted to be true to the genre, yet move in a new direction. I'm a sucker for nostalgia, which is the real history we remember. Ironically, in the last several years, European, particularly Italian and French, critiques have decided that Toby's tales are subjects for intellectual attention.
Really! Do you mean that university students are analyzing Peters as a character, or that they are studying the way your books represent Tinseltown's Golden Age?
The academics and intellectual writers in Italy and France who have praised the Toby novels have done so on the basis of their literary interest, as acts of creative reflexivity about movies, detective novels and history. You would have to ask them for further clarification.
Today's readers seem to think that using historical figures in fiction is a recent innovation, perhaps beginning with E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. But doesn't such use have a significantly longer tradition?
Using historical figures in literature goes back to Shakespeare and, I'm sure, even earlier. Alexandre Dumas used real people in his work. [Playwright Jean Baptiste] Molière, for example, appears in a Dumas novel. It's nothing new.
Over the course of 22 Toby Peters books, your shamus has worked for celebrities from Bela Lugosi to Clark Gable to W.C. Fields. He's also been hired by people outside of Hollywood, such as clown Emmett Kelly and artist Salvador Dali. How do you choose Toby's clients?
And don't forget Leopold Stokowski in Poor Butterfly, Joe Louis in Down for the Count, Douglas MacArthur in Buried Caesars, and Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson in Smart Moves.
I choose historical figures I'm interested in or admire. It is a great excuse for doing research. I do some preliminary reading about the person I'm considering and try to find something in their lives, particularly in the 1940s, that I can explore. I have considered several famous people and decided that I couldn't get sufficiently inside them to come up with a story that interested me. The list includes Al Jolson, Johnny Weismuller and Greta Garbo. I may, however, come back to them.
Are there other real-life characters you'd like to tackle, but haven't yet found the proper story in which to insert them? I heard somewhere that you really want to do an Abbott and Costello book, for instance.
There are lots of real-life characters I'd like to tackle, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Abbott and Costello, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand and John Steinbeck.
In your Peters books to date, which celebrity did you most enjoy making some fun of in your portrayal? Is there anyone who came off better or worse than you'd anticipated when you sat down to write?
I don't think I've made fun of any celebrity in the novels. I like them too much. However, I readily admit that Ernest Hemingway, in High Midnight, came out looking far worse than I had anticipated. Great writer, not a great man.
Who have been your favorite celebrity guests in the Peters books?
Tough question, but I'd have to list Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Bette Davis and Joe Louis. I'm a big Joe Louis fan. I wrote a play about him that was produced here in Sarasota. It was called You Can Run But You Can't Hide.
What did that play entail? At what point in Louis' career was the story set?
The play deals with Joe Louis toward the end of his life when he was working as a greeter at a Las Vegas hotel/casino. Louis was increasingly paranoid and delusional. The play takes place in his hotel room the night his wife urges him to commit himself to a mental hospital. In the play -- set up as rounds, not as acts -- Joe battles his memories with characters from his past who try to get him to agree to the commitment. Louis sees each encounter as a battle. The play includes two ringside characters who comment on the "fight" and place bets on what Louis will do and how it will turn out. Louis was suffering from severe delusions and believed that the Mafia was trying to kill him. He lined crevices in his room with aluminum foil to keep out poison gas and built a tent in the middle of his room in which he slept.
How extensive was the research you did on Cary Grant before sitting down to write To Catch a Spy?
I read five biographies of Grant, checked him out on Web sites, and read the Los Angeles Times and New York Times for the week in which my novel was set. I read both papers from front to back, picking out background, news, quirky items. I also find the movies that were playing during that time period and watch videos when I can get them. In addition, I listen to radio shows that were on during that week or weeks. There are several good sources for such shows, particularly MediaBay Inc.
This new novel finds Cary Grant working for British Intelligence Services. Is the actor's history as a World War II-era spy conjecture or fact? How much real spying did Grant do?
I don't think Grant did a lot of real spying. Basically, he kept his eyes and ears open and passed on any anti-U.S. and anti-British conversations at which he was present. My guess is that British Intelligence asked him to pay particular attention to some people in the film industry they suspected of having Nazi sympathies.
Although you're now a full-time novelist, for many years you taught classes in film history and production. And I've noticed in many of your novels parallels between the plot twists and films in which your celebrity guest stars appeared. The most obvious of these might be Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, which parallels The Wizard of Oz in many respects -- down to Judy Garland saving the day by tossing coffee onto the murderer at the end, just as she'd thrown water at the Wicked Witch in the movie. Then, in To Catch a Spy, you have a scene in which Grant tries to save Toby from falling off a cliff. It's reminiscent of how he saved Katherine Hepburn from a collapsing brontosaurus skeleton in Bringing up Baby, if not also how he saved Eva Marie Saint when she was slipping off Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest. Is it right to presume that these parallels are consciously introduced?
Thanks for noticing, almost no one does, which is fine. I think I am very much aware of the parallels to the specific movies. The parallels are quite intentional. They appear in most of the books, including the ones you mention. I'm particularly pleased with the structural references to The Wizard of Oz and North By Northwest, but I am also fond of the Monsieur Verdoux plot references in A Few Minutes Past Midnight.
You wrote your first 20 Toby Peters novels in 20 years -- a pretty rapid clip. But then, it seemed as if you lost interest. After A Fatal Glass of Beer came out in 1997, there were no more Toby tales until last year's A Few Minutes Past Midnight. Did you simply need to recharge your interest in this series, or was there more going on? Was it editor Otto Penzler, perhaps, who convinced you to revive the Peters series for Carroll & Graf?
There was more going on. I had plenty of work and the publisher wasn't coming up with even a token increase for the series. So, I did other novels and projects. I did meet with Otto Penzler, who said he would like to see more Toby. I agreed. He made an offer. I gladly accepted. I did not stop writing Toby novels during the years you mention because I had lost interest. I just didn't have the right publisher.
I understand that you have another Peters novel due out next year, Mildred Pierced. Can you tell me something about the story?
Mildred Pierced will, obviously, feature Joan Crawford. Shelly Minck's wife, Mildred, will be killed by an arrow or a bolt from a crossbow. Joan Crawford will witness the killing and tell the police that she saw Shelly commit the crime. I plan a few major changes in the series. They will begin with Mildred Pierced.
Major changes such as ... what?
I'm reluctant to answer this one, but the major change will involve Toby and Phil.
I found it amusing earlier when you said Toby Peters had "more than a bit of Harry Orwell and Jim Rockford in him." There are definitely connections with Rockford, including the fact that both characters are prodigious consumers of cheap tacos. With that segue, let me ask how you came to write to write your two Rockford novels, The Green Bottle and Devil on My Doorstep. Was this your idea?
I was and am a big Rockford Files fan. Tor Books and the series' producers came to me to ask if I might be interested in writing original Rockford novels. They knew of my love for the series. We negotiated, I eagerly agreed and that was it.
What did you hope to do with Jim Rockford that hadn't already been done in the course of the original series or the spin-off movies that followed it?
I wanted simply to be true to the Rockford characters and work within the same vein, so that readers would welcome them back. The one contribution I made -- besides, I hope, my creativity and originality -- was to depict an older, more resigned Jim Rockford in keeping with James Garner's age.
You told me not long ago that you don't think you'll be doing any more Rockford novels. Why is that? Did the books not sell well enough?
The books sold well. I'm not sure why they didn't want me to do more. I would have been happy to do so.
If readers out there were interested in lobbying on your behalf, in order to continue your series of Rockford books, to which publisher or -- better yet -- specific editor should they address their encouraging missives?
Tor Books published the Rockford novels. My editor there is Claire Eddy, with whom I continue to work on both my Lieberman and Lew Fonesca series. Claire and I have a great relationship. I think if it were possible for me to do more Rockford novels, Claire would find a way.
Besides The Rockford Files and Harry O, which other TV detective series have caught your fancy?
I've particularly enjoyed Mannix, City of Angels and the A&E Spenser series. The current A&E Nero Wolfe series is right up there with Rockford and Harry O, but I'm certainly biased because I write for the series.
That's right. I heard that you'd penned an upcoming episode of Nero Wolfe. Can you reveal anything about that episode?
My Nero Wolfe episode, "Immune to Murder," is scheduled to be shown on Sunday, August 18 , at 8 p.m. (EST). It is based on a Wolfe novella. It is one of the few Wolfe stories set completely outside of New York City.
Without dooming your chances of ever working on Nero Wolfe again, tell me what you think of this latest effort to bring author Rex Stout's Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to the small screen.
I like the new Wolfe series very much. The writers have done their best to keep the tone of the novels and novellas and to be true to the characters. [Writers] Sharon Doyle, Lee Goldberg and Bill Rabkin have done a great job on their episodes.
Both Maury Chaykin and Tim Hutton seem very right to me as Wolfe and Archie, and henceforth when I imagine the characters, these are the actors I will see.
I seem to recall that a few years ago you wrote an introduction to a reissue of one of Stout's novels. Are you a big fan of his? And do you think that enough of today's crime fiction readers appreciate Stout's contributions to the genre?
Yes, I wrote the introduction to the reissue of The Doorbell Rang. I am a huge Stout fan. I've got a collection of the Wolfe novels and re-read them. I just finished reading Murder By the Book, definitely one of my favorites in the series. Check Stout's scenes of Archie in Los Angeles. They rank right up there with Chandler, and the characters -- major and minor -- are vivid and memorable, not to mention the great give-and-take between Wolfe and Archie. I think fans do appreciate Stout's contribution. I know writers do. I recently visited Robert Parker at his home and he told me that he re-reads the Wolfe stories, too.
You've published four dozen novels. At what point do you think you finally hit your stride?
I'd say I was reasonably confident about my skills by the time I wrote When the Dark Man Calls.
In 1981, after producing only a handful of Peters novels, you launched a second series, built around Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov of the Moscow Police. Why did you decide to tackle a second series so soon?
I didn't think about it being soon. I thought about it as being something I wanted to do and something that would add to my income.
The same year that the first Rostnikov book, Death of a Dissident, hit bookstores, Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park -- also featuring a Moscow policeman -- was published. Didn't you find that to be an amazing coincidence? And were you disappointed when Gorky Park received so much more media attention than Dissident?
It was an amazing coincidence, and since my book came out a few months after Gorky Park, a few reviewers who didn't know how publishing works suggested that I was taking advantage of the success of Gorky Park. Death of a Dissident was a paperback original so, even if Gorky Park had not existed, it wouldn't have received a great deal of attention. I was not disappointed when Gorky Park received so much media attention. I thought Smith's book was very different from mine in style, tone, etc. I think he is a terrific writer, and I was actually relieved when I read his book and liked it.
I remember reviewers were stunned to learn that Smith had concocted Gorky Park without ever having visited Moscow. Likewise, you'd never traveled to what was then the capital of the Soviet Union before composing Dissident. So, how did you write knowledgeably about a place you'd never been?
Research. I read books, read Pravda, interviewed lots of Russians, went to university professors who were specialists in Soviet Russia, looked at maps and timetables. What do people do when they write historical novels? Research. Basic to all such books is the belief that human nature remains constant, that people change because of their circumstances and location, in addition to their time in history. The trick is to get the background right, create the characters and understand what they are doing in the context of their environment.
Have you been able to visit Moscow since the Soviet Union's collapse, in order to polish your impressions of the city?
I did visit the Soviet Union a few months before it collapsed. I was pleased to find that things were very much the way I had imagined and created them. I spoke to a meeting of the Union of Soviet Journalists and was introduced as "a man who knows more about this city than any of us sitting here." That I will never forget.
I read somewhere that you used to spend a great deal more time doing the research for the Rostnikov novels than for your other works. Is that still true?
It is true. All my other work is set in the United States. For both my Lieberman and Fonesca books, I don't have to do any research. For my Toby Peters books, I read biographies, magazines and the Los Angeles Times for the period covered in my book. For the Russian books I have to research everything from what is on a particular street corner to how a Russian shoe factory is run. I have to work especially hard on the Russian books to be accurate.
In what ways does the investigation of crime in Russia differ from what Americans or Brits are familiar with?
The primary difference with investigation of crime in Russia is that every investigation has political overtones and consequences. The detectives are not only dealing with crime, but with politics and internal political infighting. Add to this the fact that Russian law and the judicial system is not clearly defined and is heavily dependent on the ideals, morals and beliefs of the judges and the ranking politicians. Russian police must always think of protecting themselves while trying to deal with crime. Add to this the importance, the power of the various mafias, and you have the police working in Kafka-land.
While I've always enjoyed Toby Peters, I actually find Rostnikov the more intriguing figure. After his left leg was permanently injured during the World War II Battle of Rostov, he was labeled a hero and made a policeman at a young age. Rostnikov went on to marry a Jew and to father a son, Iosif ("rashly named after Stalin in a moment of youthful patriotism"), and he remains a determined, intelligent investigator, respected by his subordinates. Have you found working with this older family man a particular pleasure?
I truly find working with all of my characters a pleasure. I like to go from one to the other. It is like returning for a long visit with an old friend. Rostnikov is good company.
One other interesting thing about Rostnikov: Because of his leg injury, he's compensated by becoming a weight lifter. A friend of mine who also reads these novels figures that you must be in pretty good shape yourself. Are you also into body building?
I used to do a lot of working out. Last year I got back into playing softball -- double-headers twice a week -- and have been working out less, but I still do it.
I was surprised to discover that, while your works have frequently been nominated for awards, you've won (and, please, correct me if I'm wrong) only one Edgar Award -- for A Cold, Red Sunshine, your fourth Rostnikov book. With all of the experience you have in this field, and all the fans you've attracted, how important is it to win awards anymore? Do you feel cheated that you haven't won more?
Yes, I have won one Edgar. I've also won the Prix du Roman d'Aventure of France for A Cold, Red Sunrise and have been nominated for six Edgars, a Shamus and a Macavity. I love getting awards, but I certainly don't feel cheated by not having had more. I'm truly grateful for the recognition that I've gotten. Truly.
You're a very prolific novelist. In addition to your Peters, Rostnikov and Rockford series, you have two others going. The first features Chicago cop Abraham Lieberman and his younger partner, Bill Hanrahan. What was it you wanted out of the Lieberman books that you didn't get from your other series?
There were many reasons for wanting to create Abe and Bill. First, I wanted to set a series in the city in which I grew up, Chicago. Second, I wanted to create a character based on movie director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, The Shootist, Riot in Cell Block Eleven, Charlie Varrick, etc.) for whom I worked, about whom I wrote a biography, and who was a friend, mentor and interesting character. Abe is Don Siegel, the way he looks, acts, speaks. Third, I wanted a third voice in which I could write. The Toby novels are light, first-person, nostalgic, in the style of private eye novels which I love. The Rostnikov novels are third-person, with a very omniscient authorial voice from the perspective of a great many characters. The Rostnikov books are influenced by [Ed] McBain, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky and [Nikolai] Gogol. The Lieberman books are cop partner books with as much space and time devoted to their personal lives as their professional lives. I guess Joe Wambaugh was the primary influence there, though [Georges] Simenon can't be overlooked.
How concerned are you with getting the police procedures right in the Lieberman stories?
I get the procedures right. I have a violent-crimes detective in the Chicago Police Department who keeps me up-to-date on what is going on, how things work, etc. I am in touch with him almost every week.
Although your Lieberman series is, first and foremost, about crime and policeman, it's enriched by religious aspects. The canny, honest Lieberman is the voice of Jewish culture, contrasting nicely with Hanrahan, who is Irish Catholic. Religion often plays an integral role in these stories. Admittedly, the ground for such a series was broken by Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small books. But were you still concerned that America might not be ready for crime novels with such a clear religious element? Or were you intending to appeal mostly to Jewish readers?
I was not going for Jewish readers when I began writing the Lieberman/Hanrahan novels any more than I was aiming for Catholics. I chose two men for whom religion and cultural background were important. It interested me to explore their relationships to their religion and to each other. I guess you can say I write the books for myself, but am very happy that others like them.
I was fascinated a few years ago by the publication of Lawrence W. Raphael's first anthology of Jewish detective fiction, Mystery Midrash. I had been woefully unaware of this field to begin with, and didn't notice that it has been growing over the last decade, thanks to the popularity of Jewish writers such as Faye Kellerman, Ronald Levitsky, Howard Engel and you. How do you account for this increased interest in Jewish crime stories?
I guess the simple answer is that there is a market for them that is now being tapped, both Jewish readers and mystery readers who want to understand more about Jewish life and culture.
Do you think that there's something quite appropriate about the pairing of Judaism and crime fiction?
For me there is a definite match. Abe is an Old Testament (Holy Scriptures) character. He does not turn the other cheek. He is willing to go beyond the limits of the law to mete out justice. He has a strong moral sense and believes that there are evil people and they must be dealt with. Like a biblical character, Abe is also not surprised by anything God does. He accepts the infathomability of God and is not in anguish over the tragedy of human existence. His name is Abraham for a reason. I read the Scriptures before I go to bed about three nights a week, not because I'm a zealot but because I think the lessons of the book are hard and reflect the reality of our existence, as I hope my Lieberman novels do. Essentially, God or whatever you wish to call the force that runs the universe (chance, evolution, etc.) can do anything at any time. Our task is not to struggle to understand. It is beyond understanding. Our task is to accept that anything can happen and we must live with it and create a moral set of imperatives that give our lives meaning (the Ten Commandments are a good place to start).
I don't want to miss asking you about your only other series, featuring unlicensed Florida investigator Lew Fonesca. He'd been featured in a few of your short stories, but it wasn't until Vengeance that he found a place in your novels. In a field dominated by one quirky detective after another, Fonesca seems, well, rather bland. What was it about this character that finally convinced you to build a series around him?
I tried to do something very different with Lew Fonesca: create a character who was, as you put it, outwardly bland (short, balding, thin, sad-faced), not quirky, and try to make him sympathetic and interesting. The tension in the novels, to a great extent, comes from Lew, who is clinically depressed and wants life to leave him alone, but keeps getting drawn into relationships, friendships and the plight of people who need help and have a truly sad tale he can't resist. I think it works. At least it does for me, and the books have done well.
Have you tried starting other series, but given up on them before they saw the light of publication? I heard, for example, that you were thinking of building a contemporary Chicago series around a Mexican-American P.I.
You are right. I tried to write a P.I. novel about a young Mexican American in Chicago. I speak Spanish reasonably well and am familiar with the culture. [But] I couldn't get into the character's mind. I know I could have finished the novel, but the character eluded me. I accepted defeat.
How do you balance all of your series? And do they all call out to you for the same attention?
Each book I work on is as important to me as the one before it or the one that will come next. What makes it easy is that each of my series is very different in style, voice, place, etc. from the other series. It is like revisiting old friends.
I've heard that you're a terrible procrastinator, that you used to start writing novels even before the contracts were inked, but that nowadays, you prefer to labor under greater deadline pressure. Is that true?
I can't say I prefer to labor under greater deadline pressure, but it seems to be what I do. I don't think the quality of my work suffers from being against a deadline. I just finished a Lieberman manuscript in one month. I think it is a particularly good one in the series.
Where do you see yourself in the arc of your evolution as a novelist? Are there some stories you'd like to write, but don't yet feel able to approach?
Good question. I do have a story I want to write, and when I complete my current contracts I'm going to work on it. It will not be a series book. It will be a long book. The protagonists will be three women who are very different from each other. I can't say more. There is also a series I would love to write. I'd even cut back on some of my current series to do it. It may happen.
If you could have written any other book in this genre, which would it have been?
I'd say Herbert Lieberman's The Detective and Trevanian's The Main. They are both brilliant and very different from anything I've written. Most recently, I thought Dennis Lehane's Mystic River was enviable.
Now broaden that question: If you could have written any other book -- period -- which one would it have been?
Crime and Punishment.
Your only two standalone novels -- When the Dark Man Calls and Exercise in Terror -- have both been made into movies. Were you happy with the results? And are you surprised that more of your books haven't been picked up for filming?
My books are usually under option, though only the two you ask about have been filmed. There were two versions of When the Dark Man Calls. One starred Catherine Deneuve and was made in France. Terrific director, script a little weak. The second version was made for U.S.A. Television. It wasn't bad, but it could have used more suspense and atmosphere. Exercise in Terror (released as Hidden Fears) was a disappointment. I thought my script was very good, but the director, who is a good friend of mine, didn't understand the script the way I did. He did what he thought was right and that was what he should have done. I just didn't happen to agree with it. There were some very good performances in it, though.
Name for me your five favorite detective films of all time.
Murder My Sweet, The Dark Corner, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Harper.
Before I forget, since we've already talked about religion, let's jump right onto that other third-rail of conversation: politics. While doing my research for this interview, I happened across a piece that said you're a Libertarian convert. What brought you to this conversion? And why buck the American two-party system, anyway?
I am a Libertarian. I'd describe my joining the party as a gradual change coming from beliefs that began to form when I was a boy. I started out as a Democrat like my parents, even campaigned for Ted Kennedy for president, moved to being a Buckley conservative, and a decade ago found that I agreed with almost everything the Libertarian Party stands for. As for bucking the two-party system, it is about time someone did. I see almost no difference between the two parties, and little real conviction about what they stand for. The Libertarian Party is clear in what it believes. And don't tell me I'm wasting my vote by voting Libertarian. I'm wasting my vote when I vote for the lesser of two evils. Nothing will ever change if we keep doing that. I vote for what I believe in, not for a compromise I'm uncomfortable with.
Ralph Nader made a third-party bid in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, but he was little more than a spoiler, saddling the country with George W. Bush. Ross Perot made a better showing in 1992, but his campaign four years later ran out of steam almost before it left the station. With this recent history, what chance do you see that Libertarians, or any other third-party hopefuls, might someday make a significant dent in American politics?
The Libertarian Party already has made a dent. When Libertarians first raised the issue of school vouchers, for example, we were branded as kooks. That Libertarian issue is now at the forefront of domestic politics. It may take a long time before Libertarians make a significant mark in holding public office, but the important thing is to put forward the ideas and beliefs as strongly as possible. Basically, I believe in the maximum freedom for individual Americans and the minimal intrusion of government, local or national.
Do your political views influence your fiction at all?
I'm sure they do, but not consciously. The political views of any writer, if he or she has them, along with their moral views, will certainly influence what they write, but I never set out to make political points. In fact, some of my protagonists, certainly Rostnikov, wouldn't agree with my politics.
I understand that you've gone into a publishing venture called Mystery Vault, which is reissuing books that haven't seen print for a while -- like Robert J. Randisi's No Exit from Brooklyn and Rex Burns' The Alvarez Journal. How did this come about, and what do you see as the future for Mystery Vault?
I've wanted to do some small-scale publishing for years. My wife [Enid Perll] and I were fortunate enough to find two partners who believed in the idea and knew a lot more about business than we did. The editorial policy is simple: we publish what I like and would like people to read. Most of what we publish is out-of-print, things I read and liked and want to see back in readers' hands. All of our books, so far, are quality trade paperbacks with new artwork. Our list is eclectic. We've done two recent Philip Harper novels. We've also done one original novel by a new writer, Anthony Mendola. I'm particularly proud of publishing Dorothy Salisbury Davis' 1940s novel Town of Masks, plus books by John Lutz, Bill Pronzini, Ed Gorman, Max Allan Collins, Tom Chastain, Don Westlake and others. We've got a Max Collins novel and a Mickey Spillane book scheduled for publication next year, plus some others we are looking forward to publishing.
How is it going? Slow, but we expected that. It grows slowly. We are in it for the long haul. We have a quality product.
So, what new books can we expect from you in the near future?
Well, Not Quite Kosher, the next Lieberman/Hanrahan, will be out in December. I just finished the manuscript for Midnight Pass, the new Lew Fonesca novel. I'm writing a novella for a German publisher. It's called Murder of a Cuban Chef. After that I start work on Mildred Pierced, the next Toby novel. Then another Lieberman. I hope to be doing some more television work. I'm busy.
Aren't you also working on a book about mystery writers? How will this differ from myriad other works on the same subject?
Yes, I'm working on a non-fiction book in which I spend a day with 21 different mystery writers in their homes and/or their hometowns. I've completed 17 of the visits. I think the twists in the book are several. First, this is a writer-to-writer book. I ask questions writers are interested in. Second, I focus on each writer as a human being, not as a star. We talk about family, problems, wishes, dreams, religion, politics, failures, likes and dislikes.
I think the writers I am dealing with have been more open with me than with others who have interviewed them, because we have mutual respect for each other as writers and, in most cases, because I have known the writers on a personal basis for many years. For example, I've known John Jakes, Larry Block, Evan Hunter, Sara Paretsky, Donald Westlake, Sue Grafton and Mary Higgins Clark for more than 20 years. I selected the writers who I like, personally and professionally. I have, at this point, four sessions left to do, with Dean Koontz, Evan Hunter, Larry Block and Carol and Mary Higgins Clark. I've done 17 sessions, including those with Bob Parker, Joe Wambaugh, Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, John Jakes, Mickey Spillane, Michael Connelly, Lisa Scottoline, Donald Westlake, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Cruz Smith, James Lee Burke and Ann Rule.
Since you bring up Paretsky, I remember that she dedicated her first V.I. Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, to you. Were you instrumental in getting her going on the V.I. series?
Simple answer: yes. Sara wrote Indemnity Only in a 15-week writing course I taught at Northwestern. I worked with her on getting the book ready for publication and got her an agent, the same agent she still has.
Final question: Let's say you suddenly find yourself trapped on a desert island. What three things would you most hope to find there? (No fair choosing some mode of transportation back to civilization.)
Assuming I have food, shelter, clothing and a spare pair of glasses on that desert island, I think I'd take a volume of the complete Shakespeare, the Holy Scriptures and a ukulele with very strong strings. The Bible and Shakespeare would be for reading and memorizing. The uke would be for self-entertainment. | August 2002
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.