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AT LEAST HE WAS DEAD

We had friends in from out of town a few weekends back, and because their Dallas Cowboys and our Detroit Lions both had games that started at 1 pm on Sunday, the local sports bar was in order. And so well ahead of game-time the four of us were ensconced in a large booth partaking of typical pub fare and surrounded by big-screen TVs.

For a while we were practically the only ones in the bar, but our waitress assured us the place would be jumping by 1:30 or so. And sure enough about that time, with the games well underway, most of the tables and stools were occupied, and the scene was getting a little raucous, with one helpful fellow screaming “He’s goin’ deep!” every time our quarterback decided to launch a pass more than 20 yards downfield—just in case, I suppose, the rest of us hadn’t noticed.

The booth behind us remained empty until about 2 when a party of four well-dressed, middle-aged black women slid into place. Their waiter explained that for every touchdown the Lions scored while the ladies were there, 7% would be taken off their bill. They didn’t seem impressed, and it soon became clear that they had zero interest in any of the games on screen in the bar.

Now I need to tell you that I am an inveterate eavesdropper and a dedicated observer of unsuspecting folks in public places. I really can’t help myself. But on this particular occasion, with two games to follow simultaneously and while sharing comments on both with my Cowboy-rooting buddy, I was mightily distracted and only caught a snippet from the ladies here and there, enough only to surmise that they had just come from church and were at the bar strictly to socialize. It was something they did, I guessed, every Sabbath.

Why this bar? Who knows? Maybe it’s the closest one to their church. Maybe they’re partial to the burgers or the wings. Or maybe they prefer an atmosphere where they can be pretty darn sure that no one in the place will pay the slightest bit of attention to them or what they wish to talk about.

Except that on this particular Sunday, and unbeknownst to them, they had just happened sit next to an incorrigible spy. And so as I sat there following the intricacies of two NFL games, kibitzing on brilliant or dim-witted strategies, play-calling or execution, I was also half-processing the reports and analysis (gossip is another word that comes to mind) emanating from the booth next door.

Their subject was of course not the trivialities of football, but the profundities of the human condition, or their own little slice of it, which seemed to most often involve insecure ministers, wandering wives, hopeless husbands and treacherous best friends. As I mentioned, I was getting none of this in anything close to coherence. It was all mixed in with amazing one-hand grabs and ignominious dropped passes, depressing quarterback sacks and remarkable tight-roped sideline scampers.

Until, that is, there arrived, as clear as a bell, a line delivered by one of the women behind us, a line so simple and perfect in its way that it held three or four times the impact of the guy on the other side of the bar screaming, “He’s goin’ deep!”

As fate in this noisy place conspired to offer a two-second window of relative quiet, the woman said with a calm firmness, “At least he was dead.”

Wait a second, I thought, did she just say, “At least he was dead”?

Yes, exactly: At least he was dead.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered to my gal-friend sitting next to me. “She just said, ‘At least he was dead.’”

“Yes, I heard it,” said my friend. And then I realized that I wasn’t the only one eavesdropping.

So I said, “What could possibly have come before to which that was an appropriate comment?”

“I’ll tell you later,” said my friend.

And later, after the Cowboys had won and the Lions lost (because of three missed field goals, although their two touchdowns had meant 14% off our bill), once we were back in the car and driving home, both my gal-friend and my buddy’s wife did indeed fill us in on what had been coming from the church ladies in the next booth.

By the way, it was not that our gals had missed out on the finer points of either of the games we’d all been watching, in order to better apprehend the colorful chat next door. It was only clear evidence once again that women are much superior multi-taskers.

As it turns out, the moment I was curious about had come soon after the ladies had picked apart the rather pompous male minister of their church, who turned out to be so completely intimidated by a new female associate minister that the old reverend had quickly managed to find a way to send her packing.

And then it was onto a series of lurid tales about married female friends and acquaintances who had been fooling around on their sad-sack husbands, and sometimes with one of their hubby’s good and trusted friends, the friend being, of course, “just a dog,” who was only too happy to take advantage of a deplorable situation in which the wife was acting “like a whore.”

Finally, it was in the context of this rich conversational string that one of my favorite overheard lines of all time had arrived. One of the good church ladies had been recounting the story of a friend who had just recently been widowed and then, no sooner had she put the poor man in the ground than she had immediately taken up with her newly deceased husband’s best friend.

Which from another of our good ladies in the booth behind had elicited the undeniably sage observation:

“At least he was dead.”

THE PAST WEEK OR SO HAS BEEN PASSING STRANGE

The past week or so has been passing strange. Every day I’ve driven 15 minutes to the house I lived in for about two decades with the woman I divorced about seven years ago. When I moved out back then, I left behind almost all of my most cherished possessions, my books, stacked in boxes in a basement back room.

Now having decided to return to her New England roots, my ex had sold the house, in one of Detroit’s nicest suburbs, a place I could no longer afford. So the books finally had to be moved, and on each trip I filled my car, a smallish station wagon type, with those boxes and brought them back here to my small apartment to stash them in a garage where I had spent days throwing things out and shifting stuff around to make room.

Through all of this unusual (for me) physical exertion, as I hauled box after heavy box up the basement stairs to shove them in my car, I was teased and bashed by memories filled with hopes, regrets, dreams and disappointments. I must have moved about 60 boxes, but obviously this was not just physical labor.

In that basement I had practically all my books, from the beginning of my college days, first at Notre Dame and then at the University of Michigan, along with close to 1200 hardcover copies of Murder in the Synagogue, the book that unfortunately holds the most emotional resonance for me. (If you’re wondering why I reference Murder that way, you can check out its strange, four-decade-old story in this old post.)

But, in any case, each time I grabbed a box marked “Prentice-Hall,” my publisher back then, I wondered why the hell I was doing this. It seemed almost like blind instinct was driving me. I knew only that I could not possibly leave those books behind to be thrown in a dump.

This was the third time over the past 40 years that I’ve moved them, from basement to basement to garage, and now (unlike those previous moves when I still clung to fanciful hopes) I was quite certain I would never be able to do anything with them that would be right and appropriate for books.

Online I’ve sold only a handful of those hard covers, with their garish purple dust jacket featuring a bullet-split menorah on the front and a photo of my hopelessly naïve 30-year-old self on the back. And there’s no place I can think of to even give them away now. Talk about the baggage of my life. They will most likely still be stacked in the garage when I croak, and so I will have left my family a befuddling, regrettable burden.

And then there were all my personal books, some of them in boxes so water damaged from basement floods that I had to go through them book by book and decide which ones were suitable to keep and which should be consigned to the trash. Often not an easy choice with so many of them holding such great importance to me.

A slim book of poetry by my favorite professor at Notre Dame, a brilliant, no doubt tortured man who had left his wife and children because he finally knew he was gay. My treasured copy of Crime and Punishment with all my scribbles and notes from my Russian Lit class at U. of M. A volume of short stories by six of the giants that I’d pull out as a parlor trick, point to their pictures on the cover and ask my two-year-old son, “Who’s that?” And the little kid would pipe, “Dostoyevsky!” Well, you get the idea.

And again they’ll all probably remain in boxes in the garage because I have only a few small bookcases in this crowded little apartment, and I’m very unlikely to live again in a place with enough shelves for my books.

Of course, all of this was also a potent reminder of how much our world has changed over the past decade or so, especially the volatile world of books, a place where today I can hold a thousand titles on a handheld device that lets me access each book with the touch of a finger.

But the bottom line is I did it. I moved everything, certainly everything in decent enough shape to move, and I didn’t have a heart attack, and I didn’t ruin my back. Actually, if I didn’t think the whole thing was close to absurd, I’d almost feel proud of myself.

DON’T READ THIS! UNLESS YOU WANT TO SPECULATE ON GONE GIRL’S NEW CINEMATIC ENDING

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s domestic crime thriller, became a publishing sensation in 2012, began its journey to the silver screen with Flynn writing the screenplay in 2013 and is scheduled for its cinematic debut in October, 2014. Recently there’s been a spate of publicity for the movie with the news that it will end in a way substantially different from the ending of the novel.

The word came in the 2014 Preview edition of Entertainment Weekly, where Flynn once worked, and which features a cover photo that seems to be a major spoiler. The photo was staged and snapped by the film’s director, David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who reportedly pushed for the revised ending. The cover picture shows British actress Rosamund Pike as Amy, complete with toe tag and a frozen look of wide-eyed surprise on an autopsy table. Also on the table and snuggled around the corpse is Ben Affleck as Nick, with no toe tag and perhaps still in love with his dead wife. Or perhaps not. Maybe he’s dead too.

Now in case you haven’t noticed, Hollywood taking liberties with a popular book is not news. It happens way more often than not, but Gone Girl was a widely devoured novel that engendered a great deal of controversy and discussion. Readers came away from it with powerful likes and dislikes that led to passionate debate, often focused on the story’s end. And those inclined to look at the bigger picture wondered what kind of nerve had been struck here.

So for a lauded director to want a changed ending and the writer of the both the novel and the screenplay sounding like she was only too happy to come up with a different conclusion, yeah, well, that was news.

Gone Girl is a nicely terrifying relationship drama, featuring Nick and Amy Dunne, a smart and attractive 30-something couple with, shall we say, complex issues. Amy and Nick are two people navigating love and hate, consumed by secret desperation and scheming revenge, and locked in a marriage rife with suspicion and deceit.

Their story is told with alternating points of view, and sooner than later we learn that the two narrators are wildly unreliable. The writing holds a clear-eyed, hip and knowing tone while it effectively describes and explores timely topics such as the media and its obsessions, the impact of a crashing economy on personal lives, and maybe most of all, the cracks and fissures of identity produced by hyper self-consciousness in a society that seems both pressure cooker and fishbowl.

But the narrative is littered throughout with moments that, given the nature, history and propensities of its protagonists, either could not or should not have happened. In short, it is chock full of the implausible and the impossible to believe. Some examples:

–Early in their back story there’s a strange time lapse between Nick and Amy’s instant attraction in their first meeting at a party and their chance encounter on a Manhattan street eight months later. Nick says he was going to call, but the slip of paper with Amy’s phone number got ruined in the wash. Patently ridiculous: each of them could easily have found the other through the party’s host. But Amy is fine with this story even though the Amy we come to know would have cut Nick a new one for being such an inattentive dolt.

–Both Nick and Amy are laid-off magazine writers in NYC, and his decision to move them back to his hometown, North Carthage, Missouri, and to buy a bar with what’s left of Amy’s inheritance seems more than a bit unlikely.

–When Amy goes missing after two years in North Carthage, there are signs of a struggle in the living room, and the front door of the house is left wide open. Whether Nick is the culprit (he is soon a suspect) or someone else is, this detail seems far-fetched, since it means the disappearance will be almost immediately discovered.

–Later we get the news that Amy had gone to an abandoned mall trying to buy a gun from one of the homeless folks squatting there. She feared someone, she told him, but he can’t get her a gun. As it turns out Amy wanted to leave a trail that will incriminate Nick, so why not just go to Walmart and buy a gun. Do it on the record—it’ll be easier to trace, which was the whole point. Please keep in mind: this Amy gal is supposed to be absolutely brilliant.

–Soon Nick and Amy are struggling to make ends meet, but she secretly runs up credit card charges of $212,000 in his name. Apparently he never picked up the mail?

–After a week or two on the run, Amy is hiding out at some rundown Ozark cabin resort and still has about nine grand in cash. She nonetheless decides she needs the 50 bucks oddball Jeff offers to help him steal somebody’s catfish. She stupidly lets Jeff and another obvious grifter see her money belt stuffed with her entire stash, and so, surprise, the next day she’s dead broke.

–Amy’s Plan A had been to send Nick to the chair and then kill herself, since, I guess, she’d be fully satisfied with her life.

–Plan B involves looking up her old high school flame Desi, a multi-millionaire living just an hour away with his mother in one of his mansions. For decades from afar Desi has been crazy in love with Amy, so first he rescues her, then he imprisons her in another of his mansions, then he makes love to her, after which she slits his throat and escapes in his vintage Jaguar. Whoo boy!

Look, there’s other ridiculous stuff, but you get the idea. The point here is that the problem with Gone Girl, the book, is not the ending. Yes, absurdly, these two get back together, with no charges leveled finally at either one. And yes, the baddest badass is not the man but the woman, so super-smart and devious that she can defeat, subdue and control a man who knows her every rotten proclivity, because she has confessed it all when they’re together in the shower, where no tape recorder can nail her.

But now Nick can’t just walk away: Amy has his baby boy in her belly. (She duped him into thinking the fertility clinic they had gone to years ago had destroyed his frozen sperm, then returned there recently to get herself pregnant.) And soon she’ll deliver the unfortunate little tike into a world in which his mother is a monster.

In the book’s final pages we learn that she has carried the baby to term, with submissive Nick there smearing on the cocoa butter and rubbing her feet. And on the marrow she will both give birth and see her new book published, the one that tells her own self-serving version of the whole sordid saga.

So she has triumphed. She has won this epic gender war. Or has she? In their final exchange Amy wonders aloud why Nick is being so good to her. She wants him to say he loves her and she deserves it. Instead he says he just feels sorry for her: “Because every morning you have to wake up and be you.”

At the very end Amy tells us she can’t stop thinking about that line from Nick. And so we know without question the war is still on.

Actually, the book’s ending, to me, was properly motivated and well-calculated, especially in terms of setting up what seemed like an inevitable sequel. No, the novel’s flaws and weaknesses are all related to the fact that it is implausible fantasy masquerading as cynical realism.

So what about the movie’s new ending?

The ultimate in marital dysfunction, rage and despair is, of course, a story that ends with the husband and wife killing each other. The one I best recall is The War of the Roses, the very popular 1989 film starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner and directed by Danny DeVito, from the 1981 novel by Warren Adler. If you haven’t heard of it, never saw it, or have an inkling to watch it again, I’d recommend it.

In the climactic scene, the warring Mr. and Mrs. Rose don’t exactly kill each other, but they’re trying to and end up dead at each other’s hand with the aid of a convenient chandelier. Will something similar happen at the end of Gone Girl the movie? My guess is that it will, although the final scene or scenes will certainly be very different.

But the wonderful thing about murder on stage, screen or page is that the various ways to make it happen are basically endless. Flynn is on record as believing that Nick is too “soft” to murder his wife. If so, that leaves it to Amy to initiate. Why would she do so? Remember, in spite of everything, she still wants Nick to love and cherish her. Instead, after leading her on, he tells her finally that he harbors only pity: “Because every morning you have to wake up and be you.”

Really, if she thinks about that line long enough, it could well be enough to make Amy snap. And if she acts, Nick will react. And then we’ll have our ending, carefully designed to be both shocking and somehow emotionally satisfying as we walk out of the multiplex.

At least we’ll be certain there will never be a sequel.

THE MORALITY OF PRICING

There’s been a lot of web chatter lately about what I’d call the morality of book pricing.

The loudest noise, with perhaps the widest ramifications, came last year when the Justice Department accused Apple and the Big Five publishers of conspiring to raise e-book prices. In its war with Amazon for consumer dollars, Apple, according to the Justice Department, had colluded with the publishers to keep the prices of their new e-books well above Amazon’s uniform pricing of $9.99.

A few of the publishers folded quickly and agreed to pay the government substantial penalties. The others and Apple decided to fight but eventually folded as well, or in Apple’s case, lost badly. The result? Ultimately, lower e-book prices for fortunate readers. But also much debate and discussion concerning the true costs of publishing digitally, what constitutes appropriate retail pricing when there’s no ink, paper and distribution involved, and what a fair share for the author should be.

At the same time there’s been a good deal of controversy over self-published books that are placed on the market for less than a buck or two, or even free. Some publishers, authors and commentators have screamed about these book bargains as if they are some kind of dire threat to the future of civilization. Others have raised questions about what low or no prices say about an author’s self-worth or the true evaluation of his/her own book.

But given the fact that low prices and giveaways are among the very few ways an unknown author can find some semblance of an audience, I think the prevailing opinion on this subject is something like, “Hey, whatever floats your boat.” And that laissez faire attitude is basically where I come down.

Look at what happened decades ago to my own True Crime classic Murder in the Synagogue. About that book, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Coles wrote at the time: “I was absolutely enthralled by it. It’s one of those non-fiction novels that one simply cannot put down.” But back then the publisher undermined the book, in part by raising the price by a third. And until just recently, it’s safe to say most readers had never heard of Murder. If you’d like to know the full story, check out my memoir, Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Or if you’d like a condensed version, try this blog post: We’re Not in Manhattan Anymore.

Sometimes, having choices on pricing can force you to think more carefully about what’s really important to you. Now I’ve just decided that, more than anything, I want my books in the hands of folks who might find some value in them. How to do that? Well, obviously one way is to drop the price, so that’s what I’m doing on all 13 of my books. For how long? Well, at least until I can notice whether there’s a difference in demand. So for now let’s just use the time-honored phrase, “for a limited time only.”

The two mentioned above, Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched, are now just 99 cents. The same for each of the opening novels in my two trilogies: The Obsession (The Truth Beauty Trilogy, Book 1), and The Car Bomb (The detroit Im dying Trilogy, Book 1). Both just 99 cents. The second novel in each series, The Disappearance (The Truth Beauty Trilogy, Book 2), and Admission of Guilt (The detroit Im dying Trilogy, Book 2) are each now $2.99.

As for my 7 shorts, (all stories, essays and brief memoirs), I’ve set them all free. If one sounds interesting, just pick it up at no cost.

Ahead, before the end of the year, I’ll be publishing a new novel that will be something of a departure for me from the crime thrillers I’ve been writing. And also I’ll be offering two new shorts: a lengthy interview with the great Elmore Leonard, and an in-depth analysis of the two huge best-sellers, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and John Grisham’s The Racketeer.

How much will these new ones cost? I don’t know yet, but once again, I’ll be delighted to have the choice. And if I decide later that I’ve made a wrong move, how cool to be able to try a different price all on my own. That’s just one fine feature of our Brave New World of publishing.

MY FRIEND ELMORE LEONARD

As it has for most booklovers, both readers and writers, this week has been a sad one for me. We lost Elmore Leonard at 87 this week, for my money the greatest crime novelist of our time. Beyond his greatness as a writer, Dutch was a good man and a good friend. I had not seen him in a few years, and I certainly would not claim any special bond or connection. Many others were much closer to Elmore. But there is also a sense in which he was a special friend to all writers, with his terrific 10 Rules of Writing and, perhaps even more so, as a model of the devoted, unpretentious and wonderfully productive artist and craftsman.

Actually, I had thought about getting in touch recently, especially after a reviewer, whose taste and judgment I admire, wrote this about The Car Bomb and Admission of Guilt, the first two novels in my new trilogy set in Detroit: “If you like Elmore Leonard, you’ll love these books.” Of course, the words came as an unexpected gift, even though I didn’t believe for a second in the validity of any such comparison.

But I held off calling or putting a note in the mail when I heard through his long-time researcher and assistant Greg Sutter that Dutch, who would have been 88 in October, was intensely focused on finishing the current novel in progress. There was no way I was going to intrude or lay even a small, social burden on his precious time.

Now he’s gone. And like so many others, I have a pain in my heart thinking about Elmore falling to that stroke before he could put the finishing touches to what was going to be novel number 47.

My history with Dutch was limited to only a handful of small events and exchanges, but I thought I’d briefly recount them here for whatever interest they might hold for others and perhaps to make myself feel just a little better by adding a tiny bit to the marvelous collective memory that envelops him now.

So twice he gave me an intro to his agent-at-the-time. The first, back in the early ’90s, was an old guy in Hollywood, the one who followed H. N. Swanson, the legendary “Swanie,” who helped make Elmore Leonard both rich and famous. I worked with that fellow for a while, until I sent him part of an early version of The Car Bomb, and he told me he couldn’t sell anything featuring a local TV anchor.

And then some 20 years later Dutch kindly suggested his big time guy in NYC. That second agent and I never got anything going after he expressed no interest in dealing with the novel I ended up publishing last year, The Obsession.

I also worked with Dutch on a couple of occasions when I was making TV specials. Two decades ago I wrote and produced a one-hour documentary on Detroit’s main artery, Woodward Avenue, it’s heartline running north from the river 25 miles all the way to Pontiac. Arrayed along the way was “every reason for hope and despair in urban America,” if I remember the tagline correctly.

It was Dutch’s favorite avenue, featured in more than one of his Detroit-based novels, and he readily agreed to play a role in the story I was telling. First, we recorded him reading a passage from one of those novels, and then as darkness fell in the city’s New Center area, we shot as he walked the empty sidewalk past chained and boarded up storefronts. Finally, the shot pulled back wide to show how deserted the whole place was, and there at the top of the shot was the illuminated General Motors sign atop the giant company’s headquarters a few blocks away.

Later, after the shoot, when I got back to my car parked on Woodward, I found a window smashed and the radio gone. Of course, we shot the looted car, and that image made the perfect capstone to the sequence that married Elmore’s read and his walk.

Then five years ago I finally got the chance to do a piece I had been wanting to produce for decades, a TV bio sketch of the “Dickens of Detroit.” This time we shot for a couple of days with Dutch, including a lengthy interview at his home in Bloomfield Township, about 15 minutes from where I live. Heading for his 82nd birthday, he was thin and a bit frail but still very lively and as sharp as ever. He could not have been more forthcoming and generous with us.

That video bio sketch is the one on this website. The show was part of a series called “World Class Detroiters,” and, of course, Dutch was the most appropriate subject we ever presented. Minus the commercials, the piece was about 22 minutes, and so I struggled mightily to cram in as much of Elmore, his life and story, as possible. In doing so, I could only use brief snippets from an interview that went on for almost an hour and a half. It was conducted by the show’s on-camera host and my good friend, Emery King, a former NBC White House correspondent, working from a long list of my questions.

A few days ago, after Elmore’s passing, I dug out of my computer a transcript of the full interview, something only a handful of folks have ever seen. I read through it and marveled again at how much Dutch had given us. And I quickly decided to see if I could present it in a fashion that would give others the pleasure of an expansive Elmore talking about his life and work. What follows is just a small portion of the interview. If you find interest and value in it, I’ll include more here on my blog and perhaps also find a place to present the whole thing.

So here’s Elmore Leonard talking about why he used two of his favorite settings, the appeal and essence of his stories, and how to rob a bank.

Emery: Two of your favorite settings are Detroit and the Atlantic coast of Florida. Why those two settings and is there a connection?

Elmore: Because I’ve lived in both. Because I’ve lived in Detroit since 1934 and remember a lot about Detroit. And that Atlantic coast of Florida because we have a place there. I bought a motel for my mother back in I guess the ’70s. It only had three units in it, but it gave her something to do. And then we would go down and stay with her. Now we’ve got a place in North Palm Beach, but we don’t stay there that long, never more than two weeks, once or twice a year, because I’d rather be here. I mean, even in the winter. I like the winter. I like the seasons.

Emery: Why do you think your readers are so interested and drawn into these two worlds of cops and criminals, worlds that most people wouldn’t want to be a part of?

Elmore: No, I think they’re drawn into crime and mysteries because these stories always have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the endings are always satisfying to the readers. They know that the good guys are going to win in the end. I think that’s the main reason. Because you look down the New York Times list, and they’re all crime or mysteries.

Emery: Your major characters are usually trying to outthink each other one way or another, or outwit each other. Do you see your stories essentially as a battle between good and evil?

Elmore: I suppose, when you get right down to it, if I were to analyze my stories. But for that matter, all stories are about good and evil. I mean, there are degrees of evil and good, but I think all stories are asking, what’s the opposition? What are we dealing with here?

Emery: Do you analyze your stories?

Elmore: No, never.

Emery: Why?

Elmore: Because I’m not interested in analyzing them. I don’t know what the theme is, for example. When the screenwriter, Scott Frank, who has written two of mine—Get Shorty and Out of Sight—takes on the job, he’ll ask me, he says, “Well, what’s the theme?” I said, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” So, he’ll read the book, and then he tells me what the theme is, which is always impressive. “Really?” So he feels he needs to know what the theme is in order to write a screenplay.

Emery: About your bad guys, you’ve said this: “I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as normal people who get up in the morning and wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast. And they sneeze and they wonder if they should call their mother and then they rob a bank.”

Elmore: Yeah. That’s really most of them. I mean, that’s the way it is, you know. There’s a guy in the paper this morning who robbed a bank. He had been let go from his job, and he robbed a bank. And the prosecutor was going to give him less than a year. Now he’s got a job offer, and people feel sorry for him. Bank robbery is attractive to people. Willy Sutton said, “That’s where the money is.” That’s why he robbed banks. But all you’ve got to do is ask for the money, and the teller will give you the money, and then you walk out. They’ll give you the money if you’re convincing enough. There was one guy, the FBI called him, ah, who is that comedian who never got any respect?

Emery: Rodney Dangerfield.

Elmore: Rodney Dangerfield. They called him “the Rodney Dangerfield bank robber,” because he would go in and ask for the money, and they wouldn’t give it to him. Until, finally, he got a gun and went in. But if you go in with a gun, then you’re facing a lot of time, if you’re arrested. So it’s best just to be nice and hand the teller a note and hope that she’s frightened enough to give you the money. Most of them get $2,000 or less. They’ll get whatever is on the top of the open drawer, there in those little sections—tens, twenties, fifties, and one hundreds. But you don’t want to get handed the dye pack. When I first began researching bank robberies, I had a time getting a bank to show me a dye pack. Finally, one of them did, and it is triggered, the mechanism goes off, as you’re going out the door, and there’s something in the door frame that triggers the dye pack and then, phew, you’re covered with red or whatever color dye. And there’s just money on the outside of the pack. You know, inside is what makes it erupt. I had a friend in Florida, a judge, who had a guy who was up for breaking his probation by robbing a bank. So, he did four years, and then he came out and he hoped that having done the four years would suffice for breaking the probation. And the judge said, “Yeah. It’s okay. But how much did you get in the bank robbery?” And the guy said, “$2600.” He said, “But I’m going out and the dye pack went off. And so I had all this red dye, and then I went home, and I tried to wash the money. And I was trying to pass these pink twenties, and they caught up with me.”

So there you have just a taste. If you’d like more of this great writer and wonderful man talking about his life and his craft, just let me know.

FOUND GOLD

The other day I went Googling to see if I might have missed a published review of one of my books. I typed in one book and another came up, well down the list and from two years ago. That was before I began publishing, and before any of my books were available, with one exception. There were still old copies of Murder in the Synagogue for sale on Amazon and at several used book sites.

So I checked out the listing, a site called “R. Shlomo’s reading list,” which turned out to be a blog by a Chicago rabbi, and found his review of Murder posted on November 2, 2011. As I learned later from an exchange of emails with Rabbi Shlomo Rosen, that was some 40 years after he had read my original article on the murder of Rabbi Morris Adler reprinted from Commentary in The Norton Reader. He had found the book on the internet, recalled the tragic story, bought Murder and reviewed it. Yes, life can be a little weird.

So here is the rabbi’s review:

Murder in the Synagogue is a multilevel, fascinating study of the 1966 notorious murder of prominent suburban Detroit rabbi Morris Adler. The book profiles Richard Wishnetsky, a promising graduate student who gradually descends into a psychosis that culminates in Rabbi Adler’s murder and Wishnetsky’s suicide during a Saturday morning Bar Mitzvah service.

Richard Wishnetsky drew inspiration from his Hasidic grandfather claiming a certain authenticity that the suburban synagogue community and its rabbi lacked. We are told of his idealism of wanting to make a difference. He wants to make his mark, to make a statement. Unfortunately, his life spins out of control when it appears that his graduate study plans will not come to the fruition that he expects. We find that he fails at love; he is frustrated with rejection. Speculations of homosexuality persist about his social interactions. He is unattractive. His tragic confusion results in such an horrific scene: reading a final statement against the community and turning to shoot the rabbi and than himself before a crowd of 800 congregants and Bar Mitzvah celebrants.

What struck me about the book was the criticism of Suburban Jewish life; its materialism and lack of religiosity. However, how can one take seriously the criticism of the deranged? Had Wishnetsky experienced success and not failure would he have even noticed the flaws in his own community? Would his mind have crumbled so severely with the taste of triumph? He may have identified with his religious grandfather, however, he, himself, never became religious. The phoniness that he charged and applied to the community could have been charged and applied to himself.

Although a heart wrenching read, the book is thought provoking, written in a strong narrative prose.

In the comments section on the rabbi’s blog I left a message thanking him for the review and mentioning that he might be interested in my book Squelched, an account of what happened to Murder and its strange publishing history. After our email exchange, within a few days he was reading Squelched and a day later he posted this review:

This slim volume is really a continuation of and an explanation of the fate of the excellent study Murder in the Synagogue also by T. V. LoCicero. Anyone who has read Murder in the Synagogue would have expected a wide audience and best seller status because of its topic, caliber of writing and reporting. Surprisingly, the book was stalled and then halted after the author received promising reviews and expectations from the publisher. He subsequently heard from a congregant of that fateful synagogue that a prominent member of the synagogue community proudly announced to a group of friends the he “squelched” the book. Mr. LoCicero details the mishaps and misstatements of his publisher fudging its way through an unsatisfying explanation of the book’s failure.

The book’s picture of people of influence and power rings true; it reminds me of my life as a community rabbi when my job was threatened for speaking the truth. “Rabbi, if you continue to explain your view, there are people in this town who can ruin you! I would watch out if I were you!!” Or alternatively, it reminds me of the help I received: “Rabbi, there seems to be some misplaced anger directed toward you- we’ll just send a letter …” and the anger dissipated and disappeared miraculously! In the first case as a fiery young rabbi I responded with “How dare you threaten a rabbi! I will serve the entire community and not just a few of the elite!” And in the second case, I marveled at the power this man’s pen!

Every community has its ‘melech’, king. The role of the king is to fight and defend and unfortunately for Mr. LoCicero the king misunderstood his very well thought out book that analyzed a dangerous crank as a threat to the community and supposedly snuffed out the “threat” as a king is expected to do.

If the book is true, and there is little evidence to deny this fine written memoir, I believe here the king and his council were wrong! The rabbi’s widow even praised the book. The synagogue could have grown in many ways as a result of a best seller depending on the leadership of the synagogue.

Since Mr. LoCicero has brought Murder in the Synagogue back into print, I believe it to be a very worthwhile read and recommend his writing.

Of course, I am deeply grateful to Rabbi Rosen for his kind and perceptive reviews. And once again I’m amazed at what is possible in this brave new world of publishing.

THE MAKING OF FICTION

Recently a reader friend, a woman I’ve never met, but with whom I’ve exchanged emails, left a review of my new novel The Car Bomb on the book’s Amazon page. Previously she had read and reviewed my two non-fiction books, Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched. That’s her preferred type of book, or genre, True Crime, and so I was a little surprised when she decided to read The Car Bomb. But, of course, I was pleased when she filed this kind review:

“I am not usually a reader of fictional mystery/thriller type book, but this one was a riot. Something new happens on every page and it keeps you reading, wanting to know what happens next. Really good story. My only quibble with this book is that we spent almost the entire story inside the head of the protagonist, who is the best-known news anchor in Detroit, so as a Detroiter myself I kept picturing Bill Bonds, and that was just weird.”

When I dropped her a note of thanks for the review, she wrote back quickly with a question: Was my main character Frank DeFauw based on famed TV anchor Bill Bonds, who had a long, at times controversial career in Detroit?

And I responded with this: “Asked like a true fan of true crime!” After which I answered her question in some detail.

Now for you non-Detroiters a little context might be helpful. First, here’s my standard 400 character summary of The Car Bomb:

“Detroit Nielson king Frank DeFauw hunts down the story of a judge who may be corrupt—and is one of his best friends. Booze, drugs, womanizing and a passion for the news are all part of what makes this brilliant, erratic TV anchor a major player in this deeply troubled city. Finally, Frank decides if digging out the truth about his pal the judge is worth risking his own career, family and life.”

Starting in the ‘60s and for nearly four decades, Bill Bonds was Detroit’s dominant news presenter and commentator, working for most of that time at WXYZ-TV, Channel 7. Now my story in The Car Bomb is set in Detroit in the early ‘90s, so it’s understandable that anyone familiar with Bonds’ history might wonder if I was channeling Bill when I came up with my character Frank DeFauw.

But, of course, the making of fiction is something akin to that famous line from von Bismark about how laws are like sausages: “…it is better not to see them being made.”

Yes, fashioning fiction can be a messy, off-putting business. A writer takes whatever is in his/her head—every kind of experience and knowledge of every stripe, honest and true perceptions and stolen snippets of dubious hearsay, indelible memories and mis-remembered crap, sweet longings and impure thoughts, hard evidence and flights of fancy—rolls it all around in his/her imagination for a while, and if he/she has any talent, something good might come out.

For several years I worked with Bonds at Channel 7. I was never employed in the newsroom there, but I produced many documentaries and TV specials with him. I truly liked and admired Bill, and we always got along great.

Frank is not Bonds. He is like Bonds only in the same way he is like any number of somewhat larger-than-life big city TV anchors who came to fame back in the now long-lost Golden Age of local TV, including George Clooney’s dad in Cincinnati.

The genesis of The Car Bomb was a simple question: What if someone like that, someone with that kind of voice, visibility and power, suspected that one of his closest friends was corrupt? What would he do? And what would happen? From there I made everything up. And as far as I can recall, I didn’t use a single detail from anything I knew about Bonds’ personal life or his behind-the-scenes professional life, because none of that fit with the story that was unfolding in my head.

Oh, wait. I just thought of something. Both Frank and Bill like to play golf, and I gave Frank a membership at the Oakland Hills Country Club where I hope Bill continues to play. Actually, while I still consider him a good friend, I haven’t seen Bill in several years, not since we had a great time together over breakfast one morning at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel. I’d love for us to do that again, and maybe if Bill reads The Car Bomb, he’ll remind me of something else I stole from him to make my fiction.

MS. LITLOVE

Let me stop here for a moment to praise Victoria Louise Best. If the name is familiar, perhaps it’s because you know her blog, “Tales from the Reading Room,” one of the U.K.’s top literary/book review sites. It’s the place where she calls herself “Ms. Litlove.”

Or maybe you’ve read one of her extraordinary biographical sketches of writers in crisis. You can find the latest (on the remarkable American novelist and story writer, Shirley Jackson) in the current issue of the on-line literary mag, Open Letters.

Or you might know the academic volumes she authored while lecturing for a decade in French literature at Cambridge.

Or possibly you recall my mentioning Victoria here on occasion, as I embarked on one of my pet peeves, Unsympathetic Characters, after one of her brilliant essays on the subject, or my grateful reference to her wonderfully generous take on my novel, The Obsession.

Today the occasion is a recent post she called “A Whiff of Testosterone,” in which she reviewed, kindly indeed, my first two books in The detroit im dyin Trilogy: The Car Bomb and Admission of Guilt. Here’s part of what she had to say:

“If you like Elmore Leonard, you’ll love these books. Fast-paced action with lots of short chapters and sharp, punchy dialogue, and the writing is crisp and contemporary. Tom LoCicero is wonderful at setting up several threads of plot that plait into one another and end up inter-related, and there’s a real pleasure in the moment when they finally combine and the landscape of the book is laid out before the reader. The authenticity of the context is evident, particularly in Admission of Guilt, which has a lot of pithy things to say about the way Detroit was allowed to slip into free fall, the authorities unable and mostly unwilling to intervene in a shocking situation. But ultimately, these are stories about our overwhelming desire to see bullies and users get their comeuppance; there’s little more satisfying than that. The third book in the detroit im dyin trilogy isn’t out yet, but I’ll be waiting for it to appear.”

So as you might expect, my gratitude to Ms. Litlove is matched only by my admiration for her own literary accomplishments. The breath of her knowledge, the depth of her insights and the consistent quality of her taste all prompt me to grab your figurative collar and urge you to check out this woman’s marvelous writing in any and all of the places I’ve mentioned, or wherever you can find it.

EPIC PRISON SCAM VS. EPIC GENDER WAR, Part 2

Last time I spent most of a lengthy post on John Grisham’s hot new one, The Racketeer and promised a comparison of sorts with Gillian Flynn’s super bestseller, Gone Girl. (If you want to catch up first, please click here.) One of the things these books have in common is the timeless power of good storytelling.

Yes, I guess by now we’ve all read about the Flynn book’s inventive plotting, fascinating (and unreliable) narrators, rich themes and savvy style. And let me say up front, I liked much of it and for those very traits that so many others have noted.

Also, and this may only be my own strange predilection, I liked the novel for what it lacks. Yes, it’s a crime thriller, but there’s no CIA, no FBI to speak of, no Navy Seals, no black ops crew buried in some super-secret government agency, not a single terrorist foreign or home-grown, no physical torture, little blood and gore, no bible-obsessed serial killer and no deviant genius with an imminent plot to destroy half of mankind. Really, bored and annoyed is what I am with most thrillers these days, with incredible plots running rampant and predictable characters laying bloody awful things on each other.

In Gone Girl we’ve got just a nicely terrifying domestic crime drama featuring a 30-something married couple with complex issues and two seemingly stumbling small-town cops. Well, anyway, that’s the one-sentence version.

Now as you may have already guessed, I have a thing about plausibility. But at first, I found only an occasional unlikely note. Early on in the back story there’s a strange time lapse between Nick and Amy’s dreamy first meeting at a party, where they already seem half in love, and their chance encounter on a Manhattan street eight months later. Nick says he was going to call, but the slip of paper with Amy’s phone number got ruined in the wash. Patently ridiculous: each of them could easily have found the other through the party’s host.

Yet Amy acts as if this is no big deal and is simply delighted to have him back in her life. But the Amy we will come to know would certainly have punished Nick for being such a dolt. So why the time lapse? Does it tell us something about each of them? Perhaps how desperate Amy really is, how careless and incompetent Nick is? Maybe, but as we learn much later, an important plot point happened during those eight months. Amy started dating Tommy who didn’t pay her enough attention and got himself accused of rape.

Both Nick and Amy are laid-off magazine writers in NYC, and his decision to move them back to his hometown, North Carthage, Missouri, and to buy a bar with what’s left of Amy’s inheritance seems a bit unlikely. But he is close to his twin sister Go, loves his dying mother and hates his demented father, and these connections make the decision more credible. Actually, one of the things I liked most about the novel was its convincing treatment of the deep impact of money issues and the financial crisis on these individual lives. It cuts them off from potential and possibility in ways that feel, at least for a while, terribly true.

When Amy goes missing after two years in North Carthage with signs of a struggle in the living room, the front door of the house is left wide open. Whether Nick is the culprit (he is soon a suspect) or someone else is, this detail seems odd, since it means the disappearance will be almost immediately discovered.

And why does the woman detective wait until they’re back at the station in a sit-down interrogation to ask Nick if he and Amy have kids? Of course she had already gone through every room in his house, and one of her first questions to him on the scene would have been about children. (Note: the issue of offspring will surface again near the end.)

Still Flynn’s sense of timing is solid. Just as I was getting annoyed at the way Nick was so obviously playing the reader, repeatedly mentioning phone calls to his “disposable” that he won’t tell us about, his young mistress Andie shows up at his door. Soon Nick tells us, unnecessarily: “I’m a big fan of the lie of omission.”

And just when the story clearly needs a jolt, we get the news that Amy had gone to an abandoned mall trying to buy a gun from Lonnie, one of the homeless folks squatting there. She feared someone, she said. He can’t get her one, but later, in retrospect, all this seems hard to believe. Amy wanted to leave a trail that will incriminate Nick, so why not just go to Wal-mart and buy a gun. Do it on the record—it’ll be easier to trace, which should have been the whole point.

Then half-way in, about the time that alternating Nick’s current adventures with Amy’s diary back story has begun to seem mechanical, manipulative and contrived, Flynn pivots and starts giving Amy a chance to report her adventures directly. And we soon learn that all those diary entries, covering their first five years together, have been concocted by Amy after the fact. They were all part of framing Nick for her own murder.

About the same time, all the economic realism I had previously admired just begins to fall away. They were struggling to make ends meet, but Amy secretly ran up credit card charges of $212,000 in Nick’s name. Did he never pick up the mail? Did she do it all online? Then why didn’t the cops find a trace of it on her computer?

After a week or two on the run she’s hiding out at some rundown Ozark cabin resort and still has about 9 grand in cash. She nonetheless decides she needs the 50 bucks oddball Jeff offers to help him steal somebody’s catfish. She stupidly lets Jeff and another obvious grifter, Greta, see her money belt stuffed with her entire stash, and so, surprise, the next day she’s dead broke. And now the hard-to-swallow stuff is really beginning to pile up.

Plan A had been to send Nick to the chair and then kill herself, since, I guess, she’d be fully satisfied with her life.

Plan B involves looking up her old high school flame Desi, a multi-millionaire living just an hour away with his mother in one of his mansions. For decades from afar Desi has been crazy in love with Amy, so first he rescues her, then he imprisons her in another of his mansions, then he makes love to her, after which she slits his throat and escapes in his vintage Jaguar.

Now believing Nick’s TV pleadings that he adores his wife and desperately wants her back, Amy returns with a cracked story that Desi was the one who abducted her from North Carthage and had been raping her morning, noon and night. Except for his mother (who looks exactly like an older Amy and whose vagina seems to smell—it’s mentioned twice), no one cares that Desi’s dead, maybe since he was such a hopelessly flat cartoon man.

Nick’s twin sister Go is also strangely flat. Other than running the bar and worrying about her brother, she seems to have no life at all. In fact most of the secondary characters have no more than two dimensions, although Amy’s parents, Rand and Marybeth, have some interesting heft. A lesson in how to raise a monster, they are a clueless, selfish pair of psychologists who gave their own daughter’s name to the always perfect little girl at the center of their wildly successful “Amazing Amy” series of children’s books.

Look, there’s other ridiculous stuff, but Flynn moves her story along so quickly and engagingly that I suspect most readers don’t have time to notice or dwell on those less-than-credible moments. They’re too busy turning pages and wondering what’s next in this cleverly devised chess match between two always sharp and often nasty people. Yes, it partakes of the gothic at times, but it’s also full of witty, insightful commentary on various aspects of American life—the media and its obsessions, the impact of a crashing economy on personal lives, and most of all the cracks and fissures of identity produced by hyper self-consciousness in a society that seems both pressure cooker and fishbowl.

Flynn’s treatment of the media cluster-effing this bizarre crime tale is one of the best things about Gone Girl. Using well her stint at Entertainment Weekly, she gets just about everything right, from the Nancy-Grace type doing her crazed-crusader thing, to the TV gladiator/attorney Tanner Bolt doing media training with Nick. You wonder perhaps how wiped-out Nick can afford Bolt’s $100,000 retainer, but then money is never mentioned again, so not to worry.

Of course, when you resort so often to the implausible, what you end up with is a fantasy masquerading as realism. That’s what this novel is, and so the ultimate question is, why has this fantasy become such a huge hit? Unlike The Racketeer, which seems to have lots of male enthusiasts, women especially have flocked to Gone Girl, many seeming to find it a kind of feminist cry. Do they see in Amy aspects of themselves? Is there some kind of strange liberation here? It is certainly the end of artifice, of pretending to be the Cool Girl, an end to worries about what men want women to be. This is from one of the book’s most quoted graphs:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

What nerve has been struck here? What deep need filled? My two cents: We live in a time of unprecedented competition between women and men. I know, we have always and forever lived with “the battle of the sexes.” It’s eternal, everlasting. But it has also never, ever seemed so consuming, so constantly present in every corner of our personal, social, economic and political lives.

Equality? It’s only common sense, but benighted forces are still arrayed against it, and so the cries ring everywhere. Gender equality! Equal pay for equal work! Abortion rights! Legitimate rape! The Old White Guy Party’s war on women! Control your own vagina! How many vaginas in the House and Senate? In ’08 Hillary almost made it to that last Glass Ceiling, and 2016 may be hers for the taking. These issues and questions will only gain intensity.

In relationships it’s always been there, and even the male/female cop duo is competing to nab Nick. Not surprisingly the smarter, more competent cop is (maybe just to rub it in) the unattractive woman with the ugly name, Det. Boney.

Heroines (and now anti-heroines) are all the rage these days. No one seems to blink when a wily slip of a girl beats the crap out of a strapping man or two or three. Homeland’s Carrie, despite being bipolar, is more than a match for just about any man in the show. She is smarter, quicker, more intuitive, perceptive and courageous. Saul’s line is definitive: “You were right.” And now we’re hearing that she may have been based on the real life CIA gal (the object of bitter envy at the Agency) who played a major role in getting Osama.

Here’s the fantasy: The woman, Amy, is ridiculously beautiful and smart, but also every man’s worst nightmare. Sensationally desirable, but ultimately despicable, moving somewhere between sociopath and psychopath (more properly the former, although she does seem to swerve from reality at times). She is in fact incapable of genuine warmth for others, condemning her husband to death for cheating and executing in cold blood a man hopelessly in love with her. She, not Nick, has the balls to murder and also that one exclusive natural asset the “weaker sex” has always used to tame the male.

So this story’s baddest badass is not the man but the woman, so super-smart and devious that she can defeat, subdue and control a man who knows her every rotten proclivity because she has confessed it all in the shower, where no tape recorder can nail her.

But now Nick can’t just walk away: Amy has his baby boy in her belly. (She duped him into thinking the fertility clinic they had gone to years ago had destroyed his frozen sperm, then returned there recently to get herself pregnant.) And soon she’ll deliver the unfortunate little tike into a world in which his mother is a monster.

In the book’s final pages we learn that she has carried the baby to term, with submissive Nick there smearing on the cocoa butter and rubbing her feet. And on the marrow she will both give birth and see her new book published, the one that tells her self-serving version of the whole sordid saga.

So she has triumphed. She has won this epic gender war.

Or has she? In their final exchange Amy wonders aloud why Nick is being so good to her. She wants him to say he loves her and she deserves it. Instead he says he just feels sorry for her: “Because every morning you have to wake up and be you.”

At the end Amy tells us she can’t stop thinking about that line from Nick. And so we know without question the war is still on. And, yes, there will be a sequel.

Here’s a final thought from that friend I mentioned in Part 1: About the gender appeal of these two popular novels she says: “Maybe the thrill for women right now is in being bad and getting away with it, while the comfort for men is that being bad does not prevent them from still being good.”

EPIC PRISON SCAM VS. EPIC GENDER WAR, Part 1

Sorry, if you’ve dropped by here at all this year, you’ve found the same damn self-serving post day after day, week after week, month after month. And so you probably concluded that I was either dead or too busy to blog. Fortunately it was the latter.

I’ve been putting the finishing touches (always a treacherous trap for me ) to a couple of new crime novels, in what I’m calling The detroit im dyin Trilogy. So more about these new books later.

Right now I’d like to offer some thoughts on two novels that have battled lately for those coveted top spots on the NY Times hardcover bestseller list: John Grisham’s recently released legal thriller The Racketeer and Gillian Flynn’s still wildly popular gender thriller, Gone Girl. And I’ll do this in two parts

First, two obvious questions: What do these two have that so many other novels lack? And what, if anything (beside their lodging in Thrillerland) might they share with each other? Because the second is easier than the first, I’ll start there.

So both novels have unreliable first-person narrators. The Racketeer has one, the disgraced attorney Malcolm Bannister. In a minimum security prison as the story opens, he is half-way through a stiff 10-year sentence for a crime of fraud he says he did not commit. Gone Girl has two narrators, the warring married protagonists Nick and Amy Dunne, both clearly not to be trusted, Amy so much so that her diary entries, which carry forward her side of things for the first half of the book, are subsequently revealed to be false and calculated to legally ensnare her husband.

Now while Bannister is also less-than-reliable, he is so in ways more subtle. And it is not his claim of innocence that makes the defrocked lawyer untrustworthy. In fact, we end up buying his story that he was unfortunately caught up in a criminal conspiracy in which he was not actually culpable. No, rather it’s a variety of lies about other stuff that make Bannister unreliable. Lies sprinkled here and there in the narrative, lies of both omission and commission.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the lies he tells FBI agents, prosecutors and others. Those fibs are often transparent and used, along with the information he withholds from law enforcement, to further the intricate plot he has hatched during all those long months and years in prison. See, Bannister, who manages the prison library and has earned a rep as an effective jailhouse lawyer by securing more than one inmate’s freedom, has a plan to win his own release. And once initiated it works like a charm.

Bannister convinces authorities that he knows the identity of the killer of a recently murdered federal judge and gives them the name of Quinn Rucker, the head of a major drug gang “with contacts up and down the East Coast.” Quinn, he says, was his best friend in prison until the guy walked away from the camp a few months back.

So Bannister orchestrates his own move out of prison and into the government’s witness protection program, with a $150,000 reward, a brand new identity complete with the requisite documents to go wherever he pleases, a pleasant beachside apartment in Florida and a job if he wants it. He soon changes his name to Max Baldwin, and after a plastic surgeon also changes his face, he goes rogue.

At first it appears that that he’s been freaked that his cover has been blown, that Quinn Rucker has somehow learned his new name and whereabouts. And so he’s off running, here and there, to Jamaica and Antigua, Virginia and even back briefly to his Florida apartment.

He’s always one jump ahead of his former FBI handlers and presumably the Rucker gang, but it’s never clear exactly what he’s doing. Only much later will we learn that it’s all part of an ingenious plot.

At this point I should tell you that The Racketeer also has another narrator, third person, not first, the more or less classic omniscient third, which the crafty Grisham slips into on occasion for a few paragraphs, pages or chapters. He does this whenever he wants to present information that is beyond the ken of his almost full-time narrator, Bannister/Baldwin, and this shift allows the imparting of data that moves the story along more effectively, making it richer and more compelling.

Now while these narrative shifts can at times be jarring and certainly break some classic rules of fiction, after a while the reader gets used to them and the payoff—a stronger, more detailed story—makes them seem worthwhile. Not for nothing has the perennially best-selling Grisham been repeatedly called a “master storyteller.” And to be honest, I detected no lies or intentional misleading in these third person passages.

So what are the lies that make Bannister/Baldwin a truly untrustworthy narrator? They are the ones he tells the reader. Yes, along the way the scheming lawyer drops occasional bits of info and brief comments tinged with untruth, the real nature and purpose of which we will learn only in the latter stages of the story. So why would the main narrator of this book want to fool the folks who’ve chosen to read his story? For a definitive answer you’ll have to ask his creator, Mr. Grisham.

But my guess is that Grisham’s intention was to let his narrator mislead and mystify his readers for their own good, to make the experience of reading this novel ever more enthralling as we try to figure out what the hell his protagonist is up to. Naturally he wants this to last as long as possible, until the reader finally reaches that remarkably satisfying conclusion in which all the myriad loose ends are tied up neatly and all the characters get their more or less just deserts.

Yes, The Racketeer is a legal thriller—with few exceptions that’s what Grisham writes. But in this one the author goes to considerable lengths to disguise the true nature of his book’s sub-genre. It’s also a caper novel, and to put off full disclosure for as long as possible, Grisham has his first-person narrator lie, mislead and fool the reader every once in a while.

So what if this scheming ex-attorney is just a naturally talented story spinner? A fellow who instinctively knows that to tell a good page-turning tale, there are moments when you need to withhold information, to keep it unspoken until the time to disclose is right?

Well, withholding is one thing; it’s what many a good storyteller often chooses to do. But lying, or deliberately misleading is quite something else. It’s also called cheating, and the problem with cheating is that when it’s finally exposed, it tends to spoil the experience the book provides. Here are a few examples of Grisham’s cheating.

On page 139, while watching on TV as a dull and unimpressive U.S. Attorney named Stanley Mumphrey announces the indictment of Quinn Rucker, Bannister/Baldwin says, “The thought crosses my mind that, with Stanley in charge, Quinn may have a fighting chance after all.”

But, no, that particular thought would not have occurred to Bannister/Baldwin, because the narrator knows something we don’t know at that point: exactly what will happen to his old friend Quinn.

Fifteen pages later Bannister/Baldwin tells us about a comely gal for whom he’s carrying a torch. He met Vanessa Young at the prison when she was visiting her brother, another inmate, and then exchanged letters with her. But, he says, “it became painfully obvious, at least to me, that my infatuation with Vanessa was not exactly a two-way street.”

This passage about Vanessa lasts just a few brief paragraphs, but they withhold a good deal of information and, more importantly, they mislead: as we eventually learn, she is every bit into him as he is into her, and there is way more to their connection than lustful romance.

And finally, Chapter 26 begins, “I sleep with a gun…” Well, now Bannister/Baldwin may be sleeping with that Beretta he mentions, but it is not, as he clearly implies, because the Rucker clan is hot on his heels. As we learn later, he knows there is no one to fear.

There are many more examples to site, but you get the idea.

In books like this one, there is always a battle of wits going on. More than one, in fact, between characters in the story itself, but also one between the author and the reader. The reader is always trying to figure where the author is heading with his story, and the author is trying to keep the reader guessing for as long as possible.

Now there are accepted rules for this kind of match, the most basic and important of which is that, while withholding info is generally okay, prevaricating and misleading are not. And in The Racketeer Grisham breaks this rule several times. And of course it matters not at all that his unreliable narrator is the one doing the lying and the cheating. As we are reminded every time the narrative slides into the omniscient third, from start to finish this is Grisham’s concoction.

So why is The Racketeer parked solidly at or near the top of the bestseller lists? Surely, first of all because Grisham books are almost always there. For decades he’s enjoyed enormous success and by now has a mass of dedicated readers who, with little or no encouragement, will read almost anything he publishes.

But this book in particular? Certainly, as with many a caper story, there is the lure of a huge pot of untraceable ill-gotten gain at the conclusion. That always seems irresistible, but especially so with our current fascination, in a time of global financial flux and perhaps calamity.

Then there’s that trusty old standby: the deeply satisfying comeuppance of corporate greed and corruption. Grisham seems to be a genuinely good sort who cares about the right things and generally writes stories that expose the bad and support the good.

And how about this gender-tinged thought from one of my most insightful female friends: “I wonder if there isn’t something intrinsically masculine going on. I know I’m not supposed to say such things! But there is a comforting fantasy in Grisham, I think, of men doing the wrong thing and yet still being good guys, worthy of love and intrinsically right.”

Finally, and perhaps most telling: despite its flaws, this book offers the timeless power of good storytelling. That’s something else it shares with Flynn’s Gone Girl. And next time I’ll take a close look at that sensationally successful novel.

DON’T HIDE YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL

Okay, far be it from me to argue with a classic old saying that apparently goes all the way back to Matthew (5:14-16) in the New Testament:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The problem is we live in the Era of Snow-Blindness, a time when all of us are enveloped by the digital blizzard, with screens of all sizes shimmering in every corner and the Net buzzing insistently in our pockets. So even if we remove that bushel and allow our light to shine brightly, who’s going to see it?

To shift the metaphor with another old saw, how about Tooting My Own Horn? I mean, who else is going to toot it? Well, actually a number of kind folks have blown flattering notes my way lately. But this is also the Age of Noise-Induced-Deafness, when our ears are afflicted with a cacophony of voices all screaming to be heard.

Look, all this is a self-conscious preamble to my offering, as a public service, of course, a sampling from recent reviews. Actually, I was encouraged in this by an experience I had last month. Across five days in December with a free-book promotion through Amazon’s Kindle Select, I gave away almost 12,000 e-copies of my four books.

What stunned me was that more than 10,000 of those downloads were of two books that are more than 40-years-old.

Now if you know the tale of those books (it’s right on the Home page of this site)—Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched, the story of its suppression—you’ll understand why I felt that every bit of time and effort it took to e-publish them was suddenly worthwhile. Yes, I haven’t made a penny on those books and probably never will. But knowing they’re in the hands of so many readers who wanted them? As the commercial says, “Priceless!”

Fewer people downloaded the novels, The Obsession and The Disappearance, but I could tell myself the confounding route to discovery was now just a bit less daunting. Everybody in the book business is looking for ways to enhance this thing called “Discoverability.” As far as I can tell, nobody has a good answer yet. So in any way you can, let the light shine and the horn toot. I’ll start with the novels:

The Obsession

Gone Girl has had a huge impact on the book world since it came out…The Obsession by T. V. LoCicero will be unknown to most people…But both are pacy, gripping narratives about love grown monstrous and out of control…fascinating portraits of gender rancour, or the amazing ability men and women have to love and loathe each other with intensity.”

Victoria Best (aka Litlove)

(Later, the esteemed Ms. Best followed up by naming The Obsession as one of her two favorite crime novels for 2012—the other was not, by the way, Gone Girl.)

“If you like books that are not only a good read but also give you a geography lesson on a part of Europe you have never visited, this is it…gives you a look into the mind of an evil but intelligent person who has become obsessed with a woman and sinks farther and farther into depravity…a guaranteed good read…”

Barbara
Goodreads

“[A] gripping and enthralling story… I hated it every time my train was pulling up at my stop because I knew I had to discontinue reading and all I wanted was to keep my head in the book to discover what happened!…the ending was sudden and comes as quite a surprise, so hold onto your horses, people, you are in for a ride with this book.”

Uncle Book
(on his UK book blog)

“Awesome book”

Reza Ade
Goodreads

“[V]ery exciting. I was hooked by the time I finished the first chapter. It is very well written, fast moving and suspenseful.”

Barbara Juhl
LibraryThing

“[A] a good mystery and I never did guess how the ending would be played out, and that is pretty extraordinary. I am not often that much in the dark about how a book would be wound up by the author.”

Victoria Chance
Amazon Reviewer

“[N]ot for the literary faint of heart…this is a powerful engaging story…”

Charlene Mabie-Gamble
Literary R&R

 “I was blown away…This is a dark mystery full of plot twists and strong, well-developed characters. The ending truly left me speechless, and I’m usually pretty good at figuring our how a book will end! If you have read any of Mr. LoCicero’s nonfiction, give his fiction a try…you will not be disappointed!”

Comic Book Nerd
Amazon Reviewer

“I loved this novel and can’t wait to read the next in the trilogy. Fascinating, complex characters, a story full of surprising twists and a genuinely shocking ending. First rate suspense.”

Kate
Amazon Reviewer

The Disappearance

“This is the follow-up to T.V. LoCicero’s The Obsession, and this book is just as beautifully written as the first. The character’s are well developed and believable, the plot is fast-paced and full of unexpected turns, and the ending will leave you impatient for the third installment of this trilogy.”

Comic Book Nerd
Amazon Reviewer

“This author knows how to tell a good story while the plot thickens and the suspense builds…a master at weaving a story that is both believable and in which the characters do not perform a lot of acts that would be considered silly or impossible in the real world as so many novels with female protagonists do. It was well worth the read…”

Barbara
Goodreads

“[A] worthy follow-up to the great first book in this series. Read The Obsession first and then don’t hesitate to try this one. Great suspense and a very satisfying conclusion.”

Kate
Amazon Reviewer

Now for the non-fiction:

Murder in the Synagogue

(Back in 1970, when this true crime book was first published and suppressed, it received a number of comments and reviews that almost nobody saw. Like this from Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Coles: “I was absolutely enthralled by it. It’s one of those non-fiction novels that one simply cannot put down.” And this from prominent Jewish reviewer Rabbi Jack Riemer: “A fascinating double-portrait of the Rabbi and his killer that holds the reader spellbound from beginning to end.” The following are from this second time around.)

 “LoCicero has the ability to write about very disturbing situations and people in a detailed, dispassionate, and engrossing manner…[He] ends his fascinating factual presentation with an epilogue in which he speculates over the causes of the young man’s depression and anger, including why he directed his anger against the rabbi who was trying to help him…well-written, factual, and interesting.”

Israel Drazin
Top 1000 Amazon Reviewer

“[I]t really helps a person understand what could be happening in the minds of today’s mass shooters.”

Shar
Amazon Reviewer

Murder in the Synagogue [is]…riveting…a case study of a crime committed decades ago.”

Gabe
Amazon Reviewer

“This is perhaps the most detailed account of a brilliant young person’s heartbreaking descent into homicidal madness that I’ve read. Highly recommended for those with a psychological bent and with an interest in the impact of society on the vulnerable young.”

Kate
Amazon Reviewer

“The author never lost me and never put me to sleep despite all the discussions of philosophers like Aristotle, Nietsche and others I never got around to reading. By the end LoCicero makes it possible for you to see the situation from so many perspectives, and you understand where the killer was coming from even as you mourn his victim. Well worth the read.”

Eileen McHenry
Amazon Reviewer

“In part, Murder in the Synagogue is a tribute to Rabbi Adler, one of the best known and most beloved religious leaders of his era. But mainly it is a richly detailed and sympathetic case study of one man’s descent into mental illness…[T]he book is not at all sensationalistic or exploitative. Rather, it shows great sensitivity toward everyone involved. I hope that it receives some well-deserved attention in Kindle format.”

D.E. Ward
Amazon Reviewer

“[A] gripping, fast-paced tale of the murder of Rabbi Morris Adler in the mid 1960s…reads more like a very bizarre novel instead of a true crime work. There are plenty of plot twists, and a very insightful look at mental illness and what drives people to commit unspeakable acts.”

Comic Book Nerd
Amazon Reviewer

“Very interesting reading. I love reading about the era in which I grew up, since sometimes I was not paying close enough attention to events that may have shaped our future.”

Nina Sala-Gault
Amazon Reviewer

“I found this book a fascinating study of a person with multiple personality disorders…a very complex but ultimately extremely sad character…Also, yet another argument for gun control!!!!”

Gundi Jeffrey
Amazon Reviewer

Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue

(Most of this true crime memoir was written four decades ago, but the epilogue was added recently. The following review excerpts are all current.)

“I sat down and read Squelched immediately. It was so absorbing that I could do nothing else until I finished it.”

Jack Riemer, Known as President Clinton’s rabbi

“Although non-fiction, this detailed book reads with the speed of a best-selling fiction novel.”

Israel Drazin
Top 1000 Amazon Reviewer

Squelched is a fascinating story of corruption… riveting…more like a novel…”

Gabe
Amazon Reviewer

“Makes a person wonder how many informative books never make it to market based on pressure from one entity or another who don’t want a certain subject studied. Three cheers for self-publishing e-book authors.”

Shar
Amazon Reviewer

“[H]ighly suspenseful, to the point where I almost read the book in one sitting!…reads less like a novel and more like an expose, but is just as riveting. It seems Mr. LoCicero not only writes amazing fiction, but powerful nonfiction as well!”

Comic Book Nerd
Amazon Reviewer

“Misconduct by a major publishing house? A chain of lies and dodgy maneuvers keep the author’s first nonfiction work from ever getting off the ground, despite being well-received by almost everyone who (against the odds) manages to read it? And there is nothing unlikely, bizarre or farfetched about any of it. This conspiracy is as pedestrian as pork and beans, and that in itself makes the story utterly believable.”

Eileen McHenry
Amazon Reviewer

“[A] good example of the benefits stemming from the recent rise of ebook publishing. When he wrote down his story over 40 years ago, he was not able to find an interested publisher. But today, ebook publishing makes it possible for all of us to tell our stories to a potentially wide audience. After reading Murder in the Synagogue, I enjoyed learning more about the author.”

D.E. Ward
Amazon Reviewer

“[A] grab you by the collar and a well written story of business corrupt attitudes and moral values.”

Elliot B. Halberg
Amazon Reviewer

“This one’s a surprising read, with a young writer’s compelling account of his publisher’s betrayal of his excellent first book.”

Kate
Amazon Reviewer

“I found the conspiracy powerful. The money and influences that came to bare were disturbingly possible and believable. Worth the time to read.”

Mabenach
Amazon Reviewer

My deep gratitude to all these readers who took the time to grace my books with their kind and generous thoughts.

MY SHIP HAS COME IN!

This morning I was in bed more or less minding my own business, and I decided to do what I often do under such circumstances: read my email on my very smart little mobile. The first new one was from someone I don’t know, a fellow named Waziri Ahmed, and in the subject line I read, “Kindly get back to me……”

Now, perhaps like many of you, I often get messages from people I don’t know. Usually they’re from Africa, and usually they want to make me a rich man. Most of these messages are so farfetched and absurd, that I’ve taken to deleting without opening them.

A few years back when I started receiving these messages, I would open, read and reply with a nasty line about how I was forwarding this note to Interpol. But that seemed to result only in more such emails. Apparently any kind of response, even just opening the message, was seen as wildly encouraging.

So why did I open this new note from Waziri? I have no idea. Maybe because I was in a good mood, lolling in a kind of happy haze. But soon I was very glad I did, since my new friend Waziri made my day, my week and most probably my year.

In fact, I’m so pleased that I cannot keep this wonderful message to myself. I must share it with you. But first I have a caution: Please do not read this message from Waziri if you can’t keep a secret.

As you’ll note, about his extraordinary story he swears me to secrecy. But I have no compunction about sharing, since I know that all of you who stop here are just as honorable as I am. And I’m sure that goes for all the spam bots who visit this site dozens of times a week. So without further ado, here’s Waziri:

Dear Friend

A lot of people believe that email like these turn out to be scam, even myself always delete mails like these. but i want you to know that i have no other means to reach you apart from writing you an email.

Am Waziri Ahmed and i use to work with a security deposit firm in Libya, where they keep valuables like gold and diamonds. 2 years ago a woman came to our office then and told me she wants to deposit a package with us and she do not want any person apart from me to know the content. i agreed with her and the package was kept under a code name because she don’t want any body to know her as the owner. but she told only me in secret that the package contains cash of about $12 million dollars.

since then the secret was kept to my self alone and nobody knows even until our company moved out of Libya during the war. But, i now got a new job at a freight company. But, my former company has been disturbing calling and sending emails to me, that i should tell the owner of the package to come forward and remove the package because they are closing up and relocating to Saudi Arabia. i have looked for her even all the phone and email details she gave me are no more working. just 3 days ago i got the news that she is dead, long ago that she died when the NATO forces drop the bomb in Gaddafi house then. i even just found out that she was a cousin to Gaddafi.

well, why am written these email is because i want the both of us to handle these transaction and we share the funds in the package equally. 50% each. i will present you as the owner of the package i have the release code once you tell them the code and other information’s, the package will be released and sent to where ever you want them to send it. they will only confirm from me before they release and if i say yes we are rich. bear in mind that it is not a must that you must appear in person, you do not need to be their, just call and emails with the right codes and full information’s.

they can not release it to me because the know that it is not mine, but they fully knows as well that am the only person on earth that knows the owner and the correct release code. look these is our chance and opportunity to get rich, because if i don’t act fast nobody will ever come for the package. then after waiting for too long it will be dumped in to the sea.

do not have any fear i prefer to do these business with somebody i don’t even know very well because some times your own families and friends will be the once to fail and disappoint you. if you are ready to keep the secret and work with me then i will tell you other things and we move ahead, i promise just 3 days we will receive the package where ever you choose. but do not fail and disappoint me when you receive the package. i will meet with you in person for us to do the sharing.

please if you will work with me and keep the secret please reply me so we can talk more on these issue and act fast, but if you are not interested please delete these email so nobody else can read it.

I wait to hear from you.

Waziri Ahmed.
+971529590913

Now how about that! Waziri is so forthright that he even gave me his phone number, which near as I can figure, comes from somewhere in the United Arab Emirates. So remember, keep the secret!

Otherwise you’ll queer the whole deal, and that beautiful 12 mil Waziri and I are about split will be tossed into the sea.

WHY I DISAPPEARED

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of our most prolific and important bloggers on the business of writing and publishing, recently wrote a lengthy 3-part series of posts titled, “Why Writers Disappear.” There is something in it for just about every writer, and it certainly caught my eye, because, after all, I am a writer who, about 40 years ago, disappeared.

Kris starts by listing a dozen reasons why writers disappear and then goes into considerable detail on each of those reasons. Of course, I quickly scanned through the list, searching for one or more that might match up with my own experience. Kris says that writers disappear because:

“1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.” Here Kris refers to the sad and increasingly common fate of traditionally published authors whose readership has not been growing fast enough and thus find themselves out of luck and out of the business. No, not exactly my problem.

“2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.” Obviously this one’s about changing tastes. Also not my problem.

“3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.” In this one Kris cites authors who acted badly in some fashion that was off-putting or threatening to publishers. Well, now maybe I better come back to this one later…

“4. They achieved all their goals.” Hardly my problem.

“5. They were no longer interested in writing.” Nope, not a fit here.

“6. They moved to a different part of the industry.” No, when I left, it was for a very different way of making a living.

“7. They got discouraged.” No, whether early in the morning or late at night, I kept on writing.

“8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.” Sorry, I love solitude.

“9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.” By this, Kris means the perils of freelancing…again not a problem for me.

“10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing.” Kris talks about things like a family catastrophe, coma, and either swift self-destruction or the slower version with drugs and alcohol. No, fortunately, not part of my history.

“11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.” With my own company I just published several books and shorter pieces, so…does not apply.

“12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.” No, 40 years ago I demanded and almost immediately secured the rights to Murder in the Synagogue.

So let’s go back to reason #3: “They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.”

Time for a little back story, though if you’ve searched this site at all you probably already know that my career as an author began in 1970 with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, a true crime account of the assassination of Rabbi Morris Adler in suburban Detroit on Lincoln’s birthday, 1966. In the book I explored the life of the high-achieving grad student and troubled intellectual seeker who, at age 23, spoke these words before turning a gun on the rabbi and himself:

“This congregation is a travesty and an abomination. It has made a mockery by its phoniness and hypocrisy of the beauty and spirit of Judaism. It is composed of people who on the whole make me ashamed to say that I’m a Jew. For the most part it is composed of men, women and children who care for nothing except their vain, egotistical selves.  With this act I protest a humanly horrifying and hence unacceptable situation.”

The publisher Prentice-Hall saw the book as a kind of Jewish In Cold Blood and a window on the turbulent ‘60s and so gave me an advance of $8500 ($60,000 in today’s dollars). That same year Mario Puzo got $5000 for what would become The Godfather.

Upon publication, Murder drew a number of very positive reviews in mostly odd, out-of-the-way places, and praise from psychiatric experts, religious figures and academics to whom I sent copies. But the eastern literary establishment seemed to have never heard of it, and sales were slow.

Then a remarkable young woman from Detroit’s Jewish community came to me to say she had heard a wealthy and powerful man she had grown up calling “uncle” tell a group of friends that he had reached out to my publisher and “squelched” my book. Of course I set out to verify her story and soon learned that Prentice-Hall had indeed suppressed Murder in the Synagogue, sabotaging its marketing and distribution, and printing 4000 copies from standing type which was then pied or dismantled—the method used for a “limited edition.” It had secretly bowed to pressure from an influential presidential adviser and top Republican fund-raiser named Max Fisher.

So of course I did what any foolishly high-minded young writer would do. I went to Prentice-Hall, accused them of suppressing my book and demanded and secured its rights. And then what? Nothing. No one, neither first-line publisher nor paperback house, would touch what had obviously become a “toxic” book.

Next I wrote another book, this one about what had happened to Murder. It was, I felt, a compelling story of corporate deceit and criminality confronted by the courage of the plucky young woman who had blown the whistle. But facing a sure-fire, deep-pockets lawsuit from a guy who hung out with the likes of Henry Ford II and Richard Nixon, not one of the agents and publishers I approached would even look at my new book. So now I had not one, but two toxic books.

What I needed was a new book project, something completely unrelated to my first two books, and I soon thought I had found it in a sensational trial in Detroit involving several cops and dope dealers all working together in the heroin and cocaine trade that was ravaging the city. For six months I covered the trial, wrote profiles of the colorful cast of characters and described scene after amazing scene in the courtroom—all of it basically on spec, hoping that someone in New York would agree with me on the importance of the story.

And then a famous agent agreed to take me on and seemed certain he could sell my new book. But after several months of encouraging words, he finally announced that the last editor he took the project to had said this was essentially a “black book, and blacks don’t buy books.” And that was that.

Had the toxicity of my first two books “trickled down through the entire industry,” as Kris Rusch puts it? She says publishing back then was “a very small industry” in which publishers, editors, and agents all knew each other and gossiped together. I had no idea back then what I was really facing, and today I still don’t know for sure.

By this time (it was 1975), I was broke and had to find a quick way to support my family. I took a job as a grant writer for a humanities council, thinking the next book project was not far off. But instead I soon found myself in a busy life as a TV producer/writer/director. Over the ensuing years, my output included more than 50 long-form documentaries, 75 shorter features, 30 live event programs and hundreds of editorials.

Actually, over the next three and a half decades I never stopped writing, either early in the morning or late at night. But as an author of books I had disappeared.

Then a few months ago I used my own media company to publish, along with several other items, Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Among other things it’s a coming-of-age tale about a naïve young writer blindsided when his book suffers a fate he has no idea was even possible. Then he gropes, blunders and finally learns a few things.

The book’s new epilogue explains how the original manuscript, the last copy of which I had given away back in the ‘70s in order to get on with my life, finally came back to me after more than three decades. And it adds the story of how four years after it sabotaged Murder in the Synagogue, Prentice-Hall did the same thing to another of its books, Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. The story of what the publisher did to the Du Pont book was first told on January 21, 1975, in the New York Times. The story of what happened to Murder in the Synagogue has never been told. Until now.

How this or any of my newly published books will do, I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know, after all this time, it can no longer be said that I have disappeared.

UNSYMPATHETIC CHARACTERS

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the importance of populating a novel with sympathetic characters.

We’ve had advice from agents about what will entice a traditional publisher.

Editors have warned about what is or is not acceptable these days if you want to sell books.

Reviewers complain and readers fulminate about how they just couldn’t get into a particular piece of fiction, because they didn’t really care about the characters who people it. They didn’t like them, thought they were too off-putting, found them to be distasteful creatures for one reason or another.

Now no one is saying that every character in a novel needs to be a positive role model, or a hero, or have some redeeming value. Stories, after all, still seem to benefit from villains.

But the idea appears to be that unless there is at least one main character with sterling moral qualities, someone basically good, comely, admirable and in some way worthy of love, despite any little quirks or foibles, for the reader to feel attached to and to root for, there’s just no way a story is going to work, or hold the average reader’s attention.

Would-be novelists are often told to keep their readers firmly in mind, to consider carefully how their audience will think or feel about this or that. And to make it easy for writers to monitor what readers think of their concoctions, the fact is, today any reader can be a reviewer. On Amazon and many other sites, just pick the number of stars you feel like giving and jot a few words, and there you are, a published reviewer and one whose opinion can matter.

Here’s how one of my favorite book bloggers, Ms. Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room, set up the discussion recently:

“Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.”

The full post with comments is here.

Now I found Ms. Litlove’s thoughts on sympathetic characters to be, as usual, shrewd, helpful and…sympathetic. And her visitors and commenters, a marvelous collection of thoughtful folks who regularly stop by her site, also had a number of interesting things to say on the subject.

But in my typically simple-minded way, I found myself wanting to reverse some terms and go at the argument from a different, perhaps more perverse angle.

First of all, the kinds of characters I invariably judge unsympathetic can be smart or stupid, sweet or sour, ugly or lovely, essentially good or often evil…well, you get the idea. What they all have in common and why I find them unsympathetic, or “not worthy of depiction” (yes, I think I’ve found a use for that strange phrase!) is this: they’re flat and unconvincing, without credible motivation or plausible action; they’re simple when they need to be complex, they’re dull and uninteresting because they don’t appear to be genuinely alive. In short, they’re not compelling because they don’t match up well with everything life has taught us about the myriad manifestations of the human animal.

A while back I mentioned somewhere that I continued writing the story in my novel The Obsession into a second book (The Disappearance) because the characters had lodged themselves in my heart. I did not mean that I loved those characters in the sense that I was sympathetic to them and their plight.

No, what makes me love the characters I create are those magical moments when they come alive and go their own way, when they surprise, puzzle and confound me. At those special times they’re full of verve and contradiction, and they’re exciting to me because they often feel so damn real. Yes, I think we need to be concerned about the commercial influence of agents, editors and readers in this new, hyper-connected world of publishing.

But to me, and I expect to any serious novelist, all that matters is not how likeable our characters are, but whether they truly live and breathe.

 

DEFEAT

So here’s just one way of looking at last night (November 6).

It was a stunning defeat for:

  • Mendacious Mitt
  • The One Percent and those self-serving billionaires who tried to buy an election
  • Intolerance
  • Those who would yank health care from our newly covered millions
  • Ayn Rand
  • Lies and deception as essential campaign tools
  • Secrecy and hidden agendas
  • Those who would deny women the right to control their own bodies
  • The rabid right and all those who cater to it
  • The opposition to any reasonable control of the market dipsy-do that crashed our economy
  • Shape-shifting
  • Angry, self-seeking white people
  • Turd Blossom
  • Candidates with Swiss bank accounts
  • Political calculation over minding the People’s business
  • Race baiting
  • Those untold millions still living in the 1950s
  • Donald J(erk) Trump
  • Homophobia
  • Blindness to the changing face of the American electorate

PLEASED AND GRATIFIED

If you’re a writer, you know there may be nothing as pleasing and gratifying as a warm word of approval from someone whose opinion you deeply value. Well, yes, sufficient book sales to allow full-time work on the next book is also pretty cool.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the former, though not the latter, but what was that line from the incomparable Fran Lebowitz? Something about an author’s premature death from insufficient praise?

So today I came across a review of my novel The Obsession from a woman I greatly admire, Victoria Best, perhaps better known as the blogger Ms. litlove, whose very popular site Tales from the Reading Room offers some of the most acute, insightful and helpful reviews to be found on the web. Imagine my delight when this person with opinions I’ve come to trust and respect not only had very kind and generous words to say about my novel but also compared it favorably to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

As you probably know, Flynn’s book is the sensation of the current season in American publishing, according to a flock of major league reviewers, an intense, page-tuning thriller with loads of literary value. A million and a half in hardcover and ebook sales and along with the “Gray” books, near the top of the the best-seller lists. Here’s some of what Ms.litlove had to say about both books:

Gone Girl has had a huge impact on the book world since it came out; whilst the other novel I read, The Obsession by T. V. LoCicero will be unknown to most people, I imagine. But both are pacy, gripping narratives about love grown monstrous and out of control…fascinating portraits of gender rancour, or the amazing ability men and women have to love and loathe each other with intensity. The Obsession is more straightforward in its premise; sexuality remains a dark and vexed region where reason holds no sway and the agony of unrequited love can provoke unstable individuals to violence…[T]his was the first self-published novel I’ve ever read, and I was properly impressed and surprised by the quality of the story and the writing. Kindle readers, take note.

You can find the whole post at Tales from the Reading Room.

Now Victoria Best is pretty remarkable, a lecturer for a decade in French lit at Cambridge, the author of a couple of books of academic criticism and now a blogger/reviewer of impeccable taste who also treats her many visitors to fascinating tales from her personal life.

Beyond the much appreciated critical assessment of my novel, I am also grateful to her for even deciding to give my book a look, since it was published by my own company, TLC Media, in the new-fangled way that skirts legacy publishing. As she mentions at the end of her piece, The Obsession was the first self-published novel she’s ever read, and the experience was a good one.

So, no, it will probably never sell enough to constitute a living wage, but, yes, very pleasing and gratifying indeed.

WE’RE NOT IN MANHATTAN ANY MORE

(Note: For convenience sake, this entry combines and retools material from this blog’s first 3 posts.)

That things have changed is a pretty common observation from those interested in books and publishing these days, but my story about the Great Transformation might shed a different kind of light.

I started working on my first ebook in 1970. Yes, people still lived in caves back then, and ereaders were only a gleam in the eye of some techie savant. But for me it was supposed to be a big year, with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, my true crime account of the killing of Rabbi Morris Adler in a suburban Detroit temple on Lincoln’s birthday, 1966. They called it an assassination, not all that uncommon in those turbulent years.

Murder explored the behavior and psyche of a brilliant 23-year-old graduate student—Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow bound for the Divinity School at the University of Chicago—an idealistic intellectual seeker who accused his audience of 700 congregants of being hypocrites and materialists and then turned a gun on the rabbi and himself.

Among many things, it was a window on those riotous 1960s, and one of the hot literary topics back then was the rise of the “non-fiction novel.” According to my agent, Prentice-Hall, my publisher, saw the book as a kind of Jewish In Cold Blood. So in the same year that Mario Puzo got $5000 for what became The Godfather, my advance was $8500.

Published, Murder drew good reviews in often odd, out-of-the-way places like Pomona, CA, and Allentown, PA, and praise from psychiatric experts, religious figures and academics to whom I sent copies. But the eastern literary establishment acted as if it had never heard of the book, and sales were slow.

Then from Detroit’s Jewish community, a remarkable young woman came forward to tell me that Murder had been undermined by a wealthy and powerful man she had grown up calling “uncle.” She had heard this influential presidential adviser and top Republican fund-raiser—a fellow named Max Fisher—tell a group of friends that he had “squelched” my book. I checked her story and eventually learned that Prentice-Hall had indeed bowed to pressure from Fisher and suppressed my book. They printed 4000 copies from standing type, which was then pied, or dismantled—the method used for a “limited edition”—and sabotaged its marketing and distribution.

So like any foolishly high-minded young writer. I brought my accusations to Prentice-Hall, got weasel-like responses, then demanded (and secured) the rights to my book. After which I wrote another book, about what had happened to Murder.

To me, of course, it was a compelling story of corporate deceit and criminality, but facing a sure-fire, deep-pockets lawsuit from Fisher, a guy who hung out with the likes of Henry Ford II and Richard Nixon, not one of the agents and publishers I approached would even look at my new book.

My once-budding literary career soon withered. And in order to move on, I gave away my last manuscript copy of that useless expose and then embarked on a busy life as a TV producer/writer/director. Over the ensuing years, my output included more than 50 long-form documentaries, 75 shorter features, 30 live event programs and 600 editorials. Occasionally I still do that kind of work, but I never stopped writing.

And then the world changed. Digital disruption hit the publishing business, and it may no longer matter what an agent or a publisher will look at. For 30 years I had lost the manuscript of my book about what was done to Murder, but when it came back to me, I brought it up to date and am now offering it as Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Also for sale are an e-book version of Murder and 1200 copies of the original hard-cover edition that I’ve kept in a basement all these years.

So why bother with Squelched? The book was written more than 40 years ago about the publishing problems of another book written a few years earlier. What could such a story have to tell us about the disruption, confusion and uncertainty in the business today?

One of the things people say after reading Squelched is that so many of the details are reminders of things past. For example, the size of the advance Prentice-Hall gave me for writing Murder: $8500 back in 1966 when Puzo got five grand for what turned out to be one of the best-selling novels of all time.

Today the numbers seem almost quaint. The same for the hard-cover price of Murder, jumped by Prentice-Hall from the more or less typical $6.95, to what seemed like a much-inflated $9.95 as part of what I later learned was the publisher’s effort to stifle the book’s appeal and sales.

Lately I’ve wondered what those figures would seem like if translated to the value of today’s dollar. $8500 in 1966? That would be something over $60,000 today. Not bad for an untried young writer in the current market (unless she were a Kardashian).

And $9.95 in 1970 for a hard-cover non-fiction book? In 2012 that would be about $58. Today, of course, you might expect to pay between 27 and 30 bucks for such a book, but then we’re in the midst of the digital revolution. One wonders what a typical hard-cover price might be today if ereaders and ebooks had never happened.

Really, both sets of numbers point up a not-uncommon problem with such comparisons. In today’s rapidly changing book-publishing world, many a successful mid-list author with a few good-sellers under her/his belt might be happy with a 5-figure advance.

So with change and disruption shaking the industry, does my story of suppression in the publishing business back in 1970 seem only more ancient and irrelevant? Can this story tell us anything useful about book publishing or an author’s experience today? And why publish it now through my own company?

Because I can. To set the record straight. Maybe to prove that old New Testament line from John, 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” By the way, those words from Jesus are inscribed on a main lobby wall at that bastion of lies, cover-ups and covert ops, CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia.

After striking out with a hoard of agents and publishers, I finally decided that no traditional publisher would seriously consider touching either of my non-fiction books. And since it’s important to me to finally make the story told in Squelched available to the public (after 40 years!), I figured I have neither the time nor the inclination to wait around to see if I might be mistaken about all this. I also felt that once I went public with the suppression story, my novels, The Obsession and The Disappearance, would probably have little or no chance as well in the legacy world.

Is Squelched a defining story of legacy publishing? Well, no. But, in a larger sense books have always been subject to the whims of the companies that publish them. Of course publishers have always made decisions that in large measure determine whether a book, no matter its intrinsic worth, will find its audience. That’s one of the things they do: they make choices about how a book will be presented to the public. Decisions about cover and text design, pricing, promotion, print run, marketing and advertising, whether to push hard for reviews in the places that matter or for certain kinds of in-store display.

They say it’s all about professional judgment. But often it may be just a gut feeling that the time is right for this story, character, theme or set of ideas. Or that its time has passed. Or that its apparent timeliness was only illusory in the first place. The publisher may decide that, while the author performed competently, the book somehow lacks that spark or special glow that can help it catch fire with a sufficient corps of readers.

And having once committed to a book and its author, a publisher may, for many different reasons, withdraw its support. For one, the editor, whose enthusiastic backing for a book promised it a chance, moves on to a new job at another house. After that, forget it. The book has lost its champion.

There have always been a multitude of ways a book might not succeed, might not reach or connect with its audience. But whether it’s bad luck, bad karma, bad timing or, as in the case of Murder in the Synagogue, bad acting that included collusion with an influential third party opposed to the book’s interests, there is almost always one common factor.

The author is in the dark. He or she may have picked up hints, from an editor who was unusually candid or just let something slip, or from the tell-tale pattern of screw-ups, failures and neglect. But the bottom line is the author doesn’t really know for sure what the hell happened to his book, whether it was some lame failure of his own—an inability to be brilliant, perceptive, insightful or eloquent enough. Or whether it was lousy luck. Or whether someone just didn’t like him or his baby enough.

So how common is what Prentice-Hall did to Murder? As I recount in Squelched, soon after the publication of Murder, I heard directly from two prominent literary agents on the subject. The very successful Julian Bach gestured at his office window overlooking 48th Street and told me, “Look, this 20-square-block area of Manhattan is the publishing establishment in this country, and they’ve all had their experiences like this.”

And the famed Scott Meredith advised me that this kind of thing happened with enough regularity that no one of importance would even care if another instance were publicly revealed and documented.

And then there is my fellow victim of criminal shenanigans at Prentice-Hall. Gerard Colby is the author of another ill-fated book, entitled Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. Four years after it purposely “botched” Murder, Prentice-Hall did the same thing to the Du Pont book. That story was first told on January 21, 1975, in the New York Times.

It was told again more recently by the author Colby in “The Price of Liberty,” one of several essays about suppression in the media collected in a book called Into the Buzzsaw, issued by Prometheus Books. Colby’s research found that the occurrence of this kind of soft squashing was sufficiently common that insiders had a term for it: “privishing.”  Instead of “publishing.”

By the way, I’m often asked why Prentice-Hall did not simply shut down the project and not publish the book at all. My response: doing that would have risked my taking it to another publisher where Fisher might not have had as much leverage. Better a quiet, seemingly natural demise.

My own guess about the real frequency today of this industry practice? Perhaps not all that often. I mean, isn’t this the Age of the Expose, when the great game-changing web allows nothing to remain hidden for long? A time when even the most secretive of institutions, like the Pentagon and the Vatican, are subject to massive leaks?

But then again, how can we really know? How often will someone come forward as brave and morally driven as the young woman who told me about what she heard from Max Fisher? How rare is it that an editor and a corporate attorney will jeopardize their jobs and careers by going public with their inside knowledge, as happened with the Du Pont book? I don’t have answers.

Now, of course, I’m biased, but there are other reasons why you might want to take a look at these books from four decades ago.  For example, both can be read as coming-of-age stories, a rich, time-tested theme.

Murder is many things, including an account of something we remain afflicted with today, the use of terrible violence as perverse public statement. But Murder is also the haunting story of a gifted, high-minded, ambitious and privileged young man in a time of social upheaval and rapid change. It’s a carefully told tale that finally arrives at a tragic conclusion in which this young fellow not only forfeits his own life but takes with him a prominent, much-loved member of his community in an act of violent despair so shocking that it stains and changes many lives.

How about the uses of history? The 1960s remain an important and fascinating period in the American 20th century. And you know what they say about those who ignore history. Murder offers an extraordinary view of the ‘60s in part because Richard Wishnetsky, the young man at its center, was so hyper-conscious of himself as a child of his time, as emblematic of both the promise and the failure of American society. He purposely cast himself in that role in order, he thought, to teach that society it was headed for doom.

Squelched in its way is also a coming-of-age tale. In it a naïve young writer is blindsided when his book suffers a fate he has no idea was even possible. Then he gropes, blunders and finally learns a few things.

If some of the questions raised here resonate, you might give Squelched a try. It’s a meticulous account of a young writer’s sudden plunge into the wiles of publishing and his unexpected, at times unpleasant lessons in how the world works. Its epilogue explains how the original manuscript, the last copy of which I gave away back in the early ‘70s, finally came back to me after more than three decades. And it brings the story up to date by recounting the passing of Max Fisher in 2005 at the age of 96.

Along the way you may note that while the details are decades old, the lessons they contain about corporate manipulation and the power and influence of wealth and political connection remain deeply important in our world today.

*  *  *

Rabbi Jack Riemer, known as “President Clinton’s rabbi” and one of the country’s most trusted reviewers of Jewish books, called Murder in the Synagogue “a fascinating double-portrait of the Rabbi and his killer that holds the reader spellbound from beginning to end.” About Squelched he has said, “It was so absorbing that I could do nothing else until I finished it.”

THE CLOSE THIRD AND THE ESSENCE OF FICTION

Is fiction dying? Or, in this early flowering of the ebook age, is it resurgent? You can find advocates for each position, but what continues to fascinate me are questions surrounding what each kind of narration, fiction and non-fiction, can do best.

If you’ve glanced around this site, you know I’ve written and published both fiction and non-fiction, true crime reportage, memoir, short stories and novels. So which kind of writing do I think can have the most impact on a reader’s heart and mind? What form or type has the best chance of delivering what great writing of any sort always offers: an enthralling experience—intellectual, emotional, aesthetic—that somehow imparts a new sense of how life works, the details and dimensions of the human condition, and perhaps even the secrets we keep from ourselves?

Actually, beyond these broad questions, what I’d like to try to get at here is what I’ll call the essence of fiction. What truly sets it apart from other kinds of writing, and how does story-telling in fiction differ essentially from the story-telling of narrative non-fiction? Obviously sci-fi, fantasy, etc., involve imaginative leaps that are beyond non-fiction, but if we put aside questions of genre, which fictional forms do what only fiction can do?

Let’s start with an example from fiction and one from non-fiction that might at first blush seem quite similar: a story or novel told in the first person and a memoir. In fact, if each were not identified as such, the reader might well have a difficult time deciding which was which, even though the memoir is the real life account of actual events, and first-person fiction is more or less the product of the author’s imagination.

(For the sake of moving this discussion along, let’s stick with traditional definitions and  look past my oversimplifications here: obviously the fiction writer may make liberal use of actual fact, and the memoirist, as we’ve seen too often recently, may fabricate.)

While fiction using a first person narrator might look like a memoir, it may also contain a complication all its own: that narrator just might be unreliable. No matter how much truth is being told, s/he might at any moment start coloring or stretching the “facts,” or telling outright lies.

Now, of course, the success and value of the memoir will always be measured in part by an estimation of how truthful and candid the memoirist is finally perceived to be. And the memoir can have the unassailable power of factual truth on its side. But first-person fiction with an unreliable voice can manipulate that truth, trash or splinter it, just as so often happens in the complex reality of our everyday lives, and the result can be both engrossing and enlightening.

Still, in both the memoir and first-person fiction, the reader is allowed directly inside only one character…the narrator. Yes, both fiction and non-fiction writers often come up with various devices, tricks and stunts—diaries, letters, communications of all sorts—to offer other points-of-view and give us a window on the thoughts and feelings of other characters. But none of them necessarily has the power and authority of that first-person voice.

What about fiction with a third-person narrator? There are, of course, varieties of such narrators. Some remain at a distance from their characters, looking at them only from the outside and simply reporting on the action taking place in the story. They appear to want the cloak of objectivity and neutrality, and in doing so they are more or less presenting an experience that can seem very similar to that of a piece of narrative non-fiction.

Then there is the narrator who is omniscient. Yes, all third-person narrators can be seen as all-knowing (it’s their story, after all), but there are varying degrees of omniscience, depending on how much their authors choose to go inside their characters and how readily they offer commentary and perspective as opposed to strict objectivity.

Certainly a full-blown omniscient narrator sets fiction apart, the real difference-maker being the ability to present with a special fullness and detail both the outside and the inside of the world being depicted. The outside includes the locations, settings and events that the characters find themselves in and respond to while they’re acting out their lives. And the inside refers to the interior life of those characters, their thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams and secret urges, as they confront life’s challenges and interact with each other.

Now this kind of fiction, taking the reader inside more than one character, can be most adept at offering a glimpse of the enormous complexity of the human drama. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why short stories and novels with a shifting POV have become so prevalent over the past several decades. Maybe the purveyors of fiction have turned to it in part because they have felt themselves under attack from those touting the power of the true, the undeniably gripping nature of the real.

The most intense and, to my mind, effective use of this shifting POV approach is what’s been called the close, or tight third person, in which the writer moves his narrator’s voice right up against a character, whose sensibility, vocabulary, intelligence and perception can then bleed right into the story. The writer/narrator might stay with that character for a few paragraphs, a few pages or a chapter or two. Then it’s on to another character for a while. Writers as diverse as Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and my favorite crime writer and friend Elmore Leonard have employed it with wit, finesse and brilliance.

With the close third method of story-telling, the narrator’s voice blends with that of the POV character, making for often subtle shifts of hue, temper and style. So in effect, the authority of the narrator is joined with the persona of the character in a narrative technique some contemporary lit scholars refer to as the “free indirect style.” This is an often loose-feeling style that lets readers inhabit two or more mind-sets at a time, thus playing to our natural fascination with the secret thoughts and motivations of others.

Something similar can be achieved with a series of first person narrators. But then the writer is mostly limited by the qualities of each narrator: his/her intelligence, memory, knowledge base, vocabulary, acuity of perception, and again, of course, reliability. Whereas, with a close third shifting POV, the reader is normally certain of reliability, and the narrator can take the story anywhere s/he pleases in time and place.

What I’ve learned in writing fiction with a close third narrator and multiple, shifting POVs (and what I hope is evident in my novels The Obsession and The Disappearance) is that there are also great opportunities to play with plot and experiment with time frame and sequence and, in doing so, to create suspense, mystery, momentary confusion and surprise—all of which, if done effectively, can be features of a compelling, page-turning narrative.

With a true crime book like Murder in the Synagogue, my treatment of what happened and when were entirely determined by the factual reality I was reporting. But in writing fiction I create the plot, and how I do it really depends on what I decide will be most revealing and most effective in telling “the truth” about my characters and my story.

Another vital factor in all of the many decisions a writer makes in the construction of every novel is how best to promote the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, which is at the heart of every piece of successful fiction. But that’s a rich and fascinating topic for another day.

Let me finish with a quick critique of what I’ve just written: it lacks examples! As a way of rectifying this situation and keeping the discussion going, maybe some of you would like to take on the task of supplying titles that illustrate some of the different approaches to story-telling I’ve outlined here. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

FLIRTING WITH GENRE (Part 2)

In my last post…

I offered some thoughts on the currently heated discussion of genre versus literary fiction and said I’d look at the experience of constructing my own novels.

So I did not begin with any such intentions, but it turns out that my novel The Obsession is a kind of hybrid, a cross between a psychological and a literary thriller, with elements of crime, mystery and suspense.  I simply set out to tell the story in my head, and this is the way it came out. To my mind there is nothing particularly innovative, groundbreaking or original about its methods, shape or purpose. Again, it was just the story I wanted to tell.

The three main characters all interested me enough that I gave each of them a point of view, in more or less alternating chapters and using what’s called the close third person. I wanted to dig deep into each, to present something of where they come from, how they think and see the world, and of course at least a little of what causes them to do what they do.

Sometimes accomplishing this, presenting information about each of these three people, may slow the action down and force the reader to wait a bit longer to learn about what happens next. But many writers, setting out on the more or less crazy endeavor of penning a novel, struggle with and worry over the tension between depth of character and narrative pace. Finally, you make your choices and live with the result.

And by the way, I also had no intention of writing a trilogy. One of the first people to read The Obsession, an old lit prof of mine, said he wanted to know what happened to certain characters after the story ended. So I started thinking about that and soon came up with outlines for two more novels, one of which, The Dissappearance, I’ve written and published. The third, The Tryst, I’m about to start.

Beyond the classic novelists we all read in school…

Dostoyevsky was the one who grabbed me most often. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by the old Russian giant. In the decades since school, I have returned most often to Vonnegut, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Le Carre, Simenon, Highsmith, Oates, Leonard, Furst, Rendell, Grisham, McEwan, and Amis.

An eclectic bunch, each read for his/her particular passions, pleasures and perspectives, astonishing skills, charm and wisdom, but it would be presumptuous to claim even that I’ve learned from any of them.

All I can say is that I have flat out loved books by each of them, and that what I do when I’m writing is to keep working and re-working, polishing and polishing again, until I at least like, and on rare occasions, love what I have written.

Readers have a basic hunger for knowing how the world works…

And I suspect that’s true even for those who say they read mostly to escape their troubled or hackneyed corner of the universe. We’re all looking for insight and meaning in all of life’s infinite variety. Sooner or later we decide if a writer has a clear and penetrating gaze, with a view as narrow as a laser or as broad as a flood light, and finally whether reading this book provides a special kind of pleasure.

Does the novelist give us that wonderful sense that she will miss nothing, that he possesses a mind so knowing that it comprehends in a flash and cuts to the essence in an instant? How about an ear so acute that it will capture, recall and make good use of the subtle, revealing nuances of everyday speech?

Does the author have a keen, knowing wit?

A deft way with language that will often please and surprise us with just the right word or phrase, a combination that provides not only delight but helps us see something common in our everyday life in a new way, thus giving it a new meaning?

In short, we ultimately ask ourselves, is she or he a writer who can help us discover a little bit more about what’s important in life and give us a resonating joy in the process?

The question of what genre we might be reading at that moment may well seem beside the point.

FLIRTING WITH GENRE

In two recent posts titled Why Crime?…

I’ve talked about why we’re so taken with crime books and why crimes usually happen in my own books. One more (rather stray) thought occurred, and I decided to drop it in here:

It may be a good thing at times to remind ourselves that the most efficient, ruthless and, to my mind, disgusting criminals in our midst usually dress well. Those who deliver the most damage to the greatest number of lives around them often favor a well-tailored suit (occasionally one that includes a skirt) or an impressive military uniform, or, with some in the Middle-East, the kind of sparkling white robe we often like to picture Jesus wearing. They come with names like Madoff, Stanford, Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad. Bin Laden, of course, favored the spotless robe but sometimes accessorized with a camo jacket over it.

Now some of those responsible for the most generous, good-doing activities on the planet also wear similar garb, so let’s not rush to judge a book by its cover, as they used to say back when books really did have covers and not some little jpeg image stuck to a web page.

And speaking of books…

I think it may also be risky to judge a book by its genre.

Not to waste your time, I don’t write fantasy, sci-fi, romance or horror. You could put a gun to my head, and I doubt I would write about zombies, werewolves, vampires or any variety of the undead. I have nothing against those creature or the genres they live in, and maybe if I had actually met one of those folks with the oversized incisors, I might have written in a different direction. But for the most part I don’t read in those genres either.

The comparative value of genre fiction versus literary fiction?

The topic has been hot lately, with interesting pieces by Gary Gutting in the NY Times, Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker, and Dwight Allen in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The term “guilty pleasure” is much bandied about in the discussion of genre novels, but I don’t set much store on it. I rarely feel guilty when I’m reading. It doesn’t matter what subject, style or genre, if I’m not getting some kind of value or pleasure from the collection of words in front of me—and that payoff can come in a multitude of ways—I usually stop reading and try something else.

Is Crime and Punishment genre?

A crime novel? The word is, of course, right there in the title, and can you imagine that powerfully compelling story without the murder at it’s core? But is it a genre construction? Well, no, few would say that, since it’s a world classic, unquestionably one of our great literary masterpieces.

Actually, the most helpful piece I’ve read on genre vs. literary is a recent blog/manifesto from the great Ursala K. Le Guin:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.

For the whole piece, go to Book View Cafe

Let’s face it…

What we’re really talking about here is that unfathomable dance each novelist performs with each reader. Every one of us brings a unique consciousness to each novel we read. But that doesn’t mean we cannot share the experience with others in a deep and detailed way, while exchanging our personal preferences and judgments.

Sheer numbers, the test of time, the estimate of those who’ve made the study of literature their life’s work, the power of their arguments, the tenor of the times and the predilections and tastes of the moment—all these and more will play into a novel’s public valuation. But I find it hard to argue with Ms. Le Guin’s point that a novel’s genre should not be a determining factor. To me, her perspective seems not just democratic but practical and wise. How about you?

Next time I’ll go at this genre business with my own fiction in mind.

BUYING BOOK REVIEWS

Suddenly two weekends ago (8/25-26)

All those contentious words flying around the web for weeks on the subject of book reviews (Too nice? Too nasty? Not worth the trouble?) got trumped. In a sprightly expose in the New York Times with the irresistible title, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” David Streitfeld caused a firestorm of comments (331 the last time I looked) by describing a handy little service that once was available but is no more.

The brainchild of a guy named Todd Rutherford, a shrewd entrepreneur with a convenient conscience, GettingBookReviews.com opened for business in the fall of 2010. At first writing all the reviews himself, Rutherford charged $99 for one, $499 for 20, and $999 for 50. But soon he had so much business that he needed the help of a bunch of folks he found on Craig’s List willing to write reviews for $15 a piece. Rutherford made clear that 5 stars were not absolutely required, but if conscience dictated otherwise, their fee would be cut in half. Quickly all of his new employees developed his kind of conscience. And even though Amazon forbids paid-for reviews and online forums were filled with complaints, before long Rutherford was making $28,000 a month.

It didn’t last long…

Ironically, a dissatisfied customer hastened the end. Angry that her review was taking too long, she spread her complaints across the web, and then Google suspended Rutherford’s ad account and Amazon began taking down reviews. After 4531 reviews, GettingBookReviews.com closed up shop.

But David Streitfeld’s biggest bombshell involved a more-than-satisfied customer named John Locke. Everyone who knows their ebook history knows about John Locke, the 60-year-old former insurance salesman who started writing and self-pubbing ebook thrillers. At first he got nowhere, and then suddenly in December 2010 he sold 15,000 books. Soon he would be celebrated as the first self-pubber to peddle a million. And then he celebrated himself with a non-fiction book entitled How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.

In it he generously includes all his success secrets…except one: in the fall of 2010, Mr. Locke paid Mr. Rutherford about 6 grand to buy himself 300 mostly 5-star reviews.

Hey, you think maybe all those wonderful reviews had something to do with all that heart-warming success?

Now naturally with four books of my own just recently up and, of course, looking for reviews, the Streitfeld piece in the Times grabbed my attention. Was I shocked? Not really. Nothing humans do should shock any of us any longer. But in addition to cynical resignation, did I feel annoyance, disgust? Yes, to both.

For one thing Streitfeld’s tone often seems gratuitously disparaging. Occasionally he offers bold, bald factual statements like this one:

“So as soon as new authors confront that imperative line on their Amazon pages — ‘Be the first to review this item’ — the temptation is great for them to start soliciting notices, at first among those closest at hand: family, friends and acquaintances. They want to be told how great they are.”

And then apparently for unimpeachable support for this questionable opinion, he quotes some know-it-all Stanford professor named Robert I. Sutton:

“Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard. When people tell us we’re not as great as we thought we were, we don’t like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack.”

Okay, then. Tarred with a very broad brush indeed.

In a related piece published in the Times a week earlier Streitfeld described the efforts of a team of Cornell researchers to create a computer algorithm that would smoke out fake reviews. The good news: on hundreds of hotel reviews it worked about 90% of the time. The bad news: hotel reviews and book reviews seem like apples and oranges.

On Sunday morning, as I perused the first 30 or so of those 330 plus comments in the Times, they ran the gamut:

From, woe is us poor indie authors, this is the last nail in the coffin of our desperate quest for respect. To: Hey, eff it, legacy publishing does the same damn thing!

From: John Locke is a lying pig. To: John Locke is really smart.

From: I would never, ever do such a thing. To: Yeah, but if others are doing it, the rest of us are screwed.

From: This is a dead-certain sign we’re at the edge of the ethical abyss. To: No, man, this is the essence of free enterprise and the glories of capitalism.

From: Reviews are worth shite. Anyone who trusts them is an idiot. To: I can tell a phony/worthless review within the first few words.

From: All I need to do is use “Look Inside” to read a few pages, and I’ll know if the book will be worth my time. To: No, you doofus, those lazy, evil indie authors buff and polish those first few pages so they can get away with writing dreck for the rest of the book.

And, seemingly, ad infinitum.

With many of the comments I found myself agreeing and sometimes also not. A fellow named K.W. Jeter had some cogent things to say, but later on his blog he wrote this:

“There’s a battle going on right now, to demonstrate that indie ebooks are as good and even better than traditionally published print books. The battle is being won by indie writers self-publishing compelling, well-written ebooks which garner genuine positive — and unpaid — reviews from actual readers and not desperate shills recruited from Craigslist. As the comments to the New York Times article indicate, it’s going to be a long battle. We don’t need dishonest writers, willing to do anything to promote their books, raising doubts in readers’ minds about the reliability of the reviews they see on Amazon about our ebooks.”

Again I agree and disagree. Yes, we don’t need dishonest writers. But that’s like saying we don’t need dishonest people. And if there’s a battle going on between indie ebooks and legacy print books, it’s only so if you think it’s so. A battle? More like a free-for-all in which everyone is struggling for notice and survival.

In fact, what’s really happening is that we’re about five years into a huge shift in the publishing business. Things are changing rapidly, inevitably, and the only certainty is that the landscape already looks and feels very different. In another five years?  Who knows? Certainly in a variety of ways today there are many more books being published . Some are good, others not so much. Whatever happens, Good luck to everyone.

Look, if you’ve been out there scouring the web for places to get a new book reviewed

You know there are multiple sites offering to sell you something that looks like a critical judgment. Often they’ll give you a choice: a free review that may arrive in two or three months (or maybe never), or one that will cost you but will definitely take only two or three weeks. If you chose to pay, that’ll be 59 bucks for one, or three for 129.

Most of these places provide the standard disclaimer: whether free or bought and paid for, good reviews are not guaranteed. Occasionally you’ll see that silly old saw about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But com’on, folks, how long will these outfits stay in business if they take your cash and serve up a bad review?

Actually, I found it at least slightly reassuring that those smart people from Cornell are out there trying to devise ways to sort the wheat from the chaff, to spot the phony among the real.

Now if someone will just come up with an algorithm where you could plug in a reviewer’s name and out would pop an accurate notion of that person’s intelligence, honesty, good taste, comprehensive knowledge and common sense.

Of course, each of us could make all those calculations and judgments on our own, but then that would take a whole lot of reading and thinking and the like.

For what it’s worth, here’s my thought…

Yes, most of the pro reviewers are still behind walls manned by gatekeepers who will consider submissions only from established publishers. The best of the online reviewers and book bloggers are swamped with requests, and the amateur enthusiasts often seem to merit little trust. So what happens to all those indie books, dumped in our vast digital sea to sink or swim? How will we find a way to establish their genuine value?

I’m pretty sure this whole indie publishing thing (now obviously at the toddler stage) will sooner or later shake itself out. Maybe with some of the novelty worn off, more of our expectations will float back down to earth. Most likely more resources will evolve and develop to provide us with what we need and want for literary assessment. In the meantime, let’s all relax, take a deep breath and get back to writing our books.

WHY CRIME? (Part 2)

In my last post I asked…

Why do so many of us seem to love books that feature crime? You might want to check it out here, before heading into this one. But in any case, as promised, I want to talk about why crimes usually happen in my own novels. (Check out The Obsession, and The Disappearance.)

Certainly I hope they’ll add a measure of suspense, mystery and narrative drive, but that’s not necessarily why you’ll find them there. Crimes also happen in my novels because I want to deal with life and death issues, because I’m interested in exploring ethical values in real world situations, questions of right and wrong and how we frame them, avoid them, or ultimately answer them, how we deal with a moral dilemma or a conflict of values. Obviously crime provides ready access to all these important themes.

And then there’s the fact that a crime will often offer a quick way to cut to the quick, an effective way to expose our hidden dreams and nightmares, those fears, desires and needs that feed our most powerful emotions.

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote with great insight about violence. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:

In a human being’s life, murder is one of the most crucial, experiment like events that can possibly take place. It reveals the innermost springs of the individual’s life and is a profound self-revelation of character. Far more than any other act, it requires an enormously strong impulse, an overcoming of resistances, a conquering of inhibitions, and a building up of rationalizations. It is invaluable, therefore, for understanding the true texture of human personality and of mental mechanisms in general. It might be truly said: Tell me what kind of murder you could or would commit, and I’ll tell you what kind of a man you are.

Crime often moves characters to extremes

And it is in that realm that men and women can sometimes reveal their most naked selves. So, yes, crime happens in my novels, and yes, I’m pleased when I feel their occurrence helps me grab and hold the reader. But not, I should add, at the expense of credibility, depth of character and literary value.

I do have a thing about credibility, even as I admit that it can be a tricky concept, heavily influenced by things like the reader’s acuity of perception and breadth of experience. One person’s credible is another’s absurd.

My own feeling is

Writing thrillers today has become a dicey proposition. The wild popularity of the genre is undeniable, and naturally where popular leads, authors follow. In addition, pushed by the multiplying distractions and shrinking attention spans of our busy society, a writer may feel an ever-increasing need to grab the reader’s interest as quickly as possible and to hold on to it desperately in a world that seems cleverly designed to pry us away from anything and everything. These realities may well lure a thriller writer into story telling that loses any genuine touch with reality, and embraces comic-book extravagance in character, plot and pace.

Of course, I want my books to absorb, entertain and please in some significant way, and I do my best to make that happen, but ultimately whether it does or not will depend on the reader. If what she’s looking for is a wild ride, or he doesn’t really care whether the writer cheats, manipulates and stretches that vital suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, then she/he is probably better off looking elsewhere.

Now if I were still writing True Crime…

Though that’s not what it was called back then, True Crime was where I started, more than 40 years ago now, with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, my non-fiction account of the assassination of Rabbi Morris Adler. As I outline elsewhere on this site, I followed that book with a memoir that was also True Crime, recounting my unusual experience with Murder. When that one found no publisher, and when a top literary agent finally failed to sell the next crime story I had lined up and researched for several months, I stopped writing True Crime.

Lately, though, here in metro Detroit, reports on a number of strange and compelling crimes have caused me to think, “If I were still writing True Crime, that’s one I’d consider.” So occasionally on this Blog, I’ll tell a crime story that has caught my eye. Since most of these tales are still unfolding, they’ll probably come in installments. As always, I’ll look forward to your response.

 

WHY CRIME?

Why do so many of us seem to love crime with a passion?

Why do we devour book after book as if we’re in the clutches of an addiction? All kinds of crimes in all kinds of books:

True Crime practitioners and confessional scribes dealing in white collar and organized wrong-doing, mass and serial murder, assassination and the lethal encounter with family member, lover or spouse, rape, torture and enslavement, war-time espionage and spy story, all sorts of robbery, armed and otherwise, the looting of personal fortunes, the Detroit carjack and the Wall Street highjack, the heist caper and the bank job, the quiet counterfeit and the audacious Ponzi scheme, the suburban home invasion and downtown street mugging, and all kinds of mayhem–passionate, perverse, mad, calculated, cold-blooded, or simply inexplicable.

And of course novelists have always flocked to the fictional variants: the master sleuth and gritty detective narratives, police procedurals and private eye accounts, mysteries and whodunits, first person renditions and shifting POVs, suspense, horror and that wildly popular catch-all these days, the thriller, in its many manifestations—from literary and legal to psychological and political to spy and sci-fi—all of them usually centered on some kind of crime.

So why the fascination?

What is it about crime and criminals that grabs us and won’t let go? Do we all have a little larceny or murder in our hearts, darker urges we keep secret, even from ourselves? And is that why we’re so taken with those who, unlike most of us, act on those impulses, giving vent to lust, greed or murderous hate?

Is there something irresistible about those who refuse to accept the limits imposed by society or personal morality? Is it the lure of the outlaw, the transgressor who breaks the boundaries (and cheats the boredom) of daily existence? Or is it simply the undying appeal of the ancient drama of good versus evil? Do we root for the white hats, while secretly admiring the black?

Are we so unnerved by the constant flow of crime stories in the media, those frightening reports of the sudden eruption of chaos and violence in our everyday lives, that we long for tales of justice, revenge or retribution in which the proper order of things is finally restored?

Is evil inherently more interesting than good?

Or do we so admire those who put themselves at risk to maintain order and civility in our troubled world that we never tire of watching them function with courage and skill?

Are we simply adrenaline junkies, searching for anything that will speed the pulse, make our hearts pound and our mouths go dry, all the while knowing that we’re perfectly safe with that hardcover or Kindle in our lap? Or do we sense there is something about crime that can effectively get us down to basics, give us a look into the soul of both perpetrator and victim and a way to gauge the strains, fissures and flaws of the society in which we live?

As you may have already guessed, I’m sometimes better at asking questions than coming up with answers, and with multiple choice, I’m often drawn to “all of the above.”

But how about you?

Are you taken with crime or can you take it or leave it? I’d love to hear from you on the subject. And with some thoughts about why crimes usually happen in my novels, I’ll continue the discussion next time. At least for now, I’ll have something new here every few days.

 

THINGS HAVE CHANGED (Part 3)

So this is the third and last installment of this series…

In Part 1 and Part 2 I’ve been asking, are Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue irrelevant, ancient history?  If not, why not?

So how common is what Prentice-Hall did to Murder? As I recount in Squelched, soon after the publication of Murder, I heard directly from two prominent literary agents on the subject. The very successful Julian Bach gestured at his office window overlooking 48th Street and told me, “Look, this 20-square-block area of Manhattan is the publishing establishment in this country, and they’ve all had their experiences like this.”

And the famed Scott Meredith advised me that this kind of thing happened with enough regularity that no one of importance would even care if another instance were publicly revealed and documented.

And then there is my fellow victim of criminal shenanigans at Prentice-Hall…

Gerard Colby is the author of another ill-fated book, entitled Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. Four years after it purposely “botched” Murder, Prentice-Hall did the same thing to the Du Pont book. That story was first told on January 21, 1975, in the New York Times.

It was told again more recently by the author Colby in “The Price of Liberty,” one of several essays about suppression in the media collected in a book called Into the Buzzsaw issued by Prometheus Books. Colby’s research found that the occurrence of this kind of thing was sufficiently common that insiders had a term for it: “privishing”…instead of “publishing.”

My own guess about the real frequency of this industry practice? Perhaps not all that often. But probably more than most of us would guess. But then, really, how can we know?

So isn’t this the Age of the Expose?

A time when nothing can remain hidden for long? When even the most secretive of institutions, like the Pentagon and the Vatican, are subject to massive leaks?

And yet how often will someone come forward as brave and morally driven as the young woman who told me about what she heard from Max Fisher? How rare is it that an editor and a corporate attorney will jeopardize their jobs and careers by going public with their inside knowledge, as happened with the Du Pont book? Answers are hard to come by.

Now, of course, I’m biased…

But there are other reasons why you might want to take a look at these books from four decades ago.  For example, both can be read as coming-of-age stories, a rich, time-tested theme.

Murder is many things, including an account of something we remain afflicted with today, the use of terrible violence as perverse public statement. But Murder is also the haunting story of a gifted, high-minded, ambitious and privileged young man in a time of social upheaval and rapid change. It’s a carefully told tale that finally arrives at a tragic conclusion in which this young fellow not only forfeits his own life but takes with him a prominent, much-loved member of his community in an act of violent despair so shocking that it stains and changes many lives.

How about the uses of history?

The 1960s remain an important and fascinating period in the American 20th century. And you know what they say about those who ignore history. Murder offers an extraordinary view of the ‘60s in part because Richard Wishnetsky, the young man at its center, was so hyper-conscious of himself as a child of his time, as emblematic of both the great promise and the great failure of American society, and purposely cast himself in that role in order, he thought, to teach that society it was headed for doom.

Squelched in its way is also a coming-of-age tale…

In it a naïve young writer is blindsided when his book suffers a fate he has no idea was even possible. Then he gropes, blunders and finally learns a few things.

If some of the questions raised in these posts resonate, you might give Squelched a try. It’s a meticulous account of a young writer’s sudden plunge into the wiles of publishing and his unexpected, at times unpleasant lessons in how the world works. Its epilogue explains how the original manuscript, the last copy of which I gave away back in the early ‘70s, finally came back to me after more than three decades and brings the story up to date by recounting the passing of Max Fisher in 2005 at the age of 96.

Along the way you may note…

While the details are decades old, the lessons they contain about corporate manipulation and the power and influence of wealth and political connection remain deeply important in our world today.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I’m grateful and hope you’ll leave a comment.

THINGS HAVE CHANGED (Part 2)

Last time…

I wrote about my books Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue and ended by asking what, if anything, their fate 40 years ago might add to the conversation we’re having about the Great Shift in publishing these days. You can catch up with that post here.

One of the things people say after reading Squelched is that so many of the details are reminders of things past. For example, the size of the advance Prentice-Hall gave me for writing Murder: $8500 back in 1966 when Puzo got five grand for what turned out to be one of the best-selling novels of all time.

Today the numbers seem almost quaint…

The same for the hard-cover price of Murder, jumped by Prentice-Hall from the more or less typical $6.95, to what seemed like a much-inflated $9.95 as part of what I later learned was the publisher’s effort to stifle the book’s appeal and sales.

Lately I’ve wondered what those figures would feel like if translated to the value of today’s dollar. $8500 in 1966? Today that would be something over $60,000. Not bad for an untried young writer in the current market (unless she were a Kardashian).

And $9.95 in 1970 for a hard-cover non-fiction book? In 2012 that would be about $58. Today, of course, you might expect to pay between 27 and 32 bucks for such a book, but then we’re in the midst of the digital revolution. One wonders what a typical hard-cover price might be today if eReaders and eBooks had never happened.

Really, both sets of numbers point up a not-uncommon problem with such comparisons. In today’s rapidly changing book-publishing world, many a successful mid-list author with a few good-sellers under his belt might be happy with a 5-figure advance.

So with change and disruption shaking the industry…

Does my story of suppression in the publishing business back in 1970 seem only more ancient and irrelevant? Can this story tell us anything useful about book publishing or an author’s experience today? And why publish it now through my own company?

Because I can.

To set the record straight.

Maybe to prove those old saws about truth?

From Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice: “…in the end truth will out.”

And from the New Testament, John, 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” By the way, these words from Jesus are inscribed on a main lobby wall at that bastion of lies, cover-ups and covert ops, CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia.

And after striking out with a hoard of agents and publishers…

I finally decided that no traditional publisher would seriously consider touching either of my non-fiction books. And since it’s important to me to finally make the story told in Squelched available to the public (after 40 years!), I figured I have neither the time nor the inclination to wait around to see if I might be mistaken about all this.

At the same time, I felt that once I went public with the suppression story, my novels, The Obsession and The Disappearance, would probably have little or no chance as well in the legacy world.

Is Squelched a defining story of legacy publishing?

Well, no. But, yes, in a larger sense books have always been subject to the whims of the companies that publish them. Of course publishers have always made decisions that in large measure determine whether a book, no matter its intrinsic worth, will find its audience. That’s one of the things they do: they make choices about how a book will be presented to the public. Decisions about cover and text design, pricing, promotion, print run, marketing and advertising, whether to push hard for reviews in the places that matter or for certain kinds of in-store display.

They say it’s all about professional judgment.

But often it may be just a gut feeling that the time is right for this story, character, theme or set of ideas. Or that its time has passed. Or that its apparent timeliness was only illusory in the first place. The publisher may decide that, while the author performed competently, the book somehow lacks that spark or special glow that can help it catch fire with a sufficient corps of readers.

And having once committed to a book and its author, a publisher may withdraw its support. That can happen for many different reasons. For example, the editor, whose enthusiastic backing for a book promised it a chance, moves on to a new job at another house. After that, forget it. The book has lost its champion.

There have always been a multitude of ways a book might not succeed, might not reach or connect with its audience. But whether it’s bad luck, bad karma, bad timing or, as in the case of Murder in the Synagogue, bad acting that included collusion with an influential third party opposed to the book’s interests, there is almost always one common factor.

The author is in the dark…

He or she may have picked up hints, from an editor who was unusually candid or just let something slip, or from the tell-tale pattern of screw-ups, failures and neglect. But the bottom line is the author doesn’t really know for sure what the hell happened to his book, whether it was some lame failure of his own—an inability to be brilliant, perceptive, insightful or eloquent enough. Or whether it was lousy luck. Or whether someone just didn’t like him or his baby enough.

Next time I’ll ask how often the kind of collusion I describe in Squelched might be happening to unsuspecting authors. As always, I’m looking forward to your comments.

THINGS HAVE CHANGED

Oh, you’ve noticed?

Yes, a pretty common observation from those interested in books and publishing these days. But I’ve got a story about the Great Shift that’s a bit unusual and might shed a different light.

It was 1970—I know, people still lived in caves back then, but stick with me for a moment—a big year for me with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, my true crime account of the killing of Rabbi Morris Adler in a suburban Detroit temple on Lincoln’s birthday, 1966. An assassination it was called, one of several, you may remember, in those turbulent years.

I had set out to explore the behavior and psyche of a brilliant 23-year-old graduate student—Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow bound for the Divinity School at the University of Chicago—an idealistic intellectual seeker who accused his audience of 700 congregants of being hypocrites and materialists and then turned a gun on the rabbi and himself.

Murder was a window on those riotous 1960s…

One of the hot literary topics at the time was the rise of the “non-fiction novel.” According to my agent, my publisher, Prentice-Hall, saw the book as a kind of Jewish In Cold Blood, and so in the same year that Mario Puzo got $5000 for what became The Godfather, my advance was $8500.

Published, Murder drew positive reviews in often odd, out-of-the-way places like Pomona, CA, and Allentown, PA, and praise from psychiatric experts, religious figures and academics to whom I sent copies. But the eastern literary establishment acted as if it had never heard of it, and sales were slow.

Then from Detroit’s Jewish community…

A remarkable young woman came forward to tell me she had heard a wealthy and powerful man—an influential presidential adviser and top Republican fund-raiser named Max Fisher—tell a group of friends that he had “squelched” my book. Of course I checked her story and eventually learned that Prentice-Hall had indeed bowed to pressure from Fisher and suppressed Murder in the Synagogue. They printed 4000 copies from standing type, which was then pied, or dismantled—the method used for a “limited edition”—and sabotaged its marketing and distribution.

So what did I do?

Like any foolishly high-minded young writer. I went to Prentice-Hall, accused them of undermining my book, then demanded (and secured) its rights. After which I wrote another book, about what had happened to Murder.

Of course, facing a sure-fire, deep-pockets lawsuit from a guy who hung out with the likes of Henry Ford II and Richard Nixon, not one of the agents and publishers I approached would even look at my new book.

My once-budding literary career soon withered…

So in order to move on, I gave away my last manuscript copy of that hopeless expose and then embarked on a busy life as a TV producer/writer/director. Over the ensuing years, my output included more than 50 long-form documentaries, 75 shorter features, 30 live event programs and 600 editorials. Occasionally I still do that kind of work, but I never stopped writing.

And then the world changed…

Digital disruption hit the publishing business, and it may no longer matter what an agent or a publisher will look at. For 30 years I had lost the manuscript of my book about what was done to Murder, but when it came back to me, I brought it up to date and am now offering it as Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Also for sale are an ebook version of Murder and 1200 copies of the original hard-cover edition that I’ve kept in a basement all these years.

So why bother with Squelched?

The book was written more than 40 years ago about the publishing problems of another book written a few years earlier? What could such a story have to tell us about the disruption, confusion and uncertainty in the business today? That’s what I’ll take up next time.