Here’s a new video interview with me about my thriller THE WALK, which twice hit #1 on the Amazon bestseller list and, if you don’t count my co-authored books with Janet Evanovich, is the bestselling novel of my career. It didn’t start out that way. It was a bomb when it was originally published in hardcover by Five Star, a small press, in the early 2000s. But I re-released it in a new ebook and paperback edition when the Kindle came along and it was an immediate hit. The novel has been published in a German and, starting TODAY, in a new French edition, too!
My friend Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective is widely considered to be one of the best detective novels ever written…and was a National Book Award finalist. It was a honor for me to be able to republish it this last month through my company, Brash Books. I’ve asked Mark to share the story of how his remarkable book was written.
I think it was Heywood Hale Broun who said, “When a professional man is doing the best work of his life, he will be reading only detective novels,” or words similar. I hope, even at my age, I have my best work ahead of me, but when I was writing The Death of the Detective, in my leisure hours I was exhausting the classic English who-dun-its written between the Wars, favoring Dorothy Sayers and Freeman Wills Croft, while also re-reading Raymond Chandler and re-discovering Nero Wolfe. In this regard I shared the addiction with the likes of William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and FDR, among others.
My first two novels, the companion novels, Toyland and House Across the White (original title, The Middleman), were psychological thrillers and a modern retelling of a fairy tale. Before taking on the ghost story, my fourth novel, The Moon Lamp, I settled on my favorite genre, the detective story. Originally sketched out as something of a short story in which the detective in his quest of a killer discovers only his victims, with each murder leading both men to the next, the book became seriously ambitious when I added the moral and ironic complication of the detective himself being somehow responsible for the deaths by reason of his continued pursuit of the killer. This seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for the America of my time and place. And the detective as my representative American—or hero, if you wish. So much better for an urban environment than a cowboy.
The novel became enlarged when I added an interwoven subplot of young people and a minor plot of gangsters and made the killer’s victims believable round characters who were either sympathetic or interesting, so that, in a departure from the genre and the movies, the reader would be emotionally effected when their deaths occurred. After all, the tradition in Chicago writing, from Dreiser to Bellow, is compassion. Adding to the novel’s length was my recreation of each particular setting where the corpses were found strewn across the landscape of what is now called ‘Chicagoland”, thereby involving as many varied localities as I could in the crimes.
Many readers would say Chicago was the main character in the book, a response that surprised and disappointed me. Only years later did I come to find there was some justification for this observation. In my day, Chicago, for guys like me, was pretty much an open city, and I felt free to venture where I pleased. After high school, I worked as a mucker (sandhog) digging the subway extension beneath the post office, was a tariff clerk for the CBQ Railroad, the timekeeper on the foundation work for the Inland Steel Building and a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes before graduating from Northwestern University and living on the Gold Coast– across from the Ambassador East, no less.
Some readers, including allegedly mafioso and their children, have claimed the gangster plot is the best piece of the book, and that the gangsters are entirely believable, recognizable characters, perhaps something of a first in American fiction. The question asked then, is how did I come by my insights and knowledge? Henry James said writers should “receive straight impressions from life”, a piece of advice I find irrefutable for a naturalistic writer. Lo and behold, at the age of sixteen I worked as a busboy one summer at a nightclub-restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago owned by a former Capone mobster that was frequented by his fellows in the trade, alone (sometimes to play cards in a closed-off dining room), or with their families. These people not only became human to me, they became ordinary, and for a writer, now accessible to the play of his imagination. For example, I witnessed the tipsy top mobster in Chicago at closing time fail miserably in his attempt to pick up a not-so-exciting waitress, while my boss, a rather comic character who reminded me of Lou Costello ( a new restaurant in the area that threatened to be competition for his restaurant was bombed that summer every time it tried to open) would show up at the restaurant furious after losing a bundle at the track and order the help to drain all the nearly empty catsup bottles into new bottles. Without these contacts I suppose I would have had to take my gangsters from the cliches of movies and television (pre-Sopranos) and yes, probably from crime novels, also.
I have a couple of regrets about the novel. I notice a reviewer claimed I had predicted the practice of criminal profiling. If so, I’m not sure where that occurs in the novel. However I did make two predictions that came true that I cut from the book when I reduced its original text by some twenty percent which included not only blubber but the author’s commentary, prophecies and missteps into outright fantasy. One was the prediction that we would suffer from some new and deadly sexually transmitted disease which I changed to suggest old-fashioned syphilis. It seemed to me that given our new libertine sexual proclivities with limitless partners that such was likely to occur. Hence, soon thereafter, Aids. The other was my direct assertion that the mindless violence on film and television not only deadened us to the pain of violence, but encouraged violence, making it a centerpiece of our culture, a notion that was dismissed as hogwash at the time, but seemed an obvious cause and effect to me. Today this observation is pretty much accepted. So much for my career as Nostradamus.
A final admission. Although the Viet Nam war is never mentioned in this novel, and occurred after the time this novel takes place, it occurred during the time I was writing it with the nightly death count on the news. I like to tell myself my rage against that misadventure, along with my nostalgic love-hate relationship with the lost Chicago of my childhood and youth, were the energy sources behind the novel’s composition. It could even be said, with some hyperbole, that I wrote this book alone in my study in place of publically marching with the thousands demonstrating in the street.
One of my great pleasures of publishing this book, along with receiving a nomination for the National Book Award and seeing the novel on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, were the invitations to join the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association.
The Death of the Detective is available from Brash Books, Toyland and The House Across the White, from Foreverland Press.
Here are some recent queries I’ve received lately asking for my advice…
A number of readers have suggested my XYZ series of books would be a great springboard for a TV series. I’m not so sure of that, but it has occurred to me that my new release (XYZ) might be a good candidate for a movie, given the characters and setting. […] If you have the time and inclination, any advice about who to contact or where to promote it to producers would be appreciated. If not, best of luck with Brash (not that you need it!).
Unless your book is a NY Times bestseller, with a large following, and huge critical acclaim, your chance of selling it as a movie or TV series is nil. I say this from experience… and having worked on several TV series based on books (Spenser For Hire, Murphy’s Law, Nero Wolfe, Missing, etc) and having adapted many others (Aimee & David Thurlo’s Ella Clah, Mary Higgins Clark’s The Lottery Winners, William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake, etc) for studios for film and TV that didn’t get made. Those books were all hugely successful. It took 20 years for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum to become a movie…over a decade for Lee Child’s Reacher books to become a movie…and they are among the biggest selling, most well-known authors on planet earth.
No offense, but your series is obscure, self-published, reviewed by little-known media outlets (The Kindle Book Review, Story Circle Review, etc) and blurbed by authors nobody has ever heard of (XYZ? His highest ranked book is #1,403,740 on Amazon…his worst #12,649,676. Why on earth would you tout his review?).
I don’t say this to hurt you feelings, or to be a jerk, or to kill your dreams, I am just trying to be honest with you about your chances of selling your books as a movie or TV series. Bottom line… you need to be realistic in your expectations. 🙂
Hi Mr. Goldberg,
Some film school student in L.A. just asked me if my XYZ detective series has been optioned yet. I get the general gist of that sort of stuff, but is that something a) to take seriously, given that he’s only tangentially in the biz or b) that would warrant getting an agent? Any quick advice or links to advice,
I don’t see any upside in optioning anything to a film student. What would be the point of that? I wouldn’t take it seriously. There are thousands of film students out there, most of whom will never make it in the business.
If he wants to shoot a student film based on your book, and you like the idea of that, then let him do it without optioning it to him. Just write up a document that says you’re okay with it as long as it’s never used / sold for profit (tickets, DVD sales, etc), not distributed to theaters, not shown on television, and that it’s clear he has no rights whatsoever beyond using it as a non-profit, project as a demonstration of his skills.
One of my guilty pleasures are Sammy Davis Jr’s craptastic TV themes song covers… some of which he must have commissioned just to sell records (who knew there were vocals to KOJAK!?). Here they are:
2. THE JEFFERSONS
3. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
4. CHICO AND THE MAN
5. MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN
6. HAWAII FIVE-O
8. MY MOTHER THE CAR
I get lots of suck-up emails aimed at making me promote, or sample, or buy, or blurb, a stranger’s work. Here are some of the lamest, recent examples:
I’m always looking for professionally-written crime novels and I’m mostly disappointed. Having just published my 16th novel I know solid writing when I see it. I was pleased to discover your work. I’ve now read two of your books, “Watch Me Die” and “King City.” I’m trying to decide which one to read next. If someone were to ask me which books of mine I liked best I would say “XYZ” and “XYZ.” Let me ask you the same question: Of your own books, which are your top two or three favorites?
This guy’s self-published books are ranked in the millions, meaning he’s not even selling copies to his family, and his covers look like they were drawn by hand. I wonder what his definition of “professionally-written crime novels” is?
Here’s one from someone sucking up for a blurb:
I hope you don’t mind my contacting you. I am a published author and playwright of “science-in-fiction.” Whatever it may be – quantum physics, the genetics of gender, or consciousness – such mysteries allow me to explore the big questions. For my newest book, due out this August, the editor at XYZ has asked me if I know an author who would be willing to read and review it in the interest of supplying a “blurb.” In fact, I don’t know many authors, but have a whole host of favorite writers whom I have always wanted to write to. (DELAYED DIAGNOSIS is a favorite.)
I’ve never written a novel called DELAYED DIAGNOSIS, so her attempt to flatter me fell flat. Note to people trying to suck-up: it’s important to get right the name of the person you are sucking up to and the titles of their books and shows that you supposedly love.
Here’s one sucking up for a job:
I am a South African screenwriter who has recently completed a feature length screenplay that I believe your agency may be interested in representing.
Please find a short pitch below for your review.
Title: Side Time [copyright 2015]
Genre: Action Fiction
Pitch: U.S. Marines meeting Nazi’s soldiers throw a time machine
Log Line: The U.S. government is on the verge of completing the building of a time machine underground N.Y.C.
John [Project Manager] decides to test the time machine by going back to Germany during the time of WW2.
His private mission- to steal the Nazis biggest diamonds from Hitler’s treasury!
In general, it’s a good idea to find out if the agency you are sending your pitch to is actually an agency. I am not an agency. I am a writer. Secondly, if I was an agent, I wouldn’t represent you because your grasp of English grammar is iffy (“meeting Nazi’s soldiers throw a time machine”?) and your story sounds awful.