Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Please-Come-Back Kids

So, which long-missing crime novelist would Rap Sheet readers most like to see publishing new books again in the near future?

The answer, according to a recent online survey, is ... Jonathan Valin, the Ohio-born, Shamus Award-winning author of The Lime Pit (1980) and 10 subsequent books featuring Harry Stoner, a tough, brooding, but thoroughly appealing Cincinnati private detective once touted as “the Philip Marlowe of the eighties.” Of the 105 votes cast, Valin received 18. The five closest runners-up were: Stephen Greenleaf (16), Martha C. Lawrence (15), R.D. Wingfield (14), and Karen Kijewski and Arthur Lyons, both of whom secured 12 votes apiece. (To take a gander at the complete Rap Sheet poll results, click here.)

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to convince Valin (shown above, in a photo from the back jacket of The Lime Pit) to re-enter the crime-fiction-writing game. His last Stoner book was Missing, which came out way back in 1995, and caused New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio to coo of Valin: “He is 100 percent dependable. He can plot a story and give it an ironic twist at the end, his characters have a kink or two, and he always tosses in a moral issue to give one pause. The voice of his narrator, a Cincinnati gumshoe named Harry Stoner, can be stern, but never mean or nasty.” The great George V. Higgins was no less effusive in complimenting Valin. “He is the best thing to emerge from Cincinnati since Johnny Bench,” Higgins once remarked. Yet Stoner himself went missing 11 years ago (somehow failing to prompt the usual APBs), and there have been only sporadic reports about his creator during the past decade. One, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000, found the novelist trying to explain why he needed to get away from his fictional P.I. after almost a dozen books:
“I had a feeling back after I finished Missing ..., that I was starting to repeat myself, that I wasn’t bringing anything new to Harry. All writers write from a mass of experience, and I wasn’t experiencing anything sitting in front of a computer night and day, day in and day out ...

“So, I left Harry with a decent shot at happiness. I had toyed with killing him, but instead I found him a woman and had him thinking about marriage. Then I went on to something else.”
That “something,” explained the paper’s Jim Knippenberg, was a music-criticism magazine Valin helped found, called Fi (“as in Hi-Fi”). “My notion was to put all types of music--classical, jazz, rock--under one tent,” the author told Knippenberg. “We were close to making it work. It was a wonderful magazine but we ran out of money.” Nonetheless, Valin continues to write about music and audio technology; he’s listed on the masthead of The Absolute Sound, an Austin, Texas-based mag, as a senior writer (though his name is misspelled, at least in the online version, “Johnathan Valin.”) And, as he told the Enquirer, he hasn’t completely given up writing novels. “I owe my publishers a novel and I’m sure they’re wondering where it is,” Valin said in 2000. “I started one four years ago, but it’s not even close. I don’t like to talk about it because, like all writers, I hate to talk about works in progress.” Unfortunately, the author explained that this very incomplete book was “a non-Stoner” novel.

So, that’s the last we’ve seen of Harry Stoner, his beat-up Pinto, and his office in Cincinnati’s Riorley Building? Maybe not. In that same Enquirer piece, Valin--who’ll turn 58 next month--said that his detective protagonist remains on his mind:
“I used to pretend he was an invention, but I realize he’s a lot like me. He’s a loner and so am I. Neither of us is particularly social. We both love the city, but it’s a love/hate thing. ...

“If he comes back, and I really think he will, so maybe I should say
when he comes back, maybe in a year or two, he’ll be older, wiser and still the knight errant. But I’ve changed and so has he.”
Change. Goddamned change. It can be a character killer. Sometimes, as with Valin, the decision to leave a popular protagonist behind is the author’s. (That might also have been the case with A.E. Maxwell, the husband-wife team who ceased writing about a Los Angeles-based troubleshooter named Fiddler after their eighth book, Murder Hurts, came out in 1993. The Fiddler novels are now set to be reissued.) At other times, though, abandoning a fictional sleuth midway through a series is the result of publisher disinterest, brought on by low or stagnant book sales. In an interview with Mystery*File, Stephen Greenleaf, a lawyer turned novelist who penned 14 novels starring San Francisco P.I. John Marshall Tanner, beginning with Grave Error (1979), explained that his “retirement” from crime-fiction writing “was more forced than elected. When no publisher was willing to bring Strawberry Sunday [1999] out in softcover, even though it had been nominated for an Edgar, I knew Tanner’s day was done. Luckily I was able to write Ellipsis [2000] as the last chapter in the saga, and allow its subtext to suggest the reason my series had come to an end. I don’t see any need (or much demand) for the Tanner series to continue.”

In a recent posting to the listserv Crime Thru Time, historical mystery writer I.J. Parker (Black Arrow) reiterated the daunting challenges facing non-best-selling fictionists:
The disappearance of series authors just when readers are beginning to catch on is a problem not only for the other sub-genres but for historical mysteries also. Without the sales, the books will not stay in print. Without reader demand, they will disappear. Publishers no longer have the patience to wait out the reading public’s slow response. And publishers do not promote, except in rare cases or for already best-selling authors. These days it’s nearly miraculous for a new series to stay in print for more than 2 books. It takes at least 5 to establish the author’s name so that a new reader will pick up a book in the store.
No wonder Rap Sheet readers, many of whom are novelists themselves, responded so enthusiastically when we asked them to choose their favorite among 10 crime writers who haven’t been heard from in a while (but also haven’t died). Like Parker, they know that you can be gathering an Edgar or Anthony one day, and be denied a future publishing contract only months later. There’s simply no guarantee of success, even if you’re as frequently touted as, say, Arthur Lyons (creator of the Jacob Asch series), or show as much promise as Martha Lawrence, who managed to produce five books featuring San Diego private eye and parapsychologist Elizabeth Chase before suddenly disappearing from bookstores.

The uplifting thing about The Rap Sheet’s first online survey was to see how many readers continue to care about these missing mysterymakers. What was discouraging was to be reminded of how many other authors weren’t included on our original list of 10. We had forgotten, for instance, about Jerome Doolittle, who turned out half a dozen books (beginning with Body Scissors, 1990) featuring a quirky, unlicensed Cambridge, Massachusetts, P.I. named Tom Bethany before hanging it up. And what of Robert Irvine, who wrote about an ex-Mormon gumshoe in Salt Lake City, Utah, by the name of Moroni Traveler (Called Home, Pillar of Fire)? Or the Shamus-winning Lia Matera, who concocted seven books around a young San Francisco attorney named Willa Jansson (the last being 1998’s Havana Twist) before falling out of sight? Or Seattle’s Frederick Huebner, who turned out five books starring attorney Matthew Riordan (the last being 1994’s Methods of Execution), plus a non-series novel called Shades of Justice (2001), before joining Matera, Irvine, and the rest on mystery’s MIA list?

Rare are the novelists, such as Timothy Harris, creator of Los Angeles private eye Thomas Kyd, who return after a decade or more to pick up with their protagonists where they left off. (In 2004, Harris introduced his third Kyd novel, Unfaithful Servant, 25 years after its predecessor had been published.) But small miracles do happen. We’ve been hearing, for instance, that R.D. Wingfield, whose last novel about grumpy British Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Frost was Winter Frost (1999), has another Frost foray in the works, in which the aging cop might finally sever his association with the police. Such stories give us hope that other absent sleuths will also someday come out of hiding.

Are you listening, Mr. Valin?

4 comments:

Kent Morgan said...

I was pleased to see that you mentioned Frederick Huebner as I meant to send in a vote for him. Others not on the list that I miss are Rick Boyer, John Leslie and Robert Sims Reid. And it appears that Donald Harstad may have joined them as I believe his latest book was supposed to be out more than a year ago. Also I always enjoyed Ron Handberg's books set in the Twin Cities.

Random said...

I missed the survey when it came out, but Valin (and Harry Stoner) would have gotten my vote. "Missing" seemed to be a step-up in terms of the maturity of the series and the character.

I have even tried to contact the author through back channels to encourage him to bring Stoner back.

Through the back channel contact, Valin said he was glad that I enjoyed the series, but he wasn't sure if or when Stoner would return.

Anonymous said...

I too missed the survey, but I am glad so many lamented the ending of series by writers like Valin, Lyons, Greenleaf and others. I would also add Rex Burns' Gabe Wager books and the now long gap in Jeremiah Healy's books (hope he is still doing well after his prostate cancer operation a few years ago). These authors and their series characters chronicle a time in our lives that is passing. They were like an extended family and we surely miss them.

Jason said...

It is a profound shame that a writer of Valin's caliber stepped away from fiction. I'd read anything he wrote, mystery or not.