Monday, November 14, 2011

Dick Adler Passes Away

I received some very sad news this morning: Dick Adler, who for a decade and a half was the crime-fiction critic of the Chicago Tribune, died last Friday, November 11, at age 74.

Although I never had a chance to meet Dick in person, he was a longtime contributor to The Rap Sheet. In fact, his first post appeared here in the same month the blog launched, back in May 2006. Dick subsequently sent me reviews and occasional observations on culture for posting. In 2007, he began writing a serial novel in The Rap Sheet called Men’s Adventure, inspired by his years as an editor at Argosy magazine (beginning in 1956), but had to give up that project just two months later due to what he described, very vaguely, as “major problems” with his health. Not long after that, he relinquished his Chicago Tribune post, but continued to pen material for The Rap Sheet. In the fall of 2010, he launched another serial novel online, Forget About It: The First Al Zymer Senile Detective Mystery, and as near as I can tell, got as far as Chapter 77 before taking a break in June of this year. (The first sections of Forget About It can be found in this archive, with more of the story available here.)

Even though we knew each other only through e-mail correspondence, I enjoyed Dick’s wit, shared his appreciation for crime fiction and TV crime dramas (he’d been a contributor to TV Guide back in the 1970s, writing about everything from Dragnet creator Jack Webb to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft), and was always glad to receive his recommendation of a new novel--often something that had never even caught my attention before. And he was also there to boost my spirits on those occasions when I was feeling overworked and under-appreciated at the blogging game.

Because I didn’t know him well, I was interested to read an obituary that appeared this last weekend in the Los Angeles Times:

(Click on this image for a more-readable enlargement.)

I’d known previously that he was the author of an e-book called The Mozart Code (1999), and that he wrote, with former California Governor Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, a non-fiction work called Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor’s Education on Death Row (1989). I was also aware that he’d been honored for his mystery-fiction reviewing with the coveted Ellen Nehr Award. But I wasn’t aware that he had two Maggie Awards from the Western Publishing Association for his editing, or that he’d composed, with Anatole Verbitzky, an account of the infamous, 1980s Richard Miller espionage case. It’s amazing what you can learn from reading obituaries, but it would be far better to have learned those facts of his history from Dick himself.

Now, that’s no longer possible.

* * *

Below, I am going to post tributes sent my way by authors and critics who appreciated Dick Adler’s years of service to the crime-fiction community. Others who would like to pitch in their own tributes should send them to me here:

Tom Nolan, the Southern California author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times, is also a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s book-review and arts pages:

I knew Dick Adler first as the writer of an excellent 1967 profile (in the Los Angeles TimesWest magazine) of Ross Macdonald, then in the 1970s as a West Coast magazine editor, then as a friend, and last but not least as a book reviewer who was more than generous to my published efforts.

Some of Dick’s fine reviews were gathered a few years ago in Dreams of Justice: Mysteries as Social Documents (Poisoned Pen Press), a volume whose preface I was honored to write.

To paraphrase what I said then:

No writer who came under Dick Adler’s scrutiny could fail to appreciate his knack for seeing and celebrating the best a book had to offer. And no interested reader could help but benefit from Dick’s educated guidance. He had a diesel-strength love for good writing and was blessed with what Isaac Singer called “the greatest gift of all: the gift of enthusiasm.”

He expressed that enthusiasm in a style worthy of the books he explicated.

He was open to all subgenres; but he preferred to write about and bring attention to newer writers. When he did assess a veteran, he took the time and had the knowledge to analyze a late work in the context of an entire oeuvre.

Whatever Dick reviewed, he could always pinpoint what made an author special.

To describe the premise of a novel or thriller in a way that conveys its charms without giving away its secrets, to state your opinion in a non-egotistical way, and to convey a book’s flavor through your own written prose are the marks of a great reviewer. Dick was that, and then some. Like Anthony Boucher, he wrote not just for the moment but for the ages.

I know I’m going to be referring to his book for years to come.

And I can never repay his personal kindness.

Sarah Weinman is news editor for Publishers Marketplace, and was, until early 2011, the proprietor of the crime- and mystery-fiction blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Her work has appeared in publications on both sides of the border and across the Atlantic:

The world of crime fiction is truly diminished with Dick Adler no longer in it. He wrote and reviewed for a great many places, but by the time I heard of him he was deep into a long, productive stint as the Chicago Tribune’s mystery and thriller critic. His pieces were thoughtful and considered, eager to highlight rising stars (he was, for example, early on the Olen Steinhauer bandwagon) as much as champion the greats or explain why a book didn’t quite work--for him, or generally.

Though Dick and I never met--a real regret of mine, exacerbated by being on opposite sides of the country--his presence was huge in my life. If a piece of mine ran somewhere, there came the ping of my Inbox with a kind note from him. I know he did the same for so many other fellow reviewers and writers. The greatest pleasure came from working alongside him and Oline Cogdill for the two successive stints we judged the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. I hear complaints about the process, its difficulties, and the fights between principals, but that wasn’t us. We disagreed on choices, sure, but the debates were lively and spirited, involving mutual respect and admiration. And a lot of laughter.

I hadn’t heard from Dick in a few months, and life being what it is, the time flew by. He had a great many health problems, but he’d managed to overcome some of the worst and return to his first and greatest love, writing fiction (exemplified by the serial, Men’s Adventure, that ran on this very site a couple of years ago). And with him gone it’s too late for me to drop him a note or give him a call to express how much I admired and thought the world of him. I’m not alone in thinking that. I hope it’s some comfort to his family that Dick was well loved in the mystery world.

Gary Phillips is the Shamus Award-nominated author of The Underbelly and the Ivan Monk private-eye series, as well as the writer of Moonstone’s new Derek Flint graphic novel series:

It was my great pleasure to be friends with Dick Adler for a number of years. How could I not be buddies with a guy who did a pretty damn good imitation of Sydney Greenstreet and shared my vice for a fine cigar? Dick was a longtime fan and reviewer of crime and mystery fiction as well as a writer of such in his own right. Several of us, including John Shannon and Dick Lochte, would gather now and then at the Farmer’s Market here in L.A. This was before it got to be a hipster hangout, but we’d come together as the Suicide Club, named for the infamous underground league of rogues created by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We did not plot the actual demise of ourselves or anyone else, except on the page, as we discussed ideas, old movies, new books and bemoaned the current state of the writing game--all the while having coffee and a beignets or two ... or three. Tonight I’ll light a Macanudo on my desk here and belt down a couple of blasts of Scotch. I’ll think about those times with Mr. Adler and not be sad about his passing so much as glad we got to spend some time together.

Rest easy, man.

Dick Lochte is president of the Private Eye Writers of America, the co-author (with Al Roker) of The Talk Show Murders, and the author of the forthcoming Blues in the Night:

I met Dick Adler many, many years ago, at a luncheon for contributors to Los Angeles magazine. At the time, along with other journalistic gigs, he was doing a sort of Page Two gossip column for the Herald-Examiner in which he’d recently written a few snarky lines about something I’d put in my book column in the L.A. Times. I was not all that happy to be seated next to him. That attitude lingered for at least a minute. Dick was one of the truly great dining companions. A witty, knowledgeable raconteur who could converse on any number of subjects--though movies, travel, opera and, of course, books were at the top of his list. He was, as he often put it in a better-than-fair imitation of Sydney Greenstreet, “a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”

Thinking about it now, I realize that the five or six times we’d meet each year were always at table and the conversation, if not the food, was always excellent. The last time was a few months ago when Dick was feeling well enough for visitors. John Shannon and I drove to the sprawling home about 40 minutes out of the city where he and his wife, Jane, lived in the middle of a lemon grove. Dick had undergone a series of brutal medical procedures that had slowed him down physically. But his conversational and critical faculties were in fine form. He was still a man who liked talking. He was a good friend.

John Shannon is the creator of the Jack Liffey mystery series, the latest installment of which is A Little Too Much:

I met Dick for the first time for lunch right after he had reviewed one of my first mysteries. I had a personal policy of bribing all reviewers after the fact with a lunch, and I found out that despite writing for the Chicago Trib, he lived in L.A. My very first impression of Dick, which turned out to be dead wrong in the first minute, was that he was going to be a bit overpowering, since he looked a lot like Sidney Greenstreet (and could do a passable impression, too). But Dick turned out to be one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met, always full of life, always supportive, and always entertaining, and we started meeting for lunch regularly.

Later I told him I’d heard of a breakfast club in Marin founded by work-at-home computer nerds and maybe we could try something similar to help socialize us stay-at-home writers. Dick started recruiting folks with a mystery and journalism background, and so was born the Suicide Club, which met for late breakfast about once a month for years, eventually ending up in front of the Cajon stand at the Farmer’s Market. Dick was the core of it and he named it after the Robert Louis Stevenson novel about a tontine (look it up).

The club faded a bit when Bruce Cook (pen name Bruce Alexander) died and then collapsed when Dick moved out to Ventura for his health. I visited out there as much as I could and it was heartening to watch Dick struggle mightily against gathering debilities. Few people could so faithfully follow Dylan Thomas, though I rarely saw Dick rage. He just told the gods that he refused to budge.

No one could fill a room with his remarkable and lovable presence like Dick, and the whole world as I know it is much smaller with him gone.

Linda L. Richards is the author of Death Was the Other Woman and Hitting Back. She also edits January Magazine:

So sorry to hear about Dick! If I may say, he always struck me as the perfect critic as he came to the genre with a passion so real, it was visible in every word he wrote. A wonderful blend of auteur and fanboy whose trenchant commentary on our evolving genre will be deeply missed.

David J. Montgomery is the thriller/mystery critic for The Daily Beast and the Chicago Sun-Times:

For several years Dick Adler was the mystery critic at the Chicago Tribune, while I held the same position at the Sun-Times. We were a far cry from Siskel & Ebert, but I was very proud to be the cross-town counterpart of such an esteemed critic. Dick reviewed mysteries for decades, and he was a man of fine taste and judgment. He mostly wrote round-up columns and could always be counted on to highlight a worthy book that might otherwise have been overlooked. As such, he was a definite influence in my own career. He did a great service to both readers and writers with his time in the critic’s chair, and his hard work will be missed.

Marcus Sakey, author of The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes:

I did not know Dick intimately, but I always found him to be a real gentlemen, all class. And of course one doesn’t need to know him to know what a massive impact he had on the crime-fiction field. He was more than a critic; he was a passionate fan. He’ll be missed.


John said...

Sad indeed. He had interesting, offbeat tastes and was a champion for new writers. Many of his reviews turned me on to a writer I had never heard of before - and even better - one I would probably not even sample had it not been for Dick's review.

Ed Gorman said...

I worked with him twice. I didn't know him well but he wasa pro and a damned nice guy.

Naomi Johnson said...

I am so saddened to read this news. I read several books based on Dick Adler's Rap Sheet columns, and was never disappointed. He'll be missed.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Dick Adler was a reviewer who understood the process of writing. His columns were right on point--insightful, smart, and also kind. I am bereft.

Diane Capri said...

I did not know Dick well, but I met him several times and like most of us in the mystery community, I felt like I knew him because of his contributions to us all. I'm so sorry to learn of his passing. Our community has been diminished by his loss. Thanks for posting this.