Friday, October 09, 2009

First Thoughts on Kaminsky’s Last Day

It is with shock that I just received the news about crime novelist Stuart M. Kaminsky passing away earlier today. Named in 2006 as a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and the author of four well-established detective series, the prolific Kaminsky just turned 75 years old last month. As far as I can tell, the cause of his death has not yet been reported.

Blogger-critic Sarah Weinman quotes a Facebook message that the author’s daughter, Tasha Kaminsky, released hours ago:
I’m posting with great sadness. My father passed away peacefully October 9, 2009. My mother, Enid Perll, and I, encourage you to donate to a charity of your choice in his name. He also strongly supported the United Negro College Fund, Hospice Care, Congregation Shaare Zedek (St. Louis, Mo.) and Congregation Temple Beth Shalom (Sarasota, Fla.). I will be checking his Facebook consistently for months to come and answering questions to the best of my ability. Thank you for your well wishes and prayers.
I had the opportunity in 2002 to interview Kaminsky for January Magazine. This followed many years of my reading and appreciating his crime fiction. My introduction to Kaminsky came in the early 1980s, when I picked up a paperback copy of his first period private-eye mystery, Bullet for a Star (1977). “A lighthearted twist on classic, hard-boiled American detective fiction,” I wrote in January, “Bullet introduced Toby Peters (né Pevsner), a disheveled, divorced and taco-loving former security officer with Warner Bros. Studio, who’d been fired in 1936 (after ‘breaking the arm of a Western star who had made the mistake of thinking he was as tough in person as he was on the screen’), and subsequently hung out his shingle as the most low-rent of private eyes. This job change, however, didn’t greatly alter his clientele. He’s continued to work for early 1940s celebrities, both Hollywood habitués and others.” Among his clients were leading man Errol Flynn, reclusive billionaire-aviator Howard Hughes, Dracula star Bela Lugosi, physicist Albert Einstein, and actress Bette Davis. Kaminsky penned 24 Peters books, the last of those being Now You See It (2004), in which he sought to prove magician Harry Blackstone innocent of murder.

In addition to his Peters novels, Kaminsky penned 15 novels starring Moscow Police Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, “an honorable man in his 50s who, working within a system rife with corruption, has earned the distrust of his superiors and the KGB, because he doesn’t always follow procedures.” Rostnikov was introduced in Death of a Dissident (1981); his most recent outing came in People Who Walk in Darkness, which debuted only last year. A 16th Rostnikov novel, A Whisper to the Living, is due out in January 2010 from Forge Books.

From Kaminsky’s pen--or at least from his Macintosh computer--came two other series, as well. The first starred a world-weary former process server, Lew Fonesca, who, following his wife’s death, relocated to southern Florida from Chicago (where Kaminsky grew up, an avid fan of private-eye fictionist Thomas B. Dewey) to become “an unlicensed peeper.” The low-key Fonesca yarns began with Vengeance (1999) and ended--unless there’s another one of those books waiting for publication, too--with Bright Futures (2009). Kaminsky wrote another 10 novels about Abe Lieberman, a cantankerous but astute 60-something Chicago police detective, and his Irish Catholic partner, Bill Hanrahan--“the Rabbi and the Priest,” as they’re known out on the Windy City streets. Lieberman’s Folly (1990) was the first of those books to see the light of print; The Dead Don’t Lie (2007) was the most recently published.

Over the decades, Stuart Melvin Kaminsky also wrote a couple of books based on the 1970s TV series The Rockford Files, at least three tie-ins to the CBS-TV series CSI: New York, screenplays for movies and the TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and biographies of film-world personalities such as Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel. “But he should be remembered just as much,” writes Weinman, “for what he gave back to the community as a whole and how he helped writers, from Sara Paretsky (who dedicated Indemnity Only, her first V.I. Warshawski novel, to him) to those he taught over the years and others who benefited from being selected by an anthology he edited--including On a Raven’s Wing, published at the beginning of this year, which celebrated Edgar Allan Poe’s bicentennial with new works by authors well-known and unknown tipping their hat to the old master.”

After living for many years in Chicago, and teaching at Northwestern University, Kaminsky moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 1989. I understand that only months ago, he and his wife relocated once more, this time to St. Louis, Missouri.

“A very warm, witty, wonderful guy, and a terrific writer” is how fellow author Max Allan Collins remembers Kaminsky. I shan’t disagree. Although I never actually met Kaminsky, I had many opportunities to communicate with him via letters and e-mail, not only in association with that long-ago January Magazine exchange, but also having to do with an earlier profile I did of Toby Peters for Stephen Smoke’s now-forgotten Mystery Magazine and requests for comments on a number of subjects (including “overlooked ... or underappreciated” crime novels). He was never less than generous with his time and expertise in this field.

I think I’ve read all but a small handful of Kaminsky’s novels. He was a confident, comfortable stylist with a taste for quirky and humorous, but never less than believable characters, people revealed by their responses to challenging circumstances. I looked forward to reading each new book born of Kaminsky’s imagination. I can now look forward only to re-reading them in his profound absence.

UPDATE: An obituary in Florida’s Sarasota Herald Tribune provides these details about Kaminsky’s declining health: “He and his wife, Enid Perll, had moved [to Missouri] last March to await a liver transplant to treat the hepatitis he contracted as an army medic in the late 1950s in France. He suffered a stroke just two days after their arrival in St. Louis, which made him ineligible for a transplant.” The paper adds that “Funeral services in St. Louis are pending; a memorial service will be held in Sarasota next year.”

READ MORE:Stuart Kaminsky Has Passed Away,” by Lee
Goldberg (A Writer’s Life); “Stuart M. Kaminsky, 75, Dies,” by Peter Rozovsky (Detectives Beyond Borders); “Stuart Kaminsky, 1934-2009,” by Sara Paretsky (The Outfit); “Ray Browne and Stuart Kaminsky, R.I.P.,” by Francis M. Nevins (Mystery*File).


Barbara said...

What a sad loss for all of us and for his family.


Ali Karim said...

A very moving peice - I wished I read more of his work, he was published by Orion in the UK.

Thanks for posting this wonderful feature


Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for the piece, Jeff. Count me as one of those Stuart helped. He was a prince.

RJR said...

I spent Stuart's 75th birthday with him, having dinner, birthday cake, talking movies and baseball. He was my friend for 31 years and I'll miss him, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to spend those last hours with him.


Gravity Arch Media said...

I had the pleasure of knowing Stuart Kaminsky for the last 5 years or so, and recently got together with him and Enid again at their new home in St. Louis. He was a good friend, and was totally generous with his time and wisdom.
Although there were health issues, including a recent stroke, he still had good humor and a great outlook. That he was taken so suddenly is just stunning.
He left a wonderful legacy in his work and his family, and he will be missed.

Thank you Stuart and Enid, for all you've given me.

Pony R. Horton