Elkins, Aaron 1935-
ELKINS, Aaron 1935-
PERSONAL: Born July 24, 1935, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Irving Abraham (a machinist) and Jennie (Katz) Elkins; married Toby Siev, 1959 (divorced, 1972); married Charlotte Trangmar (a writer), 1972; children: (first marriage) Laurence, Robin. Education: Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), B.A., 1956; graduate study at University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1957-59; University of Arizona, M.A., 1960; California State University, Los Angeles, M.A., 1962; University of California, Berkeley, Ed.D., 1976.
ADDRESSES: Home—Sequim, WA. Agent—Lisa Vance, The Aaron Priest Agency, 708 Third Ave., 23rd Floor, New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: Government of Los Angeles County, CA, personnel analyst, 1960-66; Government of Orange County, CA, training director, 1966-69; Santa Ana College, Santa Ana, CA, instructor in anthropology and business, 1969-70; Ernst & Whinney, Chicago, IL, management consultant, 1970-71; Government of Contra Costa County, CA, director of management development, 1971-76, 1980-83; University of Maryland at College Park, European Division, Heidelberg, West Germany, lecturer in anthropology, psychology, and business, 1976-78, lecturer in business, 1984-85; U.S. Office of Personnel Management, San Francisco, CA, management analyst, 1979-80; writer, 1984—. Lecturer at California State University, Hayward and Fullerton, and at Golden Gate University.
MEMBER: Mystery Writers of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery novel, Mystery Writers of America, 1988, for Old Bones; (with Charlotte Elkins) Agatha Award for best short story, Malice Domestic Ltd., 1992, for "Nice Gorilla"; Nero Wolfe Award for best mystery novel, 1993, for Old Scores.
"GIDEON OLIVER" SERIES
Fellowship of Fear, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1982.
The Dark Place, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1983.
Murder in the Queen's Armes, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1985.
A Deceptive Clarity, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1987.
Old Bones, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Curses!, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Icy Clutches, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1990
Make No Bones, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Dead Men's Hearts, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Twenty Blue Devils, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Skeleton Dance, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2000.
Good Blood, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2004.
Where There's a Will, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2005.
"CHRIS NORGREN" SERIES
A Glancing Light, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Old Scores, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.
"LEE OFSTEAD" SERIES; WITH WIFE, CHARLOTTE ELKINS
A Wicked Slice, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Rotten Lies, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Nasty Breaks, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Where Have All the Birdies Gone?, Severn House Publishers (Sutton, Surrey, England), 2004.
Loot (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Turncoat (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to literary journals and anthologies.
ADAPTATIONS: The "Gideon Oliver" books were adapted for television by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC), 1989.
SIDELIGHTS: Aaron Elkins, the author of mystery novels, often sets his plots in foreign locations such as Egypt, Tahiti, Mexico, and Alaska. Though most famous for his "Gideon Oliver" series, about a forensic anthropologist who solves modern murders, Elkins also created the "Chris Norgren" series, featuring a retired museum curator whose sleuthing solves crimes, and, with his wife, Charlotte Elkins, the "Lee Ofstead" series, novels wherein crimes involve the sport of golf. Elkins is also the author of stand-alone crime novels including Twenty Blue Devils, Loot, and Turncoat, and his "Gideon Oliver" series was adapted as a television series in the late 1980s.
According to a writer in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, "Elkins writes exactly the kind of mysteries that have become so enormously popular with readers. . . . His books are neither cozy nor hard-boiled . . . but instead fall into that large middle area of the genre that most mystery fans, male and female, now seem to prefer." The writer continued, "Elkins is a superb craftsman, whose plots are ingenious, with every piece fitting perfectly together with every other piece, whose prose is perfectly polished but also perfectly simple and natural, so that each word or turn of phrase seems exactly right—and he does it all so smoothly and unobtrusively that he makes it look easy."
The "Gideon Oliver" series is set all over the world, due to Gideon's occupational need for travel. Several of his adventures begin while he is supposed to be vacationing in an exotic locale. When the series begins in Fellowship of Fear, Gideon is in Germany, and is still in the process of grieving for his late wife, who died in a car accident two years before the novel opens. Through the first several books, Gideon travels through Italy, Spain, Washington state, England, France, and the Yucatan; over the course of the early novels, Gideon realizes he no longer wants to be alone, and in The Dark Place, he meets Julie, the woman who will later become his second wife.
In Old Bones, the fourth novel in the series, Gideon Oliver, known as the "skeleton detective," is in France to attend a conference on forensic anthropology. While there, Guillaume du Rocher, a World War II hero of the French Resistance, drowns, and a dismembered human skeleton is unearthed from the cellar of du Rocher's chateau. Local police believe the skeleton is that of a Nazi SS officer du Rocher killed in 1942, but Oliver does not agree. A Publishers Weekly critic complimented the "intricate plot" and "a thrilling final scene" that "gallops along as fast and compelling as the tide itself," while Sharon Miller of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Old Bones "witty and well-plotted."
The fifth "Gideon Oliver" mystery, Skeleton Dance, was described as "an entertaining and informative excursion through the prehistory and cuisine of rural France," by George Needham in Booklist. In this book Oliver is traveling in France with Julie, conducting research for a book about scientific hoaxes. He is in the process of interviewing five scientists at the Institut de Préhistoire, a renowned archeological institute, about a hoax carried out by a former director when he is called on by the local police to help identify some human bones that have been unearthed. Forensic examination determines that the bones are not prehistoric fossils, as supposed, but the remains of someone murdered within the last five years and with possible ties to the institute. As Gideon uncovers information about it, he is persuaded that the hoax is connected to the bones. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the novel's "mischievous wit" and "fascinating erudition," together with "a gorgeous setting redolent with Gitanes and goose liver," all of which result in "an exceptionally delectable treat."
Good Blood takes Gideon and Julie to Italy to visit a friend who is a tour guide. However, their friend's extended family is more than disfunctional, and when one of the children is kidnapped and the ten-year-old remains of the family's patriarch are discovered under a construction site, Gideon teams up with local police officer Colonnello Tullio Caravale to solve the crime. Calling the series "noteworthy for its witty dialogue and clever plotting," Wes Lukowsky added in a review for Booklist that "Elkins delivers on both counts here," wrote Ann Forister, in her Library Journal review, complimented the "well-drawn supporting character, lovely scenery, and a bit of interesting science," while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "the forensic facts Elkins chooses to include and the brisk pace of the plot make for a total success." Pam Johnson in School Library Journal praised, "Weaving complications into the exotic setting, spicing it up with details of forensic pathology, and adding memorable characters make for an enticing story."
Gideon's next intersection with crime takes place in Hawaii, and is the focus of Where There's a Will. An old family mystery is uncovered when a plane that mysteriously crashed into the ocean in 1994 is discovered by divers. The plane's passenger was one Magnus Torkelsson, whose brother had been murdered on the same night of the crash all those years before. It seems that all the Torkelsson heirs have a motive for making sure both brothers died: teh fortune would be passed along to them. With such old tracks, it's up to Gideon and FBI agent (and returning series character) John Lau to discover the truth. "Elkins provides a fabulous 'A' quality level forensic investigative tale," praised Harriet Klausner in her online review for MBR Bookwatch.
Though not as well known as his "Gideon Oliver" series, the "Lee Ofstead" novels Elkins writes with his wife, Charlotte, have also developed a following. Lee is a professional golfer who always seems to find herself involved in a mystery, though her concerns are primarily focused on improving her game, financing her pro-golf career, and furthering her budding romance with policeman Graham Sheldon. In A Wicked Slice, the authors provide a behind-the-scenes view of life on tour, as well as bringing to light the difficult negotiation sessions that finance a successful golf career. In Where Have All the Birdies Gone? Lee is on the American team playing for the Stewart Cup, a competition against British golfers. Things go terribly wrong, however, when the American captain's caddy is found dead, and Lee's caddy and Peg, Lee's biggest fan, both seem to know more than they're willing to tell. "What a pleasure . . . [to] watch two genre veterans work their way around a mystery plot and a golf course without any disasters," praised Bill Ott in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted, "It's true: No caddie would miss a pro golfer's tee time unless he was dead."
Loot is a stand-alone mystery that begins in 1945 Germany as the crumbling Nazi regime works furiously to hide stole works of art. In the confusion a truckload of the stolen art disappears. Fifty years later a Velazquez painting, part of the missing shipment, turns up in a Boston pawnshop, and then the pawnshop owner turns up dead. Retired art curator Benjamin Revere, moonlighting with the police, sets out to solve the murder of the pawnshop owner and to discover the whereabouts of the missing art. Reviewing Loot in Publishers Weekly, a reviewer wrote that as a character "Revere's combination of high intellect and low pretense makes him an engaging sleuth." In solving the mystery, Revere travels to Europe to find out why pieces of the missing loot are turning up and who is murdering people to find them. Library Journal's Susan Clifford commented that Elkins combines "personably erudite central characters, and historically intriguing plot to enthrall readers." Jenny McLarin, writing in Booklist called Loot "manna for those who love art and just plain irresistible."
Elkin's novel Turncoat is a "thriller that probes wartime guilt from multiple angles," according to a Publishers Weekly writer. Set in Brooklyn in 1963, Turncoat features Peter Simon, a history professor, and Peter's wife Lilly. One night Lily has an argument with a stranger who turns out to be her father; he is not dead as Lilly had told Peter. Her father has an old film he wants her to look at, but before Lilly can do so, her father is murdered, and thieves attempt to steal the film. As Peter investigates he makes disturbing discoveries about Lilly's family. A Publishers Weekly review called the characters "sketchy" and commented that the book has "an ending that ties up matters rather too neatly," but concluded that Turncoat "captivates" and that "Pete's voice, a garlicky mix of France and Brooklyn, always sound just right."
Elkins once told CA: "I have been a voracious reader of fiction since I was eleven or twelve, but it never occurred to me that I could be a writer myself until a few years ago. Until then, I had classed novelists with opera singers, or baseball players, or movie stars—extraordinary people who inhabited some other world than mine.
"In 1978, at the age of forty-four, I returned from two years in Europe, with no likely job prospects in sight. I had been teaching anthropology for the University of Maryland's Overseas Division, on assignments that took me to NATO bases in England, Germany, Holland, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. I had kept a journal of my observations, and I thought I might be able to use it in writing a book. With considerable trepidation, I began a novel involving (of all things) an anthropology professor who moved through Europe, teaching at U.S. military bases."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Aaron Elkins contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
My father, Irving Abraham Elkins, came to America from Minsk in 1911, when he was twenty-one.
Or maybe it was Pinsk. Possibly he was nineteen, not twenty-one, at the time, and it may well be that his actual year of immigration was 1909, when he was seventeen (or nineteen).
This is by way of saying that I may have a little trouble with this essay. A bent for candid, straightforward autobiography is not part of my heritage. It certainly wasn't that I never asked Dad about his early life. I asked him, all right; I just got different answers, or more often, a flap of the hand, a shrug, and a bemused "What do you want to know that stuff for?" All frequently without looking up from his after-dinner New York Daily News or Daily Forward.
In the thirties and forties, immigrants were still looking ahead, not back. America was all-important, the Old Country was something to forget as thoroughly as possible. Besides, it wasn't a good idea to talk too much, especially if you were not just an immigrant but a Jewish immigrant. American anti-Semitism, taking life from Hitler's successes, was thriving. The proudly pro-Nazi German-American Bund was holding mass rallies in Madison Square Garden, the Christian Front had "Buy Christian" as its slogan and was mounting a boycott of Jewish businesses, and the vicious Father Charles Coughlin, perhaps the most popular radio personality in America, was spouting out-and-out anti-Semitism to enthusiastic radio audiences nationwide. No, you never knew what the future held, you never knew what they could use against you. Roosevelt was wonderful, but every American wasn't Roosevelt. It happened in Russia, it happened in Germany, it could happen here.
And so they learned to muddy the waters, to obscure their pasts, to cover their tracks, and after a while it became a habit. And then they found they couldn't get the facts straight themselves anymore. At least I think that's the way it worked. In any case, the upshot was prevarication, gaps, holes, and "What do you want to know that stuff for?"
It wasn't any different with my friends' fathers. In the Brooklyn of the 1940s, in the six-story tenements on Blake Avenue and Amboy Street, everybody's parents were immigrants, or so it seemed to me then (and seems to me now). We were all the children of foreigners who had fled from Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms, the cossacks, the wretched poverty. A grown-up without an accent was something you noticed. Throughout my young life I envied my friend Lyle, whose father could talk so knowledgeably about the Dodgers and the Giants, and who spoke—and walked, and laughed—like a native-born American. (He wasn't.)
Whatever Dad did before he left Minsk (Pinsk?), I never did learn. He must have gone to school, because he could read and write and do numbers. Here in America, he worked as a machinist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard while I was growing up and, when he could, he puttered away at inventions that were bound to make us rich someday. Some of them he patented. The story was that, years before, he had invented the bicycle coaster brake and sold it for four hundred dollars to Schwinn, who made millions with it. I don't know if it's true or not. The inventions I do remember were less exciting. There was a question-and-answer game called The Wise Old Owl, in which a cutout of a (surprise) wise, old owl was manipulated to point with its beak at answers to hundreds of educational questions about arithmetic, geography, history, and spelling. He really believed kids would go wild for it. He was working the night shift at the Navy Yard at the time, and for months he spent his weary days walking all over New York City with an increasingly beat-up cardboard prototype, carrying it to every Woolworth's and Kresge, trying to get them interested. You can imagine how they queued up for it.
And then there was the Elkins Handy Holdall, another winner. I was eleven or twelve then, and I remember it more clearly than any of the others because on many a grim weekend, while my friends were out in the sunny streets—I could hear their shouts and laughter—I was at a makeshift wooden contraption in our storefront apartment, sulkily working the foot treadle that stapled strong, flat rubber bands to glossy, 81/2-by-11-inch photographs of neatly arranged pens, pencils, rulers, and compasses. Protractors too, I think. That's what the Elkins Handy Holdall was: a colored photograph of school implements on cardboard, punched with three holes along one side so that it could be inserted at the front of a loose-leaf notebook. The rubber bands were designed to make pockets into which you were supposed to stick your otherwise hard-to-carry implements. The ruler went right over the picture of the ruler, the pencil went where the pencil photograph was, and so on. Children would no longer have to carry ruler boxes.
Dad was so sure he was going to make it big with this one that he borrowed a thousand dollars on it from Mr. Goldberg, the tailor across the street, so that he could hire someone to help him peddle it to the stores. He advertised for a salesman in the New York Times, as I recall, and those had to have been tough times for salesmen, because we must have gotten fifty responses—confident, bragging letters, lists of references, three-page resumes (and these were the days before Xerox)—all in hopes of what was manifestly a shabby, scrambling, footslogging job. Most were handwritten. Many were from other immigrants.
I can remember Dad sitting at the kitchen table with a dozen letters spread out in front of him, slowly shaking his head. I thought he was having a hard time picking his man, but it wasn't that at all.
"Oy, kinder," he said, and he really sounded sad, "I wish I could give you all a job."
I spent a lot of miserable weekends stapling those things, and Dad worked himself to exhaustion with them, and I suppose the salesman—a red-faced man named Jake who smelled of cloves and looked like a salesman—did his best. A few stationery stores accepted some, and Jake actually talked Woolworth into taking a few gross on consignment (what a day that was). But of course the customers wouldn't buy it in the stores, and the thing went bust.
I remember that it took a long time to pay back Mr. Goldberg, and that Mom was bitter over it and Dad was depressed, and I think that was the end of his career as an inventor.
But I remember a success story too. This was a little earlier, during the Second World War, when he developed a mechanism to safely jettison a burning airplane engine. The Navy had no use for it, so he offered it to the Army Air Force and received a gold-rimmed certificate with a big E on it—for Excellence?—over which he wept with pride, and laughed, and then put up on the wall, Where it was still hanging when I went away to graduate school in 1957. I don't know if the Army ever put his invention to use or not. Dad never got any cash for it, of course.
Mom, Jennie Beatrice Katz, was born in New York of Russian immigrant parents, and she had learned from them to be as tight-lipped about her past as Dad was. I was nine or ten before I found out that my sister Sonia was actually my half sister, the offspring of my mother's previous marriage—which in itself was staggering news to me. Even then, I didn't find out from Mom (or Sonia, for that matter), but only through some remark I wasn't meant to overhear. And I was well into my thirties, maybe my forties, before I finally learned Mom's earlier married name (Pastelnick), also without any help from her. Mom died in 1992, at the age of eighty-nine, and in all her long life, I. never wormed out of her what Mr. Pastelnick did for a living, or where they lived, or what his first name was. But then I don't know what her father's name was either, or what relationship the mysterious, seedy old man named Hennoch (Was that his first name? His last name?), who seemed to live on and off in my maternal grandmother's apartment, was to the Katz family.
There were plenty of other mysteries on both sides of the house; things that were never, ever talked about and things that broke the surface occasionally, precipitating wild arguments. My mother would cry, and scream, and break dishes; my father would put his fist through the wall or literally tear out his hair. These were no more than once-a-year occurrences in an otherwise subdued relationship, but they were so terrifying and unsettling that I stopped asking questions. I was starting to see deep, unexplained tensions and undercurrents between my parents, even in the quiet times, and to tell the truth, I stopped wanting to know any more than I already did.
I spent a lot of time outside in those days, playing stickball and punchball with my friends, or making our first fumbling advances to the girls in the neighborhood, or just exploring the run-down streets on our own. I remember it as fun. I remember how sincerely we wished that we could all stay twelve forever, that nothing would ever force us to move out of Brooklyn or, more specifically, out of our beloved Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
It was a childhood made for a writer, I suppose, filled with grist for the mill. Plenty of novelists have since turned similar grist into gold, both literary and commercial. Coming-of-age-in-New York has become a respectable genre all to itself. Perhaps if I had realized a bit earlier than I eventually did that I was going to end up as a writer, I might have tried to join that crowd. But I was long, long out of New York before that ever happened.
This brings up a point that is addressed in every writer's biography or autobiography, and now would seem to be the time to raise it: When did I first know that I was meant to be a writer? One of the things to be learned from authors' accounts of their lives is that the writing impulse tends to come early. Over and over one finds phrases like "The urge burnt in me from earliest times," or "Certainly, by the time I was eleven, I knew that I was meant. . . . "
Well, here is mine: The urge to be a writer first entered my mind at the tender age of forty-three. And even then, somebody else had to put it there.
But this is to anticipate a little.
Why I never seriously entertained thoughts of writing as a boy I'm not sure. But wanting to be an author would have been presumptuous and unrealistic, like wanting to be a baseball player, or a film actor, or an opera singer. People like that lived in a different world, and it was a world that tenement kids from Brooklyn could never hope to get into. As a matter of fact, kids from Brooklyn were getting into it all over the place, and had been for years. I just didn't know it.
But I was a great reader as a boy and had from somewhere formed an enormous respect for writers. I can remember once when someone—I'm not sure, but I think it was a now-obscure mystery writer named Bruno Fischer—was pointed out to me in a cafeteria, and I spent the rest of my meal sneaking fascinated, surreptitious glances at him to try and read his expression. What deep thoughts was he thinking as he chewed away on his veal cutlet? What perceptions was he forming and honing from the lively scene around him?
Now I'm a writer myself, and I know better.
My first taste of literary acclaim came when I was ten. I was home from school for a day, sick in bed with something, and for a reason I no longer remember I decided to try writing a poem; possibly it was a class assignment. Anyway, I remember approaching it in earnest. I spent most of the day on it, and I thought the finished product was dandy. I copied it carefully into one of those piebald composition books and read it aloud to my class. It was called "The Boogeyman."
My teacher thought it was a dandy too, and for months to come I did the fifth-grade equivalent to dining out on it. If there was a school recital, there was little Aaron Elkins on the stage reading "The Boogeyman." If there was a PTA night, there was little Aaron Elkins and his damned "Boogeyman." I gobbled up the adulation, of course, and in a way it was surprising that I didn't see that there might be something in a literary career after all, but I didn't.
I always have wanted to see it in print, however, so now, to that end, I am going to take advantage of the nice people of Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series.
Here then is my earliest work—published in these pages for the first time:
Every night when the lights are turned down low,
I hear and see the boogeyman come in and say hello.
I huddle under the blankets in fear
And wonder—is he there or is he . . . here?
Then I run like a mad fool,
And then my mother wakes me up—'cause it's time to go
Looking at it now, one can certainly see why it was such a hit. It has everything: a sympathetic protagonist, gut-wrenching suspense, a twist at the end, and a clean, punchy resolution. Why wasn't it even more successful? Why did it take so long to get into print? Who can say? Possibly, the meter is not everything it might have been. But whatever the reason, this promising beginning was followed by a four-decade hiatus in my literary career.
Those thirty-seven intervening years were, all in all, a pretty uneventful interlude and not likely to be of much interest to anyone out there. Inasmuch as I wasn't writing or thinking about becoming a writer, they do not have even the dubious virtue of being a "writer's life," so if you don't mind, I think I'll merely sketch them in, without going into a lot of detail.
In other words, what do you want to know that stuff for?
In grade school and junior high school I was a pretty good student, but in the last year of high school my grades plummeted, not for want of trying. For reasons I never have understood, the mathematics and science that had always come so easily to me was suddenly impenetrable. I managed to graduate, but barely. "Good luck to a boy who means well," was what my algebra teacher, Miss Sibley, wrote in my autograph book, and it makes a perceptive if double-edged epitaph for my high school phase.
It had been determined years before that I was going to go to college, and the only school that had ever come into consideration was Brooklyn College. about a twenty-minute bus ride from home and more important—overwhelmingly important—free. But now it turned out that my average wasn't good enough to get me in. Nor was it good enough for entrance to City College in Manhattan, about a forty-minute subway ride. It was good enough for Hunter College in the Bronx, a then brand-new campus of what is now called the City University of New York.
Hunter was a full hour-and-a-half subway journey from home; three hours a day on the BMT and IRT, with two transfers each way. Five days a week, ten months a year, from 1952 to 1956. The subways were better then than they are now, but they weren't much fun. If only I'd been a writer at the time, I would have had plenty of time for thinking deep thoughts and polishing and honing my perceptions. Mostly, however, I read other people's novels—Louis Bromfield, Irwin Shaw, John P. Marquand, Jerome Weidman—or stared out the window at the tunnel.
I came close to flunking out in my first year, but then I wandered dubiously into an anthropology course and suddenly remembered how exciting education could be. I had a major, and my grades became respectable again.
When I informed my parents that I planned to be an anthropologist, something they could never have heard of before, a kitchen-table conference was called. "Can you," my father solemnly asked, "earn six thousand dollars a year at this?" I said I was sure I could (I had no idea), and the matter was settled.
By the time I finished at Hunter in 1956, my grades had improved enough so that I got a small scholarship in physical anthropology to the University of Arizona. I made ends meet by boxing professionally, of all things, under the name Al Blake, and even managed to put together a winning record, but when I got knocked out for the third time in a row, I decided to hang up the gloves while I still had some brain cells left. By that time I had my master's degree and had won a more substantial graduate assistantship at the University of Wisconsin. But I ran into personal and personality problems (you don't want to know) and left after two years without ever getting a doctorate.
What I did get in Madison, Wisconsin, however, was a wife. I met Toby Siev, an occupational therapy student at the university, in 1957, and we were married in 1959. The marriage produced two children, Laurence and Robin, and lasted ten years, nine of which I remember as wonderful and one as miserable; not a bad record, if you look at it the right way. We separated in 1970 and were divorced in 1972.
Early in that marriage I started on a meandering, aimless sort of dual career—in government and teaching—that lasted almost twenty years. There was nothing shady or irresponsible about it, you understand. Never was there a time when I couldn't support my family or come up with the mortgage payments on the new suburban house we bought in Orange County, California. Never was there a time when I didn't have an eminently respectable job, and most of the time I had more than one. But there was an awful lot of bouncing around from one eminently respectable job to another eminently respectable job, and not in any kind of career progression that I or anybody else could apprehend.
In those twenty years I taught at ten different colleges and universities, mostly evening classes but occasionally full-time, in three different subjects: anthropology, psychology, and management. And I worked full-time, mostly as an administrator, for seven different organizations, most of them governmental. It was even more frenetic than it sounds, because I left several of those organizations only to return again later for a second or even a third stint. And then there was a two-year period when I worked during the day, taught a course or two at night, and completed a second master's degree, this time in psychology.
It was hectic but not unpleasant; I was never fired or asked to leave, and my employment records are stuffed with positive evaluations. But it wasn't satisfying either. The thing was, I could never figure out what I was doing serving as the safety and training director of Orange County, or teaching theories of management at California State University, or, for that matter, spending my weekends in the southern California sunshine applying leaf polish to our variegated Aucuba japonica hedge. It was a very nice life, and I knew it; it just didn't seem like my life.
The big turnabout came when I married Charlotte—Charlotte Marie Trangmar—in 1972, just one day after my divorce from Toby became final. (I have been known to say, when attempting to be amusing, that I tried being single for a whole day before I decided I didn't like it. The truth of the matter is that I had been living alone, with Toby and the children in faraway Texas, since 1970. So the truth is that I tried being single for a whole two years before I decided I didn't like it.)
When we married, I was the chief of employee development for Contra Costa County in northern California and an evening lecturer in anthropology and supervision at Golden Gate University. Charlotte was an artist selling her sculptures through several San Francisco galleries. That seemed right for her, but my life didn't seem right for me, and she agreed with me on that. It was time, she made me see, to take my life into my own hands and get it moving again, even if I didn't quite know in what direction.
The encouragement took. By 1976 I had started and finished a doctorate in adult education at Berkeley—seventeen years after quitting the doctorate at Wisconsin—I had resigned from my job at Contra Costa County, and I had accepted a two-year, dream position in Europe as a lecturer with the University of Maryland's Overseas Division, moving every eight weeks to a new country and a new assignment.
It was the first bold thing I'd done in decades, and it felt wonderful. Two years later, however, my contract was about to run out, and it was time to come home again. But there was nothing to come back to. I had burnt my bridges behind me, and I didn't want to be a chief of employee development anymore anyway. And I certainly couldn't live on part-time teaching.
We had mailed applications and resumes from Europe to dozens of American universities, but none of them had come to anything. We were winding up an assignment in Munich at the time, and I had begun to wonder gloomily how hard it would be to unburn some of those bridges. Then, out of nowhere one morning, while I was at the dining room table grading a pile of papers on human evolution, Charlotte uttered the Eight Words That Changed Everything.
"Well," she said, "you could always try writing a book."
The seed, thus cast, did not alight on fertile ground. What kind of book was I supposed to write, I demanded to know, and not very enthusiastically either.
"A thriller," she said decisively. This from a woman who had read perhaps three thrillers in her life. "I think you'd be good at that."
I didn't. My most exciting publication to date had been "An Anthropological Analysis of the Skeletal Remains from CK-44, the Smullins Site," published as the second lead article in the Oklahoma Journal of Anthropology in October 1959. I wasn't a writer, I was a—well, I wasn't sure what I was, but I certainly wasn't a novelist. I'd never even written a short story. My last serious literary endeavor had been "The Boogeyman."
But by that afternoon, lacking reasonable alternatives, or any alternatives at all, I was mulling over the idea. It was over a dinner of bratwurst and liver-dumpling soup in Munich's Marienplatz that I mutteringly brought the subject up again.
I didn't know what to write about, I told her. "Write about what you know," she said sensibly.
"You want me to write a thriller about Pleistocene hominid evolution?"
She saw how that might present a problem and suggested that perhaps I might write about my adventures as an anthropology professor.
"You're kidding," I said.
"All right," Charlotte said, "use your imagination a little. Write about the adventures that might have happened to you."
By now you may be wondering about my ability to recall verbatim a conversation of fifteen years ago. But this was a pivotal conversation, the starting point of a transformation, and I was aware of it even then. To be honest, I've told the story a lot of times, and retelling has probably condensed things a little and sharpened them up. But not much.
Before that week was out, I had begun The Need-to-Know Principle, about the European adventures of Gideon Oliver, a likable, intelligent, witty, attractively quirky anthropology professor (whose real-life model I have never divulged to anyone). Interestingly, there turned out to be all sorts of adventures I might have had. The writing flowed, the characters developed, the plot thickened. But after a few chapters, I began to lose focus. I felt the book needed something different, something offbeat. So in the midst of what I can now see were rather conventional goings-on, I produced a burned car with a few charred skeletal fragments: a tiny piece of the jaw, a bit of tibia, a little chunk of the occiput. Then I put them into Gideon's hands and wrote a long, detailed description of how a forensic anthropologist would go about analyzing them.
Why not? I was supposed to write about what I knew, and what I knew were bones. If they were so fascinating to me, why shouldn't they be at least passably interesting to others?
In any case, after twenty-one densely packed pages, Gideon was ready to make his report to the police. The minuscule fragments, he announced, had belonged to a muscular, thirty-eight-year-old, Oriental male who was five-feet-five-inches in height and weighed 145 pounds.
The police, of course, are smugly skeptical; can this crack-brained, ivory-towered professor seriously expect them to believe that he has deduced all this from a literal handful of bones, and a small handful at that? Damn right, says an irritated Gideon, and for good measure he tells them that the person was left-handed and smoked a pipe.
Mystery devotees will not be surprised to find out that he turns out to be right in every detail, much to the astonishment of the police but not of the reader, who has been at Gideon's shoulder every step of the way.
I finished writing the book after returning to the United States, bought a copy of Writer's Market, and began sending query letters to those publishers listed as having an interest in mysteries. Walker and Company, the first publisher to agree to look at the manuscript—after twelve negative responses from other houses—bought it. Ruth Cavin, the senior editor who telephoned me to express their interest, said they would be happy to publish it and would, in fact, be pleased to consider publishing future novels about Gideon Oliver. (This was in response to my original letter, in which I had recklessly and not altogether truthfully said that I had a second such book well under way.) However, Ruth would prefer that the first one be shortened a bit, and that a few patently Ludlumesque elements be deleted as being out of character with the rest of the story. Would that be all right with me?
What a question. There was nothing that wouldn't have been all right with me, as long as they didn't change their mind about publishing it.
In addition, she was not overly keen on The Need-to-Know Principle as a title (neither was I) and decided, with my willing agreement, to change it. As a result, my first novel was published in September 1982 as Fellowship of Fear. Perhaps, Ruth suggested hopefully (or was it wistfully?) people might confuse it with The Ministry of Fear.
To my knowledge, no one did confuse me with Graham Greene, but the reviews were uniformly good, and the sales were as good as was to be hoped from an unpromoted first mystery novel—which is to say modest, but not embarrassingly so.
There were, as I recall, sixteen newspaper reviews that came to my attention, every one of them positive, which, in my middle-aged naivete was welcome but hardly surprising. What was a surprise, however, was how much most of them—and most of the letters from readers—expressed a. liking for the skeletal analysis. I had made Gideon Oliver a physical anthropologist because a protagonist has to be something, and inasmuch as that's what I was, that's what he was. The anthropology had been intended as backdrop, not center-stage material. The business with the muscular, thirty-eight-year-old, left-handed Oriental man who smoked a pipe had been put in simply as a bit of "business," a one-time tour de force.
But the reviews and letters made me think again. I was on to something, I realized. Without trying to, I had created what every new mystery writer dreams of: a niche of my own, all to myself, with an appreciative audience and no likely competitors. Under those conditions, one's ingenuity is stimulated. I began to see all kinds of interesting and unusual plots that might involve bits of bone, and from then on, Gideon's skeletal detective work, and the field of anthropology in general, became a continuing and critical part of the series.
I had sold my first novel without an agent, but I knew I would need one if I was going to try to earn a living from writing. Among my strengths, such as they are, business acumen does not figure prominently, and I was going to require help in contract negotiations and the like. But not knowing how one went about acquiring an agent, I asked my editor to recommend one. This is not an approach I would suggest to other writers; agents on close terms with editors or publishers are not necessarily the best people to represent authors. In this case, however, I was well served. Ruth recommended her old college friend Victor Chapin, an agent in the small John Schaffner Agency in New York. My association with Victor was a good one, but sadly it lasted only a few months before Victor died without my ever having met him. My account was dumped into the lap of Barney Karpfinger, a young agent on the Schaffner staff.
After a somewhat rocky beginning (Barney was overloaded with his own clients and Victor's as well), we hit it off. When he moved to the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency I went with him, and when a year or two later he opened his own agency, I was the first client for whom he wrote a book contract. In the decade that has passed since then, I have never once even thought about changing agents, and I don't know how many writers can say that.
For the second "Gideon Oliver" book, I had in mind a plot involving a small band of ancient people that had managed to survive twelve thousand years, unknown to the modern world, in the Neolithic cave complexes of the Dordogne region of France. I didn't see how I could write it without revisiting the Dordogne, but with our financial situation what it was, I couldn't bring myself to risk spending the money to make the trip, certainly not on the remote possibility that I was actually going to make a career of writing.
At the moment, that possibility was extremely remote. Writing was still a spare-time affair for me, something I did from 5:00 A.M. to 6:30 A.M. most mornings. Fellowship of Fear had earned me a two-thousand-dollar advance (about average for a first mystery) and further royalties that were, as they say in the business, in the low three figures. These were not living wages, even in 1982. As a result, I had repaired some old bridges and was back working for Contra Costa County. That was another reason the trip to France was out. I hadn't yet built up enough vacation to let me take off more than a few days.
Further thought suggested that I might get by with a plot involving a band of presumably extinct Indians that had managed to survive unknown to the modern world not for twelve thousand years, but for sixty or seventy years, as a band of Yahi Indians had in fact done in California at the beginning of the century. The question was: Where could I set it? Where could it credibly happen in 1983? Not California, obviously. Was there anyplace within a two-or three-day drive of the Bay Area?
And so The Dark Place takes place eight hundred miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area, in the rain forests of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the rugged, uncrowded thumb of land that forms the northwest corner of the United States. It took two or three research trips, all of them made with Charlotte, to get the details right, and by the time we were done the place had gotten to us. In another year, when the books were doing well enough to support us, it was where we moved, and we still live there.
Like Fellowship of Fear, The Dark Place came out to warm reviews—all except the New York Times, which had been generous to the first book. This time it was merciless. "Panning" doesn't begin to do it justice. "Crucifixion" is nearer the mark.
Smart writers do not let negative reviews affect them adversely. In that regard, I am a smart writer; negative reviews don't bother me. But in 1983 I wasn't smart yet. I was devastated. I had just come from an optometric examination in which drops that blurred my vision had been placed in my eyes. I was driving slowly home (I shouldn't have been driving at all) when I passed the library. It was a Thursday, the day the New York Times Book Review arrived, and I had been going to the library for the last several weeks hoping to find a review of The Dark Place in it, so I stopped in.
The Book Review was in, and squinting at the mystery page, 1 was able to see that The Dark Place was the lead mystery review, and a longish one at that. I borrowed a magnifying glass and sat down in a cubicle practically panting with anticipation. My eyes were tearing and blinking. I could barely focus. I was able to make out phrases, but not complete sentences, and I kept losing my place. I saw some nice words—something about the spooky rain forest setting and the action scenes—and then, sitting all by itself, a brief, one-sentence paragraph:
"But, oh, the writing."
If I were the sort of novelist who wrote about people's blood freezing, that's what I'd put in here. I couldn't believe that sentence meant what it seemed to mean. But the following paragraphs made it clear that it did. My first negative review, and not only was it a lulu, but it was from the Times. It was the worst moment of my life as a writer. I didn't sleep most of that night. My self-confidence, never overwhelming, evaporated. The new book I had begun, set near Mont-Saint-Michel, lost what steam it had and went into a desk drawer while I pottered uncertainly among other writing projects. It was weeks before I got my confidence back.
Had I foolishly been expecting never to get anything but positive reviews? I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. They'd all been good so far; that was all I knew. Do other writers react as strongly to their first negative review? Yes, many do. But, assuming that one keeps writing, more of the same are certain to follow, and the others tend not to be as painful as the first, and after a while a kind of protective scar tissue forms that makes them easier to take. Besides, by then you have often had the fun of seeing your friends and colleagues similarly skewered, which helps a lot.
People who are not writers might think that authors would be well-advised to read their negative reviews with particular attention rather than letting a protective skin form. Reviews are, in a sense, free advice. Isn't there something to be learned from the thoughtful analyses of intelligent and knowledgeable critics? Maybe, but I don't know a professional writer who takes them seriously, and I know a lot of writers.
One reason they don't is that reviewers do not prepare their columns for writers. They write them, as they should, with readers in mind, and that is a different thing. More importantly, a successful writer—successful enough to be reviewed in major newspapers—is no longer a student trying to learn how to write. He or she writes, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, from the personal conviction that this is the way to say what he or she is trying to say. It can very likely be improved, yes, but not by following someone else's advice on the way it should have been done in the first place. Once you start writing what other people think you should be writing, the issue of just whose book it is arises. And a writer who writes any book but his or her own is heading for trouble—is already in trouble.
There are a few authors, of course, who simply cannot ignore negative reviews, and they fire letters back to the newspapers pointing out the errors, oversights, ignorances, and biases of their reviewers. No doubt there is a certain amount of catharsis to be gained from this, but I find it simpler and more soothing to leave the reviewers—who are, after all, only earning their living, as I am mine—to their jobs while I get on with my own work, tranquil and unruffled.
How do I manage to maintain this constructive and magnanimous attitude? Easy. I don't read negative reviews of my books. My publishers don't send them to me, and if Charlotte spots one, she keeps it to herself. Every now and then one sneaks through anyway, but it is no longer enough to bother me. Besides, the reviews, knock on wood, continue to be overwhelmingly positive.
On the other hand, how would I know if they weren't?
A book called Murder in the Queen's Armes, set in England, followed, after which I had one of my recurring crises of confidence. It seemed to me that the "skeleton detective" series, while enjoyable to write, well received, and doing moderately well, had run its course. How many plots can you construct, after all, that revolve around solving murders from little bits of bone? And how long can you go on doing it without repeating yourself, or seeming to repeat yourself, which amounts to the same thing as far as readers are concerned?
So, casting about for another subject that might provide an interesting and challenging milieu in which to set a mystery, I settled on art, not at all sure that I was doing the right thing. Friends in the publishing field shook their heads: art mysteries were out of fashion (if they were ever in) and unsellable. But I had gotten deeply involved in the research by then and had come up with what seemed to me to be a nifty plot, and I saw it cheerfully if not always confidently through.
A Deceptive Clarity, featuring a curator of Baroque and Renaissance art named Chris Norgren, turned out to be very much an art mystery; that is, the story centered on some technical, fascinating (to me) aspects of Old Master paintings and forgery, much as the "Gideon Oliver" books had centered on the technical aspects of forensic anthropology.
Alas, my friends were essentially right. The manuscript did sell, but not for very much. On publication the reviews were scant, and for the first time, there was no sale of paperback rights; indeed, A Deceptive Clarity was not to appear in paperback until 1993, six years later.
There was a bright spot: a magazine reviewer read a galley of A Deceptive Clarity and liked it enough to want to do a major interview piece on me. The interview was duly conducted by telephone, I was at my brightest and wittiest, and the resulting article was published a few months later. But someone at the printer's, never having heard of Aaron J. Elkins, concluded that the interviewer had a better-known author in mind and corrected the title on his own. The piece was published as "An Interview with Stanley Elkin."
I sincerely hope it did Mr. Elkin some good.
A word about "Aaron J. Elkins," who vanished from sight with A Deceptive Clarity to be replaced by the simpler "Aaron Elkins." This small transformation continues to create minor confusion for Books in Print, the Library of Congress, and numerous lesser libraries, and to them I apologize. Actually, "Aaron J. Elkins" never was my name. I was born "Aaron Elkins" and was content with it until my late twenties, when I published my first paper in anthropology. Everyone else putting out academic papers seemed to have at least one middle initial, some had two or even three, and I decided I needed one of my own.
Acting on something I read that said one could change one's name simply by changing it, without going to court or filling out papers (if this isn't true, please don't tell me now), I added an initial of my own: P. The name I had in mind was Aaron Paul Elkins, which to my ears had a ring both scholarly and friendly. But before it showed up in print, a far-thinking colleague alluded delicately to the potential for unwelcome drollery that lay in wait for a physical anthropologist whose initials were APE.
I promptly changed it to J (for Joseph) and used it for the next twenty years for business and academic dealings. I never had it in mind for my novels, but my original letter to Walker had been signed with it (more distinguished, don't you know), and they put it on the books. It took me four publications to get around to having it removed.
Back to the writing. Chastened by A Deceptive Clarity's nonreception, and in a decidedly gloomy frame of mind, I concluded that I might have been a little hasty in retiring Gideon Oliver, so I went back to the desk drawer in which, three years earlier—in another gloomy frame of mind—I had stowed the unfinished manuscript of the Mont-Saint-Michel book. Seeing the title, "Legacy of Death," was enough to make my teeth ache, but the work itself, unlooked at all this time, now seemed salvageable. Retitling it Old Bones, I got back to work on it, a complex story of death on the tideflats, bones in the cellar, and buried familial hatreds going back to the days of the Nazi occupation.
When it was finished, I was still in a generally negative frame of mind. The lack of critical attention to A Deceptive Clarity had scared me. Most mystery novelists get a fair amount of attention from reviewers for their first book, or two, or three. But then interest withers. Mysteries, after all, tend to be somewhat repetitive and predictable simply by virtue of being mysteries. (You know someone is going to get killed, you know someone else—the protagonist—will try to solve the murder, you know the protagonist will follow many false leads and face many obstacles, and you know that in the end he or she will solve it.) And those of any individual writer are bound to be even more alike than mysteries in general. What a reviewer might say about book number seven by a given writer is likely to be similar, on the whole, to what he or she said about book number two. Thus, better to be on the lookout for new and different writers, of whom there are always plenty, about whom something new and different can be said. Only a relatively small group of authors becomes well-regarded enough, or well-known enough, to continue to be reviewed, book after book. And without reviews, writers fade away. The publishers lose interest and the readers, even if interested, can't find the books.
The sum total of three reviews for A Deceptive Clarity had me wondering if I had reached that cutoff point and failed to get by it. I thought of Old Bones as my last try at establishing a place as a credible mystery writer. I was over fifty; a long apprenticeship was not in the cards. If this book, hauled from the refuse pile, was just one more unnoticed mystery among the four hundred or so published every year in the United States, I was ready to throw in the towel and look for something else to do.
But things went wonderfully from the beginning. First, the book was bought by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press, arguably the best of the mystery publishers, and I acquired another superb editor, Sara Ann Freed, who continues to edit my novels till this day, knock on wood.
And then, to my intense surprise, Old Bones won the 1988 Edgar—the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award—as the year's best mystery. That did it. I became an instant celebrity, and I can prove it: at the International Congress of Crime Writers held in New York that May there was an event called the celebrity luncheon, where honest-to-goodness writing celebrities such as Donald Westlake, Evan Hunter (a. k.a. Ed McBain), Mary Higgins Clark, and Isaac Asimov joined mystery fans and aspiring writers for lunch and then participated in a panel or writing. The fans, of course, paid for the privilege. Had I reserved a place at this affair ahead of time I would have been charged thirty-five dollars like anybody else. But as it happened, it was held on the day after the Edgar awards ceremony at the Sheraton Centre.
And by then, of course, I was a celebrity. Early that morning I was pressed into service to join the other celebrities on view, which I did with pleasure. Well, to be candid, it was an emergency, one of the advertised attractions having found it impossible to be there, but all the same, there I was at the celebrity luncheon, a certified celebrity.
The point was brought forcefully home in the course of the afternoon, when I gave my jacket to a shivering attendee in a thin dress and I heard a nearby woman whisper to a companion: "Won't this be something for her to remember!"
Clearly, I was in for some heady times.
When Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982 he was so overwhelmed by the attendant publicity that he had no time for work. For a year, he said, he had to give up writing and simply be the Nobel laureate, like a reigning beauty queen. So it was for me. There were interviews, appearances, book signings, and congratulatory letters to be answered. All of it was welcome, but it kept me from concentrating on my current novel, and it made for a self-puffery that I hadn't known was there and didn't like. Fortunately, it lasted not for a year, but only for about two weeks (thereby empirically establishing that an Edgar carries one twenty-sixth the cachet of a Nobel Prize), after which I was able to settle down to my writing again.
And settled down to my writing I have remained for the past five years. My life at last has become a "writer's life," enormously satisfying to me, but not so easy to write about. Simply put, writers do not make very good biographical subjects. Flannery O'Connor, expressing comparable thoughts, says somewhere that the story of her own life would consist mainly of walking from the house to the barn and back again. Except for my having a study instead of a barn, that about says it for me too. Readers of biographies who expect anything very novelistic in the lives of novelists are going to be routinely disappointed and certainly will be in my case. Like most other novelists, I spend most of my time sitting quietly in a room in front of a word processor, making up stories.
In other words, here is where, if I don't watch myself, this is going to turn into a series of six more "And then I wrote. . . . " Rather than finish on that dreary route, I thought I might make some remarks about what I write and why I write it.
I am a mystery writer. I am not on my way to grander things. My first book was a mystery, all of my books since then have been mysteries, and I will be very surprised if my last book isn't one. Basically, the reason that I write mysteries and nothing else is that you can write them without having anything to say.
When I say that at a writers conference or in an interview, it's usually treated as an attempt at humor or disingenuousness, but I mean it sincerely. I really do love being a writer. I love the fun and anguish of wrestling with plot and character, of trying to make the words say what I mean. But I don't have anything in particular to say: no solutions to the problems of society, no comprehensive grasp of the root causes of the world's evils, no insights into personality and character that millions of others (well, thousands) don't have too. The mystery novel is precisely the vehicle I need: a form with structure, with point, and with a ready readership, but with no need for an overarching message or theme.
As I see it, I am following in the wake of an old and glorious tradition. The mystery, surely more than any other fiction genre, can boast a long, honorable history of works that are primarily entertainments and diversions—but diversions of high literary merit—by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers.
Some of my fellow writers—and too many of the academics now writing about mystery writing—feel otherwise. They view the contemporary mystery novel as a means of putting forward important political, social, and environmental agendas, of raising consciousness. I don't see it that way at all. Here I am in the middle of my twelfth novel, and I've yet to go out of my way to take on an environmental issue, or a social issue, or just about any other kind of issue. They show up in my books from time to time because the books are set in today's world, but having them show up is different from taking them on. If any reader has ever figured out from my books where I stand on Brazilian rain forests, or overpopulation, or the problems of the homeless, or the plight of the spotted owl, he or she has done it without my help.
There is more involved here than personal preference. I think that issues and mysteries make edgy bedfellows. For one thing, they're an awkward combination for the author. Writing mysteries is tricky business. Writing cogently on issues is tricky business too, but of a different kind, requiring different techniques if it's going to be done well. (High school English teachers have good reason to try to drum into their students' heads the critical difference between narrative and exposition.) Besides, there are other forums, easier and more effective ones, for sounding off on issues. Mysteries have more than enough constraints—the placement and ordering of clues and red herrings, the hiding and holding back of information until the novelistically right time—as it is. Of course it's possible, yes, to weave significant messages into mystery fiction; what I don't understand is why anyone tries to do it.
More than that, the reader that I have in mind as I write doesn't turn to a mystery at the end of a workday or on a rainy Sunday afternoon to have his or her consciousness raised about all the terrifying, patently insoluble problems that grow more threatening and further out of control every day. I worry about a lot of things, but one of them is not a shortage of stress-inducers and frustration-makers, of critical needs crying out for urgent action before it's too late, of simmering problems that will surely mean the end of the world as we know it (and probably the end of the world, period). Television programming and daily newspapers do very well at maintaining general agitation levels without the help of mysteries.
On the contrary, I think that the sweetest, best function of the mystery novel or story is as a decompressant, a consciousness-lowering interlude for the intelligent reader. This is nothing to be sneezed at.
"Holmes," Christopher Morley once wrote about Conan Doyle's great detective, "is pure anesthesia." He said it lovingly and meant it as praise. Not anesthesia in the sense of unconsciousness or dullness of perception, of course, but in the sense of relief from pain, worry, and uneasiness. It's still why most readers come to mystery fiction, in my opinion. They come for comfort, for security, for a welcome dose of order in a disorderly and changing world.
Moral issues are a different matter. The mystery is, I think, the most moral of all forms of popular fiction. At least in traditional, "classic" detective fiction, which is what I try to write, there are certain predictabilities (which is where the comfort and security come from): actions beget consequences. People get what's coming to them. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and they pay for what they did. Virtue triumphs, if not in every particular, then for the most part.
When I read a mystery myself, I like to do it in a good chair with a long, leisurely evening before me and a glass of wine or a cup of coffee at my side. And I don't do it to confront the implacable issues of world ecology and human society, I do it to get away from the damn things. I think that's why most other readers do it too.
I must admit some trepidation about confessing to all this, that is, to not being a Serious Writer of Meaningful Fiction. Anthony Trollope's reputation suffered famously when he acknowledged something similar in his autobiography. What will happen to mine? Who knows, would I have been invited to write this memoir for the Autobiography Series if the people at Gale Research had known so much about me before? (If you are reading this, it would appear to mean that at least they didn't have a change of heart about publishing it.)
Time will tell, I guess. In the meantime I have continued to write Gideon Oliver novels and Chris Norgren novels with literate entertainment as my primary aim. For as far ahead as I can see, that's what I will keep doing. The one departure was to collaborate on a novel—a mystery, of course—with Charlotte, but it's unlikely that there will be any more of those. Our marriage comes before our joint literary career.
I have discovered that autobiography is more difficult to write than biography, at least in one respect: It's hard to know quite when to stop, or even how. One feels almost as if one should have the decency to die immediately on completion. That dangling, expectant hyphen on the first page (Aaron Elkins, 1935–) gives one an edgy and peculiar feeling.
Like waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Aaron Elkins contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
So far so good. Here it is, more than a decade later, and the shoe has yet to drop. Another eleven years have gone by, and another ten Aaron Elkins books have hit the shelves.
Now there's a funny thing right there—the amount of time it takes to turn out a book, at least in my case. All those years ago, when I first began, I used to do my writing in the mornings, from 5:30 A.M. to 7 A.M., before I went off to whichever of several jobs I was holding down. This wasn't easy for me. I wasn't a morning person back then (I've turned into one since), but writing in the evenings, which I'd tried first, simply didn't work; for three hours I would sit, to paraphrase Gene Fowler, staring at a blank sheet of paper until little drops of blood formed on my forehead. So those morning hours were all I had. Then I'd generally put in another half-day or so on the weekend: a total of about twelve hours a week, sometimes a little more. It took me thirteen months to write that first book, Fellowship of Fear. Now that I have the good fortune to be able to do it full-time, I typically work about seven hours a day (six for writing, and one for research, cogitation, and generally second-guessing myself over knotty problems of character, plot, motive, and especially—this will come as a surprise to the non-writer—logistics, i.e., getting my characters from one place to another and accounting for their whereabouts when they're not onstage). I usually do another four or five hours over the weekend if Charlotte lets me get away with it. In total, that's roughly forty hours a week, more than three times what I was able to devote to my first book.
So how long did Where There's a Will, my most recent novel, take me to write? Thirteen months. On the button. And if you divide ten books into eleven years, you get an average of . . . guess. On the surface, this seems pretty strange. Does it really mean that my output doesn't depend on the number of hours I sit at the computer, it simply depends on the number of months that that go by on the calendar once I get started, regardless of how much or how little I work?
Well . . . yes, pretty much. I've talked to other writers about this, and although they take differing lengths of time to turn out a book—most mystery writers are a lot faster than I am, most mainstream novelists a lot slower—they generally agree that, whatever it is that determines the volume of output, it isn't the volume of input. All of us have learned to our disappointment that doubling or tripling the time one slogs away at the computer doesn't double or triple one's production.
It's as if you had only so much psychic energy to put into the tremendous project of writing a book. You can increase your working hours as much as you want, but you can't up the psychic energy level. Or maybe it's creativity. Or the ability to hold the threads of your story together and keep them all in mind, something that gets harder and harder as you get further into a book.
Whatever it is, it makes most of us who earn a living as writers of popular fiction turn out our books at a steady and predictable pace, which happens to be the way our publishers like it anyway, so maybe it's all for the good. Agatha Christie suggested that we were like sausage machines: whenever one sausage popped out of the business end of the machine, there was another one right behind it, ready to push on out at a nice, even rhythm. Others have used a digestive metaphor that is more imaginative but less flattering, but either way, that seems to be the way it works.
Re-reading my original essay, now more than a decade old, has been an interesting experience. Generally speaking, the author of that piece still sounds a lot like me to me, but a couple of the observations that I made—predictions, really—turned out to have been fired a little too quickly from the hip. For one thing, back then I made rather a big point of saying that I wrote mysteries because, while I loved working with words and ideas, and it was a pleasure to think that I was actually entertaining, maybe even enlightening, many thousands (well, thousands) of people, I had nothing very profound or meaningful to say, and I didn't see much prospect of anything changing.
But four or five years later, as it turned out, I did have something meaningful to say, after all, or at least something that I wanted to say. The mid-nineties was a time in which the cruelties and injustices associated with the Holocaust came under greatly increased public scrutiny. I don't mean the atrocities of the Nazis, but the duplicity and greed displayed by supposedly upright nations, institutions and individuals long after the end of the war: the Swiss stonewalling when it came to releasing to their impoverished owners the money and possessions that had been stolen from them by the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers and deposited in unnumbered accounts in Zurich or Geneva, for example; or the impossible requirements the post-war Austrian government placed on those who tried to reclaim art objects and other precious possessions that had been confiscated during the thirties and forties and had somehow or other wound up in the great and stately museums of Vienna; or the dug-in reluctance of French museums, including the Louvre, to return similar stolen, confiscated, or "Aryanized" paintings.
I found the stories fascinating and moving. Although several recent nonfiction books had come out on the subject, I knew of no detailed, serious fictional treatment. After quite a bit of self-examination, including a good dollop of self-doubt—after all, I had never written anything but series-mysteries—I girded my loins and plunged into this dismal chapter of human avarice and venality. I read the available books; I went to the National Archives to look at old Nazi manifests; I visited the Alt Aussee salt mine in Austria, where hundreds of looted Old Master paintings had been stored; I went to Vienna and to St. Petersburg; I visited with one of the few surviving members of MFA&A, the famed American military unit tasked with getting stolen art objects back to their original owners in the early postwar years. And then I sat down to writeLoot, a multi-tiered novel about a Nazi-appropriated Velazquez painting that disappears at war's end and drops from sight until it shows up fifty years later in a seedy Boston pawnshop.
This one was an exception. There was just too much to it for my usual thirteen months. It took me a full two years: two of the most absorbing, thoughtful, stimulating years of my writing life. Reviews were excellent, sales were good, and my publisher—by this time it was William Morrow—was eager for another. But I'd had my say (I thought), and I was ready to return to adventuring with my old friend Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective; my first-born, so to speak. The result was Skeleton Dance, set among the prehistoric ruins and wonderful little villages of France's Dordogne. But when I turned it in (after thirteen months) and began to push along the next little sausage, I found my plotting for Gideon disrupted. There were, it appeared, a few more meaningful things about the dark side of human nature rattling around in my brain and clamoring to get out.
Turncoat said them. The novel takes place in the 1960s, but its subject is French collaboration during the war, a bitter, complex morass of an issue that continues to pit Frenchman against Frenchman to this day. Like Loot, Turncoat humbled me, wholly absorbed me, opened my eyes to a great deal I hadn't understood . . . and was fun, at least in the writer's sense of fun, which involves very little laughing, but quite a lot of vacillating, agonizing, and self-doubt.
When it was done I found myself more than ready to get back to the ordered, morally unambiguous world of mystery fiction. Since then, with Berkley (Penguin-Putnam) as my publisher, I've produced two more "Gideon Olivers"—Good Blood and Where There's a Will—and am working on a third. I've learned from what I wrote here eleven years ago to be less cocksure with my self-predictions, but from where I sit at the moment it looks as if I'll be chronicling Professor Oliver's adventures and misadventures for some time to come, a happy prospect. Once again, I've been tremendously lucky on the editing front, acquiring one of the great ladies of editing and publishing, Leona Nevler, as my editor. I've already asked her if she would edit my books in my next life as well, and, thank God, she said yes.
The other big thing I got wrong eleven years ago was my saying that collaborating on one book with Charlotte was quite enough, thank you, and our joint literary career was at its end. I really meant it, too, but here we are now, working on our fifth novel about female golfer Lee Ofsted. Most people understand, correctly enough, that novel-writing is about as solitary an occupation as there is, and we are often asked just how two people go about writing a book together. Our answer is that we don't write it together, we write it separately; although we have frequent consultations, we are never working on the same section at the same time. Charlotte, as the idea-person of the team, conceives the basic plot and gets input on it from me, usually minimal. Then she writes a draft of the first section and turns it over to the word-person on the team (me). I polish the draft and usually add a few ideas and some color. Charlotte waits to see what I've done with the material before going on to the next section, which she drafts and gives to me for polishing and expansion. And so on. As collaboration goes, it's pretty painless: no arguments over the breakfast table, no hashing out of divergent ideas, no gnashing of teeth over one another's editorial presumptions. But it's not totally painless, and it is not an exercise either of us would recommend to other married couples.
And so we've pretty much decided that the work in progress, Fringe Behavior, will be our final joint contribution to world literature. No more Lee Ofsteds. This time I mean it. Really.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, December 1, 1998, Jenny McLarin, review of Loot, p. 165; March 15, 2002, George Needham, review of Skeleton Dance, p. 1332; January 1, 2004, Wes Lukowsky, review of Good Blood, p. 830; November 15, 2004, Bill Ott, review of Where Have All the Birdies Gone?, pp. 564-565.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2003, review of Good Blood, p. 1383; December 1, 2004, review of Where Have All the Birdies Gone?, p. 1120; February 15, 2005, review of Where There's a Will, p. 200.
Library Journal, January, 1999, Susan Clifford, review of Loot, p. 165; January, 2004, Ann Forister, review of Good Blood, p. 166.
MBR Bookwatch, March, 2005, Harriet Klausner, review of Where Have All the Birdies Gone?
New York Times, February 6, 1983, review of Fellowship of Fear, p. 20; January 19, 1997, Marilyn Stasio, review of Twenty Blue Devils,; section 7, p. 22; March 7, 1999, Marilyn Stasio, Loot, section 7, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, October 30, 1987, review of Old Bones; January 4, 1999, review of Loot, p. 77; April 17, 2000, review of Skeleton Dance, p. 56; May 6, 2002, review of Turncoat, p. 37; January 26, 2004, review of Good Blood, p. 234; February 21, 2005, review of Where There's a Will, pp. 160-161.
School Library Journal, July, 2004, review of Good Blood, p. 131.
Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 1988, Sharon Miller, review of Old Bones.
Washington Post Book World, June 19, 1988.