Katzenbach, John 1950-
KATZENBACH, John 1950-
PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1950, in Princeton, NJ; son of Nicholas deB. (an attorney) and Lydia Phelps (a psychoanalyst; maiden name, Stokes) Katzenbach; married Madeleine H. Blais (a journalist and writer), May 10, 1980; children: Nicholas, Justine. Education: Bard College, A.B., 1972. Politics: "Liberal, and damn proud of it." Hobbies and other interests: Fly-fishing.
ADDRESSES: Home—Amherst, MA. Agent—John Hawkins & Associates, 71 West 23rd St., New York, N.Y. 10010.
CAREER: Trenton Times, Trenton, NJ, reporter 1973-76; Miami News, Miami, FL, reporter, 1976-79; Miami Herald, Miami, circuit court reporter, 1981-82, feature writer weekly "Tropic Magazine," 1982-85. Novelist and author of nonfiction books, 1979—.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Writers Guild of America, PEN International.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nominated twice for Edgar Award.
In the Heat of the Summer, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
First Born, the Death of Arnold Zeleznik, Age Nine: Murder, Madness, and What Came After, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
The Traveler, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
Day of Reckoning, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
Just Cause, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
The Shadow Man, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1995.
State of Mind, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1997.
Hart's War, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1999.
The Analyst, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of articles and book reviews to newspapers and magazines, including Washington Post Book World, Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, and New York Times Book Review.
ADAPTATIONS: The motion picture The Mean Season, released by Orion in 1985 and starring Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway, was based on Katzenbach's novel In the Heat of the Summer; Just Cause was made into a film of the same name, starring Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Capshaw, in 1995; Hart's War was made into a film of the same name, starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, released by MGM in 2002.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Madman's Tale, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Former reporter John Katzenbach has become known as a leading author of psychological thrillers. Two of his novels have been nominated for Edgar Awards, and three have been made into Hollywood films. His first novel, In the Heat of the Summer, is a mystery thriller wrought with "harrowing, high-tension drama," according to a New York Times Book Review critique by Stanley Ellin. The story centers around Miami crime reporter Malcolm Anderson, who covers a brutal murder for his newspaper and then comes into contact with the killer. Promising to strike again, the murderer attempts to justify his assaults on society by relating memories of his horrifying childhood and of his Vietnam War experiences. As the killings mount he makes Anderson his conduit to the public, with a series of rambling telephone monologues that provide the reporter with material for a bonanza of front-page stories and subsequent notoriety. Increasingly, though, Anderson's career interests conflict with his personal commitment to end the reign of terror. Adding to the conflict is Anderson's realization that he too is a potential victim. New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed that the book "has any number of qualities to recommend it—its realism, its cleverly twisted plot, its rich use of dramatic metaphor, its sensitive development of the dilemma faced by a reporter in telling a news story of which he has become a part." The novel received an Edgar Award nomination and was adapted as a film titled The Mean Season.
Katzenbach turned his focus from crime fiction to fact in First Born, the Death of Arnold Zeleznik, Age Nine: Murder, Madness, and What Came After, his account of the shocking 1974 murder of a nine-year-old boy. The Carter Zeleznik family of Philadelphia, Katzenbach recalls, had checked into a Miami airport hotel on their way to Costa Rica for Christmas vacation. Zeleznik left his son Arnold to wait in a hotel corridor while he returned a key. In the ninety seconds that the boy was alone, a recently released mental patient in a psychotic frenzy dragged the child into his room, slit his throat, and fled. It was, in the author's words, "a crime of absolutes: complete madness intersecting with total innocence; the barest contact resulting in the most unimaginable of tragedies."
The greater part of First Born describes the Zelezniks' dogged legal and bureaucratic battle to win justice in the case. The murder suspect, a thirty-one-year-old Jamaican named Vernal Walford, was quickly captured, and evidence came to light that he believed God had ordered him to kill a child. According to Alan A. Stone in the New York Times Book Review, Walford was "later described by a psychiatrist as the craziest person he had ever seen." Walford was ruled incompetent to stand trial and later received an uncontested judicial verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Carter Zeleznik, a psychologist, was convinced, however, that the accused understood the moral meaning of his act.
Katzenbach reports that the Zelezniks' real outrage was directed at the Massachusetts state mental health system, which had allowed a raving and violent Walford to walk freely out of a public psychiatric hospital several weeks earlier. Efforts to bring the state agency to account were met with bureaucratic stonewalling, and the family's lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ran aground on legal technicalities. Only after the national television news program 60 Minutes publicized the Zeleznik case in 1982 did the Massachusetts legislature launch a full investigation, which determined that the state had indeed been negligent in releasing Walford.
Katzenbach first became involved in the Zeleznik story when he covered the murder case as a reporter for Miami News. He subsequently got to know the family intimately in the course of its drawn-out private investigation. The author was unable to get Vernal Walford to tell his own story, however, and as a result, critics observed, the murderer does not figure as a personality in Katzenbach's account. Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley noted that the author nevertheless "bends over backward to be fair to everyone involved," and he termed First Born "a powerful and provocative book." Detroit Free Press critic Joe Swickard commented that Katzenbach "writes with a compelling urgency and toughness, tempered with compassion" in a "fine and worthwhile examination of madness, murder and its aftermath."
In the novel Day of Reckoning, the past comes to haunt comfortable yuppies Duncan and Megan Richards, who were members of the radical Phoenix Brigade twenty years earlier. The organization's leader, Tanya, went to prison after a botched bank robbery; released after eighteen years, Tanya is now obsessed with revenge and kidnaps Duncan's and Megan's young son. "Few writers of crime fiction," observed Lorenzo Carcaterra in People, "seem to understand the criminal mind as well as Katzenbach." The reviewer went on to praise the novel as "almost frantically fast-paced and extremely well-written." Just Cause, the story of a reporter's involvement in uncovering a possible wrongful murder conviction against a black man on death row in Florida, also drew considerable attention. Katzenbach adds a fascinating twist to the plot: after the reporter succeeds in freeing the inmate—winning a Pulitzer Prize to boot—he learns to his horror that he has been duped. A writer for Publishers Weekly found Just Cause a "riveting, provocative story."
Katzenbach explores a dystopian future in State of Mind, a crime story set in a shockingly violent near-future United States. Booklist reviewer Mary Frances Wilkens deemed the novel a "frightening and captivating story about family, death, and evil." A writer for Publishers Weekly admired the book's intriguing portrait of "an America consumed by rage and chaos" but found Katzenbach's characterization of the killer unconvincing. In Library Journal, however, Jo Ann Vicarel praised the book highly and observed that "Katzenbach is a master at creating believable people caught up in horrific situations." And Charles P. Thobae in the Houston Chronicle commended State of Mind as a "superb thriller in which the power of the intelligent criminal mind rules violence in the cleverest and most malevolent way imaginable."
The Holocaust figures prominently in The Shadow Man. Set in contemporary Miami, the novel follows the efforts of depressed retired police detective Simon Winter to nab the "Shadow Man," a Jew forced by the Nazis to betray other Jews during World War II and now haunting elderly Holocaust survivors in Florida. In the Times Literary Supplement, Alex Harrison appreciated Katzenbach's use of thematic contrasts and his exploration of survivor guilt, but felt that the book's "blend of schmaltz and innuendo" was a major flaw. Acknowledging the novel's "interesting premise," a contributor to Publishers Weekly nevertheless criticized The Shadow Man for flat characterizations and padded plot. Booklist critic Emily Melton, however, praised the novel for "solid writing, a plot that's full of menace, and plenty of suspense."
Katzenbach returns to the Nazi era with Hart's War, hailed by a Publishers Weekly reviewer for its "vivid and unpredictable characters and diabolically imagined suspense." The novel is set in a German POW camp near the end of World War II, where racial tensions among the inmates erupt in a vicious murder. Tommy Hart, a former Harvard Law School student, is assigned to defend the suspect, Lincoln Scott, an antisocial black man who was the target of the murdered officer's racist abuse. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor described the novel as a mix of The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the story of the Tuskegee airmen—a blend Taylor considered less than wholly successful. However, a Publishers Weekly contributor hailed Hart's War as a "deeply affecting, artfully paced war epic." Jo Ann Vicarel in Library Journal expressed similar enthusiasm, praising the novel as a "superb story told with suspense, integrity, and compassion."
In The Analyst, a psychopath in New York City threatens to damage one of psychoanalyst Dr. Frederick Stark's relatives in exactly two weeks unless Stark either uncovers "Rumplestiltskin's" identity or commits suicide. "Ticking-clock suspense," commented Connie Fletcher in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly critic observed that Katzenbach has "potently chronicled a long journey of revenge and redemption" in a novel that stands as "one of his strongest outings." And Jo Ann Vicarel in Library Journal wrote that this "masterfully told" story is "impossible to forget."
Katzenbach once told CA: "I am often asked why or how I select the subjects for my books. It is simple, really. I enter a state of belief wherein I become persuaded that there is an important moral and psychological truth contained within the circumstances of the plot. (This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.) Then I merely pursue those elements until they are captured on the page, I hope."
Indeed, Katzenbach noted in an interview with Publishers Weekly writer Steven M. Zeitchik that his relatively quiet life makes it possible for him to focus on the kinds of stories that have made him a "slimeball pop novelist" in the eyes of the literary elite. Noting that he rather enjoys a "reverse snobbishness" about this categorization, he added that "If you had a really fascinating and adventurous life, you wouldn't have any time to write; you'd be too busy living. I guess if I was getting up in front of a writing class, I'd say, 'Have a normal life.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1987, review of The Traveler, p. 665; March 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of The Shadow Man, p. 1283; May 15, 1997, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of State of Mind, p. 1541; November 15, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of Hart's War, p. 547; November 15, 2001, Connie Fletcher, review of The Analyst, p. 524.
Books Magazine, April, 1996, review of The Shadow Man, p. 25; spring, 2001, review of Hart's War, p. 20.
Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 1987, review of The Traveler, p. B7.
Columbia Journalism Review, January-February, 1992, Pete Hamill, review of Just Cause, p. 55.
Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1984.
Houston Chronicle, September 28, 1997, Charles P. Thobae, review of State of Mind, p. 25.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of The Analyst, p. 1446.
Law Institute Journal, April, 1994, Robert Phillips, review of Just Cause, p. 311.
Library Journal, March 1, 1987, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of The Traveler, p. 96; March 15, 1989, V. Louise Saylor, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 86; January, 1992, A. J. Wright, review of Just Cause, p. 175; June 1, 1997, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of State of Mind, p. 148; December, 1998, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of Hart's War, p. 156; November 1, 2001, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of The Analyst, p. 132.
Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1982; February 15, 2002, Alina Tugend, "Telling a POW's Tale," p. F16.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12, 1989, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 10; February 1, 1992, review of Just Cause, p. 8.
New York Times, May 3, 1982, February 22, 1984; February 17, 1995, Janet Maslin, review of Just Cause (film), p. C18.
New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1982, February 26, 1984; March 15, 1987, Todd S. Purdum, "Poetic Rat-a-Tat-Tat," p. 10, and Patrick Anderson, review of The Traveler, p. 10; April 9, 1989, Erica Abeel, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 11; April 19, 1992, John Hough, Jr., review of Just Cause, p. 22; July 30, 1995, Newgate Callendar, review of The Shadow Man, p. 22; March 15, 1998, review of State of Mind, p. 27; February 17, 2002, Marilyn Stasio, review of The Analyst, p. February 17, 2002.
People, May 15, 1989, Lorenzo Carcaterra, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, April 23, 1982; January 30, 1987, review of The Traveler, p. 371; January 6, 1989, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 92; November 15, 1991, review of Just Cause, p. 65; March 20, 1995, review of The Shadow Man, p. 41; July 7, 1997, review of State of Mind, p. 49; January 18, 1999, review of Hart's War, p. 323; March 15, 1999, Steven M. Zeitchik, "John Katzenbach: In the Shadow of Battle," p. 31; October 22, 2001, review of The Analyst, p. 41.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 10, 2000, Dick Richmond, review of Hart's War, p. E3.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 5, 1999, David Lazarus, review of Hart's War, p. 6.
School Library Journal, July, 1992, Carolyn E. Gecan, review of Just Cause, p. 97.
Time, July 5, 1982.
Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 1995, Alex Harrison, review of The Shadow Man, p. 29.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 1, 1987, review of The Traveler, p. 3; March 26, 1989, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 3; January 26, 1992, review of Just Cause, p. 3.
Washington Post, April 12, 1999, Rob Pegoraro, "A POW Lawyer's Emotional Trials," p. C3.
Washington Post Book World, April 4, 1982, February 1, 1984; February 15, 1987, review of The Traveler, p. 4; September 30, 1990, review of September 30, 1990, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 16; March 1, 1992, review of Just Cause, p. 4; May 28, 1995, review of The Shadow Man, p. 1; October 19, 1997, review of State of Mind, p. 7.
West Coast Review of Books, 1989, review of Day of Reckoning, p. 34.
The Mystery Reader,http://www.themysteryreader.com/ (June 28, 2002), review of Hart's War.