PERSONAL: Male. Religion: Jewish.
CAREER: BBDO (advertising agency), New York, NY, senior creative director and vice president.
Epitaph, Mysterious (New York, NY), 2001.
Derailed, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Contracted with Warner to write novel tentatively titled Sideswiped.
SIDELIGHTS: Sometimes compared to former J. Walter Thompson chairman James Patterson, who is now a prolific novelist, BBDO senior executive director James Siegel has won considerable attention with his first attempts at suspense writing. He earned a Shamus Award nomination for Epitaph, a story combining the concerns of an aging private investigator with World War II intrigue. Siegel's second novel, Derailed, follows an ad executive from the ruins of a happy family life into a frightening world of infidelity, physical brutality, blackmail, and corporate crime. Critics said the first novel was marked by well-drawn characters and deliberate pacing. Its successor earned some criticism for implausible plot elements as well as praise for the novel's strong grip on the reader's imagination.
In Epitaph Siegel gives readers a crime story with an unusual hero. William Riskin is an aging janitor at an off-track betting establishment. However, he once was a detective for hire with two partners, one who had an affair with his wife. The other, Jean Goldblum, revealed the wife's infidelity to Riskin. When Riskin reads Goldblum's obituary decades later, it revives his strong feelings of resentment toward Goldblum and the love he still feels for his ex-wife. At Goldblum's funeral, Riskin is given a list of names of retirees who have disappeared while moving to Florida. It is all that remains of an investigation that Goldblum described as the biggest case he ever had. Stirred to test his investigative skills because of an old promise to finish any cases left by his partners, Riskin discovers that the missing people are linked to a crime committed in France during World War II.
Reviewers described Epitaph as a fine debut that puts a new twist on the private investigator theme, while Riskin's character were called unconventional and interesting. A Publishers Weekly reviewer was pleased by the way the story "unfolds slowly and methodically like layers of an onion." The book's unusually slow development was seen as a negative element in a Mystery Reader review by Andy Plonka, who liked Siegel's emphasis on mental challenges rather than car chases. While Booklist's Carrie Bissey judged the book's climax out of place, she admired Siegel's "sharp, fluid, often snidely funny writing" and "wellpaced plot." Writing for Library Journal, Wilda Williams credited Siegel with successfully mixing "a compelling crime story with clearly drawn characters" and admired his "wry, tart insights" into the lives of his elderly characters. Two reviewers to be charmed were Victoria Esposito-Shea of HandHeldCrime.com, who called the work a "well-paced and well-written novel," and BookBrowser's Harriet Klausner, who enjoyed Epitaph as a "unique and entertaining investigative story."
In an interview with Rebecca Brown for Rebecca's Reads, Siegel revealed that Epitaph's focus on elderly characters comes from childhood experiences visiting his grandmother at a nursing home. The place frightened him and made him think of a concentration camp. The novel also reflects his fascination with World War II, a subject he has studied extensively through books and films.
The central character of Derailed is, like Siegel, an advertising executive. On his way to work, Charles Schine is hoping to escape the drudgery of a stale marriage and worries about an ailing daughter by flirting with a woman on a commuter train. But when the pair agrees to meet at a rundown hotel, the sexual adventure turns into a nightmare. A man breaks into their room and proceeds to rob them both, attacks Schine, and sexually assaults the woman repeatedly. The horror of this experience is prolonged when the attacker begins to blackmail them, having learned that they are both married to other people. At first Schine is willing to pay the man, giving him money that was aside to pay for his daughter's medical bills. But his growing anger leads Schine to plot a horrible revenge on the villain.
A full spectrum of responses were elicited by Derailed, plotting, plausibility, and characters pleasing one set of reviewers while troubled another. In the New York Times Janet Maslin reported that although Siegel "understands what sells," the book needs "more editorial restraint." It "plays upon the ordinary, teasing its most violent and exploitative daydreams out of the mundane," Maslin explained in relegating the novel to easy reading for commuters on a train.
Critics who were more pleased with Derailed included a writer for Kirkus Reviews, who called the book "preposterous" yet "compulsively readable." Ronnie H. Terpening gave the book less qualified praise in Library Journal, crediting the author with "psychological insight and exceptional skill." Terpening said the "prose glides … effortlessly" and described the plot as "immensely satisfying." And a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the work "one of the most exciting thrillers in years" due to the novel's "clean prose, high-velocity plotting and just the right amount of emotional shading darkening its sharply drawn characters."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 1, 2001, Carrie Bissey, review of Epitaph, p. 1640; December 15, 2002, Connie Fletcher, review of Derailed, p. 708.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2002, review of Derailed, p. 1799.
Library Journal, June 15, 2001, Wilda Williams, review of Epitaph, p. 107; December, 2002, review of Derailed, p. 181.
New York Times, February 18, 2003, Janet Maslin, review of Derailed, p. E8.
Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2001, review of Epitaph, p. 85; December 16, 2002, review of Derailed, p. 44.
BookBrowser,http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (April 24, 2001), Harriet Klausner, review of Epitaph.
HandHeldCrime.com,http://www.handheldcrime.com/ (November 1, 2001), Victoria Esposito-Shea, review of Epitaph.
Mystery Reader,http://www.themysteryreader.com/ (September 30, 2001), Andy Plonka, review of Epitaph.
Rebecca's Reads,http://www.rebeccasreads.com/ (September 23, 2001), Rebecca Brown, interview with Siegel.*