Holton, Hugh Jr. 1947–2001
Hugh Holton Jr. 1947–2001
Police officer, novelist
Detective and crime fiction novels have always provided thrills for readers, who eagerly await a particular author’s next book to appear. Often these novels have been written by former police officers, men and women who have gained the knowledge necessary to write an authentic crime story, but who then, have left the force when they have achieved success as a writer. But one case, in particular, is different. When Hugh Holton became a successful writer, he refused to leave policing. Instead, he was determined to combine his love for the police force with his second great passion—that of writing.
Career police officer and writer Hugh Holton was born Hubert Holton Jr. in 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. Holton was the only son of Hubert Holton Sr. and his wife, Frances. Holton Sr. had been a military policeman during World War II, but when the war ended, he moved to Chicago and found work managing his father’s grocery store. By 1956 the store had been forced to close, the victim of the larger grocery chains. However, when his store closed, another career possibility opened, and Holton Sr. joined the Chicago police force, where he would become a 33-year veteran of the force, eventually becoming a commander in the detective division. After his retirement, Holton Sr. became the acting inspector general for the Chicago Housing Authority. It was this commitment to the police department and to public service that would become such an important influence in the young Hugh Holton’s life.
Holton grew up in Woodlawn, on Chicago’s South Side. He attended Saint Anselm Elementary School and played football at Mount Carmel High, which in the early 1960s was just being integrated. As a child Holton walked to the nearby lake or read books, especially detective fiction, and later he worked in a local shoe store while in high school. In the September 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader, Holton told interviewer Michael Marsh that he didn’t “remember being any different than anyone else” growing up in his community. Woodland was a safe community with little racial prejudice to add torment to Holton’s childhood.
In July of 1964, as soon as he had graduated from Mount Carmel High, Holton enrolled in the Chicago police department’s cadet program. This program was designed for young college students, who hoped to some day join the police department. While attending Loop College, Holton spent time working as an administrative assistant at the Wentworth police station. Although he still planned to be a police officer, in 1966 Holton enlisted in the United States Army, where he served three years, including an assignment in Vietnam. After his discharge from the army, Holton returned to Chicago and to the plans that had been interrupted by his army enlistment. Holton was finally able to fulfill his dreams in March of 1969, when he was admitted to the Chicago Police Academy.
Holton took to the streets as a uniformed officer after his graduation from the police academy in late 1969.
At a Glance…
Born in 1947 in Chicago, IL; died on May 18, 2001, in Chicago, IL; children: Elizabeth Holton Cook. Education: Roosevelt University, BA, MA. Military Service: United States Army, 1966-1969.
Career: Chicago policeman, 1969-01; author, 1994-01.
Awards: Readers’ Choice Award, February 1999.
After a short period of time, Holton was promoted to plainclothes, and then in 1975 he was promoted to desk sergeant. But Holton also continued to focus on his education. In time, he earned a bachelor of art degree from Roosevelt University, and continued his studies there to complete a master of art degree in history. During this same period, he also graduated from Northwestern University Traffic Institute. While completing an education, Holton also continued to work as a police officer, and he continued to earn promotions. By 1984 he was a lieutenant in the Chicago police department.
To prepare himself as a writer, a plan he had clearly set for himself, Holton undertook a round of study at some very prestigious programs. The purpose was to hone his skills and to learn his craft. In the mid-1980s, Holton attended the Columbia College Story Workshop, where he took 16 hours of classes, and learned how to write by taking part in Columbia College’s Creative Writing program. These classes taught Holton to use his imagination, to listen to the stories that lurked behind the most banal sounds that he might hear. He also completed a summer semester studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. This workshop is intensely competitive and just being accepted was an important acknowledgement of Holton’s talent. Then, in 1986, Holton attended a conference at Northwestern University that was sponsored by the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. But still, in spite of all these classes and studying, Holton kept trying to develop and polish his skills. Finally in 1988 he took a course from writer Barbara D’Amato through the Glencoe Library. It was D’Amato who would encourage Holton to try and write a novel.
Holton worked at his police job during the day, but after he left work at 10 p.m., he would go home and write, trying to complete at least two to five pages of work and then spending another 45 minutes editing his work. Eventually he had a couple of novels completed but still no literary agent or publisher had expressed an interest in his work. It was D’Amato who would introduce Holton to Ed Gorman, the editorial director of Mystery Scene, who ultimately helped Holton publish his first novel. In 1989 Gorman hired Holton to write a monthly column on police procedures for Mystery Scene magazine. The column was called “Cop’s Corner,” and had a successful two-year run. Gorman next put Holton in touch with a literary agent, Susan Gleason, who read one of his manuscripts and agreed to represent him. She succeeded in placing two of Holton’s novels, Windy City and Chicago Blues, with a publisher, and when Presumed Dead was completed, she quickly sold it. Presumed Dead would become the first of Holton’s works to be published by Forge. Forge went on to publish all nine of Holton’s novels, which proved to be popular with mystery novel fans. Holton’s experience as a cop, and his knowledge of Chicago streets and neighborhoods lent an air of authenticity to his work. His books contained the sounds and feel of the streets and neighborhoods that Chicago residents recognized and have themselves walked.
Holton’s novels were a publishing success, although the critics were not always kind. The publication of Presumed Dead introduced Larry Cole, a Chicago police commander and a continuing character in Holton’s books. In a review of this first book, Emily Melton, writing for Booklist, in July of 1994, found Holton’s book to have some small problems, but generally, her review was one of the more positive assessments that Holton received. Melton went on to say, “Thumbs up for mostly skillful writing, a ‘can’t put it down’ story line, an ingenious if sometimes unlikely plot, and plenty of spine-tingling thrills and chills.” In a July 1995 review of Windy City, a critic for Publishers Weekly was not as generous as Melton had been in reviewing the previous year’s novel, noting, “This outing might have been fun and/or gripping if Holton had stopped straddling the fence between writing a camp cartoon or a realist cop tale.” Another Publishers Weekly review in March of 1996 was quite savage in the reviewer’s criticism of Holton’s Chicago Blues. This critic offered a mixed review that referred to the “lurid, pulpy violence” of the novel, which contained “multiple action scenes involving such cartoony gimmicks as expert dagger-throwers and bazookas,” all this in a novel that the reviewer called more an adventure fantasy than a crime novel. Holton’s next novel, Violent Crimes fared no better. Once again, a critic for Publishers Weekly was not enthusiastic about a book that was labeled “violent and tedious” and even “predictable.” The anonymous reviewer referred to Holton’s writing “as lumpy as a Chicago street in winter.” Once again, though, Emily Melton, writing for the June 1998 Booklist, called Holton’s next novel, Red Lightening “good escapist fantasy.”
Holton’s writing success did not mean an abandonment of the police career that he loved. In a 1997 interview with Don Najolia for the Chicago Sun-Times, Holton spoke about the novels that he had completed and those that he had planned, and he responded to Najolia’s query about Holton’s possible retirement from the police force. He told Najolia that he had become eligible for retirement the previous year, but retirement was not in his plans. Holton told Najolia that “I could do another 13 years. I love this job. And I’m a cop first.” Holton’s expectation was that he could continue to perform both of his jobs well and continue using the police force as inspiration and material for his novels.
During 1999 and 2000, two more Holton novels were published, and once again, the critics were just as divided about the books’ appeal. In January of 1999, a critic for Publishers Weekly gave The Left Hand of God a mostly positive review, calling this novel “an ambitious but cluttered mix of clandestine politicking, crooked gambling and black magic.” In referring to the novel’s author, the reviewer suggested that Holton “demonstrates that a plethora of plotting—some of it quite exciting—can come very close to papering over a bland prose style.” Holton’s next novel, Time of the Assassins fared much better with Wes Lukowsky of Booklist. Lukowsky said of Holton that he “keeps readers turning pages through sharp dialogue, fascinating characters, and a breakneck pace.” Time of the Assassins, suggested Lukowsky, was “great escapist reading and should not be missed.”
With The Devil’s Shadow, the critic for the May 2001 Publishers Weekly issue provided the most enthusiastic reception for any one of Holton’s novels. In his interview with Najolia, Holton mentioned that he and his publisher had novels planned through the year 2000. This proved to be a prophetic plan. When Holton died of colon cancer on May 18, 2001, he had been a policeman for 32 years and a writer for most of that time, with two more novels nearing publication. It is ironic that he would never read the best reviews of his career.
At Holton’s death, Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun-Times, noted Holton’s passing and called his novel The Devil’s Shadow, a “gripping novel” with “pitch-perfect dialogue and authentic police procedure.” According to Kisor, The Devil’s Shadow reminded readers of “the splendid storytelling talent we lost with Holton’s death.” After his death, Holton’s family donated his manuscripts, books, photographs and other memorabilia, including his police uniform to the Newberry Library in Chicago. His publisher and agent, Bob and Susan Gleason, also donated their files. At the June 2001 meeting of the Mystery Writers Conference, Chicago Daily Herald correspondent, Mary A. Gruner, reported that the conference opened with a tribute to Holton, who had previously been president of that organization. The current president, Allen Salter noted of Holton that “Those of us who knew him will remember him not only for his accomplishments, but for his generosity.”
Holton’s final book was published in February of 2002, nine months after his death. In a pre-publication review for Publishers Weekly, a critic offered a mixed review that noted that Holton’s final novel, Criminal Element, “lacks continuity and cumulative narrative power.” However, in spite of these criticisms, the reviewer called the book, “fast moving” and “entertaining.” In contrast, Wes Lubowsky of Booklist, wrote in his January 2002 review of the same novel that “Holton’s legacy is equal parts Dirty Harry and James Bond Holton and Cole will be missed.”
Police work and writing had been indelible linked in Holton’s life. For Holton, the two could never be separated, and how closely tied they were could be best illustrated in the story of his last promotion as a police officer. In January of 2001, only a few months before his death, Holton was promoted to captain. Ironically, he received his promotion in the very same room at the South Shore Cultural Center district in which he had three people killed in his novel, Chicago Blues. It was that simple interweaving of a police career and a novelist that made Holton’s books such a success. At his death, Holton was survived by a daughter, Elizabeth Holton Cook, and nine very successful novels.
Presumed Dead, Forge, 1994.
Windy City, Forge, 1995.
Chicago Blues, Forge, 1996.
Violent Crimes, Forge, 1997.
Red Lightning, Forge, 1998.
The Left Hand of God, Forge, 1999.
Time of the Assassins, Forge, 2000.
The Devil’s Shadow, Forge, 2001.
Criminal Element, Forge, 2002.
Booklist, July 1994, p. 1926; June 1, 1998, p. 1733; February 15, 2000, p. 1088; January 1, 2002, p. 818.
Chicago Daily Herald, June 15, 2001, p. 3.
Chicago Reader, September 29, 2000.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 30,1997, p. 18; May 27, 2001, p. 9.
New York Times, April 15, 1991, p. A1
Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, p. 54; March 18, 1996, p. 61; December 9,1996, p. 63; January 18,1999, p. 332; May 7, 2001, p. 222; November 26, 2001, p. 41.
“Police Procedures in Mysteries,” Mystery Net, www.mysterynet.com/books/testimony/0009.shtml (April 14, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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