Dave Zeltserman’s crime-noir novels Small Crimes and Pariah were both selected by The Washington Post as best books of the year. His short story “Julius Katz” won the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for best P.I. story, and a second story in that series, “Archie’s Been Framed,” won EQMM’s Readers Award. His most recent book, Monster: A Novel of Frankenstein is neither noir nor mystery, but horror. You can see from the extensive range of his books and stories that he’s particularly well qualified to talk about the challenges of writing in a variety of forms. Here he discusses his experiences in going from noir to puzzle murder mysteries. . . . —Janet Hutchings
When my story “Julius Katz” (EQMM September/October 2009) was published, it must’ve surprised my readers. Up till then, most readers knew me from my dark and violent noir novels and stories. “Julius Katz” is very different from my noir writing in its gentle humor and endearing characters, and is mostly a bloodless story where the murders take place off screen. My Julius Katz stories are somewhere between pastiche and homage to Nero Wolfe—a mix of hardboiled and traditional mystery where a brilliant but incredibly lazy detective has all the evidence gathered, questions the witnesses, and then points out the guilty party. The hardboiled element in both Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and my Julius Katz stories is represented by a wisecracking assistant who narrates the stories. With Nero Wolfe the assistant is Archie Goodwin. In my Julius Katz stories, the assistant is also named Archie, but there the similarities with Archie Goodwin end, as my Archie is a computer device the size of a tie pin, but with the heart and soul of a hardboiled PI. And with his self-adapting neuron network, my Archie wants nothing more than to learn enough by observing Julius so that he can beat him to the punch in solving a case.
So why go from writing noir to Julius Katz stories? Well, my reading has always been diverse, and as much as I love hardboiled and noir literature, I’ve always also loved the Nero Wolfe books. Next to Hammett, Rex Stout is probably my favorite crime/mystery author. The reasons for reading noir and Nero Wolfe are very different. A noir story will grip you as it drags you along with its protagonist on a one-way ticket to hell. These stories tend to be violent and can be psychologically fascinating, as well as provide insights into the human condition that few other mystery and crime stories are capable of. Nero Wolfe books are read for enjoyment and entertainment, as well as Rex Stout’s wonderful writing. At the heart of every Nero Wolfe book is the murder mystery, but what really drives these books is the relationship between Nero and Archie and the humor that comes out of it. You enjoy spending time with both characters. While there can also be humor in noir, it tends to be brutally dark humor, and while the characters in noir fiction can be fascinating, these aren’t really characters you want to spend much time with—at least, no more than the time to read a single book. When I made the decision to write my first Julius Katz story (and it was an intimidating decision, given how much in awe I am of Rex Stout’s writing and his books), I decided that what was going to drive these stories was the relationship between Julius and my Archie, and particularly the humor that would come out of their relationship. Even though my Archie is a piece of computer technology, he appears very human and endearing because he’s such an innocent.
The following excerpt is taken from my full-length novel Julius Katz and Archie and has Archie very annoyed with Julius for agreeing to what he considers a humiliating publicity stunt for the sake of a rare bottle of wine.
“I thought your dignity and reputation weren’t for sale?” I asked.
A wry smile pulled up the edges of Julius’s lips. “I don’t believe I ever said anything about my reputation being priceless,” he said.
“Okay, your dignity then.”
More of his wry smile. “Technically, Archie, I don’t believe I as much sold my dignity as bartered it away.”
It was a clever joke, but I wasn’t much up to joking then. More of that excess heat began to burn in me. “For a lousy bottle of wine! That’s what you did it for!”
“I hardly think you can call a ’78 Montrachet a lousy bottle of wine.” Julius’s smile faded as he sat straighter in his chair and rubbed his thumb along the knuckles of his right hand. With others, Julius kept his emotions and thoughts impenetrable, with me he didn’t bother. Right now he was showing his annoyance, but I didn’t care. “The man is a philistine,” Julius continued. “He was going to mix soda water with a ’78 Montrachet to make a wine spritzer. It would’ve been a crime to let that happen.”
“So you were just saving humanity from an outrage?”
“Okay,” I said. “I understand. For a bottle of wine, you’ve agreed to play a stooge.”
Julius stopped rubbing his knuckles. He took in a slow breath and with a forced attempt at humor, said, “And of course, twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“Of course, we can’t forget the twenty-five thousand dollars. So for that money and the Montrachet, you’ll be looking like a dunce to the world.”
“Again, Archie, things are not always what they appear.”
“Yeah, well, as far as the TV and newspaper reporters are going to be concerned, Kenneth J. Kingston will be trumping you at your own game. Should I be ordering you a dunce cap now for the occasion? I might be able to find a good deal.”
Julius slowly began rubbing his knuckles again. “Enough of this, Archie.”
I should’ve taken the hint, but I couldn’t help myself. “Sure, of course,” I said. “I understand. But boss, should I get a jump on updating your biography to reference that you’re no longer Boston’s most brilliant detective, but have slipped to the second-most? Or should I wait until after Kingston plays you for a chump? Now that I think of it, after that happens I’m not even sure you could legitimately claim that title, since every other working private investigator in Boston would probably be able to prove themselves intellectually superior to Kingston, so by the transitive property, that would, in effect, make you Boston’s least brilliant detective. Not as compelling a title for you to hold, but I guess we’ll have to deal with it. If you want I can order stationery now to that effect, or I can wait until—”
I had pushed him too far. Julius cut me off, saying, “Goodnight, Archie.” And blast it! My world went black as he turned me off!
I’d like to talk a little about the different challenges of writing noir and Julius Katz stories, particularly how plotting and outlining each are so very different. While some writers like to have only a general idea of the beginning and end and let the writing be an adventure, others, like myself, like to have a detailed outline before starting a story or novel. Usually my novels will take detours from my outlines, and sometimes, major characters that I hadn’t previously thought of will force their way into the book, but without an outline for a roadmap, I feel lost.
When plotting noir, I tend to first come up with my flawed protagonist and the scenario that is going to send him on his noir journey, while also at this point usually seeing my protagonist’s ultimate fate. Then it’s a matter of coming up with increasingly dire situations for my protagonist to find himself in once he crosses that moral line that can’t be uncrossed, until in the end he has no choice but to tumble into the abyss. Using my novel Small Crimes as an example, I first developed my protagonist, Joe Denton, as a corrupt ex-cop who wants desperately to believe he’s not a bad guy and can go through life without causing any more damage. Except, it’s all self-deception. The scenario I came up with for Joe was that nine years earlier he had broken into the district attorney’s office to destroy evidence that would’ve sent him to prison, and when the DA walked in on him, he ended up brutally maiming the man. The novel starts with Joe being released from county jail and finding that nobody wants him around anymore—not his parents, his ex-wife, or anyone who ever knew him, and further, the DA is out for blood, wanting badly to find a way to send Joe to prison for the rest of his life. The no-win situation Joe finds himself in is that the mob boss he used to do jobs for is dying of cancer, and the DA is doing everything he can to coerce a deathbed confession from him. From there, I put Joe in increasingly worse situations as he tries to keep the mob boss from talking, as well as keeping others in the town who have deep-seated grudges against him from killing him.
When I plot a Julius Katz story, it’s all about the puzzle, yet in all of the stories outside of the first one, the stories still sprang out of an initial idea that had nothing to do with the eventual murder mystery. The first story, “Julius Katz,” is also different from the others in that it’s really about solving two puzzles—the murder mystery, and, for Archie, figuring out why Julius has been acting “unusually” with regard to Lily Rosten. With “Archie’s Been Framed” (the EQMM Readers Award winner in 2010), the story started with the idea of Archie dating a woman through the Internet who is going to end up murdered, leaving Archie as the chief suspect. The why and how of the murder was figured out later as part of the puzzle. With my full-length ebook, Julius Katz and Archie, the idea that triggered the novel was a mystery writer hiring Julius to figure out who is trying to kill him as part of an elaborate publicity stunt— only to end up actually murdered. Again, the puzzle was put together later. With “One Angry Julius Katz and Eleven Befuddled Jurors,” the idea leading to the story was having a petulant Julius stuck on a jury with a once-in-a-lifetime gourmet dinner approaching. With my upcoming “Archie Solves the Case,” the idea that triggered the story was to be able to have Archie claim that he was equally responsible for solving the murder, even if his logic could be considered a little fuzzy.
When working out the puzzles for these stories, I have several murder suspects, all with legitimates reasons to want to commit the murder, but the clues planted in the story will lead Julius and the reader to the solution if they look carefully enough.
I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that just as reading noir fiction can be both exhilarating and draining, the same is true with writing noir. I guess it comes down to this: Plumbing the human depths can be an exhausting experience. And just as reading Nero Wolfe books was always a fun and enjoyable experience for me, the same is true of writing Julius Katz. I doubt I’ll ever find a more enjoyable character to write about and spend time with than Archie. So I guess that answers why I take breaks from writing noir and crime fiction to spend time in Julius’s and Archie’s world—I need the respite those characters give me!
Nice piece, Dave. I read diversely, though I’ve been writing only hard crime fiction for a while. I’ve been thinking about mixing it up. And maybe I will.