“Life Doesn’t Always Work Out” (by Michael Z. Lewin)

Michael Z. Lewin is the winner of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and he’s been writing private-eye novels and stories, as well as other types of crime fiction, since 1971. He’s known for two popular series, one starring Albert Samson and the other the Lunghi family of detectives. His most recent novels are Whatever It Takes and Men Like Us. Mike is also a prolific short story writer and a longtime contributor to both EQMM and our sister magazine, AHMM. You won’t want to miss his new story collection, Alien Quartet: Four Albert Samson Stories, or his story coming up in our next issue (November/December 2022), “Two, Four, Six, Eight.” It’s real crime, not fiction, that’s on the author’s mind in this moving post.  —Janet Hutchings

I am too young, obviously, even to think about writing a memoir of my life and work for my children and grandchildren. But in not-thinking about such a thing it’s occurred to me that instead of describing, painstakingly, what has happened to me, it might be interesting to consider what might have happened to me instead.

I’m thinking first of a friend I made in the seventh grade (which made me 12, for those of you less familiar with US school sequencing.) I don’t, in fact, remember when I first met Jerry, or began to hang out with him, but in the eighth grade graduation picture he is there, taller than everyone else, smiling for the camera. In it he has a blunt face, like Roger Federer’s, and is not especially handsome (were any of us at thirteen?)  But his appearance in the picture vividly connects for me with the ambitious, brave and inventive guy I knew him to be in high school and later.

Inventive? As a sixteen-year-old he wangled an arrangement with the local morning newspaper to bring local election results to them. This meant getting the voting results from polling stations’ machines, and driving downtown to the Star offices to turn them in.

There were too many polling stations for Jerry to cover quickly enough himself, so he recruited me to do a few—and perhaps other friends who could drive.  We made a little money and saw the inside of a newspaper office . . . Not every high school kid gets to do that.

Brave?  For reasons I never asked or knew, Jerry “collected” the license plates of police vehicles, with particular interest in those driven by plainclothes cops.  (Are the motivations spurring any collector understandable to the rest of us?)  This “hobby” even led him to sneak into the police parking lot beneath headquarters in downtown Indy to write down plate numbers.

I put such a collector into a book once, a kid being caught there. But without consequences: the appearance in my book just a gift to Jerry. Because as well as plate numbers he collected more general info about the city police, and later provided me with the floor plan of police HQ that I used when I began writing my Leroy Powder novels—Powder being an Indy cop.

And ambitious . . . Jerry did not aspire, as far as I know, to be a policeman.  His longterm target was to become Governor of Indiana. And as part of that plan he resolved that I would become his campaign manager . . . Perhaps writing crime fiction gave me the requisite deviousness.

But while waiting to become thirty—the age of eligibility—he went to college in Indiana and then off to Detroit to work for General Motors. There, during the introductory training program, the head of the company came in to ask the new recruits how they were doing and whether anything could be improved.

Unlike the rest of his intake, Jerry wrote several pages spelling out what was working well and what wasn’t and submitted it.  The result was that he leaped up the “freshman” corporate ladder to join the team that went to company branches assessing the efficiency of their performance.

By now I lived in England, and he came to visit us in the seventies at the end of a European vacation.  He talked again of his plans to become Governor.  I was still in the mix.

And that’s what I’m thinking about in this non-memoir episode.

Jerry was one of those guys whose ambition and charisma you believe in.  So I figured he would become Governor—with or without my lack of experience in the political process. (Hey, perhaps I’d have learned quickly.)

But think about it.  Maybe, under Governor Jerry, Indiana could have become a more socially empathetic State. Poor and disadvantaged people might have been given sympathetic and comprehensive help to find their way, or just to survive.

Because once upon a time Indiana was a leader in socially sympathetic legislation . . .

In 1799 the US government enacted a “poor relief” law requiring local counties and townships to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves, designated as “paupers.” These people were to be auctioned off. Members of their community bid for the paupers services by saying how little money they’d need from government to feed and clothe the pauper. Whoever bid the least won the pauper, and his or her labor—not exactly a recipe for good treatment. Paupers including children who’d lost their parents and had no relatives who’d take them in were subject to auction.  This happened throughout the US and its territories.

In 1813—three years before statehood—the Indiana territory legislature did pass a law that required impartial justice to rich and poor, “regardless of race.”

But it wasn’t until 1834 that Indiana became the first State to ban the enslavement that resulted from the practice of pauper auctions.

Hoosier historians may be able to update me, but in years of writing books and stories set in Indiana, I can’t remember another genuinely caring piece of legislation that Indiana paved the way with.  When I moved to Indy in 1948 there were still lines on the floors of busses to designate seating areas by color.

Just think what Governor Jerry and I could have done.  If he was lucky and forceful enough to get himself elected despite my running his campaign, there would have been no limits.

Except it didn’t happen. And not because I refused to interrupt my writing career.

Jerry’s visit to England was the last time I ever saw him. He was murdered in Detroit in the mid-seventies. He was robbed and his body set alight in a vacant lot. The murder was never solved.

My point here is to underline that real crimes—as opposed to the fictional ones—affect real people.  And murders affect more than just the victim.

These truths are explored in a lot of the darker crime fictions, while being skipped over in so many of the lighter forms of this genre.  I don’t mind books and stories that don’t go all serious on us—there are many kinds of entertainment and education to be had in mystery fictions, even in mine. But please, don’t treat crime, real crime—including small crimes—casually.

Anyone whose home or even car has been broken into—whether anything was taken or not—knows that the disturbing effects of such things are real, and they last.  And more “serious” crimes . . . Lordie.  How does one get over them?

In response to Jerry’s murder I wrote a novel about a crime writer—not remotely me, of course—whose friend was murdered. This fictional and big-headed writer thinks his special understanding of crime ought to enable him to solve the murder. Even to do it better than the police, who strike him as incompetent and puzzlingly resistant to accepting his help.  Spoiler alert:  he can’t help and he doesn’t solve it.

I, at least, didn’t try flying to Detroit to “contribute.”

In my first crime novel, Ask the Right Question, my private eye has a best friend named Jerry Miller.  That was the name of my real life friend.  And in real life he ended up murdered.  I’ve never used the whole real name of someone I knew in a book again.

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4 Responses to “Life Doesn’t Always Work Out” (by Michael Z. Lewin)

  1. Very moving and thoughtful piece, Michael. I’ve been both a victim of crime and a police officer, and I grew up with an uncle who was a violent career criminal. As you point out so well, at the end of every crime the consequences for the victims and survivors is just beginning.

  2. Thank you for this, David. It’s very much appreciated. Mike

  3. Norman Quick says:

    Never knew about these pauper auctions.
    Really sad about your friend. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt and important story.

    • Michael Z. Lewin says:

      Thanks for the comments and sympathy, Norman. And I did in fact write about the pauper actions in Cutting Loose.

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