The Trapdoor, by Keith Peterson

Christopher Hitchens had a great line on Hugh Hewitt’s show a few minutes ago. He said (I’m quoting from memory), regarding Barack Obama’s religion speech yesterday, “I’d often heard of a politician selling his grandmother. This was the first time I ever actually saw one do it.”

I’m re-reading some old books just now, simply because my energy’s too low to run to the used bookstore. Tonight I want to review The Trapdoor by Keith Peterson, and record a general appreciation of the entire John Wells series.

Keith Peterson, as I’ve mentioned before (but you probably forgot. Pay attention!) is a pseudonym for Andrew Klavan. I was a Keith Peterson fan before I ever was aware of Klavan. His John Wells books, written under the Peterson name, plus an excellent one-off called The Scarred Man (which I reviewed on the old site), were published in the late ’80s, and did pretty well as far as I can tell. However, Klavan chose, for some reason, to round out the John Wells series at four books. I wish it had gone further, but on the other hand the tetralogy is pretty complete in terms of its hero’s character arc. Here you see an early exercise in which Klavan allows us to see his hero grow over a series of books (as in the Weiss and Bishop novels). And that hero, in many ways, is a precursor to Steve Everett, the obsessive reporter hero of True Crime.

John Wells, the hero of The Trapdoor (and of its sequels, There Fell a Shadow, The Rain, and Rough Justice) is a crime reporter for the New York Star, a tabloid paper. He’s a reporter’s reporter. When he finds a real story he’ll work any hours and go to any lengths to get it. He has no life outside the job. His apartment, as a lady friend comments, looks like a place where nobody lives.

What he won’t write is fluff. This puts him in conflict with his managing editor, in the first three books. The managing editor was hired by the owners to give the paper what he calls “relatability.” This means sex and sleeze. John ignores the managing editor, not because of his high moral standards, but because fluff demeans his profession, and his profession is all he has. He’s able to get away with this (most of the time) because he’s the best crime reporter in the city.

The managing editor gets petty revenge one day by assigning Wells to cover a series of teenage suicides in a town upstate.

This assignment shocks even Wells’ most cynical colleagues. Because everyone knows the reason why he’s cut himself off from life. Five years ago, his own teenaged daughter hanged herself.

Wells accepts the assignment, though. He won’t be intimidated.

It’s not easy, but he’s a pro. He does the job. He interviews the grieving families and writes a sensitive series on the tragedies. Then he faxes the stories back to the paper.

And the hot-shot managing editor re-writes the stories (still under Wells’ name) to make them “relatable.”

Suddenly John Wells is the most hated man in the town.

And that’s not good, because Wells needs to go back there. He’s starting to suspect that at least some of the suicides were murders.

I loved the John Wells series because Peterson/Klavan focused it on a complex, deeply sympathetic main character, and surrounded him with an equally believable supporting cast.

The world-weary, cynical detective is a staple of hard-boiled crime fiction. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade weren’t stereotypes in their own time, but they’ve become stereotypes. We take them for granted, and rarely ask ourselves what made them the loners they are.

John Wells’ alienation is the central problem of the series. He’s been hurt so badly in the past, first by the failure of his marriage, then by the suicide of his daughter, that he’s walled himself off from humanity. Most of his co-workers like him, but he keeps his distance. His protégé, a beautiful young reporter named Lansing, is crazy in love with him, but he treats her like a kid sister—not really because of the age difference, but because she’s alive, and he doesn’t dare get too close to life. In The Trapdoor, he does get involved with a woman, a suicide counselor (remarkably, one of the few instances I’ve ever seen in a detective novel where the hero connects with a woman specifically described as not beautiful), but they’re both so damaged that they know nothing can come of it.

As each book in the series progresses, however, Wells is forced to deal with one of his personal devils, to break down another of his psychological walls. The last book, Rough Justice, has the earmarks of an attempt to re-launch the series on a new level. But it also serves as a satisfactory climax. John Wells at the end of Rough Justice is a very different man from the John Wells we started out with in The Trapdoor.

This is early, pre-Christian Klavan, but many of the themes that inform his later work are already there. The books are out of print, but you can get them second hand. I recommend them highly.

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