Tag Archives: Keith Peterson

Repost: The Scarred Man, by Keith Peterson (Andrew Klavan)

(My original plan was to repost all my previous Andrew Klavan reviews before addressing Empire of Lies, but I got carried away. So I’m picking up the reposts now. This is second in the series, and like the previous repost, comes from May 2006.)

Oh, by the way,
I forgot yesterday the first Andrew Klavan novel I read (actually it was written under the Keith Peterson pseudonym)–The Scarred Man. This is a psychological thriller with one of the best hooks I’ve ever read.

I love a great “book hook.” Perhaps my favorite is the beginning of The Man Who Wasn’t There by Roderick MacLeish (a much underappreciated novelist). That book (as I recall–I don’t have a copy) began with the main character, who was something of a celebrity, being recognized by a stranger sitting beside him on a plane. Instead of admitting to his identity, he played a trick he liked to play in such situations, claiming to be his own (non-existent) non-famous twin, whose story he made up on the spot.

The next morning he got up and read in the paper that this imaginary twin brother had been killed in a plane crash.

That’s a great book hook.

But the hook in The Scarred Man is almost as good.

Michael North is a young New York reporter who accepts an invitation to spend Christmas in Connecticut with his boss. There he meets the boss’s daughter, Susannah, and falls hopelessly in love in about a nanosecond.

To entertain themselves, the party members agree to tell ghost stories (I thought of you here, Phil). Michael makes up a story on the spur of the moment, telling a tale of a murderous, undead psychopath with a scar down the center of his face.

Susannah goes hysterical, shouting “Stop it! What are you trying to do to me!” She flees back to school before he can discuss it with her.

Later, when he drives up to Susannah’s college to talk to her, he pulls into the entrance and sees, in his headlights–the scarred man. When he finds Susannah, she tells him she’s been having nightmares about this man all her life.

The great thing is, this isn’t a supernatural novel.

The friends of Carl

As I re-read Andrew Klavan/Keith Peterson’s books starring newspaperman John Wells (see yesterday’s review), I couldn’t help (though heaven knows I tried) thinking back to my own short, undistinguished career as a small town radio news reporter.

When I consider that time, I find incomprehensible that I could have actually believed that I (that is, me, this guy writing what you’re reading now) might possibly, under any circumstances, be able to do the job of a news reporter. Going out and speaking to strangers. Asking them questions. Pressing them when they’re reluctant to answer. I actually had the idea that I could learn to do those things.

Well, I was young then. All my life I’d heard people saying, “I used to be pretty shy, but I learned how to just get up and talk to people, and I found out there was nothing to be afraid of.” I figured I’d be the same, with time.

But enough of that. Enough to note that I tried it, long, long since, in the early 1980s.

And for some reason, reading about reporter John Wells and his dangerous life as a reporter reminded me of old Carl (not his real name), the guy who taught me the ropes at the radio station.

I don’t know why I’m disguising his name. I’d say the chances that he’s still alive are about the same as the chance that a top-flight literary agent is reading this right now and getting ready to e-mail me, offering me representation.

Because like John Wells, Carl was a degenerative (Not degenerate. There’s a difference). He smoked constantly, drank heavily and was in terrible physical condition (John Wells in the books was much the same, though thinner). When Carl showed me the job routine, it proved to consist of reading the morning paper, driving downtown, talking to a guy at the police station, and then adjourning to a local bar for refreshments.

Carl was not a motivated guy.

And then I remembered something I’d forgotten about Carl. Carl had odd fingers.

His fingers weren’t straight. They were crooked. They kind of zigzagged as your gaze followed them from knuckles to fingertips. They looked very odd when he typed.

His fingers looked, in fact, as if somebody had put his hand in a desk drawer one day, and then slammed the drawer shut. Like in The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

And it occurred to me, I wonder if Carl got those fingers on the job.

Maybe once he’d been a hotshot, dynamic young reporter, out to break big stories and pull the curtain away from crime and corruption.

Maybe he made the wrong people mad. And maybe they taught him a lesson about going along and getting along, through introducing him to a desk drawer.

Maybe that’s what made him the sad case he was when I got to know him.

I have no way of knowing.

But it makes a story.

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.