‘SORDID’ BUT FUNNY
Discussing David Handler’s latest novel
H.G. Wells’s time machine looked like Santa’s sleigh outfitted with one of those Everglades swampboat fans and a barber chair. Doc Brown’s mechanism was a tricked-out DeLorean.
But all Old Lyme novelist David Handler needs for such fourth dimensional travel is two hands tap dancing over the keyboard of his trusty Mac
— and the late-career realization that he COULD go back in time, at least so far as his fiction is concerned.
Handler is the author of the Edgar Award-winning mystery series starring Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag and loyal and oddly human-like Basset Hound Lulu, and the pair solve crimes in the latter decades of the 20th century. It was an era that sparkled with iconic personalities, new trends in technology and art, and a bubbling-over cauldron of pop culture developments — and one Handler remembers fondly.
On Tuesday, the 14th Hoagy and Lulu adventure, “The Girl Who Took What She Wanted,” hits bookstore shelves and finds the pair in Los Angeles amidst a bizarre Hollywood power family centered around wild-child daughter Nikki. She’s so charismatic and famous — often for the wrong reasons — that she’s known, Madonna- and Cher-like, by her first name. And Hoagy is there to chronicle this madness in the form of a ghostwritten autobiography for Nikki, at least until a murder changes the plan.
Back to the past
As loyal readers know, Hoagy was, at the dawn of the 1980s, a dawning superstar among Manhattan’s literary elite. But fame and success — and cocaine — destroyed his career, ruined his marriage to gifted actress Merilee Nash, and left him with writer’s block and scraping by ghostwriting celebrity autobiographies for minimal money.
It’s also familiar territory that the early Hoagy books were written in real-time and captured ongoing developments in culture. Suddenly, though, the idea of ghostwritten memoirs was obsolete, and many of the characteristics of the time became out of date. In 1997, Handler stopped writing Hoagy and created the new Berger and Mitry cozy series, followed by books featuring Manhattan investigator Benjy Gold.
Handler missed writing Lulu and Hoagy, but it wasn’t until an otherwise innocuous business lunch in New York that his agent made the simple observation that the author could resurrect the series if he just froze his heroes in time. Voila! After 20 years, Hoagy and Lulu returned in “The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes.”
Since then, Handler has written five more in the series, all doing quite well. Last year’s “The Lady in the Silver Cloud,” the first in a new contract with the elite Mysterious Press publishing outfit, was the most successful Hoagy title so far. Now, advance praise for “The Girl Who Took What She Wanted” includes a starred review in Publishers Weekly and a review from Kirkus that called the book “brightly written, professional-grade beach reading” — which seems to amalgamize Handler’s multifaceted literary charms succinctly.
Earlier this week, the writer answered five questions about his career, Lulu and Hoagy, and “The Girl Who Took What She Wanted.” Answers have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: Once you realized how to carry on with Hoagy and Lulu, the story carried on a chronology in which Hoagy slowly regains his literary voice, he and Merilee are getting back together, and Lulu still likes anchovies. But in the new book, you spin backwards five years from the previous book. How did that happen?
A: Well, it’s a weird development. One of my goals when I brought Hoagy back was that, yes, he’d have a literary breakthrough. Over the last few books, he’s been making real progress on his comeback novel. But then I had an idea to revisit the roots of the series, which I’d written 35 years ago, and explore from that angle.
The concept is that Hoagy is telling a story that he could never tell before because now time and circumstances are allowing him to share. I hope it’s fun for readers because there was a long time when my catalog wasn’t kept in print. If you randomly read a Hoagy novel and wanted to go back and catch up, there was no way to do that. Now, they’re all available again, but “The Girl Who Did What She Wanted” was a chance to add to the story of those early years.
Q: In earlier conversations, you described the new book as a bit more “sordid” than you usually write — albeit with the caveat that you LIKE sordid. So do I, but as always you do a really good job of mixing genres: really dark and melancholy material with light touches — tones associated with cozy mysteries — and then very funny, dryly satiric dialogue and observations. That blend has to be hard to pull off — or maybe not?
A: Well, that’s a flattering description. Thank you. I do mix humor and sadness a lot, but I don’t always think of it as mixing genres as I’m writing. I think of the books as pretty serious with characters who happen to be funny. I wrote for sitcoms back in the ’80s and I think that sort of humor is in my DNA.
A lot of readers have said they enjoyed the humor over the years, but in every book is a serious underpinning because there’s nothing funny about murder — or characters who have been driven by desperation to commit heinous acts. Regarding “sordid,” I’m referring to the reveal at the end of the book. It describes a very sad situation. Of course, it’s also true that Lulu finds the most important clue.
Q: You have a lot of fun with the Hoagy novels by slipping in sly bits from politics and pop culture. Given that contemporary society has moved along to the extent that some folks don’t know who the Beatles are — you still delight in relatively obscure references like H. Rap Brown, Doug Sahm and Tennessee Williams. Is this for your own amusement or a sort of lagniappe to older readers?
A: I love throwing in those references from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, and it’s my hope that a lot of readers enjoy them. If younger readers are reading the books, I hope maybe they’ll take the time to look up some of these people if they don’t know who they are.
A lot of my readers were in diapers when I was publishing my first books, so I have fun talking about the movies and music and TV shows of the time. Maybe it makes someone curious — and it’s certainly what Hoagy would have been talking about at the time.
Q: Speaking of Hoagy in that context, for all his wit, debonair sophistication and literary reputation, he can be as happy making silly jokes and sophisticated allusions.
A: He’s definitely a mixture of high and low culture. Yes, he IS a serious novelist, but there’s a lot in the world that amuses him. He’s always been a fun character to write.
Q: Given your similarity in age to Hoagy and the fact that you took 20 years off from one book to the next, was it hard to rediscover his voice?
A: There’s not much space between Hoagy and me. Yes, he IS me, so I had no problem picking him up. His voice is different now, but so is mine. A lot of time has passed for me, so, while he’s still in the same time period, he has the benefit of my experiences (laughs).
I’d say we’re not necessarily more mature, but certainly bruised and battered. I’ve lost a lot friends and family members, so I’m not longer inclined, as I was coming off writing for sitcoms, to cram five jokes onto every page. And I also don’t want to remember too much. I rarely go back and read the earlier novels unless I need to check something. I think probably readers can’t detect the difference, but I can.