Article in Chicago Jewish News Feb 3, 2006
WHODUNIT, KOSHER STYLE: Meet the former Chicagoan whose new murder mystery is set in West Rogers Park and features a detective named Abe Lieberman 
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

He's a little old Jewish man with white hair and a face like a sad-eyed spaniel. He eats what he's not supposed to and can't resist cookies of any kind. He and his wife, Bess (who's the president of their synagogue), are raising their two grandchildren in their house in West Rogers Park. He has a daughter he doesn't understand and a brother with health problems, who he worries about. He studies the Talmud. He's scrupulously honest but also shrewd and cynical. Some people call him "rabbi." He carries a gun but doesn't have to use it often-he's quick to disarm a criminal with his hands and even quicker to do so with his intellect. 

Fans of detective fiction might already have recognized Abe Lieberman, the quirky Jewish cop hero of nine books by Stuart M. Kaminsky, a former Chicagoan who's also one of the country's best-known and most prolific writers of mystery and detective fiction. 

Now Abe, along with his Irish Catholic partner, Bill Hanrahan, stars in the newest book in the series, "Terror Town," published this week by Forge Hardcover ($23.95). The title refers to a crime-ridden section of Chicago where one of the book's three intersecting stories is set as Lieberman and Hanrahan investigate the murder of a young single mother, a senseless attack on an aging Chicago Cubs player and the strange case of a threatening man who extracts money from his victims by telling them that G-d has sent him. 

Jewish religion and culture is woven throughout the novel, from the central, tragic role it plays in one of the three stories to the jesting, querulous men at the altah kocker table in the deli Abe's brother owns to a cameo role for a lawyer who'd like to challenge Bess Lieberman's supremacy as president of the synagogue. 

Kaminsky also writes with accuracy and affection about Chicago, and that's not surprising. He was born here and grew up on the West Side, where he graduated Marshall High School. Later, his father opened a grocery store on the North Side and the family moved to Albany Park, he said during a wide- ranging and free-wheeling telephone interview from his home in Sarasota, Fla., where he has lived since 1989. 

His pedigree, he notes, mirrors that of many first-generation Jewish Chicagoans: ancestors on one side from Lithuania, on the other from the Ukraine. "My grandfather from Lithuania was a businessman," he says. "When he came to Chicago, he became a junk man and got reasonably successful at it." The family mix included one grandfather who was an Orthodox Jew and another who was a Communist. 

Kaminsky himself earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in English from the University of Illinois at Champaign and went on to receive a Ph.D. in speech from Northwestern University, where he taught and served as head of the film department from 1973 to 1989 (and helped Chicago author Sara Paretsky get her start). In Sarasota, he taught at Florida State University and was the founding director of the university's Graduate Conservatory in Film and Television Writing. 

The move to Florida, he explains, was at the request of his wife, Enid Lisa Perll, a psychologist who now works with beginning authors, helping to get their books in shape before they submit them to agents and publishers. The couple met at the University of Chicago, and "when we got married, she said, someplace warm, please," Kaminsky says. Florida fit the bill, and they've lived there ever since with their daughter, now 17 and a senior in high school. (Kaminsky has three other children from a previous marriage; one, Peter, is a Chicago attorney.) In 1994, he left his teaching post to concentrate on writing full-time. 

Not that he didn't already have an output that rivaled the number of murders committed by members of the Tentaculos, the lethal (but still often on the side of the good guys) Hispanic gang that plays a recurring role in "Terror Town." 

Today, Kaminsky has nearly 65 books to his credit. Among them are titles in four series: Besides Abe Lieberman, there are the Lew Fonesca mysteries, the Toby Peters mysteries and the Porfiry Rostnikov novels. He has also written several non-series novels, a short story collection, two original Jim Rockford novels based on the TV character, an original "CSI: New York" novel, biographies of Clint Eastwood, John Huston, Gary Cooper and director Don Siegel, and four textbooks on film and television writing. In addition, he has screenwriting credits on four films, including "Once Upon A Time in America" and "Hidden Fears." Now 71, he shows no signs of slowing down. 

And there's more. A past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Kaminsky won an Edgar, the mystery writer's Oscar, for his Porfiry Rostnikov novel "A Cold, Red Sunrise" and has been nominated for the award six times. 

With his first book, "Bullet for a Star," published in 1977, he hit on a popular, lighthearted twist to the classic American detective genre. In that volume, Toby Peters (real name Pevsner), a former security officer with Warner Brothers Studio who was fired for breaking the arm of a tough- guy Western star, hangs out his shingle as a low-rent private eye and soon begins working for a number of early 1940s Hollywood celebrities. In "Bullet," Errol Flynn hires Toby to keep him safe; in 24 more titles in the series, Toby's clients range from the Marx Brothers to Judy Garland to Eleanor Roosevelt to Albert Einstein to Cary Grant. The gimmick caught on and the series proved to be Kaminsky's most popular. 

And Toby Peters is Jewish, although "he changed his name and doesn't acknowledge his Jewish identity. His brother does, and it's a point of contention. The series is very light but (Toby's Jewishness) is an issue," the author says. 

Rostnikov, the Russian detective who Kaminsky calls his "most honored character," is not Jewish but his wife is, which "causes him a great deal of difficulty and has an effect on his career, because his son is considered Jewish," his creator says. 

Intertwined with issues of religion are the themes of justice and honestly in all of Kaminsky's books. Rostnikov "is living in a very corrupt system. He cares about people, he's a decent person who wants to do the right thing," he says. But because the fictional detective grew up under the Soviet system, "there's no impetus of religion for him." 

That's not the case with Abe Lieberman, whose moral sense comes straight from Judaism. "What I've said in the books is that his sense of justice comes from the Scriptures," Kaminsky says. "There's nothing Christian about the way he thinks. He follows what he thinks is the right thing to do and he's going to do the right thing. He's very aware of it." 

In the Lieberman books, "sometimes people get killed who would normally be brought in for trial, or he lets people go," Kaminsky says. "He gives out the justice, the decision-making that he believes is G-d's justice. He doesn't think the law always addresses it. He spends a great deal of time thinking about the merits of the particular issues he faces." Lieberman "really looks at things from a number of sides before he makes a decision. He argues with himself, with his brother. There is a lot of argument going on about what the right thing to do is, and when he does it, it doesn't necessarily coincide with the law." 

Kaminsky himself may not share many of Abe Lieberman's characteristics (he probably hasn't killed any criminals in real life), but their Judaism is crucial to both. 

"Personally, my Jewish background is central to my personal life," the author says. "In my writing it is too, to a somewhat lesser extent, but it's very important in my Lieberman books and of some importance in my other series as well. I tend to address Jewish issues in the other series even though they are not necessarily central. I actually read the Torah, listen to the sermons, pay attention. It affects the way I think, just as it affects Lieberman." 

But Kaminsky himself is not the model for his Jewish detective. That would be Hollywood director and Chicago native Don Siegel. Kaminsky worked as Siegel's assistant in Hollywood for a time and considered the late filmmaker, who directed "Dirty Harry," the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and John Wayne's last movie, "The Shootist," among others, a friend and mentor. 

"He was a great paternal figure," he says. "When I was there, I was poor, I had a wife and child. He gave me a car, a really nice car to use as long as I wanted." Kaminsky wrote a biography of Siegel, "Don Siegel: Director," which he describes as "a combination biography and peek behind the scenes of how he worked in the movies." Siegel died about eight years ago, right around the time the first Abe Lieberman book came out. Kaminsky is not sure if he knew about his literary double or not. 

As for Lieberman, Kaminsky says that "I don't base people (in the books) on real people normally, but in this case, the real person is Don Siegel. When I write Abe Lieberman, it's Don. Abe looks like him, talks like him. He is fun. When I write him, I can hear Don saying these things, talking about his diet. He liked talking; he was very very clever and laid back." Siegel's son, the actor and director Christopher Tabori, is also a friend of Kaminsky's and recently read one of his stories for a PBS broadcast. 

Of course, Abe Lieberman is not the only Jewish detective in a now-crowded field that may have begun with Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small mysteries more than two decades ago. In fact, Kaminsky has taught a course in Jewish mystery writers. "There are a lot," he says. "Some are very well done, some not so well. One of the oddities is that one of the most observant Jews I know, Jonathan Kellerman, chose not to write about observant Jews. He's told me several times not to write about Jewish characters. It hasn't affected his sales much, though." (Of course, Kellerman's wife, Faye Kellerman, went the other way; her crime-solvers are observant Jews.) 

"There are writers who sort of say, my character is Jewish but it doesn't really make much difference, as well as people who are not Jewish who write about Jewish characters," he continues. "In the past, writers who were clearly Jewish would change their names," such as "Brett Halliday," the author of the highly successful Michael Shane series. His real name, Kaminsky reveals, was David Dresser and he was a practicing Jew. 

The name change made economic sense. "In the mystery field, I think there was fairly open antagonism toward Jews-but that's long gone," he says. "There were people who were clearly, openly anti-Semitic and others who were not. There were always successful Jewish (crime) writers, but not under their own name. The pulp magazines were about 50 percent Jewish (written) and 50 percent Irish." 

What he calls "the first closed-door mystery" was "The Big Bow Mystery," written by Israel Zangwill, an English Jew who lived from 1864 to 1926. Zangwill originated the genre in which "a body is found someplace and there's no way it could be there," he says. The book, which Kaminsky describes as "pretty darn good," was later turned into a movie, "The Verdict," directed by Siegel and starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. 

The Abe Lieberman series is not only Kaminsky's only one with a practicing Jew at its heart. It's also the only one set in his hometown. He had wanted to write a Chicago-based series for a long time, he says. "There have been some wonderful books set in Chicago going all the way back to the '30s. It's a terrific city to set a novel in. I know the city reasonably well and I took advantage of that. It evoked a lot of memories-when I started writing, they started to appear on the page." 

While he doesn't have to do a great deal of research on the city, he relies on the expertise of a Chicago Police Department detective, Tom Downes, for almost daily details of crimes in the city and the procedures used to solve them. "He supplies me anything I want; he's been very open," Kaminsky says, and in fact he dedicated "Terror Town" to Downes. 

Will there be more Abe Lieberman mysteries? Of course. After all, Abe still has to continue with the tentative thaw in his relationship with his daughter and help his brother regain his health. And there are all those crimes out there to solve. Return to top.

About the author... 

Stuart Kaminsky is as fluent and witty a conversationalist as any of the characters in his books and happily volunteers his opinions on a variety of topics both on and off the subject of Jewish detective fiction. Here are some of them: 

On his favorite detective/crime/mystery writers: "My taste changes all the time, but the one name that will always appear is Feodor Dostoevsky. He's a mystery writer, I'm not just saying that. 'Crime and Punishment' is a mystery, part of a genre that is still going on. It follows the thought processes of the guilty criminal as he betrays himself and other people. It's the best mystery novel in that genre, maybe the best mystery novel ever. And 'The Brothers Karamazov' is a straight whodunit." 

Others: Jonathan Kellerman, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard. Rex Stout, who wrote the "Nero Wolfe" books and TV series, for which Kaminsky has written. A less-well known French writer, Sebastian Japrisot, and the well-known Georges Simenon. Also, "the classics, Raymond Chandler. I love Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Poirot. I still love reading them." 

On his, and Abe Lieberman's, politics: "Lieberman had to have a party affiliation, and he declares that he's a Libertarian. I am too, an active member. Why? What I believe is that each person should be free, within the law, to act as they wish without fear or interference or retribution. I believe in very very very limited government. My wife is a Democrat, very liberal. She wants the government to do a lot of things. She spent a lot of time in Israel and it informed her beliefs. We had a discussion about seat belts and motorcycle helmets with a friend. I said, if people want to wear seat belts and helmets, they should wear them. If they want to die, they should be allowed to die. It's not the law's business." 

Libertarians don't believe in an income tax, in federally mandated health care and in paying farmers not to grow certain crops, he adds. His politics "probably works its way into the books some way because I write the books, but Lieberman is the only (character) who is consciously Libertarian." 

On health care issues: "When I was a kid on the West Side of Chicago, we were poor but health care cost almost nothing. Now that doctors have to worry about paperwork, about all that filing, they have to charge more. The federal government decided they wanted to take care of us. There should be provisions for the very very poor who can't take care of themselves, but not for everybody." 

On the current flap over James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," in which the author admitted that he made up or embellished parts of the memoir: "He made only one terrible error: He said the whole thing was true. But Oprah probably wouldn't have been interested if he hadn't. I think he got in way over his head. I've written five biographies, and there are times when you're writing something like that, you don't know something, you make something up that will explain the character. People have always done that. But when you do it to that extent, when you know it isn't true .... 

"Frey's made his money. But in this case, I think it's a legitimate question. People say, I read it because it's true. But take (humorist and memorist) David Sedaris. Does he really remember all the things that went on between him and his speech teacher when he was 10 years old? I don't think so, but he's so funny that I don't care." 

On crime dramas on TV: "When they say, I can hold you as a material witness for 24 hours, there's no such thing. You can hold somebody for six hours, question them, then make up your mind to arrest them or let them go. 

"There are a lot of things that are inaccurate, including on 'CSI.' But if you're good enough, you make it look authentic and people believe you. My favorite series is 'Law and Order,' and they play games with (the truth), they go back and forth on procedure. In terms of being accurate, they're no more accurate than the others, but that's not why I'm watching the show." 

On Israeli politics: "Were I able to vote in Israel, which I'm not, although I have cousins there, I would have all the way through voted for (Benjamin) Netanyahu. I'm a huge fan of his. I think he's been right every step of the way. I get very upset when I listen to the news (and hear about) working with the Palestinians. It can't be done. You protect yourself. The world won't listen. The only thing you can do is protect yourself, be tough, be prepared. It's a hard thing to do, to believe, but the people who call themselves Palestinians have made it essential to think that way. My wife doesn't agree." 

On not agreeing with his wife on political topics: "We've been married a long time and we love each other. We respect each other's positions. We discuss them, and I tend to respect her positions. She thinks I'm a little strange but we don't fight about it. The arguments are not heated. She respects that I believe what I believe and I'm very consistent with it. I really believe what I'm saying." 

On coming up with fresh ideas for books: "I have no problem. I have more ideas than I have time to write. I've always had so many ideas, so many things I wanted to do, I knew I could do them, I just have to have the time to do them. I have to do the ones I've already contracted for. 

"With mystery writers, as far as they're concerned (getting ideas) isn't even worth talking about. I can look at the newspaper and get ideas for two novels. I'm not going to do them, but I could." Return to top.