Article published Apr 30, 2006- Sarasota Herald Tribune
Mr. Mystery


Mystery author Stuart Kaminsky says he sits down at his Macintosh computer and starts writing at about 9 in the morning, usually wrapping things up by early afternoon.

Stuart Kaminsky recently was honored as a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America
Stuart Kaminsky already has written more than five dozen books, four screenplays and four textbooks on film and television writing. He's won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing. On Thursday night the Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master, the organization's highest honor.

Three of his four children have grown up to be successful members of society; his youngest is about to graduate from Pine View High School; he lives in a comfortable house overlooking a lake in the Tamaron subdivision in Sarasota; he's been married for nearly 20 years to a woman he clearly cherishes.

So what's left?

How about a title on the best-sellers list?

"I've gotten great reviews and a lot of respect and a lot of awards," Kaminsky said a few days ago. "But I've always been midlist."

By that, he means his books -- four separate mystery series featuring Toby Peters, Lew Fonesca, Abe Lieberman and Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov -- have sold reasonably well, but he's never had a title hit the big time.

That may change with his Grand Master honor, which puts him in company with fellow mysterians Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, Joseph Wambaugh, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, among others.

"I hope it means sales and more recognition," said Kaminsky. "The recognition -- it doesn't get any better than this. My hope is this might push me over the top a little bit, or push me closer to the top."

Reed Farrel Coleman, executive vice president of MWA, said Kaminsky earned the Grand Master honor because of his multiple skills as a mystery writer.

"He's written all sorts of books; he is a jack-of-all-trades," said Coleman.

The award is presented based on a writer's body of work and contributions to the genre.

"What Stuart's done is, he's shown mystery writers that you don't have to stick to just one thing," said Coleman. "He's written great novels, great nonfiction; he is a writer's writer."

And, said Coleman, "he's a helluva nice guy. There are some Grand Masters who get it only for their work. I think Stuart engenders such good feelings from the community."

Kaminsky, a native Chicagoan, has been reading mysteries since he was 12 years old, and writing -- although not mysteries -- nearly as long.

His early output was not promising.

"When I started, and for a long time, I was very pretentious," he said, looking anything but as he sat on the carpet between a beige-striped sofa and a coffee table, forking into coffee cake and sipping hazelnut-flavored coffee.

"I wanted to be a mainstream literary figure, and I strove for that -- rather badly. But I began working in an academic environment, and it poisoned me," said Kaminsky, who holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois, and a doctoral degree in speech from Northwestern University, where he taught for 16 years.

Those first few manuscripts included "an enormously pretentious, huge book about biological and chemical warfare that paralleled 'Moby-Dick' chapter by chapter," said Kaminsky ruefully. "I had a very fine editor, a famous editor, who was interested in it, asked me to make pages of corrections and changes. I made them and resubmitted it and he said, 'This is really good. Good luck.'"

It was while teaching at Northwestern that he moved from his "pretentious" novels to mysteries. He had published a textbook and several biographies and was contracted to write a biography of Charlton Heston.

"I worked with him for a long time in California. I liked him very, very much. And then he decided that he wanted to publish his journals, and that was a violation of our contract," he said. "Basically he paid me off just before the summer, and I had nothing to do that summer."

He thought, instead, that he'd write a novel, "one that I'd just have fun with."

In 10 days he had written his first mystery, "Bullet for a Star."

He sent it to his agent, "who responded by saying, 'I thought we agreed you weren't going to try to write fiction any more,' but reluctantly read it, liked it and submitted it to publishers.

"The third one -- Tom Dunne at St. Martin's Press -- liked it, said it was too short. It was my first Toby Peters book, and it did well. That was it," Kaminsky said.

"From then on I just wrote what I wanted to write and enjoyed doing it, and continue to enjoy doing it. I really like writing."

The key, he said, is to keep a broad definition of "mystery."

"For me, most good novels are mysteries," he said. "At its simplest level, there's a question to be answered and the protagonist is in search for that answer. What tends to happen in mystery is that the search involves the great question of life and death."

Of his four ongoing characters, two are active, two "dormant, or maybe moribund," he said. Toby Peters and Inspector Rostnikov are on hiatus while Kaminsky alternates writing Abe Lieberman novels, set in Chicago, Lew Fonesca stories, set in Sarasota, and paperbacks of the "CSI: New York" TV series.

Those TV-show-based paperbacks began when he wrote two based on "The Rockford Files" series in the 1970s.

"The condition I always have when these projects come up is, you don't tell me the story. It's my story," he said. "You can reject it, you can complain about it, but it's got to be my creation for it to work."

Kaminsky doesn't switch among his characters on a daily basis, choosing instead to write one story from start to finish and then turning his attention to the next.

"I can't imagine writing two books about the same character, two books in a row," he said. "The characters have to rest for a year. I've gotten them this far in this book. I need time to think about what they're going to do, and then I'm going to need to change persona as a writer."

But he thinks about all his characters all the time, carrying index cards in his pockets to jot down ideas, conversations or situations as they occur to him.

His daily routine involves rising around 5 a.m., reading the paper and fixing breakfast for his daughter Natasha. Once she leaves for school, he turns his attention to e-mail and checks his fantasy baseball team (populated almost entirely with Chicago Cubs players).

He starts writing at about 9 a.m. and keeps at it until he finishes 10 pages or more, about 2,000 words, in 14-point type so he can see it on his Macintosh screen.

He's usually finished writing by early afternoon. The rest of the day he reads, alternating between fiction (currently "The Coroner's Lunch" by Colin Cotterill) and nonfiction ("The Nightingale's Song" by Robert Timberg), or watches old movies on TV.

At 71, he still plays in two softball leagues in town. He's also been a member of the Liars Club since shortly after moving to Sarasota in 1989.

The Liars are a group of men who are or were professional writers who meet weekly for lunch at Café Baci. The group, founded by the late John D. MacDonald, has been around since the 1950s and has been "kicked out of some of the best places. Baci seems to love us," Kaminsky said.

The group, which took up a collection for a congratulatory ad in the Edgar Awards program, waxes or wanes according to the season, with as few as eight or nine writers in the summer, as many as 18 or 20 in the winter. Kaminsky shares a table with, among others, Bill Frugg, Peter King, Rob Roy Buckingham, John Lutz, a couple of retired Newsday newspaper people and, in the past, Stephen King.

"He used to like the Liars," Kaminsky said of King. "Then he just stopped."

The group is men only, Kaminsky said, because early on the decision was made that "they wanted to be free to talk about things that we (wanted to) ... whatever that might be. The idea was that they could talk dirty."

Years before he became a member, Lillian Hellman ("The Children's Hour," "The Little Foxes") showed up one day, Kaminsky said. "She thought she could just sit down and she was told she had to leave."

John Jakes, author of "The North and South Trilogy," "Charleston" and a host of other historical novels set in the South, has been a longtime co-Liar and friend of Kaminsky's.

The two authors met when Jakes' daughter was a teaching assistant to Kaminsky at Northwestern.

"I began to read Stuart's Hollywood mysteries about Toby Peters," said Jakes, who has homes in Sarasota and South Carolina. "I have been a fan, and a friend, ever since."

Jakes said he values his friendship with Kaminsky because "he is a wise, kind man who is also a first-rate writer. Those ingredients do not necessarily go together, which is why I am careful about choosing writers as friends. Too many of those fall into the 'and then I wrote ...' category (you sit down with one of these and you never again have to say a word). Stuart is not that way."

Kaminsky; his wife, Enid Perll; and Natasha will be back in Sarasota today after five days in Manhattan at the MWA annual convention.

In addition to the black-tie gala Thursday night at the 60th annual Edgar Awards dinner at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Kaminsky dashed from book-signings to symposium lectures; breakfasts, dinners and receptions with his publishers; and an all-day book-signing Saturday. He also managed to squeeze in a performance of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at the Imperial Theatre.

Although Kaminsky is a Chicagoan at heart, he said he loves New York City for its vitality, its smell and the huge, varied populace.

"I love talking to the crazy people on the street," he said. "Some of them are fascinating; great material for books. One of my favorites was this woman -- I actually used her in a book. She was not that old, maybe in her early 30s, standing on a street corner screaming at people. I walked over and said, 'You're frightening these people. They're not listening to your message.' She stopped very calmly and said, 'I tried being calm. Nobody listened to me.'"

He giggled delightedly.

At the gala on Thursday, Kaminsky thanked his family, friends and associates, then spoke of what he sees as his strength as a mystery writer:

"I can't balance a checkbook and to this day I do not know the multiplication tables, but I can keep track of dozens of characters who live inside me. I know their life stories in intimate detail. Their tales appear on the computer screen as quickly as I can imagine them. They take over and I watch and listen.

"They have literally made me laugh and weep and be so frightened that I've had to turn on all the lights in the house and sit in the middle of the living room."

He'll put the Edgar -- a ceramic bust about 8 inches tall -- next to the one he won in 1989 for "A Cold Red Sunrise," between his two computers at home.