Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Dave Zeltserman & Julius Katz
Are my Julius Katz stories and novel a tribute to the Rex Stout’s terrific Nero Wolfe books, or are they a pastiche? To be honest, I’m not sure myself. I love the Nero Wolfe books, and have read all of them, some of them two or more times. When I set off to write ‘Julius Katz’ for the Black Orchid contest run by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the Wolfe Pack, I did so with reverence, first rereading several Nero Wolfe books to make sure I’d get all the elements right that made Nero Wolfe so much fun to read—namely the humor, the relationship between Nero and Archie, the pacing and the structure. With the names that I’ve given my characters I’m also clearly tipping my cap to Rex Stout. Outside of Julius and Archie, my combative homicide detective is named Mark Cramer, Julius’s love interest is named Lily Rosten, the freelance detectives Julius hires are named Tom Durkin, Saul Penzer and Willie Cather, and even a newspaper man named Len Cohen. But just as Julius Katz is clearly a play on Nero Wolfe’s name, it’s also very different just as cats are different than dogs. Yes, Julius and Nero are both brilliant, eccentric and ultimately, lazy detectives who prefer their own pursuits to working, but there the similarities end. There are the superficial difference, such as Nero preferring beer while Julius collects wine, but Julius really shares a lot more DNA with my Pete Mitchel con man (Money Run) than he does with Nero. He’s handsome, athletic, a womanizer (or at least he was before he fell heads over heels for Lily Rosten), and his true passion is gambling. There’s also a bit of larceny in Julius’s makeup. And while my Archie narrates these stories and has every bit the heart and soul of a hardboiled PI as Archie Goodwin does, he’s very different than Goodwin. First off, he’s not human.
While ‘Julius Katz’ didn’t win the Black Orchid contest, it was later picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and ended up winning the Shamus award. Not bad compensation. Readers’ reaction to ‘Julius Katz’ and ‘Archie’s Been Framed’ (Ellery Queen’s Readers Choice Winner), as well as my first full-length Julius Katz mystery, Julius Katz and Archie, is that they find these stories and the novel entertaining and a lot of fun. Here’s why I think Julius Katz borders more as a tribute than a pastiche—readers unfamiliar with Nero Wolfe enjoy them just as much. Those familiar with Sherlock Holmes find them a fun modernization on those stories, and those unfamiliar with Holmes likewise enjoy them.
I like letting my work speak for itself, so here’s a short excerpt from Julius Katz and Archie:
“I thought your dignity and reputation weren’t for sale?” I asked.
A wry smile pulled up the edges of Julius’s lips. “I don’t believe I ever said anything about my reputation being priceless,” he said.
“Okay, your dignity then.”
More of his wry smile. “Technically, Archie, I don’t believe I as much sold my dignity as bartered it away.”
It was a clever joke, but I wasn’t much up to joking then. More of that excess heat began to burn again in me. “For a lousy bottle of wine! That’s what you did it for!”
“I hardly think you can call a ’78 Montrachet a lousy bottle of wine.” Julius’s smile faded as he sat straighter in his chair and rubbed his thumb along the knuckles of his right hand. With others, Julius kept his emotions and thoughts impenetrable, with me he didn’t bother. Right now he was showing his annoyance, but I didn’t care. “The man is a philistine,” Julius continued. “He was going to mix soda water with a ’78 Montrachet to make a wine spritzer. It would’ve been a crime to let that happen.”
“So you were just saving humanity from an outrage?”
“Okay,” I said. “I understand. For a bottle of wine, you’ve agreed to play a stooge.”
Julius stopped rubbing his knuckles. He took in a slow breath and with a forced attempt at humor, said, “And of course, twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“Of course, we can’t forget the twenty-five thousand dollars. So for that money and the Montrachet, you’ll be looking like a dunce to the world.”
“Again, Archie, things are not always what they appear.”
“Yeah, well, as far as the TV and newspaper reporters are going to be concerned, Kenneth J. Kingston will be trumping you at your own game. Should I be ordering you a dunce cap now for the occasion? I might be able to find a good deal.”
Julius slowly began rubbing his knuckles again. “Enough of this, Archie.”
I should’ve taken the hint, but I couldn’t help myself. “Sure, of course,” I said. “I understand. But Boss, should I get a jump on updating your biography to reference that you’re no longer Boston’s most brilliant detective, but have slipped to the second-most? Or should I wait until after Kingston plays you for a chump? Now that I think of it, after that happens I’m not even sure you could legitimately claim that title since probably every other working private investigator in Boston would be able to prove themselves intellectually superior to Kingston, so by the transitive property that would in effect make you Boston’s least brilliant detective. Not as compelling a title for you to hold, but I guess we’ll have to deal with it. If you want I can order stationary now to that effect, or I can wait until—”
I pushed him too far. Julius cut me off, saying, “Goodnight, Archie.” And blast it! My world went black as he turned me off!