MY FIRST NOVEL: DICK LOCHTE
I’ve written several times about how my debut novel, SLEEPING DOG, wound up in
print. The details have appeared on this blog not very long ago and also can be
found as an afterward in the new Brash Books edition of the novel. But, though
SLEEPING DOG was my first published book, it was not the first that I wrote.
That was a novel I pounded out on an electric typewriter at the tail end of the
1960s, while in my post-college youth toiling daily in Chicago as a member of
the promotion department at Playboy magazine.
The novel was then titled THE FROG PRINCE, and it was a satiric comedy novel
very much – honestly, waaay too much – influenced by Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22,
which was then, and is now, my all-time favorite novel. Unlike that book’s
protagonist who was trapped with a lot of oddball characters in a war horribly
short on logic or even common sense, mine was entangled in a
much-too-comfortable job at a men’s magazine where logic and common sense were
not just missing, their absence was waved like a flag. The novel being a work of
fiction, its magazine was not Playboy. Its name was Ogle, and its symbol was not
a rabbit but, as the book’s title may suggest, a slimy tailless amphibian.
Beyond that, THE FROG PRINCE was pathetically close to autobiography, even at
its most bizarre moments.
There was only one person at PLAYBOY who knew about the book – the noted science
fiction writer AJ Budrys, who was then the editor of Playboy Press. During one
of our lunches, he offered to “look over” the pages. He liked them and his
suggestions and encouragement were responsible for my finishing the manuscript.
Before he moved on, AJ recommended me and the novel to a couple of agents. One
was in the late stages of retirement and not taking on new clients, the other
passed away shortly after I’d sent her a copy of the manuscript, no cause and
effect there to my knowledge. At that point I began sending inquiry letters and
sample chapters to publishers, maybe ten, with six replying that they’d be
willing to look at what I’d done. This was during the dark days before
electronic files could be emailed and I spent hours lurking around the office
Xerox machines after hours, making copies of the book’s four-hundred-plus pages.
My effort resulted in several form-letter kiss-offs, a short note from a
Doubleday editor that he’d been amused, but not enough, and a longer note from
an editor at Dutton stating that she felt the ms. had “something” but needed
work and, if I were willing to listen to her editorial advice, she’d try to get
me a contract and an advance.
I immediately wrote back that I’d be happy to follow her advice. Then began
weeks of waiting. Finally, she mailed back her regrets. There would be no
contract. Her boss was “not quite as sanguine about the novel’s potential,” were
her exact words, still branded on my memory after all the years.
So, THE FROG PRINCE was tossed into a trunk where it rested gathering dust until
about nine years ago. By then I’d published four crime novels and a short story
collection, been nominated for every mystery award, won the Nero, and been
translated into more than a dozen languages. I’d just finished co-writing a
series of legal thrillers with attorney Christopher Darden and was about to
embark on a series with THE TODAY SHOW’s Al Roker. I wanted to put out another
solo novel, but wasn’t sure I could get it done before starting in on the
That’s when I thought of THE FROG PRINCE. The main problem was that, by then, I
was a “mystery writer” and there was no mystery element in the ms. I thought
that problem could be solved without too much effort. Drop a body here and
there, shift a few things around.
It didn’t turn out that way. It never does.
I kept the novel in the Swinging Sixties, in my opinion, the period when men’s
magazines were at their, ah, peak. But I added a few significant events of the
era that were taking place beyond the magazine, like the Civil Rights Act and
the start of the Vietnam conflict, that I hoped would bring the story a little
closer to the ground than it had been. I kept the characters, and quite a few
scenes and then spent nearly seven months coming up with what I hoped was a
dark, funny fairplay whodunit that for a number of reasons (fear of a lawsuit
being one of them) I placed in 1969 Southern California instead of Playboy’s
home town of Chicago.
Also, since there were countless numbers of books called THE FROG PRINCE, most
of them for children (Amazon it, if you don’t believe me), I slapped on a new,
more unique title, CROAKED!
That’s when I showed it to you, Ed, and thanks to your recommendation, my first
novel finally appeared in print, nearly forty years after I’d begun working on it.