Curling up on the beach with a book is a time-honored summertime pleasure. While some readers may enjoy shaking sand from a hardcover copy of Proust or a paperback romance, the go-to vacation read for many includes a high body count. Murder and surf go together like fried clams and tartar sauce.
The Hudson Valley may be light on surf, but murderous writers proliferate: Even a casual roundup of the usual suspects includes, among others, Alison Gaylin, Carol Goodman, Steve Hamilton, Marshall Karp, C.E. Lawrence, Jenny Milchman, Maxine Paetro, Wendy Corsi Staub, Sebastian Stuart, Kim Wozencraft, and uber-prolific late grandmaster Donald E. Westlake.
Why? To solve the mystery, I met with Alison Gaylin, Steve Hamilton, and Marshall Karp, who all have new books out this summer. Gaylin's Stay With Me (Harper, 2014) is the third in her Shamus Award-winning Brenna Spector series. Let It Burn (Minotaur, 2014) is Hamilton's 10th entry in the much-lauded Alex McKnight series, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Karp is a serial writer of serials, publishing four books starring LA cops Lomax & Biggs before joining James Patterson for NYPD Red; both the series launch and NYPD Red 2 (Little, Brown, 2014) were New York Times #1 bestsellers.
Just before we meet at outdated: an antique café, a violent thunderstorm jumps uptown Kingston, unleashing rain so torrential the gutters flow white. Hamilton is first to arrive, a black umbrella angled over his lamb's-wool corona of hair. He's wearing a tropical yellow shirt and shorts, unfazed by the downpour. Gaylin enters next, in a red summer dress, flashing a smile as she refurls her folding umbrella. Then Karp rushes in, shaking off a golf umbrella and spouting one-liners about parking meters, his timing pure Borscht Belt.
We order cold drinks and sit down to chat about homicide. It's hard to imagine a friendlier trio of authors. Whatever deep inner demons their genre of choice may reflect, they seem to be getting it out of their systems on paper. Each of them took different paths to writing crime fiction, and each has carved out a unique swath of turf.
Gaylin's books feature smart, complex women who juggle impossible pressures as well as they can. Her first novels, Hide Your Eyes and You Kill Me, featured an intrepid preschool teacher who sees things she shouldn't. Next came stand-alones Heartless and Trashed and the Brenna Spector series, which features a private investigator with hyperthemistic syndrome, a rare form of total recall, and an at-risk teenage daughter. Gaylin's also written a young-adult novel, Reality Ends Here, and collaborated with Megan Abbott on graphic novel Normandy Gold, which they're developing for television.
Gaylin grew up in suburban Arcadia, California. At 10, she picked up a copy of Helter Skelter. "I thought it was a book about the Beatles," she says, laughing. Mesmerized, she moved on to other true-crime classics: In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song. "It's that whole feeling of what human beings are capable of, looking under that rock," she says. "I always liked the feeling of being scared."
As a theater major at Northwestern, she wrote plays and fiction, noting, "Everything I wrote ended up with someone getting killed in it." After college, she did a brief stint as a tabloid reporter for The Star, where her assignments included going undercover as a TV extra, covering the bar mitzvah of "Wonder Years" star Fred Savage and crashing David Hasselhoff's wedding.
She polished her journalism cred with a master's degree from Columbia, and kept writing fiction in Abigail Thomas's Tuesday Night Babes workshop. Thomas urged her to expand a macabre story into a mystery novel. Five years later, Gaylin finished Hide Your Eyes.
It didn't sell. Editors loved her characters, but the plot didn't thicken. Gaylin embarked on a rigorous structure tutorial, reading more than 100 mysteries while she and her husband, filmmaker Mike Gaylin, lived in Mexico. This time she got it right: Hide Your Eyes was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel.
Steve Hamilton's first Alex McKnight book, A Cold Day in Paradise, won both the Edgar and Shamus Awards. He won a second Edgar for The Lock Artist; another stand-alone, Night, takes place in a hardscrabble Kingston, New York.
Hamilton was born near Detroit. "But if you live in Michigan, you go north every summer," he says. "It's a different world up there. The Upper Peninsula could be its own state, its own country."