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ROBERT RANDISI in the Spotlight

Written by Ali Karim

A writer who is as massively prolific as he is a supporter of the mystery genre is Robert [Bob] J. Randisi. With over 400 novels and more short story fiction published than most writers, it is difficult to provide an adequate introduction to Bob and his work. I first met him and his delightful partner Christine Mathews at Bouchercon Las Vegas in 2003 where he kindly provided tickets to the PWA [Private Eye Writers of America] Shamus Awards Banquet – an annual award that he created to honour excellent work in the private-eye genre.


 

I recently bumped into him again at this years’ Bouchercon Convention at Baltimore, where he and Christine were celebrating with their PWA Shamus Awards banquet at Westminster Hall – the last resting place of Edgar Allan Poe. The show was as remarkable as the photos illustrate.

 




 

I would urge you to explore Robert Randisi’s work, especially his extraordinary new Rat Pack series which has just been optioned for film as Variety reports

 

In a move that features life and art imitating each other like a dog chasing its tail, Sandy Hackett has optioned Robert Randisi’s novel, “Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime,” the first of Randisi’s “Rat Pack Mysteries” featuring the eponymous Hollywood bad boys.

 

Hackett, son of late comedian Buddy Hackett, created “The Rat Pack Is Back” tribute revue at Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel. He met Randisi when the author was researching the Pack in 2007, and the two struck a pact this summer.

“Everybody” is set in 1960 when the storied showbiz gang (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Bishop) was shooting “Ocean’s 11” during the day and headlining the Sands’ Copa Room at night.

 

The tale finds Randisi’s protagonist, pit-boss Eddie Gianelli, summoned to look into a series of death threats against Martin.

 

“The Rat Pack were drinking before there was alcoholism, smoking before cancer, and having sex before AIDS,” says Hackett. Still, he adds, “There is a romanticism about them.”

 

With Randisi set to deliver the screenplay – his first – by year’s end, Hackett, who also co-exec-produced the 2007 horror film “Portal,” hopes to roll cameras by the first quarter of 2010.

 

So after all the excitement of the Shamus Awards, Bob and I got together over coffee as I wanted those who have yet to explore his work to learn a little about his writing as well as his work at the Private Eye Writers of America – Ali Karim

 

 

Ali        When it comes to Private Eye Fiction, the name Randisi always springs up in conversation immediately; can you tell us where this fascination for the world of PI fiction comes from?

 

Bob    That’s nice of you to say, and I hope you’re right. The Warner Bros. TV PIs series of the late 50s early 60s were favorites of mine--77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, Bourbon Street Beat—also the Darren McGavin Mike Hammer series from the mid 50s.  In the 60s I got hooked on the paperback series from Richard Prather and Carter Brown, and many others. The real influence is in the answer to question 2.

 

Ali        I read recently your thoughts about Paul Newman’s death; was he the prime instigator of your fascination with the PI world via Ross Macdonald [Harper/Lew Archer]?

 

Bob    When I saw Paul Newman in Harper, that was it. I was hooked good. Some say it’s the romance of the PI, but I think it was the independence that got me.  I checked out the book the movie was based on—Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target—and the die was cast. I knew what I wanted to do for a living, and what I wanted to write.

 

Ali        Did you ever want to become a PI in real life?

 

Bob    I think anyone who reads in this genre has had that thought at one time or another. Actually, for a while when I was living in New York I had incorporated myself as Private Eye Press, Inc. One day I was making a deposit in the bank and the teller asked me if she could hire me to find her missing brother. To this day I think I should have taken the job.

 

Ali        I noticed that you actually worked for the NYPD for a period. Care to tell us a little about that time?

 

Bob    I came into the Department the year after Serpico left. I worked there from 1973-1981.  I was a civilian, but I wanted to work on the front lines, not back in the clerical offices like most of the civilians did. I ended up in a precinct in Flatbush—a rough section of Brooklyn—and I was a 1/24 man—the stationhouse clerk. It’s the equivalent of the civilian job you saw on NYPD Blue, only that one was in a Squad. I was the person who took reports of crimes from people who came in off the street, everything from harassment to robberies to rapes.  And when the cops came in off the streets with their reports they turned them over to me. I typed them up, classified them, and either closed them out or referred them to the detectives. I worked with everyone, from the street cops to the Desk Officer to the Commanding Officer of the Precinct, to the Detectives, Sergeants and Lieutenants in the Squad. It was an illuminating, and sometimes personality changing experience.

 

Ali        Did you grow up within a bookish family? And care to share some of your early life in New York?

 

Bob    My family was definitely NOT bookish. My brother and I grew up reading comic books, and I moved on to books. No one else in my family read books, and none of them ever read MY books.

 

Ali        And how did you get your first publishing break?

 

Bob    I went to my first Bouchercon in 1973—it was Bouchercon 4. I was 22 years old and had been submitting stories to the Scott Meredith Agency for critiques for about four years.  I met Ron Goulart at that convention and he told me to just go ahead and start sending stories to magazines. Within four months I had sold my first story to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, after having received several encouraging personal notes from Cylvia Kleinman with recent rejections. She was married to the publisher, Leo Margulies, and was very encouraging to me.

 

On the basis of that sale I joined the Mystery Writers of America, met Eleanor Sullivan—who was editing both EQMM and AHMM at the time—and made several sales to AHMM. I was painfully shy in those days, so when I began attending MWA cocktail parties I decided to tend bar, that way everyone had to come to me. It worked. That was how I met my first editor, Michael Seidman, and sold him The Disappearance of Penny, my first mystery novel. (Later he also bought my first Western series, The Gunsmith). In those days I also met through MWA Fred Dannay—one half of Ellery Queen—Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Hilary Waugh, Edward D. Hoch, Harold Q. Masur—whose Scott Jordan novels I had been reading for years—and Walter Gibson, who wrote The Shadow.  I also met some of the “younger” generation, like Larry Block, Bill Pronzini, Don Westlake, Dennis “Michael Collins” Lynds, and John Lutz.

 

Ali        To what do you attribute the perpetual fascination of the private investigator?

 

Bob    He’s what everyone wants to be; strong, independent, honourable in his own way—and not always the Chandler way—romantic and tough.  And She has all the same qualities—and is sexy.

 

Ali        To call you prolific would be an understatement so tell us a little about your average day?

 

Bob    On my average day I work on two books at one time—usually a Western, and a mystery. One during the day, one at night.  During the course of a mystery novel I’ll probably write three Westerns. I also have to take care of the business end of being a writer—contracts, anthologies, royalties, PWA—and run some of the errands that are involved in normal living—post office, bank, groceries, laundry, etc.—although, living with another writer, we usually split those jobs. Then I try to watch some TV, some movies, and have some fun.

 

Ali        I am intrigued why you have deployed so many pseudonyms over the years [such as W. B. Longley, Robert Lake, Spenser Fortune, Joshua Randall, Tom Cutter, J.R. Roberts, Joseph Meek, Cole Weston, Lew Baines, Paul Ledd and Jon Sharpe]. Is it because of your prolific output?

 

Bob    I knew from the beginning that to make a living at this I either had to be Stephen King, or I had to write a lot of books. Since there already was a Stephen King, I went the other way. In the 80s publishers wanted to think that you were working only for them, so I had  to use pseudonyms so I could work for four or five publishers at one time. Since Westerns were a big thing back then, I used pen names for them and used my real name for my first love—the  PI genre.

 

Ali        And where did your fascination with the Western genre spring from?

 

Bob    You know, I had watched John Wayne movies like everyone else, and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, but I hadn’t read many Westerns.I got a call one day from the editor who bought my first mystery and he said, “Can you write Westerns?” I said, “Sure,” because in those days I NEVER said NO.  He asked me to come up with a proposal for an “Adult Western.” Another editor once told me that AW’s had to have a “flip value” of a sex scene every three chapters. I came up with The Gunsmith, which has been appearing monthly since January of 1982. It is the only series that is not written by four or five writers under one “house name,” and the only one that is not owned outright by a publisher. The books are copyrighted in my name. I then started coming up with other series under other names for other publishers. Westerns are the main reason I have had a book published every month since January of 1982.

 

Ali        Your partner Christine Mathews is also a writer of considerable merit – can you tell us a little about how you two met up?

 

Bob    We met at a mystery convention in Omaha, Nebraska. She lived in Omaha at the time and had come to the convention to meet a favorite writer of hers—a woman with whom I was friends. We met, saw each other again the following year and then made a date to meet one year later for dinner. The rest is a long story, but that’s the gist of it.  For the rest you usually have to buy me a drink.

 

Ali        I noticed that you have collaborated with many writers over the years, and most interestingly with Christine on the Gil and Claire Hunt series. Can you tell us a little about these books, and what was writing with your partner like as an experience?

 

Bob    I actually don’t consider that I’ve collaborated many times. Anthologies are not true collaborations. I did do collaborative novels with several other writers—Caribbean Blues and The Back Moon being two of them. The only true collaborations for a long time were the three novels Christine Matthews and I did together, the Gil & Claire Hunt series. That is, until I approached Vince Van Patten to combine poker and mystery with me in The Picasso Flop and The Judgment Fold,and then met his wife, Eileen Davidson, with whom I have done a couple of soap opera mysteries, starting with the current Death In Daytime. But most of my 540 books have been written alone.

 

The experience of writing with a partner varies from person to person. With Christine we live together and work so well together that we only ever argued about the dedication. With Vince I had to do a lot by phone, and then go out to Malibu once a year—which, believe me, was no day at the beach. I had to continue writing my other work at the same time. I spent a lot of time in a motel. And with Eileen it’s mostly been phone and email—she uses email a lot more than Vince did.

 

Ali        So what is Christine working on currently?

 

Bob    When we met she was already an established short story writer in the horror genre. After meeting me “Christine Matthews” was born and she started writing mysteries and Westerns. Her mystery stories have landed her in Best of the Year collections four times, the most recent with a story from Hollywood And Crime called “And Then She was Gone.” She’s now going to return to her first love. She’s working on a paranormal novel. However, her first FIRST love remains “the words.” She’s published over 100 poems, has had a play produced twice. If she had her druthers she’d write short stories all day every day—after she won her Tony. She loves the words.

 

Ali        And why did you relocate from New York to St. Louis?

 

Bob    Marthayn/Christine and I formed a long distance relationship after Omaha. Eventually she moved to Kansas City, but when I convinced her that we could get an apartment together for what I was paying for my phone bill from Brooklyn to Kansas City we decided to move someplace neutral—St. Louis. In addition her best friend for many years lived there, and I knew John & Barbara Lutz, so we had friends in place.

 

Ali        You also worked with Ed Gorman at Mystery Scene, so care to tell us a little about that time?

 

Bob    Ed and I had decided in the mid-80s that there needed to be a Variety for the mystery field. We founded Mystery Scene together and I took the first issue with me to a Bouchercon in San Francisco in, I believe, 1985. It was a hit. We went on to publish in several different formats. We remained partners for seven years and then I didn’t feel I could continue. In any case, Ed was the driving force behind the magazine. The rest, as they say, is publishing history. Ed and I have remained good friends.

 

Ali        Apart from your novels, anthologies and work at the PWA, you are a powerful advocate of the short story – so why do you think PI fiction is so well suited to this form?

 

Bob    I actually think the PI genre is more suited to the novel—it’s the short story that I believe is well suited to the PI genre. Is that clear? The PI genre is character driven, and you can make the character’s acquaintance very well in a short story.  There’s really no room in 10–20 pages for the density and convolution of plot.  Rather, the short stories that have, over the years, been popular are those like Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” or many of Roal Dahl or Ed Hoch’s stories, which depend on cleverness. 

 

Ali        Also I heard that Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime, the first of your Rat Pack Mysteries, has been optioned for film; could you tell us a little about how this came about and this exciting new direction?

 

Bob    How to do this in a nutshell? I wanted my character, Eddie G., to attend a Rat Pack tribute show in the beginning of Book #3—which will be out in December. When I googled tribute shows I found Sandy Hackett, Buddy Hackett’s son, was doing one in Vegas. Where all the other shows feature Frank, Dean and Sammy, Sandy not only includes Joey, but he plays Joey himself. I got in touch, asked if I could use him as a character, and he said it sounded like fun. He also asked me to send him the first two books. He read them, loved them, and eventually optioned the first book and hired me to write the screenplay, which I have since finished. He’s planning to start shooting in January of 2010.  

 

Ali        I really enjoyed this year’s Shamus Awards at Westminster Hall in Baltimore, and I plan to attend each year, so can you tell us about how you set up the PWA?

 

Bob    In 1981 I found I was corresponding with many private eye writers. I thought I could do it much easier through a newsletter of some kind. I asked all of them to send me a quarter each for postage if they were interested. I did a second one and asked everyone to send me a dollar for printing and postage. From there I figured it was time for a Private Eye Writers of America. I charged $25 for dues and in 27 years we’ve gone up to $50. I created the Shamus Award because I noticed that over a period of about 30 years only three PI novels had won an Edgar—and one of those was a young adult novel.

 

Ali        I believe Christine Mathews organises the Shamus Awards Banquet. How much work is entailed in setting up such a major event?

 

Bob    She’s amazing, in that she manages to find people over the phone and through emails who will work with her when we have a small budget.  Somehow, these strangers and she manage to pull the event off without a hitch—well, without a MAJOR hitch.  It’s only been two weeks since Baltimore and she’s already planning the events in Indianapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis. She works very hard for at least six months, then lets me get up in front of people for 60 minutes and take the credit. So I’m glad you asked this question. She is determined each year to 1) take people out of the convention hotel to some other part of the city, 2) do something unusual and provide great food, 3) somehow, top the previous year. 

 

Ali        Is it true that you penned some of the Destroyer series with Warren Murphy? And if so, can you tell us which ones and what it was like working with Murphy?

 

Bob    Warren Murphy is both a friend of mine, and a hero of mine. Also, a mentor. We met in the 70s at MWA functions, and one night in a bar he asked me if I thought I could write a Destroyer novel.  I had, at that point, read a few, so I said yes.  There were 40 at the time, so he had the publisher send me the entire run.  He sent me a detailed outline, paid me up front and I wrote one.

 

            Here’s why he’s my hero: I delivered the first half of the book and he said it was great. I delivered the second half and he said, “You screwed me,” only he didn’t say screwed. He said, “I paid you and you just walked away from the second half.” I offered him the money back and he said no. That book was Destroyer #43 (my actual first novel). I figured I’d actually screwed myself, but a few months later he had to go to Puerto Rico to work on the Destroyer screenplay, and he asked me to do another one. This time, when I delivered the entire book, he said, “Bobby, you gave me exactly what I wanted.”  I did another after that, and one of his “Digger” books.

 

Ali        How do you feel now that the Shamus Award has become so prestigious in promoting the PI sub-genre of mystery fiction?

 

Bob    I’m very proud of the award and of the members of this organization. It is, rightly so, the second most prestigious award in mystery after the Edgar.  I became even more proud after Sean Chercover’s acceptance speech this year, when he said that when he started writing in his teens his goal was to win a Shamus Award.  I felt old, but I also felt inordinately proud.  And it’s the membership of PWA that keeps the genre going, and maintains the high level of writing and storytelling.

 

Ali        For readers not familiar with your writing, with such a large body of work, what novels and short stories are you most proud of and why?

 

Bob    Favorite books of mine are The Ham Reporter (1984), about Bat Masterson when he was a sportswriter in New York in 1911;  the two Delvecchio books, No Exit From Brooklyn and The Dead Of Brooklyn.  Nick Delvecchio sprang from my head fully formed. He came out right the first time. I still have the third book, The Last Of Brooklyn, to do, and hopefully will get to it soon.  I wouldn’t mind doing it for a small press.  Also the Rat Pack books. And a Western called The Ghost With Blue Eyes.

 

            As for short stories I don’t even think I became a decent short story writer until recently.  The second Truxton Lewis story, “Black and White Memories,” and the story in Greatest Hits recently, “Upon My Soul,” are two of my favorites.

 

Ali        And as a renowned anthologist I was delighted with your two most recent selections Hollywood and Crime and Greatest Hits, so can you tell us a little about the process of getting an anthology to print?

 

Bob    Getting an anthology into print depends less on theme and more on contributors. You could sell an anthology of stories about a feather if you have Sue Grafton, James Patterson, Stephen King and P.D. James in it. In my experience you need about four top names that can be featured on the cover. I’d love to put together a collection of the best short stories I can find, but it wouldn’t sell to the public without some big names in it.  I’ve had some anthos with GREAT themes that I haven’t been able to sell. The market is very tight for anthologies right now, but on the other hand, I don’t have much time for them, right now. I do have several in my computer, though, waiting for my attention.

 

            As far as contributors, I usually invite them, starting with people I know—and, thankfully, I’ve been around long enough to know a lot of people.  There have been times when I’ve approached people who I’m not personally acquainted with, but luckily we know each other by reputation.

 

            The last anthology I opened to submissions didn’t fill, and I had to invite some people. You would think that people would come out of the woodwork to submit a story to an open call, but it’s not the case.

 

Ali        What do you think about Charles Ardai’s Hardcase Crime series and what it is doing bringing the so-called ‘pulp’ era back to mainstream?

 

Bob    I think Charles has done a great service to the genre, not only bringing  back some favorite authors, but bringing back the artwork of that time. I’d give my left, um, arm for a McGinnis cover. Maybe the last Delvecchio book, Charles?  Also, the original novels he’s published have obviously been high quality.

 

Ali        Of the new blood coming through the ranks of PI fiction, which writers should we be looking out for and why?

 

Bob    Watch for Wallace Stroby’s new book, and Michael Wylie’s follow up to The Last Striptease. Also, Michael Koryta is making a name for himself at a very young age.

 

Ali        I have read much of your work over the years, enjoying your lack of concern vis-a-vis genre boundaries, penning work in many genres such as Westerns, PI, mystery, cozy, thriller, gambling tales, horror, YA, SF, erotica, even a non-fiction work on writing the PI novel, but there is one area that the Randisi name has not been associated with – chick lit. Any plans to diversify?Bob     I’d write chick-lit if someone would pay me. Don’t know that I can say the same for romance, though.  

Ali        On that note, thank you for your time and the sterling work you do promoting the PI and Mystery genre. 
Bob    Thank you, Ali, for your enthusiasm and interest in my work—and also pass my thanks to Mike Stotter.

 

 

More information about the world of Robert Randisi can be accessed from these links –

 http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/randisi_r.html

 http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/r/robert-j-randisi/

 And from the PWA – http://pwanewsandviews.blogspot.com/

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Robert Randisi



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