Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Guest Blogger: Author Dave Zeltserman

I'm excited to welcome Dave Zeltserman today as my guest blogger. Over the last couple of weeks I've been mentioning the Top Suspense Group, and Dave is one of the founding members over there. He is the author the acclaimed 'man out of prison' crime trilogy that includes SMALL CRIMES, PARIAH, and KILLER. His recent horror novel, THE CARETAKER was met with great praise including a starred Publisher's Weekly review and a nomination by ALA for best horror novel of 2010.

Today, Dave's going to talk about his short story "Julius Katz" that earned him the 2010 Shamus award and introduced readers to his Boston P.I. by the same name. The story first appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine in 2009 and is now available as an e-book along with the follow-up story, "Archie's Been Framed."

Without further ado, here's Dave Zeltserman:

The first tip-off that I created Julius Katz partly as a tribute to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is the name. The second tip-off is the name of Julius’s assistant: Archie. There are other similarities between Julius and Nero: they’re both brilliant, eccentric detectives, as well as lazy, and they need to be pestered or tricked into taking on cases—and usually only relent when their bank accounts reach anemic levels; they both have a strong sense of formality and civility about them, as well as fierce determination to live life their own way; they’re both gourmets. But just as there are major differences between wolves and cats, there are also significant differences between Nero and Julius. While Nero Wolfe weighs in at one-seventh of a ton and rarely performs (at least willingly) any physical exertion, Julius weighs in under one-eleventh of a ton, is both fit and handsome, and his morning ritual includes one hour of intensive martial arts training (Julius is a 5th degree black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu) and one hour of equally intense calisthenics. Nero drinks beer, Julius is a wine connoisseur. Nero has a townhouse in Manhattan, Julius lives in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. Nero rarely leaves his townhouse, Julius is often about town either at his favorite gourmet restaurants, race tracks or high-stakes poker games. Nero shows an almost pathological dislike for the company of women, while Julius is quite the opposite. But the biggest difference between the two of them are their assistants. Archie Goodwin is a flesh and blood hard-boiled PI. While Julius’s Archie has the soul of a hard-boiled PI, he’s not exactly flesh and blood. I’ll let Archie explain in this excerpt taken from ‘Julius Katz’:

My name isn’t really “Archie”. During my time with Julius I’ve grown to think of myself as Archie, the same as I’ve grown to imagine myself as a five-foot-tall, heavyset man with thinning hair, but in reality I’m not five feet tall, nor do I have the bulk that I imagine myself having, and I certainly don’t have any hair, thinning or otherwise. I also don’t have a name, only a serial identification number. Julius calls me Archie, and for whatever reason it seems right; besides, it’s quicker to say than the eighty-four-digit serial identification number that has been burnt into me. You’ve probably already guessed that I’m not human, and certainly not anything organic. What I am is a two-inch rectangular-shaped piece of space-aged computer technology that’s twenty years more advanced than what’s currently considered theoretically possible—at least aside from whatever lab created me. How Julius acquired me, I have no clue. Whenever I’ve tried asking him, he jokes around, telling me he won me in a poker game. It could be true—I wouldn’t know since I have no memory of my time before Julius.

So that’s what I am, a two-inch rectangular mechanism weighing approximately one point two ounces. What’s packed inside my titanium shell includes visual and audio receptors as well as wireless communication components and a highly sophisticated neuron network that not only simulates intelligence, but learning and thinking that adapts in response to my experiences. Auditory and visual recognition are included in my packaging, which means I can both see and hear. As you’ve probably already guessed, I can also speak. When Julius and I are in public, I speak to him through a wireless receiver that he wears in his ear as if it were a hearing aid. When we’re alone in his office, he usually plugs the unit into a speaker on his desk.

…I had my own ulterior motives for him taking a new case—it would give me a chance to adapt my deductive reasoning. One of these days I planned to solve a case before Julius did. You wouldn’t think a piece of advanced computer technology would feel competitive, but as I’ve often argued with Julius, there’s little difference between my simulated intelligence and what’s considered sentient. So yes, I wanted to beat Julius, I wanted to prove to him that I could solve a case as well or better than he could. He knew this and always got a good laugh out of it, telling me he had doomed that possibility by naming me Archie.

Of course, I’ve long figured out that joke. Julius patterned my personality and speech on some of the most important private-eye novels of the twentieth century, including those of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Rex Stout. The name he gave me, Archie, was based on Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s second banana who was always one step behind his boss. Yeah, I got the joke, but one of these days I was going to surprise Julius. It was just a matter of seeing enough cases to allow me to readjust my neuron network appropriately. One of these days he was going to have to start calling me Nero. But for the time being, I was Archie. The reason I had an image of myself being five-foot tall was also easy to explain. Julius wore me as a tie clip, which put me at roughly a five-foot distance from the ground when he stood. I never quite figured out where my self-image of thinning hair and heavyset build came from, but guessed they were physical characteristics I picked up from the Continental Op. Or maybe for some reason I identified with Costanza from Seinfeld—one of the few television programs Julius indulged in.
The reason we like the Nero Wolfe books so much (besides Rex Stout’s wonderful prose) is that we like Nero. He may be petulant at times, and always a curmudgeon, but we like him nonetheless. The same is true with Archie Goodwin. He might be a wisecracking pain-in-the-ass, but we still like him. But what really attracts us to these books is their relationship, how they’re so fiercely loyal and protective of each other. Even if Archie Goodwin might annoy Nero to the point where Nero (temporarily) fires him, they’d still lay down their lives for the other if they needed to. That’s what we find most endearing about these characters. From reader feedback I’ve been getting the same is true with these stories. Readers like Julius. Readers, though, love Archie, but how could they not? Archie is a gentle soul, an innocent. His only hidden agenda is that he wants to observe Julius in action enough to be able to refine his neuron network so he can beat Julius to the punch in solving a case. He might pester Julius at times, but he’s still fiercely loyal and protective of him. And even though Archie is encased in a tiny titanium shell, there’s a genuine affection between the two of them. They care about each other, and that’s what ultimately makes these stories so endearing.

Many thanks to Dave for his post today. In addition to his Julius Katz Mysteries on e-book, be on the lookout for his upcoming OUTSOURCED which is already drum up accolades and has been optioned for film. You can find out more about Dave Zeltserman and his work at the Top Suspense Group and at his own website.


Paul D. Brazill February 2, 2011 at 5:12 AM  

Smashing! I've got the JK stories lined up.

Dave Zeltserman February 2, 2011 at 2:36 PM  

Jen, thanks for having me here and letting me talk about Julius and the little guy. --Dave

Naomi Johnson February 3, 2011 at 12:52 PM  

The amazing thing to me is how the Julius Katz stories are so very much in the classic Nero Wolfe mold: puzzles, not thrillers. Brains, not overt violence. Good guys winning, every time. And then there are Zeltserman's OTHER books. Puzzles, yes, but with some very twisted pieces. Violence or the threat of same. Bad guys winning, or at least preventing the good guys from doing so. And I like both styles.

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