“It’s too painful, because I could see all the mistakes,” explained Salzberg, who lives in Manhattan. “When someone says they read the book and liked it, first I’m shocked, and then I don’t believe them. I don’t take praise well.”
The first book, Swann’s Last Song, was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel in 2009. Each year, Private Eye Writers of America honors the best detective fiction genre novels and short stories.
Believing he could reinvent the traditional mystery model, Salzberg initially wanted to write about a detective who follows the clues but doesn’t solve the mystery. But an agent brought him back down to earth, stating the inevitable—people want answers. It would be 20 years before he finally told the story of Henry Swann, an unlicensed PI looking to make money.
Now Salzberg has a third Swann book in an agent’s hand, Swann’s Lake of Despair, borne out of a short story he wrote for the Long Island Noir, and he is working on a fourth, Swann’s Way Out. In the latter’s opening line, Swann is playing poker and asks himself, what am I going to do for the rest of my life?
“It’s something we all ask ourselves,” Salzberg said. Even he ponders the question, despite being a highly sought after teacher in writer’s workshops and having mentored many published writers, including Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada. Salzberg is also a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop.
During his mid-to-late twenties, Salzberg and his friends created the Famous Writers Group, whose members weren’t famous. They met twice a month in downtown Manhattan to read their writing to each other. Ten of those writers became “semi-famous,” including Salzberg, but he doesn’t rely on a first reader anymore.
“You get to a point where you have to use your inner critic,” said Salzberg, a man who is never satisfied with the final product and loves a good editor.
His inner critic never turns off. Salzberg was brainstorming a better title to another mystery novel, when it finally came to him while listening to the intro lyrics of HBO’s The Wire, "You gotta keep the devil down in the hole."
Salzberg's Devil in the Hole is based on the true crimes of John List, who in 1971 murdered his wife, three children, mother, and the dog in their Westfield, N.J. home. The meticulous cover-up eluded the nation from List halting the family mail service to telling his children’s schools that they were on vacation. Nearly 18 years later, officers arrested List in Denver, where he was living with a new wife.
Anyone is capable of killing if the desire, means and opportunity are available at the same time, but very few plan it out, Salzberg said.
Only facts at the crime scene are relived in the novel, but the antagonist’s motive and character are fictional, Salzberg said. Devil in the Hole, which will be published in July, shows a man filled with shame and failure with a desire to start over.
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