Old Lyme novelist Handler brings back Hoagy series with new book

David Handler (Submitted)
David Handler (Submitted)

The last time David Handler and Stewart "Hoagy" Hoag spent any time together, they were both in their early 40s. Now, two decades later, the pair has reunited. Handler is 64 and Hoagy is, ah, still in his early 40s.

Y'see, Handler is the bestselling mystery writer who created Hoagy — as in a fictional character who starred, along with his preternaturally clever basset hound Lulu, in eight novels of oft-hilarious, sophisticated crime-solving. They include "The Man Who Died Laughing," "The Woman Who Fell From Grace" and "The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald," the latter of which won a 1991 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

In the series, Hoag is a once-famous literary wunderkind whose career, through bad luck and critical writer's block, has been reduced to ghostwriting celebrity tell-all memoirs. That each assignment conveniently involves Hoag — who remains a witty and debonair presence on the Manhattan scene despite the circumstances — solving a murder is a big part of the whole construct.

Unfortunately, Handler also realized, at the dawn of the 1990s, that Hoagy was stuck in a narrative impasse whereby the speedy evolution of social media, 24/7 Famous Person gossip and the Internet rendered the idea of a celebrity memoir an anachronism.

Moving on, with some admitted regret, Handler earned an even greater fan base and critical acclaim with a series of cozy mysteries starring film critic Mitch Berger and his partner, state trooper Dez Mitry. The books are set in Dorset, a fictionalized version of Old Lyme, which is where Handler has lived for several years. In addition to 11 Berger/Mitry stories, Handler recently wrote the first two novels in a promising series starring diminutive Manhattan private detective Benji Golden.

In light of that success, there was no reason for Handler fans to think much about Stewart Hoag and Lulu other than with pleasant nostalgia. Which is why it's a wonderful surprise that, on Wednesday, William Morrow will publish "The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes," the latest Hoag and Lulu novel.

"Believe me, it wasn't my idea to write another Hoagy book," says Handler by phone earlier this week from his Old Lyme home. "To me, the series was dead and gone. I felt the world was changing and Hoagy's occupation was obsolete. It was time to move on."

But two years ago, Dominick Abel, Handler's agent, was having lunch with William Morrow executive editor Dan Mallory, who happened to mention that the Hoagy novels comprised his mother's favorite series, to the extent that she had a special bookshelf constructed to house them all. Mallory himself is a huge fan. Would Handler, Mallory wondered, consider resurrecting the character?

In an email Tuesday, Mallory explains his thinking. He writes, "Hoagy's appeal — like that of Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond, or The Thin Man's Nick Charles, all apt comparisons to our hero — is timeless. He's witty, tasteful, altogether classic. I had read David's books at a young age, so I felt confident that today's twentysomethings would spark to his storytelling and style ... and for once I was right."

But while Abel explained Handler's position that the modern age had pushed Hoagy out to pasture, Mallory wouldn't give up. He showed "The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald" to a 25-year-old Morrow editor named Margaux Weisman, and she came up with a perhaps simple idea: why couldn't Handler just freeze Hoagy in the early '90s and write a period piece?

"That idea stopped me cold," Handler laughs. "I hadn't thought of it at all. And that Margaux loved the pop culture in the book made me think Hoagy could still resonate with younger readers. She was enjoying reading about stuff that happened before she was born. I guess it would be like us discovering W.C. Fields or Humphrey Bogart. So the idea of going back in time — to the era of limited technology — was immediately intriguing. It started me thinking."

Obviously, it all worked out. "The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes" is the first of a two-book Hoagy deal, and Handler says he had a wonderful time writing a book he says might be his favorite of the series. In it, Hoagy and Lulu are brought in after letters arrive from Richard Aintree — once the most famous literary writer in America who disappeared after his wife's suicide — to his two estranged and famous daughters, Monette and Reggie.

Hoagy's job is to head to Monette's mansion in Beverly Hills and oversee a manuscript based on Aintree's apparent resurfacing and the entire family's bizarre history. On the West Coast, Hoagy encounters a lunatic asylum's worth of shallow TV actors, shark-like agents and hangers-on, and an increasing maelstrom of activity spurred by Aintree's letters. Also surfacing are a variety of standout support characters from earlier books, including film star Merilee Nash, Hoagy's still congenial ex-wife, and super-agent/weasel Boyd Samuels. And, as always, Hoagy and Lulu are hilarious, intrepid, imperturbable and constantly on point, particularly after a principal character is shot and killed.

Handler says book-related events and appearances are being planned, with a confirmed signing schedule Sept. 17 at the Essex Public Library. Below, he answers questions about his career and "The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes.:

Q. Once Mallory and Margaux got your attention, what was the next step, and were you anxious that maybe it wouldn't work after all this time?

A. There were definitely unresolved issues with Hoagy, and I thought that could be at the heart of a plot. I wanted to do something about his romantic past and something that would illuminate his writer's block and the on-again/off-again problems with Merilee. At that point, I still wasn't sure. But gradually a plot started to come together, and I called my agent and said, "You know what? I think I want to do it." But I was still uncertain until they came back with a two-book deal. I asked my agent, "I'd be crazy to turn this down, right?"

And he said, "Yes, you'd be crazy. This type of thing doesn't happen any more in publishing. You don't get a chance like this." So I slid back into that voice again, and to have Hoagy and his four-footed sidekick back by his side was a total trip. As sometimes happens in real life, it was like no time had passed at all. I might just as well have finished the last Hoagy book a year ago.

Q. What had you forgotten about the series?

A. As easy as it was to get into Hoagy's voice, it hit me that he was THE first great literary figure of the 1980s and was a highly regarded wit and man about town. In other words, I'm basically writing a character that's smarter than I am. When he walks into a room and describes it or characterizes someone he's meeting, that all really has to be authentic. It requires a lot of thought and a lot of drafts, and I have to work hard to do that.

Also, I'm 20 years older and maybe not wiser but more battle scarred. Hoagy is still 40, but I'm not. I had more to bring to the character based on my life experiences. I thought all along that this one has a lot of emotional meaning. I mean, it's still Hoagy and wisecracks and celebrity murder, so it's got all the elements. But it also seems like I added 20 years of emotional impact.

Q. There's an astonishing spin at the end of the novel that just made me laugh out loud with its greatness. Was it something you knew going into the writing of the manuscript, or did it occur to you as your worked?

A. Reading the galleys of the book, I told my girlfriend I thought the twist would be obvious. But she said, "It fooled me, and it fooled your agent," and now I guess it fooled you. It could have been one of those vestigial things that gets taken out, but I'm glad you liked it.

Q. You're working on the follow-up to "Kaleidoscope Eyes," and you're having a great time. Which begs the question: what about Berger and Mitry and even Benji Golden?

A. Well, after what happened with Hoagy, I'm out of the prediction business. I am working on the new Hoagy book. It should be done by November, and it's called "The Man Who Couldn't Miss." In truth, I really don't know at this stage of my career if I'll return to either (Berger and Mitry or Benji). It takes a lot of stamina to write a book a year. It might not seem like it takes stamina to write a book, but it does. I will say I loved the 11 books in the Berger/Mitry series. It was a treat to write about the village I live in and the people I've come in contact with. It's been an endlessly fascinating series, and I've loved their relationship and budding romance.

Q. It was a total relief to find Lulu as amazing as ever — particularly with that diet of sardines. Clearly, while Hoagy has to remain in a loose historical period, Lulu can't age either, right?

A. Exactly. This is a situation where I can't have Lulu getting older. She's a very important part of this, and I realized early on that she plays some kind of role in the detection and is far more than just to provide gags and charm. There's a quality to her that's probably beyond what dogs can actually do. She helps with the investigation, whether she walks into a room and sneezes — tipping Hoagy off to an allergen — or she might smell something he wouldn't otherwise know about.

If you go

Who: Old Lyme novelist David Handler

What: Discusses and signs "The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes"

When: 5 p.m. September 17

Where: Essex Public Library, 33 West Ave., Essex

For more information: (860) 767-1560, davidhandlerbooks.com

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