Authors offer clues to their craft

As authors, James Benn and David Handler have created beloved characters who have collectively solved all sorts of heinous crimes.

But that doesn't mean they're pensive people soured by the darkness of their fictional but felony-clustered worlds. On the contrary, each writer is approachable, funny and friendly. They also like to eat - which means it's all good Saturday when Handler and Benn headline the second annual Celebrity Author Luncheon at the East Lyme Community Center.

The event benefits the East Lyme Child and Family Auxiliary, and the authors will autograph books available for sale.

Recently, Benn and Handler spoke separately to The Day.

Handler introduces his ‘Golden’ boy in new book

From his rustic home in Old Lyme — an old carriage house, evocatively enough — David Handler spins out his cozy mysteries with charm, skill and endless imagination. Over the course of a long career, he’s been nominated for an Edgar award and has won legions of fans for two series. One stars film critic Stewart Hoagland and his dog Lulu and, more recently, another features an unlikely romantic crime-fighting couple: New York City film critic Mitch Berger and Connecticut State Resident Trooper Desiree Mitry.

Now, with his latest novel, “Runaway Man” (St. Martin’s/Minotaur), Handler introduces a new series starring Brooklyn private eye Benji Golden.

A diminutive former actor, Benji works full time at the private investigations business that his widowed mother — at one time the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City — inherited from his father.

The hilarious and resilient Benji, who is a quarter-inch shy of 5-foot-6, weighs 137 pounds and answers to the nickname “Bunny,” specializes in finding runaway teenagers. In “Runaway Man,” he’s hired to track down a missing senior from a prestigious college. Throw in basketball stars, mobsters, powerful political families, sinister law firms, and a seemingly ditzy but super-hot potential girlfriend, and Handler’s cooked up a sensational read.

Last week, the writer answered five questions about his work and his latest character.

Q. Where did the idea for Benji come from? There’s such joy and wit in the character that it almost seems he must’ve emerged fully formed in your brain one day and said, “Hey! Write about me!”

A. That’s exactly what happened, actually. Benji popped into my head fully formed, which is highly unusual for me. ‘Runaway Man’ came about because I was looking for a fresh, contemporary private eye novel to read and I couldn’t find one. It turns out that hardly anyone is writing them anymore.

The late, great Ray Bradbury once gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Write what you love to read.’ So I decided to write one myself.

Q. Is it fair to say there are autobiographical elements to Benji?

A. I knew right away that Benji Golden would be a modern-day version of the 25-year-old me who had moved to New York City’s gritty Upper West Side from L.A. in the ’70s to try and make it as a writer. (He’s) someone savvy but naïve; still hopeful and still excited about what life has to offer.

I knew Benji right away. I could hear his voice. I knew what was going on inside of his head. He’s me. The only difference between us is that I’m a quite a bit taller. A lot taller. Significantly taller.

Q. Without spoiling anything, there’s a big reveal at the end of “Runaway Man” that I never saw it coming. Given that it’s so central to the plot, did you have it all figured out before you ever started? Or is the writing process such that you can take a general idea and go with it and trust that it’ll all work out?

A. I almost always know what my story is going to be about before I start writing it. I know where I’m going. What I don’t know is exactly how I’m going to get there. That’s the fun part for me. Discovering how to get there. Mind you, it can also be a bit unnerving, because it’s easy to get lost in the woods of your own imagination with only a dull pocket knife and no flashlight. But I don’t mind that part. I just chalk it up to trial and error. Or trial and terror, as I like to call it.

Q. You typically write in a mystery genre that a lot of folks call cozies. In “Runaway Man,” Benji works in an investigative firm with his mom and another older woman, both of whom are ex-strippers. Another character — one of Benji’s love interests — is fairly brazen and matter of fact about sex. You pull this all off in a manner that keeps readers completely at ease, even though the sexual tension is always simmering. How hard is it to walk that tightrope?

A. Surprisingly hard, actually. I’ve fallen off of it a few times and gone splat. I really ought to just break down and buy myself a safety net. ‘Runaway Man’ is a modern interpretation of a traditional private eye mystery. What I’ve come to discover is that readers of traditional mysteries are reasonably comfortable with frisky sexual content. Even kinky sexual content. And I do stretch the envelope pretty far in the book. What readers don’t care for is coarseness, by which I mean graphic detail or vulgar language. For instance, if I have a teenaged girl using four-letter words, I’ll hear about it.

Q. Is it hard to recalibrate when you’re starting a new series, and how much thought do you have to put into the whole concept of a series to make sure you’re not re-treading on established patterns?

A. It’s not easy to recalibrate. But I don’t worry about covering ground that other writers have already covered. That’s always going to happen. You’re never going to invent a plot that no one has ever thought of before. You are always going where others have already been. What matters is the uniqueness of your voice and the newness of your characters.

Boyle back on the case in ‘Blind Goddess’

Since 2006, Hadlyme’s James R. Benn has published eight novels about Billy Boyle, a Boston Irish cop turned military policeman on duty in Europe during World War II. The latest is the just-out “A Blind Goddess” (Soho Books), and Boyle, recently promoted to captain, has to deal with two very different situations.

The first all-African American battalion in the war, the 617th Tank Destroyers, has been deployed for action — and one of its gunners, Angry Smith, has been charged with murder and faces execution. Boyle is summoned to help investigate by a childhood acquaintance, Eugene “Tree” Jackson, the first black person Boyle was ever exposed to in any protracted fashion.

At the same time, the British Intelligence Agency gives Boyle a case about a slain accountant in a nearby town, which may or may not overlap with the disappearance of a young girl and which may involve a hunt for German spies.

Given Boyle’s magnetic penchant for attracting difficult cases, fans probably expect their hero to solve both of these crimes — but what he discovers along the way might surprise them.

Benn spoke earlier this week about the Boyle series and the new book.

Q. Since Billy entered the war, he’s solved some tough crimes. How has the character evolved since you started writing, and has he done so in ways you perhaps never expected?

A. I truly didn’t expect him to change that much. In the first book, he was naïve but a wiseacre and I liked him that way. He was funny and interesting. But, pretty quickly, the war sobered him up. Over the course of the books, readers have said, ‘Billy isn’t as funny anymore, but he’s deeper.’ It’s a fair comment. And the change has endeared him to a lot of readers because it’s real. The things he’s seen and experienced have significantly affected him. As a writer, I couldn’t keep him the stereotypical smart guy.

Q. Black battalions in the war were in a particularly thankless situation. Not only did they face institutional racism from the army and from many of the white soldiers with whom they fought; they were also considered second-class citizens by a lot of the folks they were protecting. Was it hard to put Billy into a racially sensitive situation?

A. A big problem was how to make Billy sympathetic to the African-American point of view because he’s Irish and from Southie at a certain time period when the culture would not be particularly sympathetic. And I thought of the character of Tree, whom he knew from his childhood. They weren’t actually friends at first, but they got along and learned to respect each other. And that was the bridge that enabled Billy to be sympathetic.

Q. In the larger context of racism in the war, how did you approach the research?

A. The research was easy because there’s lot of great material. There are a lot of accounts of the treatment black soldiers received. I relied on my own memory, too. I had to remember what it was like growing up in a small town where there was only one black family. The truth is, growing up there, the N-word was used indiscriminately and casually — without a lot of people really knowing what it meant or how much it hurt. And to write the book meant I had to reimmerse myself into that feeling of unconscious racism. It was hard to write the N-word, and it was tricky and uncomfortable to capture the right tone sometimes. But it was important to represent it as the way things were — and that’s the way it was.

Q. With the story of Angry and Tree, you have a perfectly good plot line to sustain a novel. But then you also ratchet the whole thing up with an ancillary story involving the murder of Mr. Neville and a missing girl named Eva (which involves the idea of Nazi double agents and Billy’s odd involvement at the request of British intelligence). Was it ever possible this could have been two separate novels?

A. I had the notion about the espionage double cross and really liked it — and the idea of someone maybe overly obsessed by the idea that German agents might somehow get away. And since the Angry Smith investigation wasn’t an official case — Billy’s looking into it to help an old friend — I thought the novel demanded Billy being involved in an actual case. And it turned out the two worked well together.


Who: David Handler and James R. Benn

What: Second annual Celebrity Author Luncheon

When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: East Lyme Community Center, 39 Society Road, East Lyme

How much: $25 in advance, $30 at the door

For more information: (860) 460-2304 or email,,

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