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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    The man who worked under deadline pressure: For Old Lyme’s David Handler, writing fiction is a joy

    Edgar Award-winning novelist David Handler poses for a portrait in his Old Lyme home Tuesday, April 30, 2024. His recently published novel, “The Woman Who Lowered the Boom,” continues his popular Stewart Hoag mystery series. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Old Lyme author David Handler (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Most creatures that hibernate — bears, bats, marmots, groundhogs and so on — have by now emerged into the burgeoning vernal warmth. It’s May, after all.

    Not so with the creature called David Handler. A rare bipedal specimen of the phenomenon, Handler, the Edgar Award-winning author of over 30 mystery novels, has yet to surface this spring. But while others practice dormancy to conserve energy, shifting into low-metabolic frequencies, Handler’s hibernation is quite the opposite.

    As a matter of fact, during this hibernation period, Handler is still hidden away in his Old Lyme home, functioning in a state of high productivity and typing like a demon in a rush to make the deadline for his next book.

    Hold on! Didn’t his latest title, “The Woman Who Lowered the Boom” (Mysterious Press), the 15th adventure in the popular Hoagy & Lulu series, only hit bookstores a few months back?

    Well, yes.

    But producing a novel on an annual basis is a grinding obligation suitable for only the most courageous of thrill-seekers. And though it’s new to readers, “The Woman Who Lowered the Boom” seems a distant memory to Handler. He was thus happy to take a short break last week, let the keys of his typewriter cool off a bit, and talk about his most recent publication.

    An unfolding narrative

    “I enjoyed writing (‘The Woman Who Lowered the Boom’) a lot, and it’s fun to develop recurring characters,” Handler said by phone. “There are more and more of them, and that makes it interesting to keep it all balanced. Plus, in the new book, I got to explore the underbelly of the publishing industry. Readers seem fascinated by publishing, so I shared some stories and took them on a tour of the way things really work.”

    Fans know the series, set in the 1980s and ’90s, star Stewart “Hoagy” Hoagland, a once-acclaimed literary wunderkind whose career was derailed by cocaine and drink. It cost him his esteem and position in the literary hierarchy, reduced to ghostwriting tell-all memoirs for celebrities. It also cost him the love of his life, Oscar-winning actress Merilee Nash.

    But, living in near poverty with only his loyal and preternaturally aware Basset hound, Lulu, Hoagy has over the course of the series slowly clambered his way back. He’s clean, reconciled with Merilee, slowly regained his writerly voice — and along the way solved numerous crimes that have subsequently occurred during his ghostwriting assignments.

    In “The Girl Who Lowered the Boom,” Hoagy has at last finished his “comeback” manuscript, and his editor, Norma Fives, is convinced it’s going to be a huge critical and financial success. But when Norma starts getting death threats in the mail, Hoagy is concerned, and so is her boyfriend, New York City Detective Lieutenant Romaine Very — both of whom have become two of the popular recurring characters Handler spoke about.

    As Romaine compiles a list of people who might have a grudge against Norma — and names at the top are all writers who, for one reason or another, the editor has had to drop as a client — the policeman calls on Hoagy for investigative help since he has extensive knowledge of the book business.

    Tension escalates when violence and tragedy are introduced into the situation, and Romaine and Hoagy — and the mackerel-chewing Lulu, whose ability to judge the hearts and souls of humans is acute – take a much closer look at suspects that include a retired children’s author, a creepy literary agent and a blowhard/historian.

    Handler is wonderful at nuancing wit, atmosphere and character, and while things can get fairly dark, his style is never to emphasize grisly violence at the expense of a consistently light tone. His books, which also include the 11-volume Berger & Mitry series set in a village like Old Lyme, mostly fall into the “cozy” category — which is to say fairly gentle, reliant on amateur sleuthing and with an aura of disrupted familiarity. But that template should never be confused with “easy to write.”

    Does easy = best?

    “Interestingly, when people ask which are my favorites, the answers are different from ‘which are the best books I’ve written,’” Handler said. “MY favorites are the ones that are easiest and most fun to write. That’s an enjoyable process that I appreciate.

    “It’s the ones I HATED to write that tend to be popular with readers, and I suspect they’re the best books,” Handler said. “‘The Man Who Loved F. Scott Fitzgerald,’ which is the Edgar-winner, drove me crazy. The one I’m writing now is driving me crazy. I have to keep moving stuff around to make parts fit and make the plot work – but those are the ones that resonate with readers. I’ve found that the easy ones aren’t necessarily the works that have people doing cartwheels.”

    Of course, one of the conceits of writing a cozy series is that, somehow, the author has to continually come up with felonious scenarios that would enable the hero — again, not a professional crime-fighter — to become involved and provide the solution. For Handler, the magic entrée into these situations is Hoagy’s constant exposure to famous and often troubled people.

    “Sometimes it’s complicated, but, on a case-by-case basis, there are a lot of realistic scenarios,” Handler said. He alludes to “The Girl Who Took What She Wanted,” the title prior to “The Woman Who Lowered the Boom.” Hoagy is hired to help a young, Kim Kardashian-style reality star “write” her story in the hopes of smoothing rumors and at the same time capitalizing on her fame.

    When no big-time female romance writers can get along with the spoiled star, Hoagy is brought in and manages to establish a connection.

    “This is a person in her early 20s who’s mostly known for sleeping her way through rock, film and baseball stars,” Handler said. “It’s a nightmare publishing scenario but, when Hoagy reluctantly takes the job, it provided a lot of great possibilities if something bad happens. And of course it does.”

    A pleasant routine — usually

    By now, you’d think Hander has a writing routine that ensures efficiency in terms of deadlines — with the aforementioned caveat that some plots are a lot tougher to nail down than others. But his ongoing project is behind for reasons beyond his control.

    “I made it all the way through the pandemic without getting sick,” he said. “But in January, I got COVID. Everyone on my street got it and it was pretty bad. I was in bed for three weeks before I could get out and try to promote ‘The Woman Who Lowered the Boom.’ THEN I got a cold. So I’m way behind. Publishers keep you on a pretty tight deadline if you’re writing a mystery series, but they’ve been understanding.“

    Now 70, Handler insists that writing keeps him energized and vibrant rather than tiring him out.

    “Am I in total hibernation? Yes! I’ve still got so much to do on this book, but I’ll get there.” Handler laughed. “I have a lot of friends who are retired and go on cruises or have leisure time hobbies. I’m not ready for any of that. My life has always been focused on work. I enjoy creating worlds — and, frankly, anything’s better than the real world right now. I enjoying waking up every morning, sitting down at my desk, and disappearing into 1982.”

    If you want to read

    Who: Old Lyme mystery novelist David Handler

    What: “The Woman Who Lowered the Boom — A Steward Hoag Mystery”

    Available: Bookstores, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com

    For more information: davidhandlerbooks.com

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