Partners In Crime Tours Presents: CHARLES SALZBERG




Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York magazine, Elle, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, GQ and other periodicals. He is the author of over 20 non-fiction books and several novels, including Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, and the sequel, Swann Dives In. He also has taught been a Visiting Professor of Magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, the Writer’s Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.
Connect with Charles at these sites:


Q&A with Charles Salzberg

Writing and Reading:
-Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
Both.  In the case of Devil in the Hole, I drew from a front page newspaper story that occurred over 40 years ago.  I was fascinated by the crime: a man murdered his entire family, wife, three kids, mother and the family dog—and then disappeared.  What made the crime particularly interesting to me was that he had planned it meticulously, carefully enough that he gave himself a three-week head start for his getaway.  I simply took the facts of the crime and then imagined the rest.

For other novels, like my Swann books, I draw not only from current events but also from my own life.  In the first Swann book, Swann’s Last Song, I made the protagonist a skip tracer because when I worked as a magazine journalist I once interviewed one and was fascinated by his life.  He was kind of a low-level detective who chased people who’d run out on their bills or their spouses.

As I reached the second and third Swann novels—Swann Dives In and the upcoming Swann’s Lake of Despair—I began to use people I knew in the books, even using their real names.

-Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
I never know where my novels will take me.  The truth is, when I sit down at the computer I often don’t know what the next sentence will be, much less paragraph or page.  I don’t write from an outline.  It’s all very organic.  I’m afraid that if I know the ending to a novel it will become predictable and stale.  I like to be surprised and as a result I hope the reader is surprised as well.

-Your routine when writing?  Any idiosyncrasies?
No routine and no idiosyncracies, other than doing everything I possibly can to avoid actually sitting down and writing.  I write either when a deadline or guilt rear their ugly heads.  And I rarely can sit down and write for more than 20 minutes to half an hour.  What saves me is that I’m an incredibly fast typist—I think I can clock in at nearly 90 words a minute, though not all of them accurately spelled.

-Is writing your full time job?  If not, may I ask what you do by day?
Writing is pretty much my full time job, if you could call it a job. But I also teach writing three nights a week, for two hours a class.  Oddly enough, it’s non-fiction that I teach. I think it would inhibit me from writing fiction if I taught it as well, though I do have fiction writers sneak into my classes every once in a while.  That’s because years ago one of my students was a young woman who wrote an essay for class about her first day at work.  She called it, “The Devil Wears Prada.”  After Lauren Weisberger sold that book, I got a flurry of requests to get into my class, all from people who wanted to be the next Lauren and write the next, The Devil Wears Prada.

-Who are some of your favorite authors?
There are so many, but my favorites include Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ron Hansen.

-What are you reading now?
I just finished Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Shot all to Hell (about Jesse James and Cole Younger,) by Mark Lee Gardner, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and I’m in the middle of Hallucinations, by Oliver Sachs.

-Are you working on your next novel?  Can you tell us a little about it?
I’m working on the fourth Henry Swann novel, called Swann’s Way Out.  I’m only about a quarter into it, so I’m not completely sure where it’s going, but it’s going to be set in the world of movies and Hollywood, I think, because that’s a world that fascinates me and I have a little experience with it.

Fun questions:
-Your novel will be a movie.  Who would you cast?
Devil in the Hole would be difficult to cast because there are so many parts and no real “hero.”  But I think an intense actor, someone like Joaquin Phoenix, would be best for John Hartman, the murderer.

-Would you rather read or watch TV/movie?
Both.  At the same time, preferably.

-Favorite food?
Tough one, because there are so many.  Pizza, because there are so many varieties.  Chocolate cake.  Ice cream.  Hamburgers.  Pasta.  I could go on, but I won’t.

-Favorite beverage?
Chocolate ice cream soda, lemonade, and if I’m forced to drink alcohol, either a beer on a hot day or one of those fruity drinks with an umbrella in it.


Devil in the Hole is based on a true crime that occurred over 40 years ago in New Jersey, wherein a man murdered his entire family, wife, three children, mother and the family dog, and disappeared. My novel uses that event and takes off from there, following the murderer on his escape route. Using the voices of people he meets along the way, and people who are affected by his crime, the reader starts to build a portrait of the man and why he did what he did, in addition to following those who are searching for him.


Chapter One
James Kirkland

I knew something was out of whack, only I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Just something, you know. And it wasn’t only that I hadn’t seen any of them for some time. I mean, they’d been living there for what, three, three and a half years, and I don’t think I ever had more than a two- or three-minute conversation with any of them. And God knows, it wasn’t as if I didn’t try.

All things considered, they were pretty good neighbors. Mostly, I guess, because they kept to themselves. Which is certainly better than having neighbors who are always minding your business, or who don’t mow their lawn, or who drop in uninvited, or who throw wild parties and play loud music all night long. They weren’t like that. Just the opposite, in fact. Why, with that great big front lawn and two teenage boys you’d think they’d be out there tossing a football or a Frisbee around, or something. But no. It was so quiet sometimes it was as if no one lived there at all. Though I did hear rumors that the boys had a reputation of being hell-raisers. Maybe that’s why they kept such a tight lid on them when they were home. Because I can honestly say there wasn’t any hell-raising going on in that house that I could see. As a matter of fact, the only way you’d know the house was occupied was when you’d see the kids going to school, or him going off to work, or her and the mother going out to shop. Or at night, when the lights were on.

Which brings me back to the house itself. And those lights. It was the middle of November, a week or so before Thanksgiving, when I first noticed it. I was coming home from work and when I glanced over there I noticed the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. It’s a Georgian-style mansion, one of the nicest in the neighborhood, by the way, with something like twenty rooms, and I think the lights were on in every single one of them. But the downstairs shades were drawn tight, so all you could see was the faint outline of light around the edges of the windows, which gave it this really eerie look. Maybe they’ve got people over, was my first thought. But that would have been so out of character because in all the time they’d lived there I’d never seen anyone go in or out other than them. And anyway, it was absolutely quiet and there were no cars in the driveway or parked out on the street.

Just before I turned in, I looked out the window and noticed the house was still lit up, which was odd, since it was nearly midnight and, as a rule, they seemed to turn in kind of early over there.

The next night when I came home from work and I looked across the street the lights were still on. And that night, before I went to bed, after midnight, I looked out and the lights were still blazing.

After that, I made a kind of game of it. Under the pretense of getting some fresh air, I walked close to the house, as close as I could get without looking conspicuous, and listened to see if there were any sounds coming from inside. A couple of times, when I thought I heard something, I stopped to listen more carefully. But I never picked up anything that might indicate that someone was inside. And each night, when I came home from work, I made it a point to check out the house and make a note of how many lights were still burning and in which windows. I even began to search for silhouettes, shadows, anything I might interpret as a sign of life. And it wasn’t long before I whipped out the old binoculars to take a look, thinking maybe I could see something, anything, that would give me a hint as to what was going on. But when my wife accused me of being a peeping Tom, I put them away, at least while she was around.

There weren’t always the same number of rooms lit, but I noticed there were always fewer, never more. It was as if someone was going around that house each day turning off one light in one room, but in no discernible pattern. I began to think of that damn house during the day, while I was at work, or on the train coming home. It became a real thing with me. I even kept a notebook with a sketch of the house and notations next to each window that had a light on.

At night, I played a game. I began to think of that house as my own personal shooting gallery and, sitting on the window sill in my pajamas, while my wife was either in the bathroom or asleep, I’d choose one of the rooms and aim my imaginary rifle and pop! pop!, I’d shoot out one of the light bulbs. And, if the next night that particular room was dark, I’d get a tremendous rush of self-satisfaction that carried me through the whole next day. It was kind of like one of those video games my kids play. Pretty sick, huh?

I mentioned it to my wife—not my silly game, but the fact that those lights were going out one by one. She thought I was nuts. “Can’t you find anything better to do with your time?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m entertaining myself. Leave me alone.” Then I asked whether she’d seen the Hartmans lately, because I was beginning to have this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if something was seriously wrong. That it wasn’t a game anymore.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t. But that’s not unusual. Besides, it’s not as if I’m looking for them. If you ask me, they’re creepy. The whole bunch of them.”

“I know. But maybe . . . maybe there’s something wrong.”
“Go to bed,” she said. So I did, lulling myself to sleep with my imaginary rifle cradled in my arms, as if it would actually afford me some protection just in case something was wrong.

A few nights later, I set the alarm for three-thirty and slipped the clock under my pillow. When the vibration woke me, I got up quietly, so as not to wake my wife, looked out the window and sure enough the same number of lights was burning in the house as the night before. I was puzzled and frustrated because I was dying to know what was going on. I even thought of making up some kind of lame excuse to ring the Hartmans’ bell. But I didn’t have the nerve.

Two weeks later, only three rooms in the house were still lit. Down from eight the week before, fourteen the week before that, the week I began to keep count. I asked my son, David, whether he’d seen the Hartman kid in school, the one in his class.

“We’re not exactly best buds, Dad,” he said. “He keeps to himself. He’s weird. Maybe he’s queer or something.”
“I just asked if you’d seen any of them lately.”
“Not that I can remember. But I don’t go out of my way looking for any of them. They’re a bunch of weirdoes.”

I went back up to my room and stared out the window for maybe fifteen minutes, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I wondered if I should do something.

“Come to bed,” my wife said.

“I’m worried,” I said without taking my eyes off the Hartman house.

“There’s definitely something wrong over there.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she said. “Besides, it’s none of our business.”

“No, I can feel it. Something’s . . .”

She sighed, got out of bed and handed me the phone. “Well, rather than having to spend the rest of my life with a man who insists on staring out the window at the neighbors’ house all night like an idiot, I’d just as soon you called the police and let them put your mind at ease. At least maybe they can get them to turn out all the lights. Maybe then we can get some sleep over here.”

So, that’s how I called the cops.

Early reviews are in

Publishers Weekly Reviews,  5-17-2013
This title publishes JULY 2013
“In this smartly constructed crime novel, Salzberg uses multiple viewpoints to portray an unlikely killer who methodically slaughters his family . . . an intriguing collage of impressions and personal perspectives for the reader to ponder.”

New Mystery Reader Magazine
James Kirkland notices that all of the lights are on in his neighbor’s house. Not trying to be the nosy neighbor, but still curious, he checks every night and notices that lights are going out over time. As he watches the house he never sees any activity within even though the Hartman’s have three children and John’s mother lives with them. Kirkland finally decides to call the police and what they find is beyond horrifying. The wife and the three teenaged children have all been killed in the same way, a single bullet in the forehead.  Then the killer neatly positioned them in the ballroom. Upstairs, Hartman’s mother is lying in her bed killed in the same manner as the rest of the family. All the shell casings were picked up, the weapons were cleaned and oiled and the house was made presentable before the killer fled. John Hartman, the husband, is missing and based on the coroner’s estimate, he has a three-week lead on the police. The hunt for Hartman becomes an unwieldy obsession for Charles Floyd, the senior police investigator assigned to the case. John Hartman is a complex individual who commits a heinous crime to shed is oppressive old life as he seeks to find a new life while eluding the police.Devil in the Hole is a mesmerizing, elegantly constructed crime novel that is based on a true story. Charles Salzberg tells the tale using numerous characters that knew Hartman or encountered him as he moves around to avoid being caught. The voices of Charles Floyd and Hartman himself are raw and compelling as each of them deal with their own inner demons. Each of the other characters provide a teasing snippet of information about Hartman that keeps the reader enthralled as the story unfolds. Even though Salzberg uses over a dozen voices to tell the story, the reader never gets lost despite the complexity of the book. I am typically not a fan of books written in this manner but Salzberg masterfully uses this technique to create a novel that is different in an extremely good way. The author effortlessly blends the different perspectives, viewpoints, and impressions of each character into a brilliant tapestry that envelops the reader, while peaking interest and the desire for more information about the crime. Devil in the Hole is one of the best books that I have read this year and I most highly recommend it.

Genre: Literary psychological crime fiction
Published by: Five Star/Cengage
Publication Date: July 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 253
ISBN: 978-1-4328-2696-3




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