Like thousands of Americans, I headed to a bookstore over the weekend to buy a hot UK import. No, not Harry Potter. The boy wizard leaves me cold. I wanted to buy Mark Billingham's latest, Scaredy Cat. Billingham, a crime novelist and stand-up comic, is my kind of writer: He made the stroke-silenced woman in Sleepyhead, his debut novel, more complex than some allegedly awake females in hardboiled fiction.
Mark and I are publishing first cousins, represented by the same U.S. imprint, William Morrow. But I'd probably know him even if we had different publishers, since the mystery-writing world is so tightknit. Writers drink together, blurb one another, share confidences and diet tips. (I owe my weight loss to Harlan Coben, who advocates a modified Atkins approach that allows fruits and juices.)
Mark was signing at a Northern Virginia Borders bookstore beloved by touring authors. Event organizer Colleen Holt not only fills the seats, she also gives you a chance to eat your face. That is, she gives you a cake with your photo scanned into the frosting. I tagged along with another crime writer, George P. Pelecanos, and his wife, Emily. Emily is beautiful, blond, unflappable—the perfect mate for the man once dubbed the coolest writer in America. After the signing, we shared a little harmless gossip over soft-shelled crabs, clams, and lasagna. Mr. X was quirky but brilliant; Mr. Y liked to go to book festivals and tell women that his wife didn't understand him, a line of dialogue that probably appears in his books. "Maybe she really doesn't understand him," George pointed out.
I've known George since 1998, when I profiled him for my then-employer, the(Baltimore) Sun. Now we're double-first cousins, sharing UK and German publishers. I met Emily in 2000, when a group of international crime writers and their mates—organized by the aforementioned Harlan—spent a week in the Bahamas. I could cite even more internecine connections, but you get the point. I'm beginning to suspect there's a reason so many crime novels turn on incest, and it's not just because of our admiration for the movie Chinatown.
I'm more at home in these inbred precincts than I ever was in journalism. I'm not sure why. I made lifelong friends during my two decades in newspapers. I was passionate about my work. But I always felt like an impostor. Plum assignments made me grumpy—especially political stories, which forced me into the shadow of my father's formidable reputation. (My dad, Theo Lippman Jr., was an editorial writer and columnist at the Sun for 30 years.) I preferred going where executives would never want to tamper, to paraphrase a favorite line from Auden. The best assignment of my career centered on a 10-year-old boy and his last day in fourth grade. When that article appeared, I announced to colleagues that I wanted to quit because I couldn't imagine writing another story that would bring me—and the subject—equal happiness.
That was in June 2001. I didn't quit that day, but perhaps I should have. I endured five more months of Gaslight-like harassment at the Sun, a campaign that cost me two back molars from excessive grinding, led to a management-ordered psychological test (I passed), and culminated in what I am obliged to call a confidential agreement between the Sun and me.
That agreement was reached less than a week before we went into arbitration over my claim that the Sun had transferred me punitively from the features staff to the suburban Baltimore county office in August 2000. (The transfer would have been illegal under the Sun's contract with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.) I believed I stood a good chance of winning the grievance, but the mere act of invoking my union rights had infuriated the Sun's top editors. Besides, I was in danger of maxing out my dental coverage.
Here's the crime writer's obligatory twist: I'm better off because Sun management drove me out. Freed from the grind of writing a book a year in my spare time—6:30 to 8:30 every weekday morning, with longer sessions on weekends—I stepped outside my ongoing series with my eighth novel, Every Secret Thing. My longtime editor, Carrie Feron, was so pleased by the result that she added a book to my current contract, which boosted my advance and, better still, gives me job security through 2006.
Meanwhile, the Sun is not a happy place these days. The union contract expires at midnight Tuesday, and the two sides are far apart, with the Sun's corporate owner, Tribune Co., pushing for changes that boil down to de facto pay cuts and virtually no job security. Last week, I attended a rally for my former colleagues and signed up for a shift on the picket lines. I hope I don't have to walk on Wednesday, but if they need me, I'm there. I owe the guild more than I can say. Literally. That was the point of the confidential agreement.