Friday, August 10, 2012

The Karpiad

Between 1985 and 2001 I wrote fifteen novels that were published under someone else’s name. They constituted a “legal thriller” series about a New York prosecuting attorney named Butch Karp, his wife, a private security consultant named Marlene Ciampi, and their three children. Unlike many such series, they were embedded in real time; that is, time passed, the characters changed and accumulated experience, the kids grew older, and so on. They were set about ten years prior to the time I wrote them, the 70s and 80s in New York City, with some occasional visits elsewhere. Allowing for the necessary repetitions required by such projects, the series is really one long novel, totaling about a million eight hundred thousand words. It’s certainly the largest project I will ever do in my life. The books were extremely successful, and even though I only received half the advances, these were so large that I did better financially then than I have since publishing under my own name, which never appeared on the cover of any of these fifteen books.

This is an unusual situation. Famous writers certainly hire ghosts, or “research assistants” as they are sometimes called, and we continue to see books appear from dead authors, written by others, either attributed or not. But I can’t think of another case where someone produced a substantial literary success without writing a single word. You would have to be crazy to be the writer in this scheme. I was.

The person whose name does appear on these books is Robert K. Tanenbaum. His mother and mine were sisters of unusual closeness and until we were teenagers we were raised essentially together, along with my brother and his. In 1985 I was working as a bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and he had just completed a stellar career as a homicide prosecutor at the New York D.A.’s office, and was setting up in private practice in Los Angeles. We had drifted apart owing to the peculiar nature of our family (don’t ask!) but when our paths crossed we were friendly and I sensed that he wanted to cultivate that friendship.

He had published a ghosted true-crime book about one of his spectacular cases, on the strength of which he had been contracted to write a fictionalized version of another such case. He had written about a hundred pages of this and he asked me to take a look at them with a view toward doing a little editing. I should add here that although I was a writer in college and was at the moment writing speeches for the administrator of the EPA, I had not been able to write fiction for a long time and had never done any sustained fiction writing. So I took a look at this ms. and it was unreadably bad, at least in my view. I suppose it was no worse than some books that are best-sellers. In any case, I told him that I thought it was un-editable, but that if he liked, I would write him a novel from scratch on the theme of his case, in return for half the advance. He agreed and I set to work.

Looking back, I suppose I regarded it as something of a lark. I was a civil servant, he was a lawyer. We both had real work to do, and the Karp novels were a nice source of income and also fun. I got to write fiction without the burden of being a writer and he got a chunk of nice money for going on book tours. In my imagination, as I recall, he would go on to a career in politics—his goal then—or else make a major career as a litigator, and after a while, my name would appear on the books (why not?) and I would slide into the life I should have been living all along.

This did not happen, obviously. First the partnership was pleasant, then less so, then unpleasant indeed. The Karp books still come out from time to time, written by another, but they no longer command huge advances. I should have schadenfreude about this, but I do not. It’s entirely possible that I would have spent my life in the civil service and duly retired, and done wisterias or golf instead of novels had I not engaged in this hideous enterprise, so I must be at least partially grateful. As a life lesson I guess it cost me about a million dollars and thus takes pride of place in my forthcoming memoir, Diary of a Schmuck; but the real reason I mention the Karpiad here is that I assume people who like my own stuff seek out this website and that they might also like the Karps. When I published Tropic of Night I wanted to include these books on the Also By page, but the publisher wouldn’t go for it and they were right, I guess. Nevertheless, I did write these books, they are part of my opus, they took up sixteen years of my life, and, compared to the typical legal thriller, they are pretty good.

The ones I wrote are:

No Lesser Plea
Depraved Indifference
Immoral Certainty
Reversible Error
Corruption of Blood
Material Witness
Justice Denied
Falsely Accused
True Justice
Reckless Endangerment
Irresistible Impulse
Act of Revenge
Enemy Within
Absolute Rage

I believe they are all still available.


Steve Bodio said...

All are worth reading. My favorites are the last five "real" ones: Act of Revenge,True Justice, Enemy Within, Absolute Rage, and Resolved. The characters have by this point become themselves, have attained their personalities and acquired much history; the themes include many things which are manifest in the later books under the Gruber name. I bought Tropic of Night in part because I liked them so much, and have never regretted it.

Revenge is my not entirely arbitrary starting point, because in it young Lucy Karp, linguistic prodigy and potential saint (no, not boring and pious- see "Writing Good"-- she is an entirely believable pre- adolescent New York girl of her time) comes into her own as a character when she witnesses a brutal crime.

And from there they just get better.

To be continued...

Steve Bodio said...

You WOULD like the Karps. Not the new version-- ie post- Resolved-- though...

One of the most unpleasant phenomena (if intellectually fascinating, because unique) I have seen in recent lit is on display here: watching characters you feel you know betray their principles and personalities and turn into aliens for no reason whatsoever. In a vanished (with no backup-- cyber world was new to me then) essay in an old website, I suggested it was best to think of the Karps as friends who were somehow lost in 9- 11. Better than watching them morph into ninnies in the hands of whoever writes them now. Stick with the real thing.

Incidentally the scene in the first (?- I read all of ONE) post- Gruber Karp book where the cowboy rescues (ROPES, with a distinct frisson of bondage!) Lucy from the car falling into the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico is (1) physically impossible and, worse, unbelievable; (2) emotionally unlikely (read Gruber's Lucy); (3) an example of the worst kind of romanticism about this state, the kind that makes us want to put in immigration controls; and (4): so ignorant about the cowboys it attempts to praise it suggests that the dumb SOB didn't even READ about them.

Got a bit excited, granted. But not just because I am a fan of Mr Gruber, but because, like him, I am a writer and give a damn about writing. Tannenbaum doesn't. said...

Yeah, I actually never read more than a few pages of the not-by-me Karps. The prose was so degraded that I couldn't make it go into my brain. I occasionally hear things about what the characters are doing in the dreck in which they now exist. It's like having a messy divorce and your kids aren't allowed to see you and you hear the new husband is abusing them--a little like, anyway. Tattooed on my arm is now 'If you create something, hold the copyright." I have to believe the Karp episode has made me a better person.

Joe Flynn said...

I found this blog as a result of looking for a new title from you. I think your Karp books are great, though, toward the end, I kept wishing Butch would divorce Marlene, who'd gone nuts and was a very poor excuse for a wife and a mother.

My relationship to the series was more than that of a reader. I'm a published — and now self-published — author. One of the authors praising my book "Digger" was Robert K. Tanenbaum. Then again, he's listed there as the author of "Falsely Accused," one of the books you wrote. So tell me, please, if you wrote RKT's blurbs, too.

Beyond that, my former agent, initials BD, asked me if I wanted to be considered as your replacement on the Karp series. I told him I write very well in my own voice but wouldn't dare to attempt writing in yours.

Hope to see more new novels from you. said...

RKT is indeed the Author of Falsely Accused, even though I wrote every word of it. That was the problem. Interesting that you got an offer to ghost the new Karps. In fact, it is no fun to ghost fiction, although it's a living, I suppose, for whoever now does it for RKT.