Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mystery Author Interview: Les Roberts

Les Roberts
Les Roberts.
Photo courtesy of
Les Roberts.

Les Roberts is the author of fourteen mystery novels featuring Cleveland detective Milan Jacovich, as well as nine other books of fiction. The past president of both the Private Eye Writers of America and the American Crime Writers League, he came to mystery writing after a twenty-four-year career in Hollywood. He was the first producer and head writer of The Hollywood Squares and wrote for The Andy Griffith Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., among others. He has been a professional actor, a singer, a jazz musician, and a teacher. In 2003 he received the Sherwood Anderson Literary Award. A native of Chicago, he currently lives in Northeast Ohio.

In the latest mystery in the Milan Jacovich series, King of the Holly Hop, published last month by Gray and Co., Milan reluctantly attends the 40th reunion of his St. Clair High School class at a downtown hotel. When one classmate is found murdered and another becomes the main suspect, Milan takes on the unpleasant job of investigating old friends in search of the real killer.

We had a chance recently to talk to Les about his books.

Mysterious Reviews: If you were introducing Milan Jacovich, the private investigator in your Cleveland mystery series, to someone, what would you say about him?

Les Roberts: He's a decent, ethical man---frequently lonely, mostly because he tends to view everything in black and white, which is how he, and most of us who live here, see Cleveland, too.

The Milan Jacovich Mystery Series
Les Roberts: Pepper PikeLes Roberts: Full Cleveland
Les Roberts: Deep ShakerLes Roberts: The Cleveland Connection
Les Roberts: The Lake EffectLes Roberts: The Duke of Cleveland
Les Roberts: Collision BendLes Roberts: The Cleveland Local
Les Roberts: A Shoot in ClevelandLes Roberts: The Best Kept Secrets
Les Roberts: The Indian SignLes Roberts: The Dutch
Les Roberts: The Irish Sports PagesLes Roberts: King of the Holly Hop

From Milan's first appearance in Pepper Pike (1988) to his most recent case in King of the Holly Hop, how has he evolved as a character?

Just like me, and probably you, too, he's grown older, wiser, and more mellow. However, that maturity gave him a crystal-clear view of life, and as a result he's grown less patient with the things and ideas that hit him in the heart.

Do you outline your books first, writing from the outline? Or are you the type to simply write first then edit (or not) later?

I don't ever outline, but I live with the book in my head for several months, taking notes as I go. When I begin, I always know where I'm going, i.e. who is the killer---but I never know how to catch him/her until I'm at the keyboard.

You were the winner of the first St. Martin's Press Private Eye Novel Contest in 1986 resulting in the publication of An Infinite Number of Monkeys a year later. Was this a manuscript that you had already written and tried to publish, or did you write it specifically for the contest?

I'd written it about six months previous to ever hearing about the contest, but living in Los Angeles I had no clue as to how to go about marketing it. A friend told me about the contest and I said, "Real people don't win contests!" but she convinced me to send it in. I did so, and promptly forgot about it until St. Martin's called and told me I won.

You were a successful screenwriter and producer in Hollywood before moving to Cleveland. What prompted you to try your hand at mystery fiction?

Some would/be producer had urged me to come up with a private-eye story. I did so, then found out he was nowhere near producing it, so I began writing the screenplay myself. A little voice in my inner ear said, "This is a BOOK," and when I started writing it I discovered prose fiction was my heavy-duty addiction. I've never looked back.

An Infinite Number of Monkeys featured a Los Angeles-based private investigator named Saxon. At about the same time, you started a separate series with Milan Jacovich, alternating books between the two characters for several years. The Saxon series stopped after 6 books. What was the reason for discontinuing the Saxon series?

Two reasons. The Milan books were outselling the Saxon books about 3 to 1. Besides, I moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland and found that I related more to Milan than I ever did to Saxon. I miss the guy sometimes, but Milan is my best friend.

Cleveland is more than just a setting in the Milan Jacovich series, it's almost another character. Other than referencing local landmarks, in what ways do you try to incorporate Cleveland into your books?

Anyone can buy a guide book and write about Cleveland landmarks---but in my books Milan's mind-set, along with that of most of the other characters, is specifically and peculiarly Cleveland. Most locals who say they enjoy my work don't mention Terminal Tower and the Flats and the West Side Market, but they invariably react to something that happened in the books, saying, "I related to that! The same thing happened to me." Cleveland is a lot like Chicago in many ways, only smaller---but Clevelanders can (and do) get mad as hell when anyone puts down "their" home town.

When you travel, where do you go? Do you use any of these places, or the people you meet there, as potential ideas, or even locales, for your books?

In the past four years I've traveled to California, Colorado and Hawaii for vacations/family. I probably wouldn't set any books in those locales unless I got to know them better, but I always use people I meet, or even just see in a restaurant or the airport or on the street, as inspiration for my characters. That includes those I see here; every character I create is based on someone I know, or met, or just saw somewhere---otherwise I'd be peopling my books with Martians.

What does the future hold for Milan Jacovich?

I have the next one all planned out in my head. After that, I'm certain there will be more ideas about him, as there always are. At his advancing age he'll probably pick up a younger, tougher assistant along the way---one can't take a beating at sixty the way one did at forty. But I figure I'll be writing Milan books until they put me in a box and trundle me out of here.

We'd like to offer our special thanks to Les for taking the time to visit with us. For more information about Les, visit his website at LesRoberts.com. You may also download the first three chapters from King of the Holly Hop by using this link. Click on the book covers above for more information about any of the titles in this series or to purchase them from Amazon.com.

Date of interview: June 2008.

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