Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Michael A. Kahn

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Michael A. Kahn
with Michael A. Kahn

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Michael A. Kahn to Omnimystery News today.

Michael is the author of the Rachel Gold series of legal mysteries, the ninth and most recent of which is Face Value (Poisoned Pen Press; June 2014 hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook and ebook formats).


We recent had the opportunity to catch up with Michael to talk about his books.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us how the Rachel Gold mysteries came to be a series.

Michael A. Kahn
Photo provided courtesy of
Michael A. Kahn

Michael A. Kahn: Although I have written stand-alones (including The Mourning Sexton under the pen name Michael Baron), I am now up to the ninth book in a mystery series that I never intended to be a series. Back when I decided to try writing a novel — back when I was a young associate in a large Chicago law firm — I had no plans for anything beyond finishing the novel, which would be set in and around the Chicago legal community. My idea for the novel: a powerful lawyer dies, his law firm discovers a secret trust fund he established for a grave at a pet cemetery, and the grave is robbed before the firm can figure out what was in the grave (since no one in the dead lawyer's family every owned a pet). The law firm quietly retains one of its former associates, Rachel Gold, to figure out what was in that grave.

A few months after publication of that first novel, The Canaan Legacy (renamed Grave Designs when released in paperback), I received a phone call from my agent.

"I just got off the phone with the publisher," she told me. "They want to publish the next two books in the series."

"What series?" I asked, mystified.

"The Rachel Gold series," she said.

"A series?"

"Of course. Those are great characters. You can't just walk away from them."

And the rest, at least for me, is history. I just finished a stand-alone entitled The Sirena Quest, but I'm already missing Rachel and her wonderful crew.

OMN: Into what category would you place the Rachel Gold novels?

MAK: Picking a category can sometimes feel like shoving a square peg into a round hole. My novels are mysteries to be sure, and for more than a half century Mystery has been a recognized genre with its own section in the bookstore. That wasn't always the case. Most of Charles Dickens' novels have a mystery at their center. Hamlet is a murder mystery. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep shares more in common with Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness than just a protagonist named Marlowe/Marlow. I'm not sure where the dividing line is between a mystery and a legal thriller, but my books fall somewhere along that spectrum, hopefully with some laughs along the way.

OMN: Tell us something about Face Value that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

MAK: Face Value started off not as a Rachel Gold mystery but as an homage to Sherlock Holmes, a mastermind with an affliction — Asperger's — that wouldn't be recognized for a century. My Sherlock would be Stanley Plotkin, a quirky mailroom clerk in a big law firm. A true genius but afflicted with autism, Stanley has concluded that the death of a young female associate, ruled a suicide by the cops, was actually a homicide committed by someone in the firm. By five chapters into the novel I realized that my eccentric mailroom clerk could not possibly investigate and solve the crime on his own. Enter Rachel Gold, whose mother is good friends with Stanley's mother. Rachel and Stanley are truly the odd couple in this novel.

OMN: How would you tweet a summary of Face Value?

MAK: Eccentric genius claims suicide was really a murder. Rachel knew victim, knows genius, and knows she should get involved. Doesn't know she might be the next victim.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

MAK: I am a lawyer, and my main character is a lawyer — albeit of the opposite sex. My knowledge of lawyers, judges and the law permeates my novels, hopefully in an enjoyable and occasionally amusing way. The characters, though, are not based on people I know — at least not consciously. And oddly enough, the key plot elements and legal issues in my novels are almost never based on personal experiences or real events. Probably the closest I ever came was my third Rachel Gold novel, Firm Ambitions, which features the murder of a sexy womanizing fitness guru at an upscale gym. My wife Margi had been invited by a friend to join her for one of the guru's fitness classes. She came back amused at the way the women — many of whom wore makeup and jewelry and high-fashion workout outfits — lusted after the guy.

"He's going to have to die," I told her. "And I have an idea who will kill him."

OMN: Describe your writing process.

MAK: I suppose I fall somewhere between the plotters and the pantsers (i.e., the ones who write by the seat of their pants). By the time I type "Chapter 1," I know where I'm going to start and know where I need to end, but pretty much let the story and the characters lead the way from the beginning to the end. Usually about a third of the way through the novel I will start an outline — typically one sentence for each chapter — to remind me of where I've been and to help focus on where I need to end up.

The best characters, however, tend to take on a life of their own and nudge the story in different directions. Rachel's sidekick and best friend, the fat and vulgar Professor Benny Goldberg, is a great example. Late one night, my wife poked her head into the kitchen, where I was writing on my laptop, to ask me what was so funny. Apparently, I'd been laughing out loud.

I turned to her with a big grin. "You won't believe what Benny just said."

She gave me a puzzled look, backed out of the kitchen, and said goodnight.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any particularly excitiing or challenging topics?

MAK: How things have changed since my first novel, when research meant a Saturday afternoon in the library. Now 30 minutes on Google yields better results than 3 hours in the library. Although I'm a lawyer, many of the legal topics my characters deal with are outside my areas of expertise, and thus I turn to legal treatises on the subject or lawyers or judges with knowledge of that area of the law.

My most challenging and exciting research topic, done in connection with my second novel, Death Benefits, was for a scene that would take place in the underground portion of the River Des Peres in St. Louis. More than a century ago, the River Des Peres was divided into two "rivers" — a storm water drain and a sanitary sewer. While the storm water portion runs in a channel above ground through most of St. Louis, both portions of the River Des Peres run underground for about two miles beneath Forest Park in two enormous side-by-side tunnels, each large enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. That's where I wanted my scene to take place. The St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District, which operates the River, was kind enough to arrange a guided tour through those underground tunnels. It was awesome! And smelly.

OMN: You set the first Rachel Gold mystery in Chicago, and the later ones in St. Louis. How true are you to these settings?

MAK: I stay true to the city — right down to the streets and the restaurants. As with any work of fiction, of course, the names of some locations get changed to protect the innocent (and avoid a libel lawsuit!).

Setting is key to both the characters and the plots — as our greatest novelists have proved beyond dispute, including those who've set their novels far from the big cities. While Charles Dickens chose London as the locale for some of his greatest works — and, in the process, turned that great city into a central character in his plots — Jane Austen did just fine setting her superb novels in small English villages far from the big city, as did William Faulkner in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, etc., etc. We readers love traveling to those faraway places, mingling with the locals, sampling the foods, soaking up the scenery.

Mystery writers have been particularly adept at conjuring up towns and settings far from the big city. From New Iberia, Louisiana in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series to the Four Corners Area of New Mexico in Tony Hillerman's Navajo series to the Bahia Bar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in John D. Macdonald's Travis McGee series to the mean streets of Detroit in several of Elmore Leonard's novels, these are vivid and richly evoked places where we love to spend time.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

MAK: Assuming that my next book would be a Rachel Gold mystery, I would pick Israel. Here's why:

Rachel's Jewish roots are deep — partly cultural, partly religious. As with so many American Jews, particularly ones with family members (such as her mother) who escaped or survived the Holocaust, Rachel has cousins in Israel that she has never met. Thus it would not be difficult to come up with a reason for her to travel there.

And once there, Israel is a dream location for a suspense novel or movie. On top of all the current cross-currents and tensions — between Arabs and Jews, between Orthodox and Reform Jews — the range of fascinating and exotic locations is overwhelming. From the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem to the Carmel Market (the Shuk) in Tel Aviv to Masada to the Dead Sea to the Arab quarters in the town of Akko to the Roman ruins of Caesarea (built by Herod the Great) and so on and so on, the little nation offers a cornucopia of exotic and historically compelling settings.

OMN: Tell us more about how you came up with the title for Face Value. And were involved with the cover design?

MAK: Face Value involves the apparent suicide of a young associate at a large law firm who fell to her death from the eighth floor of a parking garage. My publisher designed the cover, which depicts her in mid-fall. I picked the title, which is a reference to the unusual skill of Stanley Plotkin, an eccentric mailroom clerk at the law firm. Stanley is a genius so hampered by Asperger's that he barely graduated high school. Among his obsessions is the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a massive compilation that correlates hundreds of facial muscle actions with specific emotions and mental states. Because Stanley's autism renders him incapable of intuiting emotions from facial expressions, his mastery of FACS enables him to detect clues about people that are invisible to others. That skill has convinced him that the young associate's death was not a suicide but a murder. Thus the title: Face Value.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your books?

MAK: I am a lawyer by day, and thus the world of lawyers, judges, and the law permeates my novels. One hobby of mine — playing the harmonica — found its way into The Mourning Sexton, the novel I wrote under the pen name Michael Baron.  I jog, as does my character Rachel Gold. I like to ride a bike, but so far that pastime has not caught the interest of any of my characters. Hopefully, one of them will give it a try some day.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

MAK: The best advice by far — and perhaps the hardest to follow — is Rule 10 of Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." Or, as William Faulkner put it, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." In other words,  do not grow so attached to your own writing that you are unable to cut unnecessary elements simply because they have special meaning to you.

The harshest criticism came from a grumpy old man at a reading who asked: "You are a lawyer, a husband, a father of five, and a responsible citizen. Why do you waste your time writing imaginary stories about imaginary people?" I've mulled that one over. Probably the best response comes from Friedrich Nietzche: "We have our arts so we won't die of truth."

My advice to aspiring authors: think small. Rome wasn't built in a day, and you won't write your novel in a day. Aim for a page a day. Do the math. At that pace you can write a novel in a year.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery writer and thus …"

MAK: I am a mystery writer at night and a trial lawyer by day. Alas, I haven't quit my day job.

OMN: You mentioned you used a pen name for one of your stand-alones. How did that come about?

MAK: When Doubleday bought my first standalone novel, The Mourning Sexton, they asked my agent to have me come up with a pen name so that fans of my Rachel Gold series wouldn't buy it in the belief that it was part of that series. I wasn't crazy about the idea but agreed to go along. My first attempt was Jeffrey Lord, a nod toward my college, Amherst College, which was named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst. "No way," my agent said. "Too WASPy." She told me I could use Michael as the first name and should come up with a good last name. So my second attempt was Michael Gold, in honor of the title character in my Rachel Gold series. "No way," my agent said. "Too Jewish." "Then you pick a name," I told her. She called me the next day. "Tell your wife Margi she's now a baroness." "Huh?" I replied. "Your pen name is Michael Baron."

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

MAK: Rachel Gold's best friend and sidekick is Benny Goldberg, a fat, crude, brilliant and fiercely loyal pal. I emphasize the word "crude." He and Rachel met as junior associates at a large Chicago law firm. Rachel moved back to St. Louis to be closer to her mother after her father died. Benny moved to St. Louis to accept a faculty position at the Washington University School of Law, where he has become a renowned professor of antitrust law. But "crude" remains the operative adjective. While he is hilarious, his humor is definitely not ready for prime time. I am thus charmed whenever a grandmotherly reader tells me how much she loves Benny. As one gray-haired reader instructed, "Don't you dare clean up his language, young man."

OMN: Suppose the Rachel Gold mysteries were to be adapted for television or film, and you are the casting director. Whose agents are you calling?

MAK: I was recently asked that very question [for My Book, The Movie] and here's how I responded:

Readers, friends, and relatives have been casting Rachel Gold and Benny Goldberg since they first appeared 25 years ago in The Canaan Legacy. Back then, many suggested that Rachel be played by Amy Irving (who'd starred in a few films in the 1980s), and that Benny be played by John Candy (as a stand-in for John Belushi, who had died earlier that decade). Over the years, Amy's career has faded and John Candy sadly followed John Belushi into the grave.

Over the years, two other recurring characters have emerged, namely, Sarah Gold, Rachel's irrepressible Jewish mother, and Jacki Brand, the massive former steelworker who underwent a sex-change operation while working as Rachel's secretary (and attending law school at night) and who is now a partner in Rachel's law firm.

Here are my casting choices:

• Rachel Gold: Everyone seems to have their own Rachel. My top two choices are Natalie Portman and Kate Winslet.

• Benny Goldberg: Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill.

• Sarah Gold: There are so many wonderful actresses over the age of 60 that this is a tough casting decision. How do you choose among Judy Dench, Meryl Streep, and Susan Sarandon? Each would be an awesome version of Sarah Gold. I think, though, I will opt for Jane Fonda. She could channel that feisty, no-nonsense personality of Sarah Gold that so exasperates her daughter and so endears her to readers.

• Jacki Brand: This role requires a burly male actor in drag. A younger James Gandolfini would have been perfect, but he's obviously no longer available. My first choice is Channing Tatum. If he's not available and we are able to sign Jonah Hill to play Benny, then I'd opt for Seth Rogan, who'd look lovely in lipstick and heels.

OMN: Have any specific authors or titles influenced how and what you write today?

MAK: With the assumption that what you read will influence how you write even if your writing has no obvious correlation to your reading, my list of favorite authors includes Jane Austen, Elmore Leonard, E.B. White, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke, and Mark Twain. Books by other authors that make my Top Ten list include Moby Dick (by Herman Melville), Blood Meridian (by Cormac McCarthy), Bleak House (by Charles Dickens), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (by Peter Mathieson), Dispatches (by Michael Herr), Middlemarch (by George Eliot), The Big Sleep (by Raymond Chandler), and Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad).

OMN: Do you have any favorite literary characters?

MAK: My favorite characters include: Huck Finn, Captain Vere (from Billy Budd), Elizabeth Barrett (from Pride and Prejudice), the Whiskey Priest (from The Power and the Glory), and Sam Spade.

OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?

MAK: I read all types of novels for pleasure. My nightstand usually includes one relatively recent work of fiction and one older book that I feel that I should read before I die. As a result, my nightstand has featured some odd combos that are strangely complementary, such as The Iliad and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, The Count of Monte Cristo and Savages, and, currently, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Mr. Mercedes.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

MAK: Top 5 films you should see:

Chinatown;
The Godfather;
Casablanca;
Night at the Opera; and
The Searchers.

And here's another: Top 5 unique St. Louis foods you should try:

• Toasted ravioli;
• A concrete at Ted Drewes;
• Imo's pizza (and if you need an antidote, a deep dish pizza at Pi);
• Gooey butter cake; and
• Pappy's barbecue ribs or burnt ends.

OMN: What's next for you?

MAK: Next up is a standalone novel, The Sirena Quest, which features four former freshman-year roommates, now in their forties, who reunite two weeks before their 20th reunion to try to find Sirena, their college's legendary statue, which disappeared under mysterious circumstances 35 years ago. They are just one of several groups of alumni in pursuit of that statue. A billionaire alumnus has promised a big reward (and an even bigger endowment grant) if the statue is returned in time for the college's sesquicentennial celebrations, which is the same date as their reunion. The search is on.

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In addition to his day job, where he represents individuals and companies in the fields of creative arts and media law, Michael A. Kahn is an adjunct professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches a class on censorship and free expression.

Mike married his high school sweetheart. They are the parents of five and the grandparents of, so far, five. His happiest moment as a writer: having his kids take one of his books to school for show-and-tell.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at MichaelAKahn.com or find him on Twitter.

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Face Value by Michael A. Kahn

Face Value
Michael A. Kahn
A Rachel Gold Mystery

As St. Louis attorney Rachel Gold knows firsthand, the demands of the profession can take a toll on young lawyers. Some turn to drugs, some give up the job and occasionally one gives up altogether. According to the medical examiner, Sari Bashir belongs in the latter category. After she fell from the eighth floor of the downtown garage, the police rule her death a suicide and move on.

However, Stanley Plotkin, the law firm's eccentric mailroom clerk, is sure that Sari was murdered. Stanley, a genius afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome, cannot read emotions from other's facial expressions. To compensate, he studies the voluminous facial action coding system to help him navigate social situations. His mastery of that system has convinced him that Sari was not suicidal. Armed with evidence that only he can see, he turns to Rachel for help. While Sari was her friend, she's reluctant to investigate before an impassioned plea from Sari's grieving father convinces her. With the help of some unlikely allies, Rachel begins uncovering a vast criminal enterprise rife with collateral damage-and Sari's death is only the beginning …

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