When Jerome Doolittle was conceiving the character of Tom Bethany, he knew he wanted a tough loner. But he wanted to avoid a problem he’d seen in Raymond Chandler’s work.
“I never understood Chandler’s appeal. Any natural reading of Chandler shows that Marlowe is a psychopath.” Doolittle says that many writers, including Robert B. Parker, use a common tactic to combat this problem. “To pretend the guy is not a psychopath, you give him a buddy who is worse than he is.”
Instead, Doolittle drew inspiration from his favorite mystery writer, John D. MacDonald. “One way MacDonald kept Travis McGee positioned where he wanted him was by showing him liking women. Of course he was with a different woman in every book, but MacDonald used a different strategy in every book to get rid of the women without making McGee look like an SOB.”
So to make his character sympathetic, Doolittle arranged a strong romantic relationship between Bethany and ACLU lawyer Hope Edwards, one that commits them to each other without tying Bethany down.
Doolittle was born in northwestern Connecticut in 1933, and through his headmaster father gained entrance to a succession of prestigious private schools, most of which, Doolittle says, “had their chance to adjust to me and failed.” He went on to be an oil rig worker, an army private, a newspaperman, the US embassy spokesman in Casablanca and Laos, a writer for Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post, a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, and Chief of Public Affairs for the FAA.
Doolittle’s natural outrage at injustice was developed while he was embassy spokesman during the bombing of Laos in the 1960s. Doolittle repeatedly told the world press that the bombing was not happening—until he found out it was. He resigned shortly thereafter.
During his later work in the Carter White House while Doolittle was coming in early every day to work on a novel, one of his colleagues was asked by a literary agent to write a book. The colleague told the agent, “There’s a guy sitting next to me, and he’s already writing a book.” This resulted in Doolittle’s first novel, The Bombing Officer, which tells the story of the Laos bombings.
After Doolittle left politics, he moved to Connecticut and took on various writing projects. He later spent five years at Harvard, teaching writing and soaking up the atmosphere for the Tom Bethany novels.
There were six novels in the series, starting with Body Scissors, and each put Bethany into a troubleshooting role, usually against a political or newspaper background. Bethany is a wisecracker, and Doolittle turns his experience to good advantage by dropping him into the utterly ludicrous yet completely believable situations that can occur only in those milieus. The books received outstanding reviews but the publisher, Pocket Books, was acquired just before the sixth book came out, and in the ensuing turmoil Doolittle’s contract was not renewed.
Today Doolittle is back in Connecticut and writing almost daily on his political blog, Bad Attitudes, where the opinions born of his newspaper and political career are on full display. The site also has the full text of an unpublished novel, helpful household hints that he’s collected over the years, and sample chapters from his books and those of his friend K.C. Constantine.
Doolittle built the site himself. “After Carter, I was at loose ends, and I decided it would be fun to learn typography. Later I heard about the Net, so I taught myself enough HTML and CSS so I could make things work the way I wanted. My brain was in sharp decline at that point, and I have never done anything harder.”
Is Tom Bethany down for the count? Doolittle says maybe not—“I like the character, and I think it’s possible to continue the series”—but if he writes about him again, he’s not sure if he should age Bethany appropriately, or just pluck him from the mid ’90s and drop him into today.
Meanwhile Doolittle is still writing. His current project is a political novel about a man working for a Karl Rove-type figure. He has also been working on a big nonfiction book tentatively called Snakes in America, which is an outlet for his lifelong fascination with the creatures. (Fans will remember that one of the characters in the Bethany books kept a 10-foot python named Julius Squeezer.)
Doolittle says he doesn’t consider himself retired. “You know what keeps me going? I want to get up in the morning to see what happens next.”
A JEROME DOOLITTLE READING LIST
The Tom Bethany Series
Body Scissors (1990)
Strangle Hold (1991)
Bear Hug (1992)
Head Lock (1993)
Half Nelson (1994)
Kill Story (1995)
The Bombing Officer (1982)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #102.