Paul Levine was among the first wave of Florida authors to show readers the oddness and beauty of the Sunshine State.
Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, first appeared in Paul Levine’s To Speak for the Dead in 1990. Nearly three decades later, Lassiter is still navigating the shark-infested waters of the justice system in Bum Luck. The story opens ominously: “Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”
Paul: I see you’re in trouble again, Jake.
Jake: Don’t blame me. I only follow orders from you, scribbler.
Paul: That’s a cop-out, tough guy. You’ve got a mind—and a mouth—of your own.
Jake: News flash. Fictional characters don’t have free will.
Paul: Really? Did I tell you to try and kill Thunder Thurston, your own client?
Jake: I don’t remember. My brain’s a little fuzzy.
Paul: No wonder. How many concussions have you had?
Jake: Sure, blame the victim. You’re the one who made me run full speed into a goalpost, splitting my helmet in two.
Paul: But I warned you not to get into the boxing ring with the Sugar Ray Pincher. Another concussion, and next day, you’re standing on a 20th floor balcony, threatening to push Thurston over the railing.
Jake:Thurston killed his wife. He deserved to die.
Paul: The jury said not guilty. After you argued his case.
Jake: I’m ashamed.
Paul: Whatever happened to “Jake Lassiter. Last bastion between freedom and forty years in a steel cage. The guy you call when you’re guilty as hell.”
Jake: Your words, scribbler. Not mine.
Paul: Didn’t you used to say, “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim?”
Jake: I’m drowning here. Can’t you see that? Because of me, a murderer went free.
Paul: Snap out of it, Jake! You were just doing your job.
Jake: Your job. You sent me to night law school. You made me take the bar exam four times. You pushed me into criminal law. I could have coached high school football in a pleasant little burg in Vermont, but no, you made me a trial lawyer.
Paul: I’ve never known you to be such a whiner.
Jake: (groans) What have you done to me? Splitting headaches. Memory loss. Confusion. Solomon and Lord think I have brain damage.
Paul: I never told you to use your helmet as a battering ram.
Jake: Once you made me a linebacker, what did you think would happen?
Paul: (apologetically) Truth be told, Jake, I didn’t think about the future. No one knew about chronic traumatic encephalopathy back in the day.
Jake: You gave me another concussion in the game against the Jets where I made the tackle on the kickoff, recovered the fumble, and stumbled to the wrong end zone.
Paul: Sorry about that.
Jake: All these years later, the judges still call me “Wrong Way Lassiter.” Sorry doesn’t cut it, pal.
Paul: (brightens) There’s some good news, Jake. Dr. Melissa Gold, a neuropathologist at UCLA, is making progress with athletes suffering from C.T.E. She’s also very attractive.
Paul: You’re going to meet her about halfway through Bum Luck.
Jake: I knew that. I must have forgotten. Do she and I...you know?
Paul: No spoilers, sport.
Jake: I’m hoping she’s a keeper. It’s about time you gave me a soul mate instead of a cellmate.
Paul: Not my fault you choose women who break up with you by jumping bail and fleeing town.
Jake: C’mon, old buddy. Can’t you tell me if I kill Thunder Thurston? And if I do, whether I get away with it? And if I live or die?
Paul: The answers, old buddy, can be found in Bum Luck. Just shell out a few bucks and you’ll know.
Jake: I oughta break all your fingers so you can never type another word.
Paul: Don’t even think about it. Hey, what are you doing? Ouch! Let go of me. Stop before I—
In a time when publishers are merging or closing, it’s inspiring that an independent publisher is still going strong after two decades.
May 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, which was founded—and is still owned—by publisher Robert Rosenwald and his wife, executive editor Barbara Peters.
Poisoned Pen Press’ 20 years of publishing translates to more than 1,000 titles, with authors coming from throughout the United States, as well as a few other countries. The Poisoned Pen Press team consists of 10 people, including Rosenwald and Peters.
In addition to being nominated for many awards, Poisoned Pen Press also has won several awards, including:
The Hercule Poirot Award in 2016, for outstanding contribution to the Malice Domestic genre by individuals other than writers, presented during the Malice Domestic conference;
The Ellery Queen Award in 2010, by the Mystery Writers of America, for outstanding achievement in the mystery publishing industry, presented during the annual Edgar Awards;
The Oklahoma Book Award in 2009, for Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn D. Wall; and
The Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, from the Bouchercon Crime and Mystery Conference.
“It has been such a remarkable ride,” said Rosenwald. “When we started Poisoned Pen Press in 1997 we hoped to get a few out-of-print books back into print. Now, 20 years later, we've published nearly a hundred living authors and have a backlist approaching a thousand titles.”
Rosenwald added, “We've been a home for many writers who had neither the platform nor the profile to get them into one of the big five publishing houses, but who write great books and deserve to be read.”
As of March 2017, Poisoned Pen Press has been located above the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, in the Old Town Art District of Scottsdale, Arizona. The bookstore was opened by Rosenwald and Peters in 1989 and is known for its large schedule of author and literary events and its global outreach through webcasts and worldwide shipping.
Poisoned Pen Press was begun as a separate corporation dedicated to publishing excellence in mystery.
In 1996, the Poisoned Pen bookstore hosted a crime conference called AZ Murder Goes... Classic. The conference featured current crime writers talking about classic crime writers. After the conference the authors, who had all presented papers at the conference, asked what the bookstore would do with them.
“Thus was born Poisoned Pen Press. The first book we published was the compilation of those papers presented at the conference. It ended up being nominated for an Edgar for best critical/biographical,” said Rosenwald.
“It's glorious to have reached our 20th year as an independent publisher, self-capitalized, debt free, and able to choose books to publish because we are crazy about them,” said Peters, executive editor of Poisoned Pen Press.
“I'm very proud of our authors and of the Poisoned Pen Press staff, which inevitably has evolved over the years. With a great team and list in place we're experimenting with a line of paperback originals as well as working to bring the work of our authors to a wider range of readers, plus publishing the sterling work of the British Library Crime Classics program here in the United States,” Peters added.
Poisoned Pen Press has tended “to focus on traditional mysteries, where the investigation and solution of the crime is the driving force of the story,” said Rosenwald.
But the focus has been changing, according to Rosenwald. “We have been flexing some different muscles recently, with quirkier titles such as Killing Adonis and The Coaster, and this month's Too Lucky to Live, from debut author Annie Hogsett, with encouraging results—but the mainstay of our product line is traditional mystery.
“Within these guidelines, however, we publish an impressive variety of sub-genres, from historical to police procedural to amateur sleuth to cozy—we hit just about every classification, in fact. We truly feel we have something for every mystery reader,” he added.
The Poisoned Pen Press anniversary party was attended by about 50 readers and authors who spoke about their writing lives.
Frederick Ramsay, Donis Casey, James Sallis, and Meg Dobson each spoke about their short stories that are included in the recently published Bound by Mystery original anthology. Other authors present included Annie Hogsett, Tom Kies, Tammy Kaehler, and Dana Stabenow.
Sallis mentioned that he started his career writing short stories, and actually prefers the form to novel writing, but complained that "they pay you with two copies of the magazine. What can you do with that?" So he switched to writing novels.
Poisoned Pen Press should be going strong for years to come. Rosenwald and Peters continue to be excited as publishers and owners of their nationally known bookstore.
“And, most important, we still love it, are challenged by it every day, and can't imagine retiring,” added Rosenwald.
Photos: Top: Tammy Kaehler, author of Kiss the Bricks, being interviewed by Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters; bottom photo, Thomas Kies, debut author of Random Road, with Peters.
Photos by Elaine Dudzinski