C.E. Poverman, a University of Arizona writing professor, hits it big in the highly competitive mystery genre.
By Tim Vanderpool
JANUARY 26, 1998: FRANK AUGUST, PRIVATE eye. A top-shelf boozer toting a rocky marriage, a business on the brink, mushrooming debts and enough personal demons to stuff a dozen body bags. Or Frank August, complex character enduring frayed emotions, crumbling relationships and a daunting journey towards self-actualization.
Frank August, streetwise gumshoe or Frank August, sensitive, troubled everyman.
Either way, as the often floundering, mostly likable hero in C.E. Poverman's latest novel, On the Edge, Frank drunkenly dances along the self-destructive precipice of crime noir. At the same time, he's fully fleshed and deeply reflective--enough so that he stumbles across the increasingly fluid border between hard-boiled and high-brow, between the time-honored caricatures of crime fiction and the rarefied world of lofty literature.
Therein lies the rub: caught up in his own seamy web of brutal murder and treacherous drug dealing, Frank August has also swept Poverman--a longtime UA professor with several decidedly "literary" titles under his belt--headlong into the passionate, tightly-knit and eccentric mystery book trade.
Populated by shrewd writers, fervent collectors and savvy sellers, this subculture comes complete with its own pageantry, rituals and language. It's a powerful niche industry that simultaneously maintains a remarkable sense of camaraderie, not to mention a global grapevine running thicker than a bungler's fingerprints.
Apparently without premeditation, Poverman has penned a hot genre property garnering him countless signings, a dream spot on a powerful L.A. talk show, and an invitation to the heavy-weight Bourchercon World Mystery Convention, named after the late, seminal New York Times crime critic and mystery writer Anthony Boucher.
On the Edge has also been whispered in the same breath as the Edgar. Honoring Mr. Poe, the award is the whodunit's equivalent of the Pulitzer and Oscar rolled into one.
For Poverman, it has simply meant one heady whirlwind coming from the most unexpected of quarters. And of course, it all started with a phone call...
"Momentarily, he felt himself drawn back into the recall of his voice on the answering machine. Music in the background. Where was he? His office? A bar? A queasy wall of darkness. Something not there. That's what Bobbie DuChan had been saying for two years: Didn't remember. Crackhead. Daytime hot prowls. They pick Bobbie up for burglary, take him to a local station. Within twenty minutes, he confesses to a murder. What murder? Cops go back up to a house and find a body. When she visits him in jail, Bobbie tells his wife, "I don't remember killing anybody. I don't remember making a confession. All I know is I went to the store yesterday and now I'm in jail."
Poverman figured on the usual gig: small talk, maybe five or 10 signatures, and done with it. He didn't count on the intensity with which Clues' managers--mystery sellers worth their salt--read everything on their shelves, or how they know their clientele like a dog-eared rap sheet.
"So anyway, I did the signing, and sold a bunch of books right away, probably 20 to 25," he says. "But Chris called me back in about two weeks. She'd sold them out, and wanted me to come back. That time I sold 10 more, and then another 10, and it just kept going.
"That was the kick-off. If you're a celebrity, you may sign hundreds of books. But as a literary writer who's not a brand name, sometimes five people show up, or, on a big day, maybe 20. Now all of a sudden I was signing volumes of books."
In fact, most of those volumes were already sold before Poverman even flourished his pen. Boasting fine production qualities and first printing of only 3,000 copies, On the Edge was quickly becoming collectible. Poverman's signature was just hedging the bet.
Besides that, the verdict was in: It was also a wickedly good read.
Burke says she got the word from a California friend. "Then we read it here and loved it. I mean, it's really a good book in a literary way. But it's also a really good mystery book. It fits this particular niche, and has the advantage of being a literary mystery, which is very rare."
Rare perhaps, but not new. "When you think of the plots of great literature through time, most of them are mysteries," she says. "You know, what does Oedipus have to do but follow the clues to find his identity and solve the riddle? So mystery has always been an element of literature."
While Frank August's hangovers may or may not be mythic, "The character is alive," Burke says. "A lot of my customers who have bought the book tell me the same thing. They also say 'I want to talk to the author because I want to find out what's going to happen to Frank next. How are things going to go?' As if he were a real person, they're worried about him."
All the trappings of successful mystery and a good piece of literature? "Seems to me they are," Burke says.
After his June rendezvous with Clues, Poverman quickly contacted his publisher, Ontario Review Press. Owned by Raymond Smith and his wife, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, the small house is known for its beautifully produced books by mid-list authors. On the Edge was the second Poverman title to come out of Ontario: The first was Skin, a book of short stories published in 1992.
"Until meeting with (Burke), I had no plan on how to move On the Edge," Poverman says. "Ray, my editor, had no plan either. Then I wrote him a letter and said 'Dear Ray. I've just had an education on how to sell it...' "
Meanwhile, Burke was busy passing the word. Ultimately, among those sharing her glowing praises was none other than Otto Penzler. And in the mystery trade, you couldn't find a better ally: Penzler doesn't just ferret out the smoking gun--he fires it. As founder of the groundbreaking Mysterious Press and New York's Mysterious Bookshop, when he or his staff give the nod, the other shoe drops in mystery shops across the country.
"First of all, the mystery book market is a huge universe," Penzler says. "The things that appeal to mystery readers are well-written mysteries, just as in the literary world. The difference is probably in the type of plot, and the recurrence of characters. Mystery fans frequently can't even remember the author's name, but they love the character.
"And the one area where first-time mystery writers have an opportunity that's a little bit better than the first general literary novelist is in the independent mystery bookstores. There are about 100 in America, and they're very supportive of new writers and new talent. There's a lot of handselling.
Mysterious manager Sally Owen was first in his shop to read On the Edge. Soon, she had unloaded more than 100 copies. "For a first mystery, and for our small store, that's a very substantial number," Penzler says. "It only happened because she read the book and hand-sold it."
Dovetailing with an east coast trip Poverman had already scheduled, he made a pit stop at Mysterious ("every square inch in that store is filled with books, and boxes piled with books"), and New York's Black Orchid, Partners in Crime and Murder Ink stores.
He also visited Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass. By now it was August. The UPS strike was on, and getting the copies to owner Kate Mattes had become a crapshoot at best.
"Finally they came in on the last possible day," he says. "She opened her store on Sunday morning, and I signed some for her. When I left, I asked her to let me know how she did with them.
" 'Oh, I already know who I'm going to sell these to,' she told me."
Like Penzler's crew, Peters is a trade bellwether. Soon, she'd put the word out in her newsletter and on her website. "It created a real stir in the business," she says. "Mystery fans are mostly a little bit crazy anyway, and they were crazy about this."
Part of the book's attraction is its "hyper-modern element," she says. In layman's terms, that means it comes from a still-living author, with the accompanying promise of more on the way--particularly a series tapping the same character.
Word had also gotten to Sheldon MacArthur, manager of L.A.'s The Mysterious Bookshop, sister store to Penzler's New York operation. MacArthur made On the Edge his pick of the month, and was first to link it with a possible Edgar nomination.
"I thought it was an excellent cross between literary and mystery," he says. "So I started giving it my hype."
Meanwhile, Poverman's next rite of passage was a pilgrimage to L.A.'s KCRW-FM, and Michael Silverblatt's hot weekly Bookworm talk show. Known for his leaping intelligence and surgical, nasal-tone interrogations, Silverblatt can reduce a writer to tears, teeth-gnashing, or both. He can also make or break a title with little more than a wayward chuckle.
Silverblatt: "What it struck me as being, this novel, On The Edge, is an attempt to rescue fact in a peculiar way...There are all sorts of novels of detection that involve spectacular events and set pieces, and this book does have them. But it proceeds in such a methodical, closely reasoned, close-knit, plain-spoken way...I bring up the absence of metaphoric figuration because one of the ways that mystery writers traditionally have made their novels spectacular has been like Raymond Chandler, to provide the tarantula on the slice of angel food cake...'It was as obvious as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake...' "
Poverman: "I felt the real engagement for me was not about that tarantula on the piece of cake...It was about finding or knitting a kind of language and engaging the fulcrum from there, of undercutting that tarantula...There seemed to me to be a kind of fearfulness about the fabric of language and betrayal...The deepest crisis for Frank is late in perhaps the last third of the novel when his friend Kramer asks him if he's done something or hasn't done something, and Frank can't answer. And Kramer says, 'Why can't you answer me? Just dig down into yourself, and is it there or not?' And Frank doesn't know..."
Frank, did you give this guy the name or not? Just dig down into yourself."
"I'm telling you I don't know what to believe. Part of me says I didn't. It's not in his best interests to grease the DEA's snitch. It's going to point back one way. Part of me says, hey, I didn't give anybody anything. But then, I think about it more. My friend took this other guy to be his friend. They ate together, drank together. They played tennis every day. Finally, he trusted this guy enough to put up a million in cash on a deal. You know, the guy did him.
"If I did something to you, Kramer--you're one of my best friends--and you lost your business, your wife, what could you do to me? Anything, right?"
Kramer, uncomfortable, looked away...
Poverman himself landed on the "Late Breaking Writers" panel. "It was amazing," he says. "I've never seen such a feeding frenzy of book readers and book writers. And there was this enormous feeling of goodwill."
Now the writer, if not his character, are comfortably ensconced back in Tucson. He's simply left shaking his head at a world he "never had an inkling about."
The first printing of On the Edge has nearly sold out, and Ontario Review Press just landed him a paperback deal with St. Martin's Press. Even Ontario's Raymond Smith has gotten on board the crime train, with hopes of attracting more literary mystery writers to his line.
The only question is where Poverman goes from here. According to Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen, he can deliberately choose to bring Frank August back and initiate a series. Or he can let the book stand alone, and risk losing a fruitful mystery career.
"It think it's a really crossroads for him," she says. "It's really a decision of whether or not he wants to pay that price. I don't think most writers today can just follow their own muses and become commercial successes."
Poverman says he hasn't made any deliberate choices one way or the other. "All along in writing this book, I had been totally immersed in the complexity of this character, and the ways he was compromised by different aspects of his own character. I wasn't thinking about writing a crime novel at all."
And now? "Of course people have asked me if I was going to write another crime novel," he says. "But it happens that I was already well into another novel, and it already had crime elements in it.
He pauses, chewing over his words. "For me, I still see crime not as an end in itself, but as an extension of people involved," he says. "And those are the elements I've already been using for 15 years."
Okay, okay. But lassoing the mystery moon must have been something of a major-league kick in the literary shorts.
He grins. "Yeah. It has," he says. "Regardless of where it goes from here, this whole thing has been one incredible adventure."
No doubt Frank August would agree.
Frank reached into his wallet, pulled out a twenty. "Have a nice lunch."
He pushed it into her hand. "Go somewhere nice with a view, take a couple of hours. Eat an avocado salad and an enchilada for me. Well, actually, if it's for me, better make it three enchiladas."
She hesitated, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, Frank. That's lovely of you."
"I have my moments."
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