Thursday, March 02, 2006

Pro-File Jon L. Breen

Pro-File: Jon L. Breen

Jon L. Breen

(from //

Jon L. Breen began his literary life as a satirist and pastiche artist, mainly writing short spoofs of Golden Age detective writers. His best stories of this period are loving recreations of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Breen is remarkably good at conveying the "feel" of these authors - although it is a parody, "The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" recaptures all of the excitement of reading the Ellery Queen stories themselves. Similarly, some of his Van Dine pastiches are very good detective stories in their own right.

Breen is also knowledgeable about classic Hollywood films, and his "The Auteur Theory" (1978) is an affectionate-but-devastating satire of the auteurist film studies that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's. (I am still an unregenerate auteurist, and find auteurism infinitely preferable to the current rage for Marxist and psychoanalytic film studies.)

Breen has since branched out into detective fiction of his own. So far, his best novel-length work is Touch of the Past (1988). This book is not just a backgrounder, but is a triple backgrounder. It gives fascinating backstage looks at three of Breen's enthusiasms: the real life small town of Idyllwild, California, Golden Age mystery fiction, and the movies. The storytelling and the characters really click. So do the background portraits, on subjects in which Breen is an expert. Breen has a gentle literary personality, and is especially good at picking up on likable characters.

The detective heroine of Touch of the Past, Rachel Hennings, has also appeared in three short stories, of which the best is the longest and most complexly plotted, "Starstruck" (1987). "Starstruck" is a fine example of a type of story Breen has written throughout his career, the mystery with a detailed Hollywood background. These brightly colored stories are rich in show biz lore. Other good works in this mode are the early Van Dine pastiche, "The Austin Murder Case" (1967), and Breen's recent series of tales about Hollywood detective Sebastian Grady, such as "Credit the Cat" (1994) and "The Cat and the Kinetophone" (1999).

Some of Breen's stories tend to be closely constructed around his characters. Breen's non-pastiche works usually have either a show business, literary or sports background, and every character in the tale will have some specialized professional skill relating to that background. His characters also have a professional status, such as up and coming newcomer, old-timer on the downgrade, person trying to branch out to some new specialty, etc. This allows Breen to work a portrait of an entire sport or entertainment into his tale. In addition, each character has their own personality and feelings. The progression of Breen's plot is often a mosaic made up of many different facets, actions or abilities of his individual characters. The stories are full of interesting detail. Breen also has an affinity for parties. This gives him a chance to gather his characters together, and let each express a vivid personality. Costume parties show up in a number of Breen tales; each character gets to come both as himself, and in some new, often symbolic persona.

Breen has sometimes branched out into combinations of fantasy and mystery. His recent "No Gaol For The Budgie" (1993) is a James Powell like mystery fantasy set among birds. It is a little gem. It shows both imagination, and something to say about society.

Breen's delightful pastiche "Frank Merriswell's Greatest Case" (1968) also anticipates Touch of the Past in that it is set in the 1930's, and contains a great deal of historical material about sports and broadcasting. Like "Old-Timers' Game" (1973), this story is about basketball.

1. Tell us about your current novel.

My next novel, Eye of God, will be published by Perseverance Press this September. It is both a private eye novel and a clued puzzle, and I think it is one of the best things I've done. It was not easy to get into print, since its basic situation makes it potentially controversial: one partner in a successful private detective agency (the brains of the team as it happens) has a born-again religious experience and declares an intent to leave the firm; his partner thinks taking the case of a faith healer and televangelist seeking a traitor in his midst will bring him to his senses. In describing the book, I always emphasize that it is neither a religious novel nor an anti-religious novel but one that involves non-caricatured religious people and religious issues.

2. Can you give a sense of what you're working on now?

I have a number of novel and short-story projects at various stages of completion, but I'm always reluctant to talk about work in progress. Not that I'm superstitious, but work discussed too soon tends not to get finished for some reason.

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

Writing hasn't gotten any easier, but I've come to realize that the act of writing itself is the greatest pleasure. Also, I'm one of those lucky (I guess) writers who take pleasure in rereading their published stuff. I have to emphasize that a writer's pleasure or lack thereof in his own work says nothing about his worth as a writer. Some of those I most admire are on record as saying they can't read their own writing without cringing, and equally, some lousy writers surely find every word golden.

4. What is the greatest DISpleasure?

Having always had a day job (or, in retirement years, another source of income), I've probably escaped most of the aggravations that come with writing for a living. Of course dealing with careless, clueless, or actively harmful editors and agents might befall any pro, but I've been lucky there, too.

5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Look for quality and the bottom line will take care of itself. (I'm sure they'll listen to me.)

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

There are many more than three, but for starters, how about three major American women of the '40s and '50s?: Charlotte Armstrong, Helen McCloy, and Margaret Millar. McCloy and Millar have at least had their short stories collected recently (by Crippen & Landru), but Armstrong, who was a terrific writer of pure suspense, hasn't been heard from in years.

7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

My first novel, Listen for the Click (in Great Britain, Vicar's Roses) was published in 1983, but it had its genesis about ten years before. The first version was submitted several places but universally rejected. In the early '80s, Harlequin introduced a paperback mystery line called Raven House. It didn't last, perhaps victim of a strange method of marketing, but it published some good people (e.g. Richard A. Moore, Maxine O'Callaghan, and the comebacking William Campbell Gault) and its advent was what spurred me to do a rewrite of Click and try again. Raven showed some interest but (I'm thankful now) turned it down, and it found a home at Walker and Company with that fine and much-missed editor, the late Sara Ann Freed. The problem with the first version was that, while some of the minor characters came to life on the page, the two leads were terrible, hero Jerry Brogan a passive blank and his girlfriend Donna an abrasive bitch. For neither the first nor the last time, my wife Rita told me how to fix it: rewrite the two characters picturing people I knew in the roles. I did so in a way the two models would never recognize themselves. Jerry's model, a fellow writer who is now deceased, I assume never knew how he was used. The model for Donna I did tell, and when she finally read the book, she assured me she was absolutely nothing like Donna.

Thank you


Post a Comment

<< Home