When I first encountered Mulholland Books, it was a foggy April night in the Financial District, the kind of night that makes you think the man upstairs might not be such a bad guy, if he’s got the decency to take your mind off the things that go on in the upper floors of the buildings down there.
I was in the neighborhood because I’d been put on a story about the imprint, a new endeavor from Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch, and they were having a reading from its first book at the Mysterious Bookshop, a joint that exists for that purpose and no other. I’d already scheduled a tentative interview with the imprint’s editor, but we’d just put the paper to bed, rubbing some Scotch on its teething gums, and I didn’t have anything better to do.
Nobody paid me much mind as I pushed past the wooden doors but a small crowd had already gathered around the woman of the hour, the author of the book and a prosecutor I knew from a few years ago. She’d changed her hairstyle since last I saw her, having ditched that brown curly undergrowth for a straight blond shellac. Now it was black and short, and she’d drawn a beauty mark on her face so she looked like any other woman with a hard cheerfulness discussing David Sedaris’ love life. It was Marcia Clark. Nineteen ninety-five was the year she tried to put O.J. Simpson away.
“Now is he still with Hugh?” Ms. Clark asked a publicity woman. “Because I heard a rumor.”
“The question we sort of ask is, is this a book that benefits from a really focused genre marketing campaign, or is this a book that’s potentially broader?” said Nathan Rostron, an assistant editor with distant eyes and probably an attempted novel in his past.
“So what did you do for this one?” I asked as he fingered a more literary offering on one of the tables.
“Definitely hard-core thriller,” he nodded.
The joint was empty, marketing campaign aside. There were the Little, Brown people, a middle-aged woman who looked homeless and an operative from the Daily Beast. I found myself talking about James Ellroy with Miriam Parker, marketing director for Mulholland. “If [Mulholland editor John Schoenfelder's] the king, Miriam’s the queen,” an editor in attendance told me.
“I was trying to get him to talk about his process,” Ms. Parker said of an Ellroy interview. “He was like, I just like to lie alone in a room in the dark and look at the ceiling.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Schoenfelder. He’d landed on her arm like a helpful bird, a bundle of energy with a closely buzzed head. “It’s, ‘I lie alone in a dark room and talk to women that aren’t there.’”
I liked that he got it right. The line doesn’t resonate with everyone in the same way. When Mr. Ellroy said it to Deborah Solomon, who was then cashing checks from The New York Times Magazine, she responded, “You mean they’re on the phone?”
It was clear that nobody else was going to show. “There, there” said an agent, pouring Ms. Clark a stiff drink of book-party white wine. She handled her disappointment like someone who’s used to the cards not always coming up her way. Joke. Goddam silly simile. Writers. Everything has to be like something else. My head is as fluffy as the icing on a trendy cupcake but not as sweet. More similes.
Everyone sat in the chairs that had been assembled for the reading. Ms. Clark signed a stack of books presented by an attendant who was no less cowed, despite the vacancies. She regaled the assembled audience with her knowledge of what the future had in store, according to their astrological signs. She seemed to know a lot about them, and everyone seemed to know their own rising signs.
“I’m a triple Aries,” Mr. Schoenfelder said neatly, when the question came to him.
It takes a lot to get me interested, but I was feeling interested. Outside I smoked half a cigarette, scowling at nothing, and left.
The next day I called up Otto Penzler, who owns the store, and asked him for information on the imprint.
“How can I say this without getting myself in trouble?” he began.
“Trouble’s my game,” I told him.
“Mine, too,” Mr. Penzler said. “But I’ve got a lot of friends at Hachette.”
Mr. Pietsch poached Mr. Schoenfelder from Thomas Dunn-St. Martin’s last year. The plan was to launch an imprint whose influences ranged from James M. Cain to David Lynch, if you believed the press release.
Mr. Schoenfelder was a big part of the plan. He was just an assistant editor when he was at St. Martin’s, but he’s noir zealot, raised on the stuff and has an eye for talent like an eagle on the hunt. He’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to jump into an online Q&A on the Mulholland Web site, even when the author is with Simon & Schuster. Any editor at Little, Brown can buy for Mulholland but, as the big mystery agent Dominick Abel told me, “Basically, John is Mulholland.”
“I’d suspect that he’s a reporter’s dream,” said another agent. “Once you turn that faucet on, man, forget it. Just make sure you go digital, because if you had tape, you’d run out.” I told my brain to stop doing cartwheels and checked up on my interview. Messrs. Pietsch and Schoenfelder were now unavailable on account of an exclusive with another paper. I could vomit just thinking about this lousy racket. I probably will. Don’t push me. Give me time. Luckily I’m the stoic type.
Mr. Schoenfelder had a “hit list,” when coming to the imprint, according to agent David Hale Smith, so I decided to start with the 20 or so books he’d bought. Some names, like hardboiled heavy-hitter Lawrence Block, made sense. Others made less sense. There were guys who write comics books, guys who write movies. Guys who write Saw movies. I needed an expert so I called Marilyn Stasio, a woman who’s been “covering the waterfront in terms of mysteries and crime” for The Times, according to the paper’s own Jennifer Schussler.
“I see what they’re doing,” Ms. Stasio said over the phone. She called me from home, where stacks of books are piled up in a way that made her hesitant to move away from the phone. “They’ve got some newbies and some middle-listers, and they’re taking a bet.”
A few agents had pointed out that, besides Ms. Clark’s, Mulholland hadn’t purchased another book by a dame. No blondes, and no brunettes either. Not even a redhead. That put a twitch in my foot, but Ms. Stasio said I should drop that angle fast.
“Sue Grafton can still sell the shit out of most of these guys,” she said, like a whip. “It doesn’t tell me that it’s anti-women; it just says they couldn’t find one that fits specifically in that category, or get her.”
The newbies would come easy; Mr. Schoenfelder had to woo the more established authors. The author Laura Lippman told me about hitting the bottle with Mr. Schoenfelder at last year’s Edgar awards, the industry’s Oscars. She was shocked to learn that the imprint had nabbed Mr. Block for its starting list, saying she couldn’t believe he’d stolen him. Mr. Schoenfelder replied with a coy smile, “I wouldn’t call it stealing.” He had the two-by-six grin of the guy who never loses a sale.
Nobody would say so, but it’s an even bet that Mr. Schoenfelder has a bit more money to offer these authors, especially since the imprint just nabbed the debut novel by the big-shot Hollywood director J.J. Abrams, due next year. The money was probably good.
“I don’t have a lot to compare it to,” said Warren Ellis, a second-time novelist and prominent comic-book writer, the kind of guy who’d put as much muscular activity into writing gags as I’d put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. “I just bought Bin Laden’s corpse for my living-room wall. Is that ‘good’?”
But Mr. Schoenfelder is guy who really has a mission in life. His reputation as an editor is sterling. Take Duane Swierczynski, who jumped from St. Martin’s to be with Mr. Schoenfelder after a conversation about a book idea made it “one thousand times better.” And he’s adored among editors and authors whom he doesn’t even pay. If anyone was going to give me dirt on Mr. Schoenfelder, it was going to be Marc Resnick, Mr. Swierczynski’s former editor at St. Marin’s. No soap.
“I would never hold it against them,” Mr. Resnick said. “Duane should do what’s best for Duane and John should do what’s best for John, as long as they’re playing by the unspoken rules, which is, don’t try to steal my author while I’m still working with him.”
I let it hang before I asked, “Wasn’t that what happened?”
“Yeah, yeah, but John was always such a fan, you know?” Mr. Resnick said.
Mr. Schoenfelder would request copies of Mr. Swierczynski’s books when they came in. “At the end of the day,” Mr. Resnick said, “there are a lot of fucking phonies in his business and John is an earnest guy.”
If it all seems sunny, it is mostly. But there are hazards. Genre offers face heavy competition from the e-book world, where nobody cares if there’s a Michael Connelly quote on the cover, and there’s always a danger that an imprint like Mulholland can turn into a ghetto where you place books you’d never want on the list of Little, Brown proper.
“You can call it a ghetto or you can call it a specialized imprint,” Abel said. “You can spin it any way you wish.”
A heavy at another house whispered a little something in my ear about the whole plan. Little, Brown already handles big names like Michael Connelly and James Patterson, not to mention the stuff they do under Regan Arthur, the source said, so why do this imprint? Crime makes money. Money means resources, and in a sleek operation like Hachette, that can make all the difference, even if it means competing with Grand Central, which does a neat little thriller business of its own. This was Mr. Pietsch’s bid to remain the olive in the cocktail at Hachette.
I’m not one for conspiracies. This business seems to get into everyone’s heads. But it’s a business that a lot of people want to be in. W.W. Norton just announced a new label of its own, Pegasus Crime.
Last Thursday I was dirty. I needed a shave. My hands were shaking. I smelled foul to myself. But I got myself cleaned up and went over to Grand Hyatt for the Edgars, which was lousy with mystery writers all out to score a prize.
I asked Harlan Coben why he thought people would want to get into the game. He said we’re living in “a golden age of crime fiction.”
A towering bald man in glasses, Coben spread out his hands over the assembled mystery writers and checked off the collective talent in the room. Sara Paretsky. Lawrence Block. Michael Connelly. Charles Todd, who writes mysteries with his mother under the pen name Charles Todd.
“Internationally you have guys like Stieg Larsson; unfortunately he’s not writing anymore,” he said, adding a heavy pause. “And we have all these guys. I don’t think it’s ever been better.”
I told him I was trying to go incognito. How would a guy like me infiltrate a group of mystery writers?
“Let me know if you figure it out, dude,” he said. “You’ll find that mystery writers are the most normal human beings.”
Maybe he was right. Aside from the odd fedora or black-widow-tattooed-shoulder, the room could have been mistaken for any other sort of convention held at the Grand Hyatt. When Mr. Schoenfelder arrived, dressed in an almost purple striped jacket with Ms. Parker in tow, the banquet was about to start. By this point, I wasn’t looking so bad myself, but again, he declined to comment.
“Let me give you my card in case you change your mind,” I said. “You’ll need my contact info.”
“I have it,” he said, his voice trailing as if he wished there could be something done about that.
I smiled. “You’re a tough nut to crack, John.”
“Another time,” he said.
I said my goodbyes, and left the event, but not before being obliged to make another quick interview, by a publicist who caught me leaving. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.