Life According to Les Roberts

After pondering the retirement of his main character, mystery writer Les Roberts is back on the case with the 14th installment of his Milan Jacovich series.
Hollywood Squares started out terrific. To walk in that first night and to see nine stars — now it wasn’t Spencer Tracy or Paul Newman, but it was Vincent Price, and people like that.

We made a major star out of Paul Lynde. He was pretty much unknown before that. He’d played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. Now people contact me all the time about him. I went down to his hometown, Mount Vernon, Ohio, and they just wanted to talk about him. They didn’t care what I wrote.

I didn’t hang out with actors that much. There’s a joke about actors. You’re talking with an actor about himself for three hours and then he apologizes and says, “Enough about me, how didyou enjoy my last picture?” And that’s not a joke. That’s true.

I played jazz piano and sang for about 10 years. In Los Angeles, I was trying to sell shows and write books. I had to get money some way. I figured that at one point I knew about 7,000 songs from memory.

Now, I wouldn’t play if you stuck a gun to my head. Well, actually I might think about it because nobody can smoke in clubs. I was tired of people blowing smoke in my face, throwing up on my shoes and asking me to play “Feelings.”

I stayed in L.A.because I had kids there, the weather was very nice and I really had no place to go.

When I came here to work on a television show [Ohio Cash Explosion] I met a lot of incredibly wonderful people and I thought,These people could be your friends, and they are not going to stab you in the back the way they do in Los Angeles. So I made the move here and it’s been the best 17 and a half years of my life.

When I first came here, people said, “Oh my God, you wrote this book.” Strangers called and invited me to parties and invited me to dinner. After 24 years in Los Angeles, and in the movie and television business, I thought,OK, what do they want from me? But they wanted my company. They wanted to get to know me, and they wanted to show me about Cleveland. That’s why I love Cleveland so much. I love the people here.

In Cleveland Heights half the people on my street are in the orchestra. They also teach at John Carroll, Cleveland State and Case. There are doctors all over the place. I guess that’s why I chose to live here. Almost everyone in Cleveland Heights is very intellectual, very cultured.

I’m always asked, “Would you ever move back to Los Angeles?” If I had a job that would only last one year and would pay me at least $2 million, I would go. Otherwise, no. I don’t like Los Angeles. Not only that, but it’s going to fall into the ocean. It really is.

In television, no matter what you write there are 18 people lined up waiting to put their fingerprints all over what you wrote. So I stuck it out as long as I could and then started writing books.

When I write a book, it’s between me and the editor and God, and God is frequently cut out of the loop.

Murder mysteries are dramatic to everybody. Somebody got killed who shouldn’t have. Everybody is interested in that.

Some of the best writers in America are mystery writers. They don’t hit you over the head. They tell you a great story, and they make you smile or they make you shudder.

Now, publishers are looking for the big box office bonanza in the bookstores. They’re not looking for people like me who do well. They don’t want someone to do well, they want someone to do Stephen King.

If I were read everywhere in the world like I’m read in Cleveland, I would be another Stephen King, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I wasn’t expecting that though.

I had thought about not writing any more Milans about five years ago. After about a year or two, I started getting e-mails three, four, fives times a week from people I’d never heard of saying, “When is the next Milan?” So I wrote one about a high school reunion, based on my own high school. I had a great time reacquainting myself with him. I hope to continue to write him for the rest of my life.

I just finished co-writing a movie about Milan, which is based onThe Irish Sports Pages. It will be shot mostly in Cleveland. They are thinking about doing a few scenes in Ireland. I am very excited about that, and I hope Cleveland will be too.

I’m looking forward to this movie because, according to my contract, I get to say, “I don’t want him in this part.” So, if someone says, “You’ve got Tom Cruise.” I can say, “We’ll not settle here; he’s not Milan.”

I don’t want a movie to come out that has Milan in it, but Milan is now a transvestite, Bolivian dwarf. I want it to seem like a Milan book. Everyone who likes the Milan books should come see the movie — and hopefully 50 million more.

Going to your high school reunion is never fun. But this time, it’s murder. When Cleveland private eye Milan Jacovich reluctantly attends the 40th reunion of his St. Clair High School graduating class, one of his classmates is found shot dead and another quickly becomes the main suspect. The suspect, successful playwright Tommy Wiggins, draws Milan into the case — and puts him in the awkward position of investigating his former schoolmates. Milan soon discovers the dark secrets of people he only thought he knew. The deceased Dr. Phil Kohn, it turns out, managed to make more than a few enemies during his abbreviated life. But did a 40-year-old grudge really lead to his death? Or was it something more recent — a jealous spouse, a shady business partner?

Jack Siegel — Dr. Jack Siegel, who’d earned his Ph.D. in engineering — wore a parka over his brown suit and beige pullover sweater when he slid into the booth at the little West Side bar near the NASA Glenn Research Center at 5:30 that evening. I think he needed a few more layers, because it was another cold and blustery day. He ordered a Diet Coke and I nursed a beer.

He was losing his dark-brown hair even faster than I, his receding hairline a contrast to his full-cheeked, almost cherubic face. As a kid he’d always appeared red-cheeked and blushing. The years hadn’t changed that.

“How did you get involved in this murder business, Milan?” he said. “I’m surprised.”

“I work for Tommy Wiggins’ attorney. Tommy seems to have emerged as the prime suspect.”

“Why is that? Do you know?”

“I’m trying to talk to everyone who was there Friday.”

Jack looked uncomfortable. “If you’re going by alphabetical order, theS’s must be pretty far down on your list.”

“They were — until Adrienne Kohn told me what happened between Phil and Barbara.”

His humiliation rose from the bottoms of his feet to the tops of his ears. He flushed, darting looks around the small bar to make sure no one else was listening. “Jesus Christ, Milan.”

“Adrienne said she called and told you about it.”

“Adrienne” — he pronounced her name as though it was a vile word — “evidently shared a lot of things with you. But that was years ago. It’s ancient history — all water under the bridge now.”

“Still, you must have bad feelings about Phil Kohn.”

“I won’t lie. I hated his guts. But it’s not something I go around advertising.”

“Was that the end of it? Their affair?”

His shoulders were so hunched they looked to be up around his jawbone. “The end of the affair, the end of the friendship. Adrienne and Barbara haven’t spoken to each other since. As for Phil and me — well, what do you think?”

“No violent confrontation?”

“God, no! I’m not violent, I’m a geek. Sure, I had violent thoughts at the time. I still do. I was mortified. I told him just what I thought of him, but I wasn’t violent.”

“How did he respond?”

“With arrogance and amusement — but that was it. Barbara and I spent a decade trying to put it behind us, to put the marriage back together. At first we said it was for the kids — we have three, you know. But the kids are grown now and it wound up being for us — the healing. It’s the best thing we ever did.”

I nodded. “The two of you looked happy Friday night.”

“We are happy. But it took a lot of effort and a lot of sad years.” Jack played with the moisture on the outside of his Coca-Cola glass, running his finger up and down. “We almost didn’t come to the reunion at all. We figured Phil would be there. We didn’t want it to be awkward — picking at an old scab.”

“Whydid you come?”

He stuck his lower lip out in a kind of sulky pout — feeling around for the right thing to say made him look 5-years-old. Finally he said, “I wouldn’t give the son of a bitch the satisfaction that I was hiding from him.”

“Did you talk to him Friday night?”

“No. Neither did Barbara. We looked at each other across the room — but we never talked.”

“Other than that you haven’t seen him for 10 years or so?”

“No. Well, yeah, we ran into him one night at the Cleveland Play House about seven years ago,” Jack said, “and once somewhere else I don’t remember. We didn’t speak either time, and we didn’t speak Friday. Look, I disliked the prick with everything that’s in me — but I’ve worked hard at getting past all that. If I’d wanted to kill him, I would have done it back then.” He turned his hands palms upward, showing his innocence. “But I’m a scientist, not a murderer.”

“You’re not exactly grieving his death, are you?”

It took him a long time to answer. “No. But I don’t give him all the blame for what happened. It takes two.” Now he leaned forward. “I never wanted to hurt Barbara. I love her with all my heart, and I busted my ass to make our marriage work again.”

He sneaked another furtive look around the bar. It was a popular after-work hangout for NASA Glenn people, none of whom probably knew anything about Jack Siegel’s troubled marriage, and he wanted to keep it that way. “I hope you’re not going public with this — about Barbara and Kohn.”

“Who would I tell?”

“The police, for one.”

“You should tell the police yourself.”

He recoiled. “For God’s sake, why?”

“It’ll go easier for you if they don’t find out themselves,” I warned him. “And they will.”

He looked miserable. “This will open up the whole can of worms again. It’s so degrading — having people know that adultery almost broke us to pieces.”

“It happens, Jack. To more people than you might imagine. Whoever said marriage was easy must have been a lifelong bachelor. Call Sgt. Bob Matusen in Homicide and talk to him. He’s a decent man.”

He closed his eyes. “I’ll have to talk it over with Barbara.” He jerked nervously, moving his hands across the top of the table as if he were sifting through dried navy beans looking for pieces of shell. “I suppose after a while Barbara felt like Phil had ... betrayed her — and betrayed me, too, which of course he did. Adrienne had told me he’d slept with a lot of different women — mostly other men’s wives. So Barbara didn’t think of him with warmth — but we never discussed it between us.”

His face glowed with perspiration. He’d have been more comfortable if he’d taken off his parka before he sat down with me — and more comfortable not talking about his wife’s perfidy, even though it was a decade old. It’s a Mars-Venus thing, I guess — men and women react differently when betrayed. When a woman’s husband cheats on her, she becomes enraged. She tells her friends, her family, her therapist, and the rest of the world, looking for a little sympathy. But when a man’s wife cheats on him, it eats out his guts inside, and he prays nobody else finds out and then looks at him with pity or, worse, contempt.

Jack checked his watch. “I should be getting home ...”

“Sure, Jack. I appreciate your taking the time.”

He stood up. “There’s no need to mention anything to anyone, is there?” His voice had turned into a pleading whine.

“I can’t think why I would. It was a long time ago.”

His fingers fluttered over the toggles as he buttoned his parka. “Right,” he said. “It was a long time ago. Lots of things happened a long time ago, Milan. I think you’d be a better, nicer person if you didn’t hunt around for those old things in somebody else’s garbage — especially your friends.”

He left me sitting there nursing a stale beer and the stinging of my conscience. I couldn’t help but pity him because I know how he felt. Statistics say 60 percent of married men stray outside their marriage, and 40 percent of married women do, too. But it’s always a gut shot when it happens to you — the horns of a cuckold are an uncomfortable fit.

Tommy Wiggins had nurtured a rather silly hatred for 40 years. Maybe drenching Phil Kohn with a drink had finally exorcised that rage.

Or maybe not.
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