Man of Mystery

Novelist Les Roberts makes Cleveland his partner in crime.

Milan Jacovich is back on the case. The Cleveland private eye burst on the scene in 1988, when he solved the murder of a high-powered ad executive from Pepper Pike. Since then, he’s cracked a dozen whodunits, with nary a breather in between. This time, though, Jacovich is grappling with a crime that’s hit a little too close for comfort: While attending the 40th reunion of his graduating class, one of his schoolmates is shot near the hotel where the festivities are taking place. Now, it’s up to the gumshoe to clear his classmates –– as well as himself –– of any wrongdoing.

Will the killer be brought to justice?

Les Roberts wouldn’t have it any other way.

For 20 years, the Cleveland Heights novelist has been penning Milan Jacovich mystery stories. Each serves not only as a love letter to Roberts’ favorite literary genre but also as a heartfelt homage to Cleveland, a city the Chicago native considers to be his kind of town. Many of his hero’s haunts –– which range from the upscale ambiance of Nighttown to the exotic melting pot of the West Side Market –– are Roberts’ favorite stomping grounds, too.

But a high-school reunion? Unlike the protagonist in his latest book, “King of the Holly Hop,” Roberts wouldn’t be caught dead at one.

“I got invited to my 50th a few years ago,” Roberts, 71, says with a shake of his silver mane, “and I thought, ‘Hey, I didn’t like a lot of those people back then. Why should I drive all that way to see them now?’

“I know that’s a terrible thing to say,” he adds slyly. “I’m sure they’re all much nicer now.”

For Roberts, forging a new path and never looking back has always been second-nature. It’s what first brought him here 21 years ago, after accepting a job offer from Marcus Advertising to launch “Cash Explosion,” a TV game show for the Ohio Lottery.

“I was at a point in my life,” Roberts recalls, “where I wasn’t quite 50, and it was getting hard to get work in the TV and movie business in Los Angeles –– it seemed as though all the executives were 27 years old.

“When the job came along, it sounded like fun,” he adds, admitting that at the time all he knew about Cleveland could be summed up in the football prowess of running back Jim Brown, the legendary fastball thrown by Indians pitcher Bob Feller and the fact that the Cuyahoga River was polluted enough to catch fire.

When the Lottery assignment ended, Roberts headed back to Los Angeles. But thoughts of Cleveland remained.

“The city reminds me so much of my hometown that I call it Chicago light,” he says, citing geographic and ethnic similarities the two places
share. “Except,” he adds, “Cleveland is a lot smaller, and it’s easier to get around in and cheaper to live in.”

Roberts was so taken with the North Coast he decided to return two years later. He admits to a bit of second-guessing, though, as his flight touched down in the dead of winter from California’s sunny clime.

“When I got here, it was snowing,” Roberts recalls, “and I certainly didn’t have the right clothes with me. I wondered what the hell I was doing here.”

As he surveyed the barren landscape from an upstairs window of the house he’d just purchased on Hyde Park Avenue, Roberts made a deal with himself: He’d stay two years — just enough time to earn a return on his investment before heading to a new locale.

But plans have a way of changing. Within six weeks, he’d fallen in love with the city and its people.

“I realized,” he says, “that I couldn’t possibly live anywhere else.

“The years I’ve spent here have been the best of my life.”

It’s no surprise that Roberts ultimately found his calling writing crime novels. As a teen-ager growing up on Chicago’s North Side, he devoured the words of John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

“I’ve always loved wallowing around in a world where people rip out your throat as soon as look at you,” Roberts says. “It could be because I’m a very middle-class kind of guy. The last time I hit anybody in anger I was 11 years old.”

But thoughts of following in the storied authors’ footsteps were overshadowed by the lure of the stage. At 20, Roberts moved to New York, where he performed off-Broadway, did summer stock and started writing comedy. In 1966, he headed west and became a scriptwriter for popular TV fare of the day, including “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Lucy Show,” “Candid Camera” and “The Hollywood Squares.”

“As a whole, I loved Los Angeles when I first arrived,” Roberts says. “Within a couple of months, I was hanging out with stars. I used to say that I’d been invited to a party, and I was the only one there I’d never heard of.

“But it didn’t take long to realize that the life I was living wasn’t reality. After all, they call it Lala-land for a reason.”

As disillusionment deepened, Roberts revisited his lost love of mystery and crime. He began writing plots that centered on a Los Angeles movie actor who moonlights as a private investigator. His Saxon novels quickly found a home, and the publisher encouraged Roberts to create a second sleuth. There was, however, a major caveat attached: The setting couldn’t be in a big city that was already fodder for crime fiction.

“My editor said no to Los Angeles, no to San Francisco, no to Boston, Chicago and New York,” he recalls. “I told him that he had named every place I had ever been in my life.”

Except Cleveland.

Roberts visited neighborhoods in and around the city, sizing up the people he met with a writer’s eye. The best traits morphed into Milan Jacovich, a moniker that’s right out of Cleveland’s Slovenian and Croatian communities.

“Milan and I are different in some ways,” Roberts says. “I’m of English and German descent with a smidgen of Romanian thrown in. He drinks Stroh’s, and I prefer single-malt Scotch. But I think our values, ethics, morals and the way we look at things are very much the same.

“If somebody waved a magic wand and made me a private investigator, I would operate the way Milan does.”

It’s that affinity for the city, says Fox 8 news anchor and native Clevelander Wilma Smith, that makes Roberts’ books so appealing.

“Les really brings the city to life,” she says. “When he mentions street names or places you know, it means so much more than reading about fictitious settings or cities you’ve never been to.”

By 1997, life was sweet. Roberts’ books were garnering positive reviews and loyal fans, and he was immersed in all things Cleveland –– including fund-raising for the Project:LEARN adult-literacy program.

But something wasn’t right. A spate of acute stomach aches led to exploratory surgery.

The diagnosis: Colon cancer.

As six months of chemotherapy commenced, Roberts embraced the personal epiphanies that accompanied each treatment session.

“Up until that time,” he reflects, “I had never considered the fact that I might not be around tomorrow. I wanted to live to see my children again, and I still had a lot of stories in me that I hadn’t told yet. But what really kept me going was the desire to get out of the hospital and get home to my cat, Sonny. That’s all I thought about. I knew I had friends taking care of him and loving him, but I thought, ‘I can’t leave him.’

“When I got home and realized I didn’t need somebody walking upstairs behind me in case I fell, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to get through this.’”

Once again, Roberts charted his own course. By week two of the chemo, he had returned to writing.

“I convinced myself that as long as I was alive, I was going to fight this thing and live the life I wanted to live,” he says.

A cancer survivor for more than a decade, Roberts philosophizes about life’s twists and turns. They’re best exemplified, he says, by the little wooden turtle he keeps on his mantle. A gift from the love of his life, Holly Albin, the statue reminds Roberts of a passage by John Steinbeck, the writer he heralds as his favorite of all time.

Roberts paraphrases Chapter Three in “The Grapes of Wrath,” explaining that it’s the code he strives to live by: A turtle is painstakingly making his way across the road, when a speeding truck driver purposely hits the little reptile, spinning him off the road and onto his back. Death under the baking sun seems imminent. But instead, the turtle manages to get on his feet and go on –– scattering the seeds he picked up while down and out in the grass that will make new things grow.

“It’s the most astonishing piece of writing I’ve ever read in my life,” Roberts marvels, adding that it doubles as the parable we all should take to heart, especially during “the golden years.”

All of us, he says, have problems of some sort –– and that’s especially true as the years advance.

“But,” he admonishes, “that’s no excuse for curling up in a corner and waiting for the birds to cover you with leaves. Who knows? You might live another 20, 30 or 40 years being miserable.”

Roberts’ advice is as concise as it is pragmatic: Get over it.

“Have a drink, sing a song, go to a lousy movie, go to a funny movie,” he says, “and get your head right.

“And above all,” he adds, “keep going and don’t let anybody stop you.”

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