Wednesday, August 1, 2012

K is for Stuart M. Kaminsky

It would be impossible to provide a complete profile of Stuart M. Kaminsky in one post, so I will limit myself and save other tidbits for later posts. I hope to read much more Kaminsky in the next year.

A brief biography that highlights his accomplishments related to mystery writing:  Stuart M. Kaminsky (September 29, 1934 – October 9, 2009) was an American mystery writer and film professor. He is known for several long-running series of mystery novels and other non-fiction titles and stand-alone novels. He received the 1989 Edgar Award for Best Novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, a novel in the Inspector Rostnikov series . He earned six other Edgar nominations, most recently for the 2005 non-fiction book Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed.  He was a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and in 2006 received the Grand Master Award from that organization.

Description of the four mystery series he was best known for at the Mysterious Press site:
In 1977, when a planned biography of Charlton Heston fell through, Kaminsky wrote Bullet For A Star, his first Toby Peters novel, beginning a fiction career that would last the rest of his life. Kaminsky penned twenty-four novels starring the detective, whom he described as “the anti-Philip Marlowe.” In 1981’s Death of a Dissident, Kaminsky debuted Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, whose stories were praised for their accurate depiction of Soviet life. His other two series starred Abe Lieberman, a hardened Chicago Cop, and Lew Fonseca, a process server.

In 2005, I re-introduced myself to Kaminsky's books by reading the first seven books in the Inspector Rostnikov series. I had read several books in the Toby Peters series earlier. Probably in the 1980s, since I do not remember a lot about the books, or which ones I read.

The Inspector Rostnikov series are police procedurals set in Moscow. The first novel in this series, Death of a Dissident, was published in 1981. Until Kaminsky was able to visit Russia in the 1990s, he based the novels entirely on research. I think this is my favorite series by Kaminsky, although I plan to read all of his books eventually. That will be quite an endeavor.

Death of a Russian Priest

In mid-July I read Death of a Russian Priest, the eighth book in the series, published in 1992. As this book opens, the Soviet Union has been dissolved and Inspector Rostnikov still has his job with the Moscow police. It is a time of uncertainty for everyone; Russians are adjusting to the changes, and lines are longer and scarcity of goods is worse. There are two crimes investigated in this book: the murder of a prominent priest in the town of Arkush, and the disappearance of the daughter of a foreign minister in Moscow.

Inspector Rostnikov has a leg injury suffered during military service, which causes him pain and inconvenience in his job. He reads Ed McBain novels. His wife is Jewish, which has caused problems with his job. He has a grown son who is fighting in Afghanistan when the series begins. There are several police colleagues on Rostnikov's team who have recurring roles. Their relationships play a part in each novel.

This series is intriguing because of the picture of life in Russia during this interesting period. The plotting and characterization are well done, although I personally get more involved in the people and how they deal with the problems in their lives (whether they are related to the crime or personal) than the crimes and solutions. 

Bullet for a Star

I just finished reading Bullet for a Star, the first book in the Toby Peters series, published in 1977. The only thing I remembered about the series was that the protagonist is a private investigator and each title is centered around a celebrity. And the books are funny. This particular book features Errol Flynn and is set in 1940 in Hollywood, California.

Toby Peters is a perpetually down-on-his-luck private eye who has previous connections to the Warner Brothers studio. In Bullet for a Star, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre show up too. This is an intentionally humorous series, and there are often zany characters, many of them recurring.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected too. The book was fun, a good read, and the references to old movies and movie stars and other Hollywood characters were interesting. I do like old movies and, living in California, am familiar with the locations mentioned. Since Kaminsky was a professor of film, and wrote books on film theory and criticism, you can be pretty sure that his movie-related facts are accurate.

The Toby Peters series seems to be the best loved of Kaminsky's series. Here are several overviews that will illustrate the high points:
A review at January Magazine of Now You See It (the last in the series, published in 2004). This review provides a good overview of the series.
A wonderful story by Greg Rucka (at the Mysterious Press site) about his discovery of Kaminsky and the Toby Peters series at a young age. It mentions a long-gone mystery bookstore that I have visited.

Other interesting facts about this author and his books:

What I noticed when seeking information on this author was that each series is set in a very different geographical and cultural setting. As mentioned above, the Inspector Rostnikov series is set in Russia.

The Toby Peters series is a historical mystery series set primarily in Hollywood. Since the books in that series span the years of America's involvement in World War II (from 1940 to 1944) I am especially looking forward to reading them.

The Abe Lieberman series is set in Chicago, where Kaminsky grew up and lived until he moved to Sarasota, Florida. The Volume 15, No. 2, Summer 1999 issue of Mystery Readers Journal had an article written by Kaminsky about Chicago and using it as a setting in his mysteries (scroll down for the article). I have read only the first in this series; I liked it and am seeking more in the series.

The Lew Fonesca series is set in Sarasota, Florida. The Thrilling Detective site describes Fonesca as "unlicensed peeper, bargain basement dick and process server living out of his office overlooking the Dairy Queen." I have not read any of this series, but I have five out of six of the books, so you can see I am confident I will like them.

Kaminsky wrote or contributed to several screenplays, including the screenplay for the movie Once Upon a Time in America. In this interview at the Mystery One site, Kaminsky comments on his role in creating that screenplay. Also one screenplay for the Nero Wolfe Mystery TV series episode, "Immune to Murder" (described here).

This overview of Stuart M. Kaminsky is a part of the  Mysteries in Paradise - Crime Fiction Alphabet!


Katrina said...

What an interesting post, and I'm amazed to see that some Kaminsky books are in the Fife Library Catalogue. I must put in a request. Thanks.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Katrina. I just saw that you have a new post on Ngaio Marsh and I am going to head over there to read it. I am sure you would enjoy any Kaminsky book you tried.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great overview TracyK - in fact, you beat me to it as I also did a quick write up on Kamimsky for the meme, but focused on Peters but I really will have to re-read some of the Inspector Rostnikov series as it has been far too long. Cheers,


srivalli said...

New author to me. I found some of his books in my local library. Will check it out.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - A terrific choice for K! Kaminsky had so much talent and made so many contributions to the genre. I'm glad you highlighted his work.

neer said...

Never heard of this author before. Interesting write up. I'll have to check the library.