Sunday, October 23, 2016

A New Yorker State of Mind by Larry Karp

Larry Karp passed away a few days ago. Larry wrote several articles for the Mystery Readers Journal, including the following article for Mystery Readers New York City Mysteries I which appeared this Spring. It was a pleasure knowing Larry and reading his books. Rest in Peace.

Larry Karp practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care), and wrote three nonfiction books and newspaper and magazine articles for 25 years. In 1995, he left medical work to begin a second career, writing mystery novels. The backgrounds and settings of Larry's mysteries reflect many of his interests, including musical antiques, ragtime music, and medical-ethical issues.

Larry Karp:
A New Yorker State of Mind 

When I walked away from a thirty-year career in medicine to write mystery novels full-time, I knew there was one background I did not want to use - the one everybody told me I should use. "You could write great thrillers like (fill in your favorite medical thriller writer).

But I'd had more than enough medicine for a good long while, and I did not want to write thrillers. During my medical years, my diversion was collecting and restoring antique music boxes, and I set myself to using that experience to write a mystery story full of envy, conniving, theft, and murders.

Problem was, I set the story in Seattle, my home for the prior quarter-century. Outdoor activities and computers were and still are big there, but the antique-collecting community in the Emerald City was small and all too well behaved. My story went nowhere. But I had grown up in New York...all right, not exactly in New York.

But I'd always thought of myself as a New Yorker. From the time I was a pre-teen through my pubertal years (Not to worry; this was the 1950s), I regularly got on a bus in Paterson, New Jersey, where there was nothing - heck, radio station WPAT played only twangy music that made my teeth ache, but WQXR in New York played Beethoven! Just a short ride into The City, and I was free to spend the day as I pleased. Take the D train to Harlem and watch my New York Giants - with Willie Mays! - demolish the hated Dodgers. Visit the dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. Go further uptown and say hello to Mr. Grant in his tomb. Go downtown to what's now called SoHo, and get lost among the teeming crowds of immigrants; munch a mile-long hot dog from a pushcart gently glid-ing by... Wander through Times Square, scuzzily fascinating as it was in those days. Saturday matinee-time in the Theater District; be riveted by Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind. Maybe best of all, meander through Greenwich Village, ears and eyes open to the max, spying on the singular people I'd see and hear there. I'll never forget the summer day I stood at the door of one of the big clubs, listening to a Black pianist practicing at the piano, and he invited me inside, asked if I liked jazz, and when I told him I liked his jazz, he played me a private half-hour interpretive concert.

So there was what I needed for my story: a wide, brilliant canvas. Models for characters who'd be both energetic and more than just a little different. A huge community of antique music machine collectors, appreciators, dealers, pickers. Such as the late Mr. Murtogh Guinness, yes of that family, whose collection was so extensive and eye-popping that he had bought two classic New York brownstones and knocked out the wall between them to properly display his treasures.

My amateur detective was Dr. Thomas Purdue, neurologist and the hardest-core music box aficionado. My deal with myself was that neither the author nor the reader would ever see the inside of Thomas' office. I transplanted him to New York, and he hit the ground running.

I'd not thought about writing a series, but The Music Box Murders and Thomas Purdue got pretty nice reviews, so I went on to do Scamming the Birdman, a New York caper a la Donald Westlake. The LA Times reviewer opined that I had not quite achieved my goal, but that "the ending was worthy and then some of Westlake." Good enough. Third book: The Midnight Special, another story that could only have happened in the crazy, bustling New York antiques scene.

Then, I got a big bite from the Historical Bug, and my other five mysteries have taken me to new places. Four have transported me out of New York, but one, The King of Ragtime, was in fact set there, in 1916. It was a kick to go back in time to get the setting and background right for Scott Joplin's home turf some thirty years before I'd ever laid eyes on it.

Will I set any more stories in my para-hometown? When it comes to predicting what's going to come out of my head and onto a computer screen, I've learned to not even try to predict.

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