Mystery Maker

 

Not long after his 19th novel, another Connecticut murder mystery, was published, I visited David Handler at his literary mill. To get there, I drove through the heart of Old Lyme, the community he describes so meticulously in his books, past its iconic Congregational church, its art galleries and family estates, to a side street aptly named Library Lane.

That’s where Handler has lived and written since 1985, when, after years of working in New York City, he fell in love with the Connecticut shoreline and then bet his livelihood on that deep attraction.

“Welcome to Miss Barker’s Cottage,” said the 60-year-old novelist, a broad smile on his youthful face, as he greeted me in the driveway. He explained that his 200-year-old carriage house is still referred to this way by locals as a bow to the Yankee tradition of honoring former owners and, at the same time, demonstrating a certain wariness toward newcomers.

Whether the carriage house will ever be known as Mr. Handler’s Cottage doesn’t concern him much. After nearly three decades of living here, however, he may have finally worked his way from “outsider” into at least the fringes of Old Lyme society.

He has done this by playing the role of quiet observer and listener, taking everything in, and then processing it through his imagination, and turning it out as a hybrid brand of literature—the stuff of classic mystery on the one hand and an interpretation of societal change on the other.

His most recent release, for example, The Snow White Christmas Cookie, was inspired by a conversation during which someone in town complained that mail had been stolen. Handler took this relatively benign tidbit and turned it into a murder plot, one that takes readers to society galas, to the discovery of dead bodies in suspicious circumstances, to shoddy motels and ultimately on a desperate search through brutal winter weather for one of the heroes.

We talked of how all this came to be—Handler’s exquisite village neighborhood as a capital of intrigue—as we sat near the living room fireplace, occasionally looking out through the 12-over-12 windows at Library Lane.    

“When I first came here from Manhattan,” he told me, “I thought this was a foreign country. There were large swathes of houses without cable TV, we had a paper boy who rode a bike.” And growing up in a Jewish family in Los Angeles, “I didn’t spend time with blue-blooded WASPS. The very first cocktail party I went to they served miniature wienies and deviled eggs—I hadn’t seen those things since the ’60s.”

Yet there was something about Old Lyme that seemed a natural home to him. The village provided a storybook setting, and the beach beckoned nearby. Miss Barker’s Cottage gave him a place to become a novelist, and the yard gave his girlfriend, Diana Drake, a landscape architect, room to experiment with new plantings. Plus, they liked their neighbors.

But Handler’s escape to Connecticut, he explained, had not come without a cost. His father had been incredulous that the young writer would give up lucrative work in New York, penning scripts, for example, for the “Kate and Allie” TV show.

How could he forsake the yields of a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia to labor alone in a room every day with no promise of ever getting paid? Yet, as the story goes with most successful writers, logic, sanity and security are seldom the point.

Handler found that out when his first two novels were roundly dismissed by publishers. He kept at them, however, and eventually convinced one of the editors who had rejected him to change his mind. This is something writers are usually not very good at doing. But Handler believed that novel writing was his calling, and proving it has consumed his adult life.

Within a few years, he’d turned out a series of “Hoagy stories,” the chronicles of Stuart Hoag, a ghostwriter who travels extensively to collaborate on memoirs with celebrities. Handler received critical praise and developed a large fan base, but the series eventually came to a dead end.

“Hoagy started out as a guy who messed up,” he said, “and I brought him back to life to the point that he didn’t need to be a ghostwriter anymore. I didn’t have anything left to give him. I didn’t have any ideas for future books.”

Then along came the notion about writing murder mysteries.

“I thought, ‘What if I do something about a guy like me, a Jewish film critic, who comes out here to this place with his partner, a landscape architect, and they find a body in the yard?’” he said. After all, Handler was accustomed to drawing inspiration from real life. Easier thought than done, however.

“I started playing with it,” he said. “But it wasn’t any good. It lacked moral weight. It was frivolous.” So he worked on other things. Yet the idea nagged at him.

During this period, both of his parents died in California within a three-week period. “I was the unhappiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he admitted. “I developed an ulcer. I cried constantly. I was so sensitive to everything, and so vulnerable. My health was poor.” It was only through his writing—and facing his grief while doing it—that his health began to improve.

He developed a character named Mitch Berger, a film critic who had lost his wife of 30 years. It was through Berger that Handler could express grief, could say on the page what he could express in no other way. And it was through Berger’s developing love affair with an African-American female state cop, Des Mitry, that Handler could comment on cultural shifts by having her confront prejudices of race and gender.

He said, “I was beginning to observe how the modern world was forcing itself into a village where generation after generation live in the same house.”

Handler learned much along the way, some of it from other writers. Before the first Berger/Mitry book was published, he mentioned the idea of it to local luminaries Dominick Dunne and Luanne Rice, both of whom were enthusiastic but insisted he not identify the town as Old Lyme.

“I didn’t understand their point at the time,” Handler told me, “but I respected them enough to take their advice, and I discovered they were right. If I write about New York, say, I can say the mayor is a barhopper. If I write about Old Lyme, I can’t do that. This way, if I want to put a diner that doesn’t exist on Route 156, I can.”

Not that the town of Dorset—the community Handler created—is very different from Old Lyme. But the alteration gives him just enough leeway to be creative. And, so far, the real town has been supportive. No one has sued for invasion of cocktail party.

As we ended our conversation, I asked Handler what’s next. He said he’s got another Berger/Mitry book in the works—it’s hard to let go of characters who help pull you out of grief.

And so every morning at 7, David Handler travels the few feet from breakfast table to Dorset. And every evening, by the fireplace, he reminds himself of the blessings of living and working where happy endings aren’t merely a figment of his imagination.
 

Mystery Maker

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