“I loved books and wanted my whole life to be around books.”
Such were the words of Richard Marek, an acclaimed editor, author, ghostwriter, and longtime Dutton president and publisher who died in 2020. In his half-century in book publishing, Marek helped bring over 300 books into the world, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, and several of Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne” thrillers.
I never imagined that my own manuscripts would end up in the hands of an editor like Marek, much less be the last he ever worked on. In 2018, I was searching for an agent for my first novel, The Reflecting Pool. Connections and good fortune put me in touch with my agent, Judith Ehrlich, who, in turn, introduced me to Marek. I couldn’t have known just how impactful this introduction would be.
Novel-writing was a third act for me. I began my career as an officer in the Foreign Service, spending over twenty years in Washington, D.C. and at foreign embassies before turning to playwriting. After my plays were produced both nationally and internationally, I got the itch to write a book. Thus came a thriller, set in the capital and my hometown for over sixty years, about a murder leading an intrepid homicide detective all the way to the White House.
In search of an agent and fruitful contacts, I attended ThrillerFest and signed up to have published thriller authors critique the story. Soon afterwards, a good friend connected me with Judith, who was also his agent. Judith was intrigued by the main character and impressed by the plot’s potential but thought the manuscript needed considerable rewriting. She made a promise: if “Richard” could make it marketable, she’d represent it.
Richard had, by this time, helped establish the Independent Editors Group, a consortium of freelance editors, many of whom had also spent decades in the industry’s upper echelons. He described himself and his colleagues as old timers, but he was being modest. They were all skilled editors who had a keen understanding of what publishers wanted.
When he read my pages, he was also taken by the main character, Marko Zorn, in whom he saw “a badass,” someone he wanted to root for. The only trouble was that Zorn had no past. “You tell us that the eyes of the dead girl give him a special need to solve the case,” Richard wrote, “but you take this no further. Why?” He went on: “What’s Zorn’s real name and why did he change it?”
The way he saw it, a character who broke the law, even for the sake of justice, had to be haunted. If readers had no access to such a character’s inner demons, they would not be sympathetic. He pointed me toward Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who is relentlessly spooked by the murder of his mother. “I remember him far more than the plots of Connelly’s novels,” he said.
Of course, I took his advice to heart. Marko’s character came alive as a tough, but impatient detective driven to pursue justice on behalf of the vulnerable. He is a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules and often consorts with criminals. The Reflecting Pool took shape, found a publisher, and landed on the list of Amazon Editors’ Picks in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.
I asked for Richard’s guidance while I wrote the sequel. Early in the process, he helped to resolve a key plot issue in what eventually hit shelves as Head Shot. Around this time, he’d learned that his esophageal cancer had returned despite extensive chemotherapy. He really was in no condition to take on clients but agreed to make an exception for his sake as much as mine. He was eager to have something to take his attention off his imminent death. “What is better than passing time with a fictional renegade who drives around in a sports car, one-upping the bad guys and coming to the rescue of those in need?” he quipped.
It was a joy for both Judith and me to continue working with such a brilliant mind. He was so sick, however, that the sound of his voice became increasingly distressing. It was devastating when we finally got the call we’d been dreading. His wife reassured us that he had been surrounded by his loved ones when he passed.
After his death, his influence lived on. Judith had contributed a lot of help with plotting for The Reflecting Pool, and this had impressed Marek. He’d told her, “You should have been an editor.” She now channeled his editorial voice as I continued my work on Head Shot. “More point of view, otherwise your reader won’t care about the character.” “Too much dialogue before the action scene interferes with the pacing.” “Don’t give away too much too soon.” “This coincidence strains credibility, you risk losing the integrity of the story and the trust of your reader.” “We shouldn’t know who the true villains are until the end of the story.” Richard’s past encouragement gave her confidence in her suggestions, which enabled me to finish writing the book.
The third novel in the series, Firetrap, will be published in January. I received good editorial input on this manuscript, but by now Richard’s key directives were emblazoned in my mind and I followed them. In many ways, this book is a tribute to the man who so fervently believed in stories with heart, once co-authoring a book, Here is My Hope, about a marble statue of Christ in Johns Hopkins Hospital, where thousands of people had taken their tears and prayers. Conceived in response to headlines about the opioid crisis, Firetrap tells of Zorn’s efforts to bring down a criminal drug empire that is claiming countless lives. It also reveals more of the backstory of the detective who resorts to his gun only when absolutely necessary.
Some readers are incredulous that a homicide detective, even a smooth-talking one, would go anywhere unarmed, and I suspect that some will likewise find it far-fetched that a single person could cripple a vast criminal enterprise. They will simply have to shake their heads and accept it, as I have also learned from Richard to hope against hope. As gun and opioid deaths climb alongside NRA and Big Pharma profits, we need to dream big.
Like my beloved editor, I have come to believe that we can read and write our way to a better world. After all, to read and write is often to be haunted by a story; and while stories can be scary, they can also bring comfort and embolden us to confront the real monsters, who exist not merely on the page or in our heads, but in the world.