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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Some thoughts on the new edition of Claw Hammer


I lived in Chicago and worked at the American Society of Clinical Pathologists’ Chicago headquarters, directly across West Harrison Street from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, when I wrote Claw Hammer. My ASCP job was to sell continuing education classes to pathologists, and I got to sit in on many of those classes because I was the person who registered pathologists for various courses, set up microscopes in classrooms at conference centers, ran the overheads and slide projectors, hawked new books published by the Society or the College of American Pathologists, and hosted cocktail parties for the Docs at national medical conferences. One of those ASCP classes featured the latest techniques of tool mark analysis available to forensic pathologists interested in identifying the instrument of death, and I was fascinated to learn about the variety of ways people quite often used common household implements to kill beloved family members and friends.

That class reminded me of several terrible tragedies that had happened to grade-school classmates of mine in my own hometown of Rockford, Illinois. I recalled awakening one dawn to the sound of sirens when I was only about eight or nine. I learned that a neighbor had allegedly gone crazy during the night and killed his entire family—all but one daughter who survived--with a claw hammer. The milkman, the same milkman who had just delivered milk to my house, discovered the bodies when he entered the neighbor’s house to put milk in the refrigerator as he normally did twice a week. In those Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver days of the early 1950s, people were very trusting and nobody ever locked their back doors. All that changed, of course, after an entire family was killed in our close-knit suburban neighborhood. It never dawned on us that locking the doors would do no good if the killer lived inside the house and had keys.

Not long after that first tragedy, the mother of another female grade-school friend was electrocuted in her bathtub. Supposedly, a radio fell off a shelf and added 110 volts to an afternoon bubble bath and fried the lady like a lobster. Police arrested the lady’s husband and charged him with her murder. My young friend had to leave school to go live with her grandparents. I never saw her again.

One of my favorite uncles, Eric Ekebom, was a Rockford police detective sergeant and I remember asking to see his gun when I was too young to know any better. He told me he hadn’t had to use his gun even once in more than twenty years on the police force. He did carry a gun, he explained, but he said he really didn’t need one because “Good detective use their brains and not guns to catch criminals.” I’ll always remember that.

When Pinnacle Books bought two of my novels and wanted them delivered right away, I wrote a rough draft of Claw Hammer and sent it off with the expectation I would have time to revise and polish the manuscript. I had one day between the time I received the page proofs and the deadline for getting the completed novel back to New York in time to make the publishing window. I overnighted the proofs back. I have never missed a deadline. In the old days when I was learning the newspaper business, we published what we had in order to make a deadline. “Go with what ya got,” the editor called out as the deadline approached. Some stories were incomplete or inaccurate. We knew we always had the next day’s edition to round out the details or publish a correction. I’m glad Claw Hammer endured to see a next edition.

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