Crimes and punishment go hand in hand for Nikki Griffin in S.A. Lelchuk’s latest mystery.
“I know, as a writer, that there will never be a shortage of people who pleasantly suggest that you find a different career,’’ Saul Lelchuk observes. “It seems to be one of those tricky professions where even the kindliest stranger or acquaintance feels happy to tee off and horrendously explain exactly how little money you’ll make and all the reasons not to do it.” Sounding more amused than indignant, the author, who splits his time between his West Oakland home and Dartmouth College, where he teaches creative writing, is undeterred. His latest mystery, One Got Away, is the second in a series featuring feisty private investigator Nikki Griffin, who doubles as a Berkeley bookshop owner in between close — and sometimes violent — encounters with the miscreants she runs up against.
One Got Away starts at the “Grand Peninsula Hotel’’ in Nob Hill — readers may be forgiven if they think it bears a close resemblance to the St. Francis — where Griffin meets up with wealthy client Martin Johannessen, who thinks his elderly mother is being taken for a ride by a con man. But things are not as they seem, as Griffin discovers in the course of a wild ride — she usually travels by motorcycle — from the Bay Area to Monterey, where she faces down the con man at a posh hotel, only to be drawn in to even more dangerous territory involving a human trafficking outfit operating on the outskirts of Salinas. “I thought about setting the book as far north as Sonoma and Mendocino, and as far south as Santa Barbara, but Monterey seemed ideal,’’ Lelchuk says, partly for logistical reasons. “It was relatively doable for Nikki to get back and forth from the Bay Area without having to spend days on the road. And it was a perfect location, with the extraordinary wealth you can’t help but see if you drive around the area, yet in not much more than the blink of an eye, you’re in the agricultural fields of Salinas.’’
The author goes by “S.A.” Lelchuk for the mysteries to separate them from other genres in which he writes. But he’s not trying to mislead anyone about his gender. “It was funny to me, the number of people who made the assumption that I was a woman writing this story just from the character,’’ he says. “Obviously, that’s a mark of success from an author’s point of view.”
Lelchuk’s literary influences include Raymond Chandler — “as soon as you write a story about corruption in high places, especially involving members of a prominent family, it’s impossible to forget his existence,’’ he allows — and Ross Macdonald. His literary interests are also a family affair: His father, Alan Lelchuk, is a novelist, and his mother, Barbara Kreiger, is a nonfiction writer. “I was very lucky — our house was full of literary figures, and it was hard to feel discouraged,’’ he says. “Philip Roth, when he was still married to Claire Bloom, came up for the weekend. I gave him a short story I was working on when I was in the fourth grade and he gave me some feedback.’’
More recently, he wrote to Roth suggesting they have a conversation. “I got a beautiful little elegant note within a week, saying, “Here’s my number. The next time you’re in New York, come by.’’ Lelchuk decided to reach out, noting, “I called because I was going to be in New York the next week, but didn’t get a reply, which I thought was a little strange because of how prompt he’d been. Then, of course, I found out that a couple of days after that he’d been hospitalized and passed away.”