03.09.09 4:01 PM ET
A Mystery Novelist's True Identity Solved
Stephen King called Peter Abrahams "my favorite American suspense novelist." Joyce Carol Oates is also a big fan. But as The Daily Beast reveals exclusively, Abrahams has been living a double life—as bestselling mystery writer Spencer Quinn.
In this age of authors as brands, writers of commercial fiction are expected to deliver a variation on the same book again and again. You know what you're getting with a novel by James Patterson (short chapters that prompt page-turning, like scarfing down a bag of Doritos) Jodi Picoult (big issues made palatable for book-club members) or Alexander McCall Smith (a gentle examination of life's smallest mysteries).
Even the company's publicity department was never told Quinn's true identity. "It's rare to keep secrets so long in this busy, gossipy publishing world," Friedrich told me.
By contrast, Peter Abrahams' literary career has been the opposite of brand-name. As Joyce Carol Oates pointed out in a 2005 New Yorker essay, "Although Abrahams’ novels are genre-affiliated they differ considerably from one another in tone, texture, ambition, and accomplishment." The only common denominator among his conspiracy-thriller debut The Fury of Rachel Monette (1980) to his middle-grade series debut Down the Rabbit Hole, the Memento-esque Oblivion (2004) or to my own favorite End of Story (2005), a wry, dark satire of the literary life, is Abrahams' ability to laser in on how and why his characters think, act, and react the way they do at the darkest of moments. And most of the time, he gets it right.
The book world's increasingly dog-eat-dog climate works against writers like Abrahams. Honing a subtle, unclassifiable voice requires time publishers no longer have to invest. Midlist (read: tepid) sales net fewer orders from the chains, perpetuating a downward spiral that leads to canceled contracts or dropped options. And those fortunate few who do survive must radically change career course—often with a pen name.
It's one of the oldest tricks in the publishing business—when sales are too low or an idea too far outside the box, authors are quick to adopt a new name to jumpstart their careers or change direction. It's why Booker Prize winner John Banville can write moody crime novels as Benjamin Black, why a pseudonymous Canadian literary novelist has taken on the thriller-writing guise of Inger Wolfe—prompting many a wrong guess about his true identity—and why, going back several decades, the late Donald E. Westlake wrote his masterful, ice-cold Parker novels as Richard Stark, the mirror image of the more jovial books under his real name.
So Abrahams decided to say goodbye to Peter Abrahams, Cape Cod-based creator of psychological suspense, and hello instead to Spencer Quinn, Cape Cod-based author of the smash-hit series debut Dog On It. The book features one of the most appealing narrators to come down the mystery-novel pike in quite some time: Chet the dog, the steady and stalwart companion of private investigator Bernie Little.
Until now, only three other people knew who Spencer Quinn really was: his agent, Molly Friedrich, and Judith Curr and Peter Borland, Simon & Schuster imprint Atria's publisher and editorial director, who bought the book on an exclusive submission. Even the company's publicity and marketing department were never told Quinn's true identity. "It's rare to keep secrets so long in this busy, gossipy publishing world," Friedrich told me, but the decision was a no-brainer. All of Abrahams' work, even his novels for kids, features third-person narration. Dog on It differs by having Chet tell the story from his own first-person perspective—and only that perspective (dog’s eye views of the world are publishing gold these days, with canine-narrated books like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle flying up the bestseller lists).
Abrahams' thrillers are populated with full-bodied characters, but they don't demand repeat visits. Quinn’s Chet, on the other hand, is so loyal, so literal-minded ("red herring? That was new. The truth is, I'm not a seafood fan."), so willing to put himself on the line for Bernie and so, well, doggy, that it's no surprise three more books are under contract. "If Molly hadn't told me, I wouldn't have thought that Spencer Quinn was Peter. It was all about the voice, all about Chet," said Borland.
"[The experience] was liberating," Abrahams said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he was on vacation with his family. "Humor was never a huge factor in my work before, but writing about Chet and Bernie really opened me up to explore the funny side of things more fully. It's a happier piece of work—I wouldn't say it's light or frivolous, because there are still some very dark things happening in the background, but it felt fresh, even life-affirming." There's also a lot more of his own personality that came through in writing about Chet and Bernie, which, when I pointed out the irony of needing a pseudonym to be truer to himself, Abrahams thought was "ridiculous—hilarious."
A fresh start was also in order because Abrahams' previous four novels, published by William Morrow, suffered from what Friedrich termed "lackluster sales." Friedrich also coined the pseudonym, Abrahams said, as a possible hat tip to one of her favorite actors, Spencer Tracy. And though Atria was a relatively new imprint, its personnel were not, as Abrahams had worked with both Borland and Curr when they were at Ballantine in the late 1990s. "It's like saying 'Let's go home, but we'll find a new apartment',"
Friedrich said. "There was a lovely rightness to it." Agent, publisher, and author agreed that the book's strength, and its marketing focus, had to be Chet, which is why the formerly tech-agnostic Abrahams now earmarks the first part of every morning to updating a blog and Twitter feed written in the dog's voice.
So far, the multipronged switch has paid off in a big way, as Chet and Bernie continue to keep their place on the New York Times Bestseller List (No. 17 this week, down from a high of No. 7). Barnes & Noble's head fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley, notorious for the sway she holds over authors' sales, loved Dog on It so much that the retailer made the book its February "B&N Recommends" pick. Independent booksellers such as the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Colorado (responsible for the blurb that got the book on the February IndieNext list) have also responded strongly. No doubt we'll see more of the same with each successive book.
And outside of Spencer Quinn’s career, Abrahams the writer has never been busier. He has a new young-adult novel written under his real name: Reality Check, due out next month from HarperCollins' HarperTeen imprint, with more to follow, meaning he'll be writing two books a year from now on.
And as for how admirers of his earlier work will react to the news of his alter ego, Abrahams can’t say. "I think it's possible they might not have picked up Dog on It because it was 'too cozy' and they would now, but truth be told, I'm very bad at seeing the future—in fact, if I make a prediction, it usually means you should do the exact opposite!" So let's make that prediction for him: since Dog on It is the happy medium between the dark contours of Abrahams' adult work and the lightness of his work for children, Spencer Quinn gets the benefit of the largest—and deserving—audience possible.
Sarah Weinman contributes to the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post and many other print and online publications, and blogs about books and the publishing industry at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.