There’s No Business Like Show Business

by Susan Kelly

In 1995, my non-fiction book about the Boston Strangler case was published and, as a result, I got invited onto a lot of television shows to discuss the premise of the book. The premise was that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the series of murders that took place in eastern Massachusetts between June 1962 and January 1964, didn’t actually commit any of them.

One of the first things I learned about television was that you can run from it, but you can’t hide from it. If a producer wants to find you, the producer will find you. It doesn’t matter if you’re ice-fishing in Baffin Bay without a cell phone. Somebody will dispatch a carrier pigeon from a rooftop on West 57th Street.

In the early summer of 1999, Good Morning America tracked me down at a seafood restaurant in Salem, New Hampshire, where I’d gone with my parents and my brother and his daughter. The waiter had just deposited a plateful of fried oysters before me when the hostess hustled up to the table and said, “Is there a Susan Kelly here?”

I acknowledged that there was.

“You have a phone call.” She pointed at the front desk. “You can take it there.”

I took the call. When I returned to the table, everyone looked at me with raised eyebrows, except for my ten-year-old niece Marie, who had embarked on the demolition of a fried clam platter bigger then she was. I sat down and blinked at them.

“That was Good Morning America,” I said. “They want me to be on their show tomorrow morning.”

My mother looked bemused. “How are you going to get to New York?”

“Well, they’re sending a car to your house and picking me up there tonight. The car will take me to Logan, and there will be a ticket waiting for me at the airline desk.”

“Suppose you told them you didn’t want to do it,” my brother said.

“I don’t think they take no for an answer,” I said.

“No business like show business,” my father said. “Shall I sing it?”

“No,” my brother, mother, and I screamed.

“May I please have some more tartar sauce?” Marie asked.

Later that evening, a uniformed guy driving a dark-blue Lincoln solid as a tank picked me up in Andover and drove me to Logan Airport. I flew to New York, got a cab at La Guardia, and took a ride into Manhattan that lasted longer than the flight because of some unspecified but dire mess on Queens Boulevard. The hotel where I was booked was apparently where GMA lodged all its guests, or at least those who didn’t demand and get the Plaza or the St. Regis. I was given a suite and a key to the V.I.P lounge, which I was too tired to use.

The next morning a guy in casual clothes driving a nondescript Chevy picked me up and drove me to West 57th Street. I entered the studio through a side door that looked like the emergency exit to a paint factory. Someone swooped down on me and grabbed my handbag and suitcase and strolled off with them. Another person appeared and hauled me off to hair and make-up.

The coiffing got done first. A gum-snapping brunette plopped me in a chair, surveyed me narrowly, and said, “This the way ya always weah ya haih, hon?”

I admitted that it was.

She pushed at my hair and nodded judiciously. “Great bounce, hon.” Bristling with combs and brushes, she set to work. It took her about two minutes to give me side wings, flips, curls, and bangs that defied gravity. Then she sprayed the whole sculpture into rigidity.

I moved to another chair so the make-up woman could weave her magic spell. The first thing she did was trowel pancake onto my face and throat. I wondered if I’d be able to move my facial muscles. Barely. Having created the background on the canvas, the woman set about painting the foreground. I stared at the mirror, fascinated by the change my face was undergoing. Suddenly I had the cheekbones of Katharine Hepburn. A moment later, I had the cut-glass jawbone of Vanessa Redgrave. My eyes and lips enlarged. I still looked like me…but a really good me.

“Can I hire you to do this to me every morning for the rest of my life?” I said.

The make-up woman laughed and dismissed me to take on her next customer.

Someone appeared and led me to the green room. On the way in, I passed civil rights icon James Farmer being escorted to do his segment on the show. (Sadly, he would die on July 9 of that year.) The green room was about the size of my bedroom in my house in Cambridge: not large. Against the far wall was a table set up with a coffee urn, jugs of fruit juice, and platters of pastries. No one went near it, including me. The other walls had chairs lined up against them. I found an empty chair and took it. Two very casually dressed young guys, apparently too fidgety to sit, hovered by my chair. We exchanged pleasantries. Afterward I found out they were the writer/directors of The Blair Witch Project. A moment later a short dark-haired man appeared in the doorway. He glanced around at the occupants. As he entered the room, he gave me a brilliant smile. (Perhaps he mistook me for someone cool.) It was George Stephanopoulos, one-time press secretary to Bill Clinton and now an ABC commentator. He sat on the arm of my chair, back to me, and chatted with the person sitting next to me. His left buttock nudged my left breast. I was tempted to pinch him but resisted the urge. I stared at his behind till someone (there were endless someones) came to fetch me for the show.

When I was a young teenager my father had worked in the financial end of a company that produced and distributed theatrical movies and television programs, so I was well aware at an early age how literally shabby showbiz was behind all the glitz. And of how the tawdry and commonplace could be made magical by the right lighting and the proper camerawork. (And make-up: Witness my transfigured face.) Still, it was interesting to see first-hand how jury-rigged the infrastructure of a top-rated morning news show could be. We walked through a maze of shaky partitions, on scuffed and worn floors, over piles of cable duct-taped in place, past a set that was supposed to look like a living room and furnished totally in simulated wood, and onto the GMA set. There was a commercial break. Diane Sawyer looked up from her desk and gave me a vague, harried smile. She was lovely, but a bit less dewy and radiant than she appeared through a camera lens. A make-up person darted from the wings and applied a brush to Sawyer’s face. I got put into a chair facing Charles Gibson.

I did my five-minute segment, most of which entailed arguing with F. Lee Bailey, who was being satellited in from Rhode Island. Bailey had always maintained that DeSalvo, whom he represented, was guilty of the Strangler murders. The high moment of the debate occurred when Bailey insisted that DeSalvo knew that one of the victims had been wearing a tampon, and this knowledge proved DeSalvo’s guilt. I pointed out that the murdered woman had in fact been wearing a sanitary napkin, and stolidly recited the dimensions of the stain on it as given in the autopsy protocol. Afterward I found it difficult to believe that I’d gotten involved in a dispute about feminine hygiene and menstrual discharge on national television. Oy.

My segment ended. Gibson shook my hand and thanked me. Someone led me from the set, returned to me my handbag and suitcase, and put me in a car to the airport. When I landed in Boston, I got a car back to my parents’ place.

When the hired car pulled into the driveway, Marie was waiting.

“Hi, sweetie,” I said, emerging from the car and tipping the driver.

“ I didn’t see you on tv,” she said. “I was sleeping. But Daddy taped it on Grandpa’s VCR.”

“Oh, good. I guess.”

She inspected me. “Your face looks different.”

I drew the index finger of my right hand down the side of my face. Beneath the nail collected a gob of make-up the size of a wad of well-chewed gum. I flicked it into the juniper hedge bordering the driveway.

Marie followed the movement with her eyes. “Eeeuuu,” she said.

“You do have a way with words.”


Susan KellyAnd for what I hope will be a good long time.

I am thrilled to announce that Susan Kelly will be alternating with me on Monday’s “Just sayin'” columns. Her first post will appear on the 18th.

I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure this gives me. Susan and I go way back to the days when Kate’s Mystery Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, (sadly no longer there) was the place to hang if you loved mysteries. Virtually every New England mystery writer consistently stopped by and, once a year, we all would invade Kate’s and showcase our books together. If you wanted to meet Robert Parker, he’d be there. Bill Tapply? Yep. Jeremiah Healy, a regular. Katherine Hall Page—for sure. Susan Kelly? Always.

When I say “go back,” I mean we became friends. We enjoyed each other’s work and respected each other’s abilities. (Actually, I’ve always been somewhat jealous since her range of writing–detective fiction, interviews, non-fiction–is far greater than my own.) We’d lost track of each other for a long time for a variety of reasons (not the least of which was my disappearance as a writer) but over the past year we’ve reconnected. Those of you who are steady readers of this column will recognize the title Beach Bitch as hers, a guest column she wrote a while ago.

The breadth of Susan’s work is pretty amazing. Her fictional LIZ CONNER SERIES focuses on a crime writer who investigates crimes and writes about them. Her non-fiction work is impeccably researched with a curiosity and demand for truth. Just read THE BOSTON STRANGLERS and you will see what I mean. One look at her website says it all. Well, perhaps not all; Susan writes with style and grace but is too modest to say so.

She’s also damn funny and irreverent and will have you, at times, smiling and laughing. I’m looking forward to a new and better “Just sayin'” column and believe that you’re all gonna love Susan’s work as much as I do.

Besides the pleasure of our collaboration, I have another reason to write every two weeks. Frankly, I want the time to really dig in and research issues I care about. Plus, I also want to get back to my INTERVIEWS WITH THE DEAD series and, to do them well, takes more time than a week gives me.

So, while I might be a bit biased, I think those of you who read her columns and pick up her books will land in the same place as I am. Lucky to have her on board.


and this time a few dollars short, which I spent on books. Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. Yes I know that three out of my four books live in the e-Book world; only one can (hopefully) be found in an indie bookshop near you. But ya gotta give it up for those stores that survived and often thrived despite the onslaught of mega-merchants.

Back in the day, I not only learned how to write, (thank you Susan), it was only after my first book was published, that I also discovered how things worked after a book was released—at least in those years. Publishers had reps who visited, toiled with those who stocked the bookstore shelves, and presented their newly published list.

I was lucky. Truth is, my publisher’s rep cared as much about the bookstore as she did the publisher. She often knew the store’s overall stock as well as its booksellers, even its owner. I know this because she and I became friends and I occasionally accompanied her when she did her rounds. In fact, we became close enough that Susan and I began to get invited to rep parties—not only hers, but those of reps with other publishers.

Learned a real lesson. Basically I discovered that representatives from all different legacy publishing houses not only read their own house’s books, but swapped with other houses’ reps to keep up with what was being published. Also because they simply loved to read.

I’ve been to parties with writers, editors, and some pretty intellectual people, but I’ve never heard better party talk than the book discussions at those rep’s houses. Pretty amazing and lots of fun.

But, like everything else, good things come to an end

Barnes & Noble and Borders began to blow up individual bookstores—including smaller chains—and that made publisher reps another sacrificial group of lambs. Some survived, but not many.

Then came the Internet with Amazon et al. Stores I visited on a regular basis during the 90s simply no longer exist. I find this a painful reality. Not just because there are less brick-and-mortar outlets for authors, but because the whale who swallowed Jonah also gobbled everything else in sight to grow larger and more profitable. Trying to feed upon those who not only loved books, but stuck with scraping by because of that love.

So, given huge chains (including Walmart and Costco) and the Internet, we’re at a place where the independent bookstores that survived often thrived because of their customers’ loyalty. And they are even better than ever. Their clerks are not only friendly and helpful, but have often read many of the books their store carries. You walk into these independent stores and see cards stuck under specific books with a clerk’s comments, recommendations that say, “if you enjoyed this book you might like…” Some shops have entire shelves stocked with books that their workers enjoyed.

And of course, independent bookstores continue to be the places where authors speak, read, answer questions from the general public and, of course, sign their books. It’s certainly a treasure for writers, whose work life by definition is solitary and it’s an economic necessity and a pleasure—perhaps more so for writers than the people who come to hear us. As I’ve said in previous columns, there are a lot of pluses involved with e-Books and online publishing. But sadly there just aren’t as many places to mix as there once were. It’s not really an option to hang out at Amazon, Kobo, ITunes or any other internet book selling establishment and chat with readers.

I started off my Patriot’s Day column apologizing to Brookline Booksmith. They had invited me to speak at the store shortly after TIES THAT BLIND was newly published and I had planned to put up pictures of the event for my next column. But sometimes columns, like novels, begin to tell you what to write rather than the other way around. And with the running of the Boston Marathon coinciding with the verdict of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I felt I had to write about the death penalty instead.

But what better time to be back to the Booksmith than the column that extols indie bookstores? I have a lot of people and places to thank for my writing career and, not the least of which, are the wonderful people at Brookline Booksmith. You hung in there with me for close to two decades. Thank you.

In tribute, here is a video link that presents a collage of their long and storied history, replete with famous and not so famous authors. (If you watch it all the way through you will catch a glimpse of a not famous, but younger and a much better looking me.)


Hard to say which was the most challenging part of my rebirth as an author after twenty years: writing the fourth book in the Matt Jacob series, TIES THAT BLIND, or getting up for presentations at bookstores and other events. Well, it took a couple outings to finally get legs under me. I had a lot of rust to shake loose. But as I imply in my title, I think I’m back.

sue3This past weekend Susan and I attended the Newburyport Literary Festival as authors and I gotta say, it was a great weekend. Susan had a solo presentation, as did I.



Mystery panel 2015 NLFBut first I was on a panel with two other crime writers, Rory Flynn and Elisabeth Elo.







An extra bonus–Jason Pinter, founder of Polis Books (aka my publisher and editor) was invited to be the panel’s moderator. We finally had the chance to meet in person after a year of two of telephone and email conversations.

J&ZHe’s an incredibly sweet man (and believe me, I’m a not easy on publishers given my writing history). Jason is an author himself, which gives him a sensitivity toward his writers that makes him a pleasure to work with.

Panel 4.25.15Even though I was there as an author, being on the panel also gave me a lot to think about in terms of writing. When I began to write detective fiction oh so many years ago, I stopped reading other mystery writers’ books. I worried that other authors’ ideas or attitudes would seep into my head and I’d somehow use them without even realizing it. But after almost twenty years working in the law world, I’ve come to appreciate due diligence. This time around, whenever I’ve had an appearance with other authors, I’ve read their latest books. And listened very carefully to what they say about how they try to make their stories come alive.

Rory spoke intensely about his vision that “place” is an actual character in his book, THIRD RAIL. And he’s right, his Boston is a multifaceted living entity, an important player within his story. Elisabeth spoke about the depth of her research into the South Boston fishing community. Her ability to turn that research into reality opened my eyes. As someone who lives and writes primarily from inside his own head, it was a pleasure to think about other ways artists approach their work and consider how to integrate them into my own methods.

Z11The Festival took place in many different locations throughout beautiful Newburyport, a coastal New England town dating back to 1764.  My solo do took place at the Jabberwocky Bookshop, always a bonus to appear at an independent bookstore.  I arrived early and when I saw just a sprinkle of people there, I considered tossing my presentation, and inviting folks into a roundtable discussion.  Impatient me.  By starting time, a good number of people had turned out, including a local friend and a good friend’s sister and her husband.  I was pleased they came to this particular presentation because it was the best yet.  I guess I’m officially out of retirement.

Before I finish I want to say a few words about the Newburyport Literary Festival. Of course Sue and I were delighted to be invited, but there’s more than that. We’ve all been to conferences and festivals before, going from one presentation to another without much thought of the work it takes to have them there. This time I was very aware of how many months of planning, inviting, and replacing it took for the steering committee to pull the Festival off. And then the endless running around on the day itself to make everything look effortless.

Somethings you just can’t plan for. My panel was located in the Fire House Arts Center, and as I was consulting my map to walk there I saw firetrucks with flashing lights. How cool, I thought to myself. They actually got firetrucks to signal the location to those of us unfamiliar with Newburyport. Actually they had been called because there was a minor gas leak in the building. Nobody could enter until National Grid signed off on the fix. I’m in the clutch of people trying to be warm, hoping the firemen had a different telephone number than I have for National Grid, or they AND the panel hold be on hold forever.

Luckily they did. And members of the steering committee and a serious cadre of volunteers were able to keep the audience rallied while waiting in the outdoor chill and kept the event on track.

Thank you Sherri Frank of the steering committee for inviting us to this tenth anniversary experience and thank you all for coming out. Thank you my compañeros for your insights, and thank you Jason for not asking me to write Matt Jacob into a 12 Step.


Dear Brookline Booksmith,

Thanks so much for inviting me to visit your wonderful independent bookstore to read and do a Q&A with fellow mystery novelist Peter Swanson. During the 1990s every time I published a Matt Jacob Novel, you invited me to speak. On top of which, after twenty years and my latest book about Matt Jacob (Ties That Blind), you invited me back again. I appreciate your generosity and love your store. I had intended to put up pictures and comments until I realized this column belonged to Patriots’ Day and not my personal accomplishments. (For those of you who might want to see a couple pictures, please visit my Facebook Authors page and, if so inclined, “like” the page.)

Patriots’ Day is a Massachusetts and Maine holiday commemorating the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord. Historically it had been celebrated on April 19th, but in 1969 it was changed to the third Monday of every April. This year both days coincide. (Perhaps an omen given the upcoming sentencing trial of the Boston Marathon bomber.)

I used to really enjoy the holiday. For a ton of years my friend Ed and I would go to Fenway Park and watch the Red Sox, who traditionally began their game at 11 AM. We’d hang there until around the 7th inning, (those days the cost for tickets made leaving early reasonable) then walk to our favorite vantage point to cheer on the Boston Marathon runners as they passed by.

I don’t know why, or even when, we stopped our annual pilgrimage. Long enough ago that I’d even stopped watching the winners cross the finish line on TV.

Patriots’ Day 2013 burst my complacency when two bombs exploded close to the Marathon’s finish line, killing at least three, and injuring or maiming hundreds more. Soon after, the Boston Police and Federal Agents linked the horror to the shooting of an M.I.T. security guard and the theft of an S.U.V., which was eventually spotted in Watertown, a city nearby Boston.

Police from Boston and neighboring towns, along with Federal Agents, converged upon the town and shot one of the suspects who was then killed when his brother (the other suspect) inadvertently ran him over in his attempt to escape. Eventually, this second suspect was seen in a boat placed in a yard behind a Watertown resident who informed the authorities.

A massive gunfight ensued in which the authorities fired over three hundred rounds, despite which the suspect lived, brought to a Federal trial, and recently (April 8th) the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found guilty of 30 counts, including 17 that carry the death penalty.

In a previous column I wrote and condemned the abrogation of civil liberties imposed upon Boston and its surrounding towns during the entire manhunt. No need to rehash the matter, other than to say that my post found very few people who agreed with my positions.

I expect the same today as I advocate against the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

During the trial, prosecutors relentlessly used the death of eight-year-old Martin Richard (the youngest of those who died) to impress upon the jury the heinous and depraved nature of Tsarnaev’s actions—including submitting Martin’s burnt clothes into evidence. But this 17th of April, Martin’s parents wrote a public letter requesting that the Feds take the death penalty off the table in exchange for life imprisonment without parole and the relinquishment of all the defendant’s appeals. While I laud the humanity of that letter and fully appreciate their desire for “closure,” my reasons are quite different.

I believe the death penalty is nothing less than state sanctioned murder. And, in this particular situation, the “state” isn’t Massachusetts (a NO DEATH PENALTY STATE by law) but the federal government that overrode state law and tried Tsarnaev under federal laws which allow the possibility of execution.

Let me be absolutely clear. What the Tsarnaev brothers did was totally, reprehensible, unconscionable, and, to me, virtually incomprehensible. I was, and continue to be, repulsed by their actions, which make me stomach sick.

But so do hangings, electrocutions, firing squads, and lethal injections—no matter who does the deed, be it an individual, group, gang, or government.

I am in no way, shape, or form a religious person. But I do adhere to Thou Shalt Not Kill and no amount of lawyering or any circumstance other than defense of self, family, or another person (which even the “god” who said the above permits) can convince me that the words Thou Shalt Not Kill are anything other than what they mean. Killing an innocent or a guilty is flat out murder—whatever suit you dress it in.

For those who legitimately question the cost of housing and feeding murderers, in a recent conversation with a judge I was informed that studies have indicated the taxpayer’s share of the costs of appeals and “stays” of state sanctioned murder are even greater. (To say nothing about our burgeoning “for profit” prisons.)

And I haven’t even delved into the issue of whether a judge or jury gets it wrong—as Project Innocence has shown time and time again.

On this Patriots’ Day I think it important to really ask what kind of country we want to be patriots of.