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.”


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.


Before I explain fracturing one of the great literary openings, I want to apologize for the extended period I’ve taken off from writing Monday posts. We’re way past my planned reappearance in January when I said I’d re-open. There have been deaths, potential lives (I’m going to be a grandfather to twin girls), a son moving out of the house, a rescheduled release date of my first three Matt Jacob novels by Polis Books, a decision to issue the fourth (TIES THAT BLIND) in fall of 2015 as both a print and e-book, and a great vacation in Mexico. From here on in I intend to post every other Monday and occasionally have different interesting and talented writers filling in on the off week.

As for the post’s title, it popped while watching an episode of Cosmos. I don’t have many regrets about my lack of formal education and perhaps that lack has added to my incredible delight and amazement as I begin to discern the scope of information and understanding we, as humans, have at our fingertips. In fact, it will take decades to decipher the raw data we receive every day from the rovers and probes that have been sent to space. It makes me tingle the same as listening to Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Nocturnes, Miles, reading Raymond Chandler, or seeing a Eugene O’Neill play.

It’s not just astronomers who might be living in the best of times. We’ve been discovering new species that survive at the ocean’s depths via modern submersible technology. And what of neurologists and neuropsychologists mapping the electrical pathways of the brain and the implications for treating diseases like Parkinson’s, for example. Hell, it’s only been about a decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project and we’re already reaping its benefits, and not just in medicine. Frankly, the discoveries that have occurred during my lifetime have dropped my jaw.

And let’s not ignore technology and the Internet, which has changed the way people interact, the ‘size’ of our world, politics all over the planet, and offers the opportunity to disseminate information faster than our wildest dreams.

Yeah, I know. A lot of people won’t like the paragraph above. I often hear complaints about the loss of the “real” world to the “virtual.” The massive erosion of privacy. Have listened as people derided the “Arab Spring” since the results have been considerably less than desired. I understand the issues, see the complications, appreciate the downsides, but continue to say bring it on.

From where I sit, the potential far outweighs the negative. Furthermore, whenever societies go through seismic change, many people decry the loss of the past. I’m just not one of them. Does anyone really believe the world would have known about the kidnapping of 250 Nigerian girls without the Internet?

That last fact brings me to the second half of the title. With all this great knowledge tumbling into our lives, we still live in a world better known for atrocities than humanity. That, to me, is a sick mind fuck.

People are going to tell me “twas ever thus” and they may be accurate. But until my dying day I’m never going to believe it has to stay this way, that we’re not better than this. That the gentle acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity we see between individuals every day can’t be translated into the greater society everywhere.

Why? It’s isn’t because of anything rose colored. I’ve been lucky to have seen some serious change for the better over the course of my life. From changing attitudes toward Trans*, LGBs, and women to issues that include income inequality–(1% versus 90)–and, to a much lesser degree, institutional racism.

Then add to that the commitment and work being done by those coming after my generation. Despite the economic hardships that younger people now face, they are still growing Teach For America. Still finding ways, inside and outside the system, to work for social change. Again, not just in the U.S., but places where it’s even more difficult and the risks much, much greater.

But yeah, you gotta be blind not to see that way, way too much totally sucks—and it behooves us to never forget. But however ugly it is and/or becomes, there’s really is an awful lot of wonder, awe, art, music, science, and good, good people to love and respect.

(Please remind me of this column when I get into one of my negative rants. Thanks.)

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.
Langston Hughes


I was intrigued when I first read about The Bridge, adapted from a 2011 Scandinavian series of the same name. Although the drama would have been a very different one if located on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, (which was first suggested) I was pleased it was half in El Paso, Texas, and then on the other side of the bridge and border Juárez, Mexico.

The show follows two detectives—Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) of the El Paso Police Department and Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir), a Mexican homicide detective from Juárez—as they search for the killer of a body spanning both sides the border on the bridge.

I was especially pleased to see that when events took place in Mexico, Spanish would be used with English subtitles—something the movie Traffic pulled off with great success. Something that implies everything isn’t all white USA, all the time.

The other detail that caught my attention, though never explicitly stated, was the knowledge that critics had almost universally accepted that the U.S. detective, Sonia Cross, has Asperger’s Disorder, a condition that interferes with social interaction and non-verbal communication.

In Law & Order: Criminal Intent actor Vincent D’Onofrio played a detective that many people believed had Asperger’s, though the show or major television critics never mentioned it. So the notion that The Bridge would deal with this a bit more directly piqued my interest.

Thanks to cable’s “On Demand,” I’ve been able to binge on the first season for the past two weeks and, at first, was pretty disappointed. The plot seemed clichéd, albeit with occasionally a bit more subtlety. We discover, for example, that Marco Ruiz, the Mexican detective, slept with one of the other major characters because she returns his forgotten wallet to Sonia instead of watching them writhe around in a bed. But high ranking Mexican police officials are portrayed as completely indifferent to the multitude of missing woman in Juárez, only interested in closing the book and getting rid of the U.S. detective.

How many television shows have that one good detective up against an uncaring bureaucracy? Women as bloody victims are, in and of itself, a major cliché.  Even the oddly complicated shotgun partnership between Sonia and Marco learning to work together is something we’ve seen before. Many times.

Furthermore, at first, Sonia’s “Asperger” character was so over the top it defied belief—not that someone on the spectrum would behave as she did, but that she could have managed to become a detective. As a mitigating factor, the police chief was also her rabbi, so to speak. As time goes on, we realize that the gentle coaching he gives as supervisor and mentor is the result of some mutual history.

Perhaps, though, my biggest annoyance was what I was initially most interested in: the use of the Tex/Mex border town as the locale. Rather than allowing viewers the opportunity to actually experience and realize the changing demographics of our country, I wondered if the show permitted people to write off the socio-economics and changing demographics as limited to only where the rubber meets the road. That is, just the towns directly on each side of the line.

But I was caught up in my binge so I kept watching. And ended up very, very pleased that I did.

The second half of the season turned The Bridge around. The writers softened Sonia’s symptoms to a place where it was actually possible to imagine her as working her way up the ranks while still struggling to solve both the mystery at hand along with the mystery of human interactions. At the same time, Marco’s easygoing, but virtuous cop became more complex in the face of his imploding marriage and family. Despite a few missteps, Demián Bichir’s acting and compelling face has jumped from the screen and has been superb.

Even more importantly, for me anyway, I’ve come to see the real value in using the Tex/Mex border towns. Imagine if you will two giant funnels, each located in one country and tubed together with the other. Mexico’s funnel gives the viewer a realistic look at those who have gone through the torturous travel of crawling toward its skinny pipeline—defying dessert heat and unscrupulous bribed “transporters,” only to arrive in a town that cares nothing for their well-being. We all know the sentiments and attitudes that waft through our funnel, even though we try to block it as best we can. And woe to those who manage to squeeze through the tube. I find it passing strange that we diligently work to jail or deport people who risk everything imaginable and survive hell to simply better their lives and those of their children while, at the same time, we barely slap the wrists of those who have actually crippled our economy and the day-to-day lives of millions of our fellow citizens. Really, who are the “illegals” living here?

Bottom line: I’ve re-learned a lesson that I should have remembered. Sometimes it takes more than a show or two, or even a season or two, for an ambitious attempt at a series to find its legs. Art ain’t art with one stroke of a brush. (Unless you’re already really, really famous.)

I recently read that FX (the show’s network) has signed up for a second season of 13 episodes. If The Bridge continues its creative development and doesn’t regress into stereotypes or overly traditional plot lines, the view has the potential to be really special.

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview – nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty. Stephen Jay Gould