The Karpiad

Between 1985 and 2001 I wrote fifteen novels that were published under someone else’s name. They constituted a “legal thriller” series about a New York prosecuting attorney named Butch Karp, his wife, a private security consultant named Marlene Ciampi, and their three children. Unlike many such series, they were embedded in real time; that is, time passed, the characters changed and accumulated experience, the kids grew older, and so on. They were set about ten years prior to the time I wrote them, the 70s and 80s in New York City, with some occasional visits elsewhere. Allowing for the necessary repetitions required by such projects, the series is really one long novel, totaling about a million eight hundred thousand words. It’s certainly the largest project I will ever do in my life. The books were extremely successful, and even though I only received half the advances, these were so large that I did better financially then than I have since publishing under my own name, which never appeared on the cover of any of these fifteen books.

This is an unusual situation. Famous writers certainly hire ghosts, or “research assistants” as they are sometimes called, and we continue to see books appear from dead authors, written by others, either attributed or not. But I can’t think of another case where someone produced a substantial literary success without writing a single word. You would have to be crazy to be the writer in this scheme. I was.

The person whose name does appear on these books is Robert K. Tanenbaum. His mother and mine were sisters of unusual closeness and until we were teenagers we were raised essentially together, along with my brother and his. In 1985 I was working as a bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and he had just completed a stellar career as a homicide prosecutor at the New York D.A.’s office, and was setting up in private practice in Los Angeles. We had drifted apart owing to the peculiar nature of our family (don’t ask!) but when our paths crossed we were friendly and I sensed that he wanted to cultivate that friendship.

He had published a ghosted true-crime book about one of his spectacular cases, on the strength of which he had been contracted to write a fictionalized version of another such case. He had written about a hundred pages of this and he asked me to take a look at them with a view toward doing a little editing. I should add here that although I was a writer in college and was at the moment writing speeches for the administrator of the EPA, I had not been able to write fiction for a long time and had never done any sustained fiction writing. So I took a look at this ms. and it was unreadably bad, at least in my view. I suppose it was no worse than some books that are best-sellers. In any case, I told him that I thought it was un-editable, but that if he liked, I would write him a novel from scratch on the theme of his case, in return for half the advance. He agreed and I set to work.

Looking back, I suppose I regarded it as something of a lark. I was a civil servant, he was a lawyer. We both had real work to do, and the Karp novels were a nice source of income and also fun. I got to write fiction without the burden of being a writer and he got a chunk of nice money for going on book tours. In my imagination, as I recall, he would go on to a career in politics—his goal then—or else make a major career as a litigator, and after a while, my name would appear on the books (why not?) and I would slide into the life I should have been living all along.

This did not happen, obviously. First the partnership was pleasant, then less so, then unpleasant indeed. The Karp books still come out from time to time, written by another, but they no longer command huge advances. I should have schadenfreude about this, but I do not. It’s entirely possible that I would have spent my life in the civil service and duly retired, and done wisterias or golf instead of novels had I not engaged in this hideous enterprise, so I must be at least partially grateful. As a life lesson I guess it cost me about a million dollars and thus takes pride of place in my forthcoming memoir, Diary of a Schmuck; but the real reason I mention the Karpiad here is that I assume people who like my own stuff seek out this website and that they might also like the Karps. When I published Tropic of Night I wanted to include these books on the Also By page, but the publisher wouldn’t go for it and they were right, I guess. Nevertheless, I did write these books, they are part of my opus, they took up sixteen years of my life, and, compared to the typical legal thriller, they are pretty good.

The ones I wrote are:

No Lesser Plea
Depraved Indifference
Immoral Certainty
Reversible Error
Corruption of Blood
Material Witness
Justice Denied
Falsely Accused
True Justice
Reckless Endangerment
Irresistible Impulse
Act of Revenge
Enemy Within
Absolute Rage

I believe they are all still available.