Friday, June 12, 2009

Sheldon Siegel is a mensch

A couple of months ago, I came across an amazing ‘detective’ book – it’s probably more of a legal thriller, but since I’m not all that fond of “legal thrillers” I’d rather think of it as detective fiction.

In any event, it was called “Special Circumstances” by an author I’d never heard of, Sheldon Siegel.

I took it home, started reading and finished it, as I recall, at about 4 am. That book blew me away -- those of you who know me, know that I’m addicted to “detective fiction”, whatever that might be. But since I wuz a lawyer myself for some 35 years, legal thrillers, with their mostly implausible plots, rarely attract me. (Do doctors read medical thrillers? I bet they don’t.)

But this book was different – yes, the protagonist is a lawyer, and a court case is the center of the action. But it’s much more than a legal thriller – it’s a story of real people, living lives not all that different from ours, in one of the world most intriguing cities, San Francisco.

So I read “Special Circumstances” – and then, amazingly enough, also found the second book in Siegel’s series, a book called “Incriminating Evidence”. I read that one too, finished it.

And then? I turned back to page one, and read it again.

Why would I do that? Because Sheldon Siegel’s books are that good – it’s not just the matter of plot, of who-dun-it. Even when you know whodunit, the writing, the characters, the setting are all things you want to revisit.

Siegel’s books are filled with people you come to care about, people you recognize – even if you never set foot in San Francisco. They’re just very compelling stories.

As it happens, I do know San Francisco – I spent three years as a starving student at the University of San Francisco School of Law – where I was so impoverished, my only entertainment was exploring The City itself. On foot.

What’s delightful to me now is that the City Siegel writes about is the very same one I explored, when I didn’t have to money to do anything else.

That’s the real reason I re-read “Incriminating Evidence”. It wasn’t that I needed to reconsider who did the dirty, or even to watch the characters playing their parts again.

The real reason was, that at that moment, I was terribly lonesome for the San Francisco. I missed the fog horns, the walks through Chinatown, the Italian restaurants, Beach Blanket Babylon, Twin Peaks, the ridiculous Carol Doda sign, the Marina Green, with the Italian fishermen and kids flying kites.

Most of all, I missed the Mission District, where – for reasons I can’t begin to explain to you – I felt most at home, even though I’d never lived in the Mission myself. (My guess? I’d lived in Mexico City for a year, loved it, and the Mission, at that time, was largely Hispanic. I think that’s why it seemed so familiar.)

Anyway, in reading Siegel’s books, I was transported back to San Francisco. I could smell the salt in the air, I could see the fog roll in at 4 pm exactly, the big gray clouds bounding over each other to cover the City with blessed cool and mist. I smelled the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista, the sourdough bread from Fisherman’s’ Wharf, the funky aromas at Tommy’s Joynt, the Zimburgers with their orange counter stools on every corner. I knew the political players he was talking about -- sure, he didn't use real names. But I knew them. Who wouldn't?

These were all the people, the sights and sounds that Siegel writes about. I had done exactly the same things his characters did, I’d seen the same things they saw, I’d felt what they felt.

I was lonesome for San Francisco, he gave me back The City, for the price of a book, not an airline ticket.

There was only one problem: I’m not going to be very specific here, because I hope some of you will go find these books, and read them for yourself. But one of Siegel’s characters did something in “Incriminating Evidence” that seemed to me to be highly unlikely. It was out of character. I knew very well the kind of person Siegel had created, and I knew he’d never do such a thing.

It bothered me, you know? These books are so real, so filled with people you know and care about, that I took it personally. That man would never have done what Siegel had him do. I needed to set the record straight.

I googled “Sheldon Siegel” – and came up with his website. And sure enough, a “contact me” link was there.

I emailed Sheldon Siegel, telling him, first, how much I loved his books, but… I said…. That character would never, in real life, have done what you had him doing.

In all honestly, it never occurred to me I’d get an answer.

But I did – and almost right away, too. There was an email from Sheldon Siegel, addressing the issue I’d raised. He offered some insights – and then attached a chapter of a subsequent book, in which he’d dealt with the issue further.

Do you even believe it? That a popular author like him would bother to explain and elucidate? Well – I didn’t.

But then I saw other things that fascinated me even more. In the chapter of the subsequent book he attached, I saw that things I’d never imagined had happened to some of his characters.

Remember, I’d only seen the first two books, the first written in 2000, the second a year after. In fact, FOUR more books had followed, each telling more of the story.

I’d never seen those.

So – even though I knew I was on thin ice, taking up more time than is wise for any author’s groupie – I emailed Siegel again. “Wow” I said. “Do you mean to tell me that Rosie -- one of the legal beagles -- gets cancer? And that she has a second child?”

I feel the need, at this point, to assure you I’m not nuts. But if you’re not a fan of serial thrillers, you maybe can’t quite understand how attached we readers become to totally fictional characters. I guess we’re talking about a soap opera of the mind. Something like that.

So I told Sheldon Siegel that I was astonished at what had happened to his characters. I was amazed – and frustrated. I probably mentioned how hard it is to find English language books here, and how unlikely it was that I’d ever find more in his series. I thought I was darn lucky to find the first two.

He emailed me back, saying that his books did come out in a Hebrew edition – (can you believe that?) But of course, finding a Hebrew edition wouldn’t help me all that much – it would take the rest of my life to wade through that, vowel-less that Hebrew-language fiction tends to be.

(For you non-Israelis, finding English language books at a price that doesn’t require you to get a second mortgage is by far the biggest challenge Israel offers to English bibliophiles. Books are hard to come by, which is an understatement of the first degree.)

So? I figured I was out of luck – it would be a long time until I knew what happened with Rosie Fernandez and her cancer – not to mention the second child born to her and her husband Mike Daley. (They were married, divorced, but continue as law partners and crime solvers in a small law firm in San Francisco.)

All of that happened all several weeks ago. What happens next, you won’t believe: This morning, Friday, I went to the post office to pick up a package – I hadn’t ordered anything and had no idea what it was.

Can you imagine my surprise, to see that Sheldon Siegel, on his own nickel, had mailed me TWO of his subsequent books?

Unreal, I tell ya. Have you ever heard of such a thing? An author, mailing books -- free -- to a fan overseas?

I haven’t. Sheldon Siegel is a mensch.

If I haven’t already convinced you to go find his books – check his website – let me make one last pitch: These are first-rate thrillers, great plots, tense as all-get-out. Beyond that, they’re filled with people you know –real people, who live an act in the same world you live in.

And if you ever find yourself lonesome for San Francisco as I did, there’s no better way to submerge yourself in The City again than by reading a Sheldon Siegel book.

Now. You’ll excuse me? I have books to read –

Shabbat shalom, everyone. If you have “weekends”, have a good one!

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