Interview by Paula Gail Benson
When I found Saul Golubcow’s first two stories in the issues of Black Cat Weekly Mystery Magazine, I was hooked. His protagonist, Frank Wolf, survived the Holocaust with his daughter and resettled from Vienna, Austria, to New York City. In his earlier life, Frank was a scholar, but proof of his academic background was destroyed by Nazis. Unable to pursue a career as a professor, Frank became a security guard for a library. Then, eventually, he set up an office as a private detective.
Meanwhile, Frank’s daughter marries and has a son, Joel. When Frank’s daughter is widowed, Frank steps in to help raise Joel, who makes them both proud by attending law school in the 1970’s.
I enjoyed these stories so much that I wrote Saul a fan letter. He graciously responded. I dare you to read his answers and not race out to buy his collection! I don’t think it’s possible. Let me assure you, you will not regret adding Saul Golubcow to your reading list. Thank you, Saul, for joining us at Writers Who Kill!
(1) How did you determine the professions for Frank’s daughter and Joel?
Hmmmm. For Joel’s mother, I thought about the state (plight) of women in the late 1940s, especially a young woman with an accent who had suffered horribly through the Holocaust. I thought she could easily get a GED and finish college in three years. But what then? There wasn’t much open to women back then, especially if they had no “connections.” I didn’t want her staying home and “getting in the way,” so managing a jewelry store (not owning) seemed right since there was a good deal of Jewish presence in the diamond district at that time.
And Joel, I wanted him in law school and eventually an attorney to oppose the book-centered training and confidence of a lawyer (hope I’m not offending) with the more organic, life-based and “critical analysis” centered focus of his grandfather. I wanted that pull and tension and continuous resolution.
(2) What made you decide to write about the 1970’s and 1980’s time period?
I love this question. The most elementary answer is that my story and character conceptualizations began in the 1970’s. And of course Frank is in his 70s at that time, and I couldn’t take him much further into the future. But there’s more to it. I think when we’re older, we have “Proustian” moments when an object, a taste, a small thing takes us back in time, and when it happens to me I am transported to the 60’s and 70’s which are more vibrant and comfortable in memory than more recent eras (perhaps even the present). When I enter Frank’s world, I am in my recollection young and engaged, taking in the wonder and confusion of so much. But I also have the benefit of decades of life’s digestions to make more sense of what I see.
(3) How do you ensure that you are writing authentically about that time period?
When I tell my psyche, “speak memory,” I then spend hours of research into what’s available about the New York orthodox communities in the 1970’s. While the scene of Joel’s visiting the Electric Circus, relies on a vivid memory of my own visit when I was young, I need to make sure that memory’s usual embellishments and biases are not distorting past reality. Mr. Google, of course, is a wonderful research assistant including visuals that attest to or challenge memory.
(4) Your settings provide insight into the communities where Frank and Joel take on cases. How did you determine where your stories take place?
Let’s start with “The Cost of Living.” When I was in the New York area years ago, I was intrigued with the Boro Park neighborhood, particularly 13th Avenue with its mix of stores, hubbub, high orthodox Jewish presence, merchants knowing each other and other’s habits, and gossip central aura. The perfect place for the murder of a kosher butcher, I thought, and where only someone with the background of Frank Wolf could crack the case.
For “A Little Boy is Missing,” I remembered the real-life case of the disappearance and murder of Leiby Kletzky in 2011. How might Frank Wolf respond to such a situation in the Williamsburg of the 1970’s?
(5) Are your stories based upon actual occurrences?
“A Little Boy is Missing” to a large degree but set 40 years earlier. As I indicated above, “The Dorm Murder” to a small degree as I had experienced a boy on the dormitory roof, and the “suspects” and murder victim are composites of the people I came across as a high school student. “The Cost of Living,” not at all.
(6) How would you describe Frank’s approach to a case?
My publisher, John Betancourt, described my stories as a “fresh take on the classic detective formula.” So Frank’s approach begins in the classic fashion as given by Frank himself in “The Dorm Murder”: “We must examine the crime scene, interview those present in the dormitory on the night of the murder, listen to Mr. Gold speak of his son [the murder victim], examine evidence, and look at the official police report. It is only then that we may allow our critical analyses engine to shape our conclusions.” What does he mean by “critical analyses?” The suspension of built-in personal or societal schemas, biases, and pre-suppositions by which we understand people and place. It calls, at first, for the withdrawal of one’s emotions as distorters of the facts. No one is above suspicion because the superficial assumption is “she couldn’t possibly have done it” (Mrs. Wachter in “The Dorm Murder). When the detective is confident that the crime’s environment is well established, that there is sufficient confidence in the “facts” and contradictions in facts exposed and held in abeyance, then non-cerebral factors such as “hunch” (gut) based on what the mind has ascertained is allowed in. Also “emotions” are allowed to play as the detective, based on his own and trusted others’ feelings, immerses more fully into the world of the crime, all the way to that “emotional” instance when the crime occurs. We will never get away from our own solipsistic emotional propensities, so how may they be of use after critical analyses are employed?
And while “motive” should certainly be pursued when solving crimes, Frank believes that so much harm and evil are perpetrated on the individual and societal levels without tangible premeditation that comprehending the near motiveless nature of the crimes is essential to solving all three cases in the book.
And finally, the world in which Frank operates is Jewish and mainly orthodox Jewish. That’s why only someone like Frank with his training and history can investigate well in these communities as he understands the culture, religion, language, nuances, and personalities of the stories’ actors to include in both his critical analyses, hunches, and emotional responses.
(7) In some respects, Joel is like a cross between a Watson and an Archie Goodwin. What do you think Joel brings to the cases?
I think it’s also a question of what Joel brings to the stories as a character. Yes, because I decided to take care of perspective through the use of an assistant (like Watson, Hastings, or Goodwin), I gave Joel the narrator role in which I could use and abuse him as a neophyte not just in detective work but also in life overall compared to his grandfather. Frank tells Joel he needs him for the gravitas a young man gives to his “detective agency,” for the unaccented English Joel speaks when the speech of an older man with an accent would detract, and for Joel’s energy in doing legwork that Frank, at his age, could not do.
But while Holmes has an affection for Watson, and while Poirot and Wolfe care for Hastings and Goodwin, though in more of an amanuensis or servant fashion, Frank loves Joel with all his heart and soul. As with most Holocaust survivors, what keeps them going is their connection to family and the future. To understand Frank and really my stories, I must make the reader understand this central relationship. Frank jumps most directly into an action “act” on the roof when he thinks Joel may die. His uncontrollable sobbing after they come off the roof harkens to Frank’s sense of previous loss and the unbearable thought of losing the future.
I also wanted a coming-of-age dynamic to be part of Joel’s character so that the reader can see Joel changing as the stories progress. When he’s not on his high horse, Joel, in Mark Twain moments, realizes his grandfather has both a high IQ and EQ, and comes to appreciate he can learn and benefit from both.
I have committed to both Frank and Joel that I will not allow for stagnancy in their relationship. Joel will continue to mature and learn from his grandfather. But what about Frank? Is there anything he can learn from Joel? I hope so because a one-way learning street will not satisfy me nor the reader. Shortly before my father passed away, he shocked me when he said he learned a good many things from my wife and me. I had always seen myself as being taught by him, and often resenting what I took to be paternal pedantry. I think I want to bring some of that tension and realization to the Frank/Joel relationship.
(9) So far, the stories seem to be fairly close together in time. Do you foresee them continuing in this time period or will they extend into later dates?
Of course I can’t go to far into time given Frank’s age. But I think he has a few good years left in him to into the later 1970’s, and given his successes that are being recognized in the Jewish communities in which he would solve crimes, he just might take cases in more compact time frames.
(10) Joel’s mother and wife are significant family members. Do you see them becoming more involved in future stories?
Thank you for making me face this writing challenge. I think I write more easily about men than women, but regardless I need to do more with the women in my stories. You may have noticed that I introduced Joel’s wife Aliya in “The Dorm Murder” and started to form her persona. The next story gives her a much larger presence both in centrality to plot and relationships with her own family and friends and within Joel’s family.
Given her traumatic experience during the Holocaust and the early death of her husband (Joel’s father), Joel’s mother is constantly fearful but importantly not paralyzed by that fear (she does work as she takes precautions for her safety). I have a story in mind that revolves around her, her tight-lipped loneliness, and vulnerability that places her in danger. At this point, the plot is fledgling and not yet ready for flight.
(11) Will Frank be continuing his relationship with Mrs. Wachter?
Ah, Mrs. Wachter, you won’t let me hide, will you Paula? Not trying at all to be disingenuous, but I am not sure. In my mind, one day I end the relationship, and the next day I see reasons for it to continue. Joel doesn’t like her, but perhaps, so what! In “The Dorm Murder,” I wanted the reader to question Joel. Is she really so bad? Is it resentment that he might lose part of his grandfather? Or is it a lack of understanding the isolation and even loneliness of the elderly who need companionship as much as a Joel needs an Aliya? I’ll keep exploring.
(12) What is the possibility that you may explore cases that have ties back to the Holocaust?
I think two of my stories tie directly back to the Holocaust. In “The Cost of Living,” the victim and his unwilling killer both are Holocaust survivors, and the “crime” is solved because one “greenhorn” (Holocaust survivor) can’t fool another. In “A Little Boy is Missing,” the whole reason the little boy’s community is in Brooklyn is because of the Holocaust’s devastation. It’s Frank’s Holocaust impacted psyche that allows him to navigate the cultural and religious boundaries of the Williamsburg community. And in “The Dorm Murder,” it’s Frank’s anguished past that separates him from others in understanding the anguish of the victimizers and how loneliness, fear, impulsivity, rage, all aspects of the Holocaust figured in the killing.
But perhaps I dither. You might mean that I might conceive a case where Holocaust secrets or specific events during the Holocaust contribute directly to the plot? For now, may I just say “maybe”?
Saul’s Bio: When he is not immersed in the New York of the 1970s with his detective Frank Wolf,