JOSEPH KOENIG, by Sarah Weinman
Some mystery writers come along, make their mark for a short while, then disappear. It’s odd that it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about Joseph Keonig, as he was one of the very first authors I had in mind when I inaugurated this series on my blog last summer. But at that time, all I really knew of him was what John Williams had written about him in his classic crime fiction travelogue, Into the Badlands (1991):
Joseph Koenig, the man standing
to me on the pier, is
a wiry, six-footish guy with shortish black hair and a moustache,
Levi’s, a black leather jacket and a T-shirt. His biography puts
in early-to-mid-forties but he, as they say, genuinely looks
younger. At the
moment he’s living with his mother on the east side of Manhattan, and
This excerpted passage is ironic on so many levels; first,
that a writer is so gleeful about his hatred for, well, everything;
both-sides-of-mouth demeanor concerning Ellroy; third, his up-front
how he’s in it pretty much for the money; and most importantly, because
had all the swagger, all the attitude, and now no one knows where he’s
I read the interview in Badlands and immediately wondered who the hell IS this guy? He was brash, conflicted, obviously insecure, but from the way Williams wrote about him, Koenig obviously meant something to the crime fiction world in the late 1980s. A little more digging proved this: an Edgar nomination for Best First novel in 1987 for Floater (1986); the movie deal for Little Odessa (which, to the best of my knowledge, never amounted to anything – no Bruce and Demi for you!). But after the splash of the first two books, his next two didn’t fare nearly as well; Smuggler’s Notch (1989), the aforementioned book with the crappy cover, wasn’t followed by anything for four years, and when Brides of Blood (1993) appeared – with a different publisher – it was a complete change of direction for the author. But in all likelihood, it was a direction too far removed from his previous success, and so the book didn’t sell.
Thereafter, Koenig was never heard from again.
Which is a shame; I wouldn’t say that he’s a brilliant author, and occasionally his books tread the line between nastiness and sleaze a little too much, but there was something. A keen sense of the weird, an almost gleeful worship of amoral characters. The closest parallel I can find is Charles Willeford, but the voices are dissimilar enough that the comparison isn’t completely warranted. So instead, I’ll let the books speak for themselves.
by rights, should be a typical police procedural.
The body of a woman is found floating in the Everglades, and Sheriff
is on the case. But the woman is his ex-wife, and he soon gets
other missing persons cases that may or may not tie into her death, and
there’s this con artist traveling the country with a changing roster of
some of whom live…and others don’t. So much for
predictability. The con artist,
Narodny, is the kind of psychopath who would later crop up in crime
with more operatic overtones and over-the-top flourishes. But in
world, he’s just kinda normal, an ordinary sociopath making the most of
skills, not really feeling much of anything with regards to sex, money
death. It’s all about opportunity. And this carefully
calibrated nihilism is
what elevates Floater beyond
your standard procedural or pulp novel. It’s
both…and it’s very much its own thing.
This fine, often comic, and entirely original crime novel is the second by a veteran of true-crime magazines. The heroine (and I guess she’s got to be called that although she gets mixed up in rather more burglaries than one expects of a nice Jewish girl) is different. She’s a Russian Jew who came to New York as a girl, lives in the Russian-Jewish section of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (Little Odessa) and is introduced to us as a bottomless dancer in a sordid Times Square club. She’s also very beautiful and has another job as a belly dancer in an Arab restaurant run by a Jewish guy with an Arab name who has a curious relationship with the Israeli government.
Then there’s a friendly burglar, the cop who arrested her on Times Square that she thinks is her friend, and a man who lives in an art-filled house in Forest Hills (unaccountably called Forest Gardens most of the time) that she thinks is a Russian spy.
It gets even more complicated. A murder, a telephone call from Israel where her boss is in jail, some pretty funny burglaries, and it all somehow ends up on a roller-coaster at Coney Island.
So having written his “funny book,” Koenig went back to his roots, sowing his prior experience at True Detective magazine to write a twisted and not always predictable little thriller, Smuggler’s Notch. It opens with a particularly brutal rape-murder as told from the point of view of the killer, then details the power struggle between said killer and a small-town Vermont cop who has serious anger management problems. The humor is of the extremely morbid variety, especially as the killer organizes a bunch of convicts to bust him out of jail so he can confront the now demoted, demoralized cop – just because he’s a loose end. The setting’s great (and bloody cold) and the dialogue is spot-on. The book is flawed, but again, the sense of weird and amoral got under my skin as only Koenig’s voice can.
Which brings me to Brides of Blood. As I mentioned, it’s a serious departure, but it was also eerily ahead of its time. Ostensibly it has the structure of a procedural and lots of thriller elements, but with an Iranian detective, a fairly sensitive portrayal of the deep conflicts of the country at the time and its prediction of future issues involving Islam and how religion can be seriously corrupted, Brides is rather atypical. Oh, there’s still Koenig’s predilection for sleaze, but the context is wholly different, which renders it quite different than in earlier books. The book’s jacket claimed he spent over two years of research, and it certainly shows: it’s quite the thoughtful book, not taking sides, using religious schisms to illuminate character, no matter how reprehensible their beliefs might be to the Western World.
No wonder it flopped. But with the passage of 12 years, I would be most interested to see how the book would be judged today, in light of recent events and newfound awareness of fundamentalism.
So with only four novels, it’s hard to determine what the unifying theme of Joseph Koenig’s work is. But I’d say it’s the sense of self, his ability to tell a story in as bullheaded and off-kilter a way possible, and his method of tweaking with genre conventions to suit the story. It’s strange to say, but the level of contempt he showed in that interview – as well as his novels – is rather compelling.
So where’d he go?
A good question, because everyone I’ve asked wonders the same thing. I refuse to believe he completely stopped writing. If anything, I have a vision of Koenig toiling away in some unknown location, writing books when he pleases, but under a totally different name. At the last Bouchercon, I sat around with several writers and the topic turned to Koenig’s whereabouts. Granted, I’d had a few to drink, but I threw out the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he’d resurfaced as Boston Teran. Though the group seemed to like the idea, there are enough discrepancies to make the prospect rather unlikely. But Koenig has to be out there, somehow. Even though he feared his ideas would dry up, I can’t imagine how he would give up so soon when he’d been writing for so many years.
To close, I’ll leave you with John Williams’ final impression of Koenig after hanging out in Coney Island the afternoon of their interview in 1989:
“I don’t want to answer that question,” he says, quickly and finally. And shortly he walks off fast, without, extraordinarily for an American, shaking hands. He disappears up Second Avenue, and I’m left with the ‘who was that masked man’ kind of feeling, and the suspicion that Joseph Koenig’s dreams are not dreams I would want.
John Williams, Into the Badlands:
Travels Through Urban
America. (Paladin, UK, 1991). The author
traveled from England in 1989 to spend two months talking to America’s
top crime authors, including Carl Hiaasen, James Lee Burke, Tony
Hillerman, James Ellroy, Joe
Gores, James Crumley, Sara Paretsky, Eugene Izzi, Elmore Leonard,
George Higgins, Andrew Vachss and others.
JOSEPH L. KOENIG - A
Bibliography, by Steve Lewis
Press, hardcover, December 1986. Warner Books, paperback,
Osud. Vantage Press,
trade paperback, December 2004. A novel taking place during the
Holocaust and the extermination camps.
First published in The New Black
Mask Quarterly, Number 4,
Bruccoli & Richard Laymon, editors. (Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, trade paperback, 1986).
Note: This bibliography
includes Koenig’s fiction
only. In the early 1980s, he was a well-author for the true
detective magazines, with many articles and stories published.
Among his non-fiction books are a do-it-yourself guide to car care and
another on the life of Bing Crosby.
After this short piece first appeared
on Sarah’s blog
early in 2005, another book by Joseph Koenig, Osud, has finally surfaced,
a gap of about twelve years. You’ll
listed in the bibliography which I’ve recently put
together (November 2005), but what is interesting is that
Vantage Press is a
subsidy publisher only. So far neither Sarah nor I have
been able to track down a copy, but this is certainly a lead that no one’s
had before. Stay tuned ... !
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