I was in the process of writing my third Beaumont book when my editor mentioned in passing that I was writing police procedurals. As a liberal arts major who had spent two years teaching high school English, five years as a K-12 librarian, and ten years in the life insurance business, no one could have been more surprised to hear that than I was. Up until that very moment, I thought I was writing books. I had zero notion about the publishing worlds arcane mystery nomenclature—cozies, thrillers, police procedurals. In fact, when I wrote Until Proven Guilty, I thought it was a stand-alone, right up until Avon Books bought it as the first book in a series.
I could never have set out as Sue Grafton did, by mapping out a twenty-six book future with a single set of characters. I have a limited attention span, and by the time I had written nine Beau books, I was ready to knock him off. That’s when my editor suggested I give myself a writing break and try something else. Once I wrote the first Walker Family book, Hour of the Hunter, I was more than happy to have another go at J.P. And that’s why he’s still around after almost forty years—because I’ve been able to be a literary time-share, splitting my literary efforts among four different sets of on-going characters. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone didn’t make it past the letter Y, so it was with some surprise that I realized the next book due out, Nothing to Lose, will be Beaumont # 25. So by February of next year J.P. and Kinsey will be running neck and neck. That adds up to a lot of books for someone who never set out to write a series in the first place. What makes that even more amazing is that I have never had any experience in law enforcement, and that means I’ve had to do a whole lot of learning along the way.
I was a journalism student in high school, so I learned about the realities of law enforcement by doing interviews with police officers, homicide cops, gang unit investigators, and criminalists. In the nineties I signed up for a citizen’s academy, and the book that grew out of that experience was Joanna Brady # 3, Shoot/Don’t Shoot. When I began writing the Beau books in the early eighties, investigators could type blood found at crime scenes. That was good enough to eliminate some suspects, but it did nothing to identify the actual perpetrators. They could locate fingerprints at crime scenes, but the only ones they could use for comparison were the ones on file in the local cop shop. There was no nationwide Automated Fingerprint Identification System, AFIS. There was no such thing as using DNA to identify suspects, and no national database of DNA, either.
As investigative changes occurred in the real world of law enforcement, I needed to keep pace with them in my fictional world as well, and true crime TV became an invaluable resource for me. Watching countless episodes of Forensic Files is where I learned about using mass spectrometers to identify everything from individual paint flakes to poisons. And, in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial, true-crime TV is how I followed the expanded use of DNA in crime fighting until, with the help of genetic profiling, killers who have gotten away with murder for decades are finally being brought to justice.
As a true-crime aficionado, I quickly became a devotee of Joe Kenda’s Homicide Hunter, on ID Discovery. I watched all nine seasons and was sad when the show ended. By then, Joe Kenda’s world had become part of my world. In Proof of Life, when Beau’s services are no longer required by the Special Homicide Investigation Team, someone asks him, with more than a little sarcasm, “So what are you going to do now, become the next Joe Kenda?”
In October of 2018, while I was preparing to do an appearance in Newport News, Virginia, a tall blonde lady walked up to the stage carrying a paperback copy off Proof of Life. “You put my husband’s name in this book.”
I was on the opposite side of the country, and I couldn’t imagine how that could be true. “I did?” I asked.
“Yes, my husband, Joe Kenda.”
“You’re married to Joe Kenda?” I demanded in utter astonishment.
“Yes,” she said, pointing. “He’s right over there.”
“Joe Kenda is HERE?”
He was, and that’s how I first met Joe and Kathy Kenda, and how we began what is now a solid friendship. It took a while to learn that Joe is a global phenomenon. His son was working in the Middle East and saw Homicide Hunter playing on the TV set in his hotel room. He called home and said, “Hey, Dad, I didn’t know you spoke Arabic.”
When Joe said he was launching a new series called American Detective, I was thrilled. But then, when it finally came out it was only on ID+, Discovery’s streaming service, one that costs five bucks a month and isn’t the least bit compatible with my cable company’s remote. Hey, I’m old. I depend on the closed captions on our large screen TV, and I’m damned if I want to go to the trouble of figuring out how to bounce the program from an iPad to the TV set. I could probably learn, but I DON’ T WANT TO!!! In other words, American Detective was available around the world but not to ordinary TV viewers in … well … the good old US of A!
I wasn’t the only Homicide Hunter who had a bad reaction to the new show’s not being made readily available here. Discovery, it turns out, is a Global Tech Giant, and the American audience just isn’t that important a piece of the whole. Unfortunately, Joe Kenda is totally recognizable, and he’s been forced to take the brunt of fan ire on that score, including more than a little razzing from yours truly.
But this week, Discovery finally relented and the first episode of American Detective aired on ID Discovery. We watched it and thought it well worth waiting for. This morning I got in touch with Joe to let him know how much we had enjoyed it. Just as it was on Homicide Hunter, Joe’s commentary isn’t scripted. He reads the case file and then says what he feels needs saying.
The show is on ID-Discovery. That means it isn’t streaming. That means we’ll have to wait a whole week before the next episode of American Detective shows up on our TV screen, but if waiting a week for the next episode of I Love Lucy was good enough for Lucille Ball, it’s certainly good enough for Joe Kenda and, in my opinion, well worth waiting for.
PS. By the way, a bit of what I think of as “Joe Kenda Speak” has leaked into my books along the way. I’m pretty sure there’s a recognizable “My, my, my,” in Unfinished Business, and a “Homicide is a young man’s game,” in the upcoming Nothing to Lose. After all, writers are the original recyclers, so why not recycle the best?