In this week’s post, I am happy and honored to have as my guest a writer I greatly admire. Larry Karp is a writer of medical mysteries and mysteries about ragtime music. A strange combination, maybe, but Larry Karp is equally entertaining in both departments.
Larry Karp grew up in Paterson, NJ and New York City. He practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care) and wrote general nonfiction books and articles for 25 years. Then, in 1995, he left medical work to begin a second career, writing mystery novels. The backgrounds and settings of Larry’s mysteries reflect many of his interests, including musical antiques, medical-ethical issues, and ragtime music. His most recent book, A Perilous Conception, is set in 1976, when doctors around the world were racing to become first to the wire to produce a baby via in vitro fertilization.
Other mystery novels by Larry Karp include The Ragtime Kid, The King of Ragtime, and The Ragtime Fool (a historical trilogy), First Do No Harm, The Midnight Special, Scamming the Birdman, and The Music Box Murders. Larry’s mysteries have been finalists for the Daphne Du Maurier and Spotted Owl Awards, and have appeared on the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times Best-Seller Lists. The Ragtime Kid was San Marino CA’s selection for its 2011 One Book/One City Event.
Larry’s nonfiction books include Genetic Engineering: Threat or Promise?, The View From The Vue, and The Enchanted Ear.
Larry always has something interesting and surprising to say, not only about medical history and ragtime (and music boxes, by the way), so I felt quite comfortable asking him for his take on “the joy of story.” Jackpot.
Read what he has to say:
In The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever’s protagonist, Captain Leander Wapshot, admonishes his sons to admire the world.
In Stanley Elkin’s masterpiece, The Living End, God reveals He is an artist who works “by the beats and measures.” He tells the randomly-chosen souls in hell that the reason for all the pain and misery in the world is “It makes a better story is why,” then complains that He never found His audience. “You were a carpenter,” he grouses to Joseph. “You worked with your hands. Why didn’t you admire me more?”
On the other hand, Christopher Morley wrote, “My theology, briefly, is that the Universe was dictated, but not signed.” Which of these writers was on target? I’d say all of them. Let me explain.
One day, when I was nine or ten years old, I noticed a mansion going up in our very middle-class neighborhood. I mentioned it to my father, who explained that the owner was a junkman who worked out of a yard downtown, near the railroad tracks. When I asked Pop how a junkman could afford to build a mansion, he said, “By selling scrap metal on the black market during the war.”
I was furious. Ten years old, and I was raging mad. My friends and I had scrounged foil from cigarette packages, had donated our metal toys to the war drive - and this guy had made a fortune selling scrap metal? “Why isn’t he in jail?” I bellowed. Pop laughed, but he didn’t sound amused, not in the least.
Anger blossomed, or maybe festered, in my mind for nearly fifty years. Then I wrote First, Do No Harm, the story of a legendary doctor in a place very much like my home town, and his pal, the local junkman. I was going to sock it hard to that junkman. I was going to get it right.
So, is that where the joy of story resides? Is storytelling some kind of celestial competition, a cosmic creational put-down contest? A Take-That-Big-Guy game?
I don’t think so.
A strange thing happened on the way to The End of First, Do No Harm. The junkman turned out to be not such a bad guy after all, certainly not evil. Just a well-intentioned schlub who made a very bad judgment call, then found himself caught in a web that wrapped him more and more tightly, the harder he tried to break through it. For the first time in a half-century, I wondered how much pleasure the junkman of my childhood actually had gotten from his mansion.
In Saul Bellow’s Heart, Bellow’s oldest son, Gregory, a psychoanalyst, doubts whether his father could have written his prize-winning novels if he had stayed married to his first wife, and makes a strong argument that Saul Bellow’s fiction originated in attempts to understand and come to terms with an emotional trainwreck of a life. Bellow wasn’t trying to get it right. He was just trying to get it.
Imperfection’s not that hard to deal with. Much tougher is the incomprehensibility that bathes our every moment of life. There’s a staggering supply of why in any world, an endless challenge to understand the human and the Divine condition (and maybe they’re even the same thing).
In the final sentence of The Living End, God annihilates His world. After some eighteen hours of the most wrenching sturm und drang, Richard Wagner sends his audience home from his Ring Cycle with the vision of a beautiful newly-created world, a fresh start. Just so. Any well-created story inevitably reaches a point where the author is compelled to close the file on that particular imperfect world, pull up a fresh screen, and give it another shot. The search for meaning comes to be the meaning. It seems right to admire the work of anyone who finds satisfaction and joy in just trying to get it.
Thank you, Larry Karp, for such a thought-provoking essay. In closing, allow me to introduce you to Larry’s most recent novel, published by Poisoned Pen Press. Here’s a picture of the book, followed by the review I posted on Amazon.
Larry Karp’s A Perilous Conception is a nonstop thriller, a cat-and-mouse detective yarn, and the yarn is twisted and tangled and hard to put down. The story is told in two voices, and those voices are as different as can be, yet both of them are convincing. The interplay between these two voices, and the characters behind them, is what propels the novel deeper and deeper into the tangled web of deception. Larry Karp has created a pair of tenacious adversaries, and the back-and-forth POV makes for great drama.
In one corner is Dr. Colin Sanford, an OB/GYN in Emerald, Washington (a city that looks a lot like Seattle). He is also a wizard at laparoscopy, and he and his geneticist partner are secretly on the fast track to fame, with plans to be the first to successfully engineer in vitro fertilization. Sanford is a polished, conscientious doctor who charms his patients and appears to have no more important agenda than their medical welfare. Inside that slick presentation is a greedy egomaniac, who will stop at nothing, and will be stopped by nobody in his pursuit of fame and fortune. And then, within this slimeball, there’s yet another Colin Sanford, and I won’t describe that one. It’s enough to say Colin Sanford is a complicated doc.
Sanford’s nemesis, Bernie Baumgartner, is all cop. He’s also all business, and part bulldog. At the expense of his marriage and of his job, he won’t rest until he ties up all the loose ends of what went wrong. Baumgartner is a charmer in his own gruff way. He has a droll, hardboiled way with words and a disregard for baloney as well as any polite protocol that might come between him and solving the case. He also has a wonderful sidekick, a picklock named Iggy, who helps Baumgartner circumvent the formalities of proper police procedure.
—John M. Daniel