It’s odd that it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about him as he was one of the very first authors I had in mind when I inaugurated this feature last summer. But at that time, all I really knew of Koenig was what John Williams had written about him in his classic crime fiction travelogue INTO THE BADLANDS (1991):
Joseph Koenig, the man standing next to me on the pier, is a wiry, six-footish guy with shortish black hair and a moustache, wearing Levi’s, a black leather jacket and a T-shirt, His biography puts him somewhere 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 he hates everything.
He hates his publishers (Viking) for putting such an ugly jacket on his new book and not pushing him enough; he hates crime fiction; he hates New York; he hates the subway we came here on, and he really hates Brighton Beach where I suggested we should go today…
…The only thing Koenig seems to be happy about is the amount of money he’s been making from his second novel, LITTLE ODESSA…Koenig, in contrast to virtually everyone else I’ve met, reckons making money from writing is a cinch. He tells me that James Ellroy had called him, mentioned that I’d be interviewing him soon. I ask Koenig how he gets along with Ellroy, and he says, ‘Oh, we just sit round and laugh about how much money we’re making.’ The implication is that if you can write, and have a reasonably pragmatic attitude towards the matter of giving the people what they want, then your financial worries are at an end. After this reverie, however, Koenig is rapidly back to remembering how much he hates everything: ‘Goddamn Ellroy,’ he says, ‘he’s always calling me up. He wants to be friends; I don’t need friends.’
This excerpted passage is ironic on so many levels; first, that a writer is so gleeful about his hatred for, well, everything; second, his both-sides-of-mouth demeanor concerning Ellroy; third, his up-front opinions on how he’s in it pretty much for the money; and most importantly, because Koenig had all the swagger, all the attitude, and now no one knows where he’s disappeared to.
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.
FLOATER, by rights, should be a typical police procedural. The body of a woman is found floating in the Everglades, and Sheriff Buck White is on the case. But the woman is his ex-wife, and he soon gets distracted by other missing persons cases that may or may not tie into her death, and then there’s this con artist traveling the country with a changing roster of girls, some of whom live…and others don’t. So much for predictability. The con artist, N0rodny, is the kind of psychopath who would later crop up in crime fiction with more operatic overtones and over-the-top flourishes. But in Koenig’s world, he’s just kinda normal, an ordinary sociopath making the most of his skills, not really feeling much of anything with regards to sex, money or 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.
For LITTLE ODESSA, which followed two years later, Koenig changed directions: going for a more thriller-style book with comedic touches. I’ve yet to track this book down so I’ll let Richard Walton’s review in Washington Post Book World speak for itself:
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.