Some nights, I dream that I have discovered a room in my house that I never knew existed. When I wake up, I’m always slightly disappointed to realize that it was only a dream, and my actual home is woefully bereft of secret spaces.
As a mystery reader, I’m kind of surprised I’ve never dreamt that I stumbled upon brand-new books in a beloved old series. You only thought you’d read every single Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag mystery, and that David Handler ended the series 20 years ago. But wait! Here are two Hoagy novels that you didn’t know about!
It’s slightly bonkers to realize that the Hoagy series, which meant so much to me back in the 1990s, had actually been brought back to life in 2017 without my knowing about it. Luckily, however, I recently stumbled across this blog post by the author. “Hoagy and Lulu returned last year in The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes and on August 14 will be back in another new mystery, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss,” wrote Handler. “Meanwhile, as I sit here, I’m busy working away on their next adventure.”
Needless to say, I could not get my hands on those two books quickly enough.
For the uninitiated—and, since the series was always, shall we say, a bit more of a cult favorite than a mass-market success, that’s probably most of you—Hoagy is a wisecracking writer who was once hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “the first major new literary voice of the 1980s.” However, when he found himself unable to produce a follow-up to his Great American Novel, he found a niche ghost-writing memoirs for famous folks. Even when he’s on assignment, Hoagy is always accompanied by his anchovy-loving basset hound, Lulu.
Many of the celebrities in the Hoagy novels are take-offs on real-world stars, which is one of the reasons a diehard pop-culture fan like myself found them so winning: The Boy Who Never Grew Up is a version of Steven Spielberg, The Woman Who Fell From Grace is a riff on Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, etc. The last book in the series, The Man Who Loved Women To Death, kind of wrapped up Hoagy’s story with a tidy bow, reuniting him with his ex-wife, actress Merilee Nash. So I was curious if The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes would take place shortly after the events detailed in that book, or would Handler bring Hoag into the future… 20 years older, and with a new basset hound by his side?
Cleverly, however, Handler set Kaleidoscope in 1992, placing it immediately after The Boy Who Never Grew Up. Hoagy is still estranged from his much-more-successful wife, and needs the money he could earn by writing a book about Richard Aintree, a J.D. Salinger-esque novelist who disappeared shortly after producing one classic and much-beloved book. Even Aintree’s two daughters have no idea where he is, but then one of them, a Martha Stewart-type lifestyle guru named Monette, receives a letter from him out of the blue. It contains information that no one else would know, so it seems legit. At his agent’s behest, Hoagy travels from his Manhattan home to L.A. to meet Monette and possibly start work on a book about the Aintree clan.
Also on the scene is Richard Aintree’s second daughter Reggie, a former flame of Hoagy’s (she’s the girl with kaleidoscope eyes—they dropped acid together back in the 70s). He also has to deal with Monette’s two teenage children and her obnoxious TV-star husband, as well as a variety of Hollywood hangers-on. The murder occurs fairly late in the book, so I won’t spoil it, but I was delighted to note Handler brought back L.A. cop Emil Lamp, a recurring character in several of the Hoagy novels. Honestly, this book fits in so seamlessly with the rest of the series that it’s hard to believe that Handler wrote it in the mid-2010s and didn’t magically produce it from some early-’90s wormhole.
The Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a bit of an anomaly in the Hoag series in that none of the celebrities are true doppelgängers for real-life stars. The crop of actors in the book are former Yale Drama classmates of Hoagy’s ex-wife Merilee Nash, who has brought them together to perform a one-off benefit performance of “Private Lives” to raise money to repair a cherished old playhouse in Connecticut. Hoagy and Merilee are still broken up, but getting along fairly well; he’s working on a new novel while staying in her guest cottage, escaping the heat of a Manhattan summer. Not surprisingly, some long-simmering tensions between the actors rise up, and one alumni who was not invited to take part is lurking on the sidelines. R.J. Romero is the man of the title, perhaps the most talented actor in the class but the least successful, due to his bad temper and criminal tendencies. Romero gets in touch with Hoagy to tell him that he has some damaging information about an incident in Merilee’s past, and unless Hoagy is willing to pay up, he will go to the tabloid press and it could destroy Merilee’s career.
Like all of the books in the series, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a delight, though it’s perhaps a bit darker and more poignant. Fortunately, Lulu (who “has a very menacing growl for someone who once got beat up in Riverside Park by a Pomeranian named Mr. Puffball”) is always around to provide some comic relief, though my guess is that it would make her quite cross to be thought of in that way.
When I first discovered this series, the first Hoagy novel, The Man Who Died Laughing, was long out of print and it took me years before I finally tracked down a used copy at the old San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (this was before you could find everything, no matter how obscure, online). Now all 10 of them can be purchased with the click of a mouse, though naturally I still have my treasured original copies, including a signed paperback of The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald that I bought during Handler’s appearance at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore. The idea that there will be even more to come is, quite honestly, some of the best news I’ve heard in a while.