Julia interviews Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen author of It Happened One Knife, latest in the Double Feature comedic mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime.

Tell me a bit about yourself, your writing, and the scoop on your sensational debut novel. Yep, it‘s an elevator talk!

I’m a freelance writer who works for magazines, newspapers, and will write for food. Seriously. Have you got a snack on you? It Happened One Knife, the second in the Double Feature series (I previously wrote the Aaron Tucker series) finds Elliot Freed, owner of New Jersey’s only all-comedy movie theater, trying to find out why one of his octogenarian comedy idols murdered the other one. Is that short enough, or does this elevator go to the penthouse?

Where can readers see you this year? Will you be attending Team Jordan’s October soiree, oops, I mean Bouchercon in Baltimore?

I will indeed be at Bouchercon, as I’m thrilled it’s in a city that’s drivable for me! I’ll also be at various bookstores, libraries, and Dairy Queens around the New Jersey area. But the Dairy Queens are just for fun. Check my web site http://jeffcohenbooks.com for more info on where I’ll be, and when. Because I don’t remember, either.

How would you define the kind of fiction you write, and what in your life influenced you to write it?

I consider it comedy with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot moving. What influenced me to write funny books? The Marx Brothers, Bill Cosby, the late and missed George Carlin, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Monty Python’s Flying Circus... how much time have you got?

Tell us about some writers, or books, you’d like to introduce folks to...

Not enough people are reading David Skibbins. I’m a fan of Joe Adamson, who writes non-fiction. Robert Fate, Chris Grabenstein, Jack Getze. I like people who write stories about real people, but don’t believe they’re writing something that will change Society as We Know It just by existing. A sense of humor, as in your books, Julia, goes a long way with me.

You’ve said in the past that authors of humorous mysteries and humor in general “are the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world.” Care to expand on that?

Thanks for saying “you’ve said,” and not “you’re constantly bitching about.” I believe that people don’t realize how hard comedy is to write, because when it works well, it’s meant to seem effortless, so it seems easy. It’s not easy. And I’m not talking about my own work when I say that people who write comedy well are the ones who keep us sane during insane times. If it were not for Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, would I have made it through my twenties? Probably, but I would have much darker memories. Groucho said, “because we make them laugh, I don’t think people realize how important (comedians) are to their sanity.” I realize, and I think that deserves some, you should pardon the expression, respect.

Your new book, Some Like It Hot-Buttered, is a departure from the Aaron Tucker series you’ve written in the past. Was that strange for you?

It was, a little. The new series, the Double Feature Mysteries, came about because I was wondering one day what Aaron Tucker’s life might have been like if his circumstances were different. I started making Elliot Freed the opposite of Aaron: he’s divorced, he has no children. And I indulged myself, because I’ve always had a fantasy about opening an all-comedy movie theatre. I can’t do it because it would probably be a financial disaster—but Elliot can.

How does a movie theatre owner get involved in murder investigations?

Good question. When I wrote Some Like It Hot-Buttered, the answer was obvious: the victim dies in Elliot’s theatre. Then, I had to come up with two more scenarios in which a movie theatre owner has to investigate a murder. I’m still working on some of the details, but I hope I have to come up with problems for Elliot to solve for a long time.

There’s an undercurrent of classic comedy references in Some Like It Hot-Buttered. Are you a fan of the classics?

I’m a huge fan of the Marx Brothers, especially; they’re pretty much my religion. I can’t understand how anyone could not find them funny. But I’m also fond of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, sometimes W.C. Fields and Mae West, among others. It worries me that some things people consider comedies today are going for such easy laughs; there’s plenty of comedy out there, but with the exceptions of Jon Stewart and a few others, very little wit.

The Double Feature Mysteries take place in Midland Heights, New Jersey, the same town as the Aaron Tucker series. Why repeat the (fictional) setting?

As a writer, it gave me a comfortable point of reference. I thought loyal readers of the Aaron series would be tickled to see Police Chief Barry Dutton in a new light, through the eyes of a character who had never met him before. And because I didn’t think I was finished with the atmosphere and the attitude of central New Jersey.

The attitude of the main character is somewhat familiar, too.

Yes, Elliot has a certain sarcastic streak that Aaron exhibited on occasion. I wanted to keep that, because I think it’s funny, and because I think it’s true when depicting this area. Sarcasm is the National Language of New Jersey.

What should readers expect from the Double Feature series, your first from a large publishing house?

Hopefully, they’ll find some laughs, and a challenging mystery. But mostly, I want them to find a new cast of characters they can take to their hearts. I had a lot of fun visiting with Elliot, his ex-wife Sharon, the teenage staff at Comedy Tonight, and the rest, and I think readers will, too.

How has your background as a freelance reporter and author of more than 20 feature length screenplays for the likes of Jim Henson productions and CBS prepared you to be a crime fiction writer?

To be honest, it didn’t. Well, that’s not fair, either: all that writing, especially the 8-trillion screenplays, developed my story sense and a knack (I think) for pacing. And freelancing gives me a very healthy respect for deadlines, so I’m always on time—so far. So I lied when I said it didn’t help, but in respect to subject matter, not really. That stuff just happens by itself.

What’s your next project all about? And is it in the can yet?

The second book in the Double Feature series, which picks up right where Elliot leaves off, is called It Happened One Knife, and it’s written and currently going through the usual editing process. It’ll be out in 2008. I haven’t started the third book yet, but I really do need to give it some thought... I’m sorry, what was the question?

Jeff Cohen

Share

“I believe that people don’t realize how hard comedy is to write, because when it works well, it’s meant to seem effortless, so it seems easy. It’s not easy. And I’m not talking about my own work when I say that people who write comedy well are the ones who keep us sane during insane times. If it were not for Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, would I have made it through my twenties? Probably, but I would have much darker memories. Groucho said, “because we make them laugh, I don’t think people realize how important (comedians) are to their sanity.” I realize, and I think that deserves some, you should pardon the expression, respect. ”