Finding The Missing Piece at the Mysterious Bookshop with Kevin Egan

Finding The Missing Piece at
the Mysterious Bookshop with Kevin Egan
by Gilbert Colon

The New York state court system is a hotbed of writing talent. Besides Carlito’s Way novelist Judge Edwin Torres, there is Kevin Egan, Esq., Senior Settlement Coordinator in the General Clerk Office of Supreme Court, Civil, First Judicial District. Egan is author of a legal thriller series, along with several Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine short stories, set in the Manhattan Supreme Court Building at 60 Centre Street where he works – Midnight, and now The Missing Piece (both from publisher Tor/Forge). As the NY Daily News wrote, “Egan…use[s] the building’s layout to amplify…tension,” citing a scene that takes readers “on a frantic search of the building’s back alleys – including the sub-basement,” once a presidential atomic bomb bunker.

After finishing a book, an author’s job is not quite done. Next comes publicity, which involves booksignings and appearances. May 13th of last year brought Egan to the Mysterious Bookshop (58 Warren Street, New York, NY 10007), mere minutes from the courts. It is one of the city’s dwindling independent booksellers and – with Murder Ink, Black Orchid, and Partners & Crime gone – the last of the Manhattan Mohicans to specialize in crime fiction.

Amid tall floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves that make the store resemble an English estate’s library drawing room – complete with leather reading chairs and sofa – Egan autographed copies of Midnight and his backlist. Proprietor Otto Penzler, legendary founder of Mysterious Press and Otto Penzler Press, personally carried a stack of Egan’s books up from the basement before greeting him.

At 6:20pm, the bookstore’s Crime Club Coordinator, Brad, welcomed the crowd and thanked Chief Clerk VII & Executive Officer John Werner for his e-mails promoting the event. Egan took center “stage” and expressed appreciation for the presence and support of Peter Moulton, “a very good judge”; Lily Moore series novelist Hilary Davidson (The Damage Done); and his former editor Paul Stevens. He especially thanked his audience, many of them court employees: “There’s a lot of competition from tonight’s Ranger game.”

Filling everybody in on his novel’s “ripped-from-the-headlines” background, Egan said he was inspired by “a 1993 trial that had high-powered lawyers and inadmissible allegations.” The impetus behind the case was when “a British nobleman bought an ancient Roman treasure. The treasure had 14 pieces,” tied together by a plate inscription dedicating the treasure to a Roman general named Sevso.”

From there the purchase evolved into a “$70 million ‘flip’ as the Lord of Northampton put it up for bid. The New York auction house did due diligence and contacted Mediterranean countries about claims, and Lebanon, Hungary, Yugoslavia replied with interminable litigation.” Vanity Fair and the Atlantic detailed allegations of murder and political intrigue, but Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Beatrice Shainswit, Egan’s very first boss at the courts, presided over the trial and ruled all of this pre-trial evidence as extraneous, speculative, and prejudicial. The trial to determine ownership, held in room 422, lasted six weeks. “One country tried to scientifically match soil, another tried an art historical approach.”

From there, Egan’s fictionalized account segues into action fiction mode. During his version of the trial, two masked gunmen burst into the courtroom, seize a $5 million urn, and paralyze court officer Gary Martin, causing a mistrial. Three years later, Martin is convinced the stolen treasure never left the labyrinthine courthouse. Certain it is hidden somewhere amongst the byzantine passageways and cul-de-sacs, he vows to recover that “missing piece of his life” by becoming a wheelchair detective, with fellow officer Mike McQueen his legman. Judge Linda Conover, law clerk during the first trial, presides over the retrial. With a rocky marriage and pregnant belly, she plans to make this her last case so she reorder her personal life. Then the gunmen, waiting for their moment, come to finish the job…

At the time of the actual trial, Egan had only a science fiction novel to his name, The Perseus Breed (1988), and despite the wealth of material to draw upon, he spent the years authoring a cozy mystery series instead of Midnight because:

His memory of the Sevso case particulars was hazy.

He needed years to observe legal proceedings because as a law clerk, he knew little about the dynamics of how an actual case is brought to trial.

He did not fully understand the involvement of the nations, even after reading the magazine accounts.

Egan managed just “140 pages, then put it down for a long while.” He “needed…another element,” and when he came up with the idea that the treasure was stashed in the courthouse, “I knew I had my story.” Afterwards he spoke to a court officer “and asked for some good hiding places. That led to a tour of some hidden places.” (Maj. Gerard Fennell and Capt. Michael Castellano, along with building engineer Dan Mahoney, receive “Acknowledgments” page mentions.)

The trial became his Hitchcockian “MacGuffin” for a tale of theft combining legal thriller, heist, and “treasure hunt” ingredients. The historical Sevso Silver became the fictitious “Salvus Treasure,” and the classical Roman courthouse architecture, with Corinthian columns and Pantheon-inspired rotunda, felt to Egan an especially appropriate backdrop.

Egan capped his “Mysterious” evening off by treating guests to a reading of three pages of The Missing Piece. After the applause, nearly the entire room lingered for chitchat in between sips of Stella Artois beer, le Chaz Vermentino and Chardonnay, Velvet Devil Merlot, and Coca-Cola, and bites of stromboli, cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, and brownie bites in this intimate venue.

The bookshop, at its old West 56th Street location, served as the setting of Lawrence Block’s “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke,” as well as the Penzler-edited anthology Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop (from Vanguard Press). For this latter volume, Penzler annually commissions crime authors to pen short stories set at his store during Christmastide. Maybe someday Egan can contribute his own bookstore mystery populated by his cast of courthouse characters from 60 Centre Street, only a stone’s throw away from the relocated Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street. One of Egan’s many Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine short stories is already halfway there – “Black Hole Devotion,” published in the June 2010 issue, takes place on and off the court grounds during the Christmas season. Midnight too, in fact. While Egan is waiting for a Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop invite, he could always, on his own, make inventive use of Penzler’s latest locale for a future courthouse tale.

Meanwhile, Egan has A Shattered Circle, the third in this series, due out next March.

END

KEVIN EGAN’s last legal thriller, Midnight, earned raves and blurbs from fellow authors such as Phillip Margolin, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jon Land, and Hilary Davidson, all of whom would feel perfectly at home in the Mysterious Bookshop (if they have not already read and signed there before). Since publication, The Missing Piece has gone on to receive praise from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Noir Journal, and others. All total, Egan is the author of seven novels. Visit him at www.kjeganfiction.com.

GILBERT COLON has written for Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Film.Music.Media, Crime Factory, Strand Mystery Magazine, and several other publications (including Crimespree). His interview with Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) for the late, great Ed Gorman appeared in the anthology book They’re Here, and he is a contributor-at-large for the St. Martin’s Press newsletter Tor.com and bare•bones e-zine (about which Thrilling Detective raved, “Noir, noir, noir”!). Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to gcolon777@gmail.com.

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