Finding books that John le Carré has recommended, contributed to or written introductions/forewords to has become something of a passion project for me. In the process of doing this research I came upon its flip side – the fake le Carré blurb scandal.
Back in 1991 a writer named Derek Van Arman was involved in a bidding war by various book publishers over a manuscript about the hunt for a serial killer. The author claimed to have real world experience working with intelligence agencies as well as tracking serial killers which was what gave his book the feel of an accurate look into the process of catching these murderers. This was happening just after The Silence of the Lambs came out and every publisher was eager to repeat its success. This would still be a rather routine event except that what helped the book sell were quotes that Van Arman had provided from bestselling authors that praised the writing.
Typically blurbs, short quotes from fellow authors or reviews, are not given for books that haven’t even been picked up by a publisher. In this case, having the quotes was worth it. The book, Just Killing Time, was eventually sold for an advance of nearly a million dollars. Even today, over 25 years later, contracts worth nearly a million dollars are not normally handed out to first time authors. Part of the publishers calculations were that a recommendation from another high profile author could significantly increase sales and the three quotes the Just Killing Time author had provided were especially gushing.
John le Carré –
I am pleased to submit the following comment for attribution. A triumph . . . Derek Van Armen’s ‘Just Killing Time‘ is a literary gem. Read this celebration of the human spirit. I have still not emerged from its awesome power and delightful spell.”
Joseph Wambaugh –
This is a chillingly authentic account that could only have been produced by a career investigator who also happens to be a masterful writer. Hard-hitting, yet restrained. Rather than splatter us with gore we are educated and guided by the light. For years it has been a standing rule of mine not to make such endorsements. You have produced that exceedingly rare book.
There was also a quote from Clive Cussler praising the novel.
Very quickly though, things started to unravel. Both le Carré and Wambaugh said their quotes, which had helped increase both interest and the price, were complete fabrications. Author Derek Van Arman was revealed to have sold the book under a pseudonym, his real name was Derek V. Goodwin, and he was not a superspy but rather a freelance writer who claimed to have “consulted” for intelligence agencies.
Le Carré in particular was, not surprisingly, extraordinarily pissed off. Whether it was because his supposed quote came in the quaint manner of a telegram (everyone knows that he faxes), or because someone had used his good name to promote a book he hadn’t the slightest clue about, I’ll leave it to you to decide. From an interview with The New York Times –
“It’s straight fraud,” Mr. le Carré said of his purported endorsement. “It’s like bringing a painting into a gallery with phony authentications from Bernard Berenson.”
In addition to showing the fake le Carré telegram, the writer produced the letter that was supposedly sent from Wambaugh with his letterhead but an incorrect address. Wambaugh was apparently taken aback by the whole situation and alternated between being “angry and bemused” over the bizarre incident.
Clive Cussler, the one person whose blurb was real, ended up being the most hurt by the entire fiasco. He had been friends with the author and his wife for several years, loaned Goodwin a substantial amount of money so he could work on the novel, connected Goodwin with his literary agent and even performed rewrites on his manuscript.
At first he defended Goodwin, but he quickly found certain things Goodwin had been telling him were in fact complete fabrications. The supposed model for Just Killing Time‘s serial killer, Zefferino Lorio, was someone that Cussler and Goodwin had met when the three of them had worked together searching for shipwrecks. Goodwin later told Cussler that Lorio had been found to have murdered several people, had threatened to kill Cussler and his family and ended up dying in prison. In fact Lorio was convicted as a small time con artist, not a murderer, and still very much alive while serving the rest of his prison sentence. Further inconsistencies continued to mount and resulted in Cussler completely breaking ties with Goodwin.
Goodwin maintained that he was the victim of a operation to smear him by a CIA agent that he had encountered in his past. Wambaugh for the situation hard to believe saying “[i]t sounds like the guy has gone to elaborate lengths.”
Rather amazingly after all these revelations, Just Killing Time was picked up by another publisher and he received a still sizable advance of about $500,000. In the process he proved that a le Carré blurb is worth about $200,000.
On the downside, Goodwin ended up being investigated by the State’s Attorney’s Office for wire fraud and faced a Grand Jury investigation. In addition, Cussler worked with his agent Peter Lampack, who was also Goodwin’s agent, to get the $143,000 he had loaned to Goodwin back. Lampack sent Cussler the money right out of that $500,000 advance check. Definitely a “win some, lose some” proposition for our first time author.
After the book was published it received mixed reviews with pans from both Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, a rave from Kirkus, and a Library Journal review that seems to be written from the press release. Amazon and other places have some positive reviews, including a few dubious ones that seem to have a vested interest in the author.
In a twist right out of This is Spinal Tap, a few years ago the book was released to some success in France. This led to one of the only interviews with Goodwin. The French magazine L’Express spoke to him and he proceeded to make some claims that certainly seem to be rather unbelievable. These quotes from that article are all via Google translate so bear that in mind:
My profession led me to work for a number of US federal agencies, including the National Security Branch of the FBI [Counterintelligence] and the National Security Council, directly attached to the White House. At one time, I was posted to Washington downtown in a fake import-export agency, which served as our cover for infiltration. I wrote at night, sometimes until dawn. I have the particularity of needing to sleep only every three days (scientists of my acquaintance would have liked to study my metabolism, but I was afraid that their research had ulterior motives …).
My specialty was psychology and forensic medicine, in relation to technologies such as artificial intelligence. I led counterintelligence operations, some of which are still ongoing today. So I was in contact with the famous VICAP [Violent Criminal Apprehension Program], the federal agency responsible for putting the serial killers out of harm’s way, which became VICAT in my novel.
My book infuriated some very powerful politicians, who considered that I had betrayed, revealing certain methods. So they threatened me with every means you could imagine. And since they had a lot of time and money, they ended up driving me crazy. I asked an old lawyer friend to defend me. I admit that this episode, which is akin to censorship, has cooled me a little. I knew, for example, that if I wrote a script for the cinema about serial killers, I was quickly at risk of becoming stateless.
Finally, the paper asked “We do not know anything about you: how old are you? Where do you live? Are you still active?” and Goodwin replied “I can not say anything. Not to protect myself, but for the safety of others.”
Beyond Just Killing Time, we have seen no other books from Goodwin. A biography of Cussler states that further manuscripts Goodwin sent to his agent were declared “unpublishable.”
Le Carre reviews Silence of the Lambs
As a side note, an amusing part of this is a mini le Carré book review. He discusses how he would have no interest in that type of book and ends up talking about The Silence of the Lambs. From that same New York Times article –
I have not read anybody’s manuscript in years,” he said, “because I’m afraid I’d lose half of it. Furthermore, serial murder is a subject I detest. I did by accident read ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ and thought it was wonderful. But it was a repulsive book beautifully done.
Makes you wonder why he picked it up in the first place. Did he think it was a relaxing book set in the English countryside about the lives of sheepherders?
Sources used to write this post are below. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post had some great reporting on the story with “The Bizarre story of Derek Goodwin” being especially well done.
“A Spy Novel’s boosters it seems, aren’t” 04/13/1991, The New York Times
“Book Notes” 09/25/1991, The New York Times
“Manuscript with False Praise is Rejected” 04/26/1991, The New York Times
“The Bizarre story of Derek Goodwin” 04/08/1991, The Washington Post
“What’s up with the book biz” 04/23/1991, The Washington Post
Thanks to Matthew Kresal for finding this 06/02/2013 interview, “The killer serial killer who scared the FBI”, with the Derek Goodwin in the French magazine, L’Express. All quotes from that story are with the caveat that they were run through Google Translate.
Val Mcdermid’s message board posts circa 2003-2008 had some interesting discussions on the book.
Clive Cussler by Stuart Leuthner had more on Cussler’s take on the incident.