Jay Bennett, R.I.P.
Posted by: Joel Reese
It’s possible you’ve never heard of mystery writer Jay Bennett. Hell, I never met him. But Bennett—who died on June 27 at the age of 96 (“Jay Bennett, 96; wrote crime novels, scripts,” by Dwight Ott, Philadelphia Inquirer)—had a profound effect on my life. And now that a little time has passed, I’m realizing that I might have affected his life, as well.
I can remember the exact moment that I discovered Bennett. I was a mediocre sophomore, meandering through Evanston Township High School’s massive library, blankly gazing at the endless stacks of books. It was sixth period, and I was counting the minutes until I could escape to my car, admire my mullet in the rear-view mirror, and crank some UFO.
As I glanced across the shelves, one title jumped out at me: Say Hello to the Hit Man. You have to admit, the title’s a grabber.
I chuckled and moved on. But a few days later, I found myself in the same area and I gravitated toward the book. I looked at the cover, a drawing of a youngish man—wearing a denim shirt, if I remember correctly—staring in horror at a red phone that he holds at arm’s length.
“What the hell,” I thought. “I’ll read this stupid book.” I checked it out.
I absolutely loved it. In Hit Man, Bennett uses gorgeously sparse prose to tell the story of Fred Morgan, a melancholic 19-year-old loner who, out of the blue, gets a phone call telling him that he’s going to be killed.
You’re starting to sweat, kid. You’re going to sweat more. A lot more before this is over. . . . You’re going to die. It’ll take a while. Because that’s how we want it. But you’re going to die. . . . Say hello to the Hit Man.
Morgan spends much of his time walking through a snowy New York, fighting against his mob-boss father, trying to come to terms with his inevitable murder. (Or does he escape this fate?)
Hit Man sent me on an obsessive quest to read all of Bennett’s books. The Birthday Murderer; The Dangling Witness; Deathman, Do Not Follow Me—I read, and loved, them all. (Well, almost all: his Masks: A Love Story didn’t quite work for me). I went to the Evanston Public Library to get the ones my high school didn’t have, I used inter-library loan to find the rest.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet Jay Bennett and what questions I would ask him. I imagined myself as one of his scarf-clad protagonists and tried to adopt a similarly forlorn appearance as I walked through the halls.
I even tried to track down Bennett using phone books and other pre-Internet reference tools. I couldn’t find him, but the passion he created led me to other books. I kept reading, discovering Steinbeck, London, and their like. Bennett’s work spurred my own interest in writing, and I put more effort into my own work. I ended up going to college and getting an English degree, then went to grad school for journalism.
Fast-forward 20 years to 2005. I was sitting at my desk as a senior editor of a magazine. It was a slow day, so I googled Jay Bennett. I had no idea what he might be doing. One site led to another, and suddenly I stumbled upon an email address that seemed to belong to Bennett’s son. I dashed off a quick email to Randy Bennett and asked if Jay was his dad. He wrote me back and, indeed, it was true.
I wrote and re-wrote an email a dozen times, hoping to somehow impress him—and, maybe, his dad. I finally settled on the closing line, “I’m hoping to write a book someday, and I can only hope it will have the subtle grace (and influence) of your dad’s work.”
Randy and I exchanged a few emails, and it turned out his dad was in his 90s and in failing health. Worse, as he grew older, Bennett doubted whether his work had amounted to much of anything. Which came as a surprise to me: Bennett was the first writer to win consecutive Edgar awards (for 1974’s The Long Black Coat and 1975’s The Dangling Witness), and he was nominated for a third. He wrote more than 25 novels. He wrote an acclaimed play, Miracle for Christmas, and adapted Hamlet for TV. (In addition to being loners, his protagonists were also always reading Shakespeare.)
So I had always assumed that, with all his impressive work, Bennett would have been satisfied. But even after what seemed like a successful career, he was still unsure about his mark on the world. Like his characters, Bennett seemed to be a searcher.
Fast-forward a few more years and, I swear, I was wondering what ever happened to Randy and Jay. A few days later, out of the blue, I received an email from Randy saying he remembered our exchange and that he wanted to tell me his father had passed away.
But Jay seemed to achieve some peace at the end. Randy wrote:
You know, my Dad experienced several periods in his career where he either couldn’t get employment doing the kind of writing he wanted to do or couldn’t find employment writing. He did encyclopedia editing for a number of years, writing in the evenings and on the weekends. It was at times a hard life but I think, in the end he felt good about what he accomplished and about the fact that he did his best.
He also added this:
I did show him your email, and it was important to him.
I doubt my few words had nearly as much impact on Bennett’s life as he had on mine. But I try to take some solace in the fact that, maybe, I helped him realize that what he did was good enough. Because I know it greatly affected my life, and I’m sure his work touched many other people, as well.
Guest blogger Joel Reese is the managing editor of WeSeed.