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Crime author's tales emerge from shadows

Author Dave Zeltserman, framed by icicles dripping from his Needham home, saw his novel ''Small Crimes'' singled out for praise last year. Author Dave Zeltserman, framed by icicles dripping from his Needham home, saw his novel ''Small Crimes'' singled out for praise last year. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Steve Maas
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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Dave Zeltserman's crime fiction is better known in Britain and Italy than in his hometown of Needham. But it looks like that's about to change.

After more than 15 years in which he has written 10 books and countless short stories, Zeltserman is finally emerging from the literary wilderness. His novel "Small Crimes" was named one of the top five crime-and-mystery novels of 2008 by National Public Radio critic Maureen Corrigan, who said Zeltserman is "a new name to add to the pantheon of the sons and daughters" of crime noir great James M. "Double Indemnity" Cain.

Zeltserman's characters are often lowlifes and losers, people who are either the victims or the perpetrators of heinous crimes. His inspiration ranges from the news - a later book features a Whitey Bulger type - to the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald to Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone."

Zeltserman, 49, creates his dark world in the cluttered office of his modest house on a quiet street off Highland Avenue. He greets a visitor not with the bourbon or beer favored by his characters, but with a choice of tea, the leaves brewed in a ball meticulously timed.

His most prominent features are his eyebrows, a rambling thicket that sprouts every which way. He is in excellent shape, thanks to his devotion to kung fu. He's working on his second-degree black belt at Needham Martial Arts.

But if there's any violence in Zeltserman's world, it takes place at the martial arts studio or in his head.

"I'm just basically an average person who comes up with very twisted stories," he said.

"Small Crimes" is about an ex-cop who, after a stretch in prison, returns home in search of redemption but finds only trouble. Joe Denton is one of those characters who has you constantly shouting "don't do it" - and then does it.

"In his mind-set," Zeltserman said, "those are the only decisions he can make."

None of the characters in "Small Crimes" can be considered likable, which is one reason Zeltserman had such a hard time selling the book. Publishers are looking for "safe" books with larger-than-life protagonists and breakneck pacing, he said.

Zeltserman isn't interested in creating another Spenser or Jack Ryan.

"A pure thriller doesn't give you any real depth into how life works," he said. Exploring "why people do the worst things that man can do . . . is a way of shining a light on the human condition."

Raised in Newton, the son of a lawyer and a bookkeeper, Zeltserman said he has always been an avid reader, devouring Poe, Dickens, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and his favorite crime novelist, Hammett.

In eighth grade he wrote what he describes as a "very noirish, violent short story" about a kid who kills his teacher. Not surprisingly Zeltserman's teacher found the piece disturbing, but he read it to his students anyway.

"The class loved it," Zeltserman said.

Afterward, the teacher realized he had misread the story as glorifying murder, when its intent was to delve into the nature of evil. He returned it to Zeltserman after scratching out his first grade, an F, and replacing it with an A.

While Zeltserman enjoyed writing, he excelled more in math and science, he said. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, he pursued a career writing software.

When creating a computer program, he said, "you have to have everything thought out before you start," and he uses the same approach when writing fiction.

At any time, Zeltserman said, a dozen plotlines may be "fermenting" in the back of his mind. When one coalesces into a story, he'll sit down at his computer and within a week have a six- to eight-page outline. He then writes up to 1,500 words a day, completing an 80,000-word book in four months. Mostly, the material comes from his head, he said, adding that he consults with a fellow writer who is a former police officer.

In the early '90s, Zeltserman sold a couple of mystery stories to small magazines, but couldn't get a novel published. He gave up writing for years at a time before tasting success in 2004. Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines printed some of his pieces, and an Italian publisher, which discovered his work through the Internet, bought "Fast Lane," a novel about a private eye whose own life is a bigger mystery than any of his cases. Zeltserman estimates about 5,000 copies were sold in Italy; the book is available in the United States through a small publisher, Point Blank.

"Small Crimes" was released in Britain last March by Serpent's Tail - described on its website as committed to "publishing voices neglected by the mainstream" - and in the United States in October. In an e-mail, Serpent's Tail editor John Williams wrote that Zeltserman fills his books with "real people, real emotion, real darkness," unlike many of his contemporaries "whose inspiration comes from all the books and films they've seen, not from life."

The novel is the first in a trilogy to be published by Serpent's Tail. All three start with a man released from prison. In "Pariah," it's an ex-con seeking revenge on the mobster who double-crossed him, a character in the mold of Whitey Bulger. Calling it a "very fierce book," Zeltserman said on another level it skewers the way society makes celebrities out of even the nastiest people. The book is already available in the United Kingdom and on Amazon.com, and comes out this year in the United States.

While his books take a dim view of human nature, Zeltserman said, he insists on serving his villains their just deserts.

"When you're reading something where evil triumphs at the end, it leaves you feeling wrong somehow," he said. "I don't like books that don't have that moral center. The universe has to stay moral, at least in my books."

Not all of Zeltserman's central characters are rotten. "Bad Thoughts" (Five Star Mystery Series, 2007) features a sympathetic Cambridge detective haunted by his past. In the novel's upcoming sequel, "Bad Karma," the detective's wife is a homeopath, a nod to Zeltserman's wife, who practices that alternative form of medicine.

But with her husband, Judy Zeltserman offers basic emotional support. When he becomes discouraged by rejection letters, "she keeps working on having me focus on all the good stuff I've accomplished."

Zeltserman, who quit his day job a year ago, said he hopes his next big break will be a movie deal for an as-yet-unpublished novel, "28 Minutes," about laid-off software engineers who try to rob a bank. They are a collection of oddballs, composites of people Zeltserman has worked with over the years. He has sold an option on the film rights to Constantin Film Development and Impact Pictures, with John Tomko ("Ocean's 11," "Falling Down") and Jeremy Bolt ("Resident Evil," "Death Race") slated to produce it.

While Needham has yet to be named in one of his books, giant weeds that sprouted in Zeltserman's lawn did inspire one story.

"I was walking out in the yard every day pulling out hundreds of these things," he said. He turned them into a plot centering on a guy whose family for 300 years had been yanking up a particular weed in their yard to ward off disaster. The reader is left guessing until the last page what would happen if he stopped.

Unfortunately, the unconventional horror story so far has scared off one small but influential set of readers: publishers. Zeltserman said they like the book, but haven't a clue how to market it.

Several of Dave Zeltserman's tales are posted on his website, hardluckstories.com.

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