Les Roberts is the author of fifteen novels in the crime series featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich. Roberts turned to mysteries after a successful career of over twenty years in Hollywood, writing and/or producing more than 2500 half-hours of network and syndicated television, including The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., to name just a few.
The Jacovich series launched with the 1988 title, Pepper Pike, which introduces Milan, an ex-cop, Vietnam veteran, and former football player, who is now a private investigator with a master’s degree, a taste for klobasa sandwiches and Stroh’s beer, and a knack for finding trouble. Since that debut, Milan has made fourteen more appearances, earning such critical praise as this from Booklist for his twelfth outing, The Dutch: “Brilliantly plotted, with a powerhouse climax.” Book thirteen in the series, The Irish Sports Pages, was dubbed a ” roller-coaster ride of a mystery,” by Publishers Weekly. And his fifteenth series installment, The Cleveland Creep, was published this spring.
I came to Cleveland first in 1987 (from Los Angeles) to create and produce a TV game show for the Ohio Lottery. (It’s still on the air, BTW.) All I knew about Cleveland back then was Jim Brown (football), Bob Feller (baseball) and the Cuyahoga River catching fire (in 1967). I fell in love with it, went back to Los Angeles and began writing about it, and moved here permanently in 1990. Those 21 years have been the best years of my life.
What things about Cleveland make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Its history. Its architecture. Its people. Cleveland is indeed a “Rust Belt” city, with large ethnic populations like Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, East Indian, Puerto Rican, and most of the countries in Eastern Europe like Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, etc. But it is also home to many, MANY millionaires, and the most generous “giving” city in America. It’s also astonishingly cultural: one of America’s best library systems, a theater center second only to Lincoln Center in NYC, an amazing art museum and an Institute of Music, the best symphony orchestra in the world (not just my opinion, but that of many), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, multiple festivals all spring and summer long, five star restaurants, and three major league sports teams (Browns, Indians, Cavaliers). The neat thing about all this culture is that everyone in Northeast Ohio is aware of it, and they all GO whenever they can.
Did you consciously set out to use Cleveland as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
It just kind of happened in my first book without my having to try. When so many people related to my descriptions and my feelings for the city, I continued making Greater Cleveland “a character” in all my subsequent Milan Jacovich novels.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
It’s both inspiration and deliberate attention. I wrote, in (I think) my second novel about the city (Full Cleveland), that anyone who wears sunglasses in the winter is a jerk—and you’d have to have a pretty damn good excuse in the summertime, too.
How does your protagonist, Milan Jacovich interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does Cleveland affect Jacovich?
Milan Jacovich (pronounced MY-lan YOCK-ovich), the private-eye protagonist in 15 novels (and counting), is a native Clevelander from the St. Clair Superior corridor on the east side—at the time of his birth in mid-20th century almost completely Slovenian and Croatian. Of course he’s a booster, as is everyone who’s lived here a long time—even those who have for one reason or another moved away. He’s also cynical about the city and its problems (problems are hardly unique to any city in this country); how can you create a private investigator who doesn’t schlep around a heavy load of cynicism?
How’s the local reaction to your works?
My local readers please me tremendously. I’ve always said that if I sold as well everywhere as I do in Northeast Ohio, I’d be John Grisham or Stephen King. Most local reviewers are extremely positive—note I said “most.” Like any other critic, they have their own sensitivities, tender skins and/or peccadilloes—and sometimes I piss them off. My Cleveland books have been published in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and (of all places) Bulgaria. I’ve never read any of the foreign reviews.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’m usually pretty careful with the local references, other than calling Detroit Avenue Detroit Road or some such. I also had Milan drinking a “soda” and was overwhelmed with readers writing me that in Cleveland it’s called “pop,” NEVER “soda.” I was also accosted by someone who said “You have the Cleveland Orchestra playing on Wednesday night. They NEVER play on Wednesday night!” I replied, “Write your own novel and you can have them play any damn night you want to!” I’m often asked WHICH building in the Cedar-Fairmount triangle is the one in which Milan lives, and I always tell them his apartment is in whatever building you want him to be. Similarly, when I moved Milan’s office down to a riverside location on Collision Bend, I didn’t make up that kink in the river but DID create out of whole cloth a building there that could be used for an office.
Of the Cleveland novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“Collision Bend is about a mile upriver, and hasn’t been invaded yet by the hip-slick-and-cool crowd. You can still taste the river and the rust on your tongue, still feel the ground vibrate beneath you with the pulse of the nearby steel mills, still hear the raucous caw of the gulls and experience in your viscera the ponderous passage of the great ore boats on the river outside your window.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Nobody wrote Los Angeles like Raymond Chandler, nobody wrote San Francisco like Dashiell Hammett. John Steinbeck made Northern California come alive. Nelson Algren literally OWNED Chicago. For me, the best New York is created by Lawrence Block. John O’Hara fictionalized a city in all this works that you’d have to be living in a coal mine a mile underground not to recognize as Philadelphia. And yes, I’ve read practically everything every one of them wrote. Other favorites? Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens (London hasn’t changed all that much in nearly 200 years), Dorothy B. Hughes. Current mystery authors? Too many to count (I personally know many of them), but I’d have to list Dennis Lehane, Karin Slaughter and Jan Burke right up there.
What’s next for Milan?
I’m 1/3 of the way through Milan #16, a book called Whiskey Island which will be published by Gray & Company.
Many thanks once again, Les, for talking with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Les Roberts, visit his homepage. http://lesroberts.com/