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A Near-Death Experience

Dateline — Denver Airport, August 29

I’m going to try not to complain about that stupid little one-quart Zip-Loc bag that TSA, the airport security people, make you jam all your liquids and aerosols and gels into. (Note to self: ask around to find out many terrorist acts this ridiculous rule has stopped.) But bear in mind that all of the post-9/11 security regulations were put into place by a presidential administration that also brought us Katrina recovery and, frankly, 9/11 — but that’s another subject. . .

Anyway . . . because of the one-quart Zip-Loc bag rule — I’m not checking any luggage on this tour, at Lee Child’s suggestion — I’ve run out of some basic necessities. Like toothpaste. So the folks at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver give me directions to a Walgreen’s a few blocks away. The concierge tells me it’s located on a “pedestrian mall” on 16th Street.

Red-eyed and inadequately caffeinated and not seeing too well, I stroll along the pedestrian mall, admiring the variety of shops (Jamba Juice — my favorite! Time for a double wheatgrass shot!) and the abundant outdoor seating.

Suddenly there’s a blast of a horn, and I’m almost hit by a bus. It scrapes my shoulder and the side of my face.

When they told me this was a “pedestrian mall,” they forgot to mention the shuttle buses — hybrid-electric buses that zoom along quietly, and apparently don’t stop for pedestrians.

My Starbucks venti coffee is all over the ground, but otherwise, no harm done.

An enjoyable appearance at High Crimes, the mystery bookstore in Boulder, owned by one of the leading mystery mavens, Cynthia Nye.

Borders has moved POWER PLAY to their Major New table at 30% off — a big step up from last week. It’s really selling there, too.

Another ridiculously early flight the next morning. The night before, I put in a wake-up call for 5:15 a.m.

The call never came. I find myself scrambling around, trying to get some coffee in me, enough to pack up. Yes, the glamorous life of an author on tour. Where’s my stretch lizine?

The Denver airport has a shuttle that runs between terminals and plays honky-tonk piano music at intervals. It also has a recorded message, a woman’s voice chiding passengers, “You are delaying the departure of this train!” This is not good for Denver’s friendly image. Someone should do something about that.

Mile High

Dateline — Denver, August 27

Arrived in Denver, the Mile High City, on an inhumanely early flight out of Louisville, in time to do two big local TV shows. Met by the local escort, the fabulous Lisa Maxson (Janet Evanovich had raved about her, and she wasn’t wrong) and was escorted around in her gold Jag. This lady really has it together, right down to the ice-cold bottles of water in the cooler in the back seat. Learned that POWER PLAY is actually selling out in a lot of the Barnes & Noble stores. Which is a good thing — only I hope they have enough on reorder.

A signing at the famous Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue, which has a huge poster of POWER PLAY on display. An amazing bookstore, one of the great indies, and to think there are four of them. Boston, allegedly the Athens of America, has — what — one indie general bookstore left?

Then I get the news that POWER PLAY was the number three bestselling hardcover fiction title at Barnes & Noble this week. Amazing! My editor, and everyone else at St. Martin’s, is elated, because this surely means that the book will automatically go on the B&N bestseller wall, at 30% off.

Then, a few hours later, a strange twist: Barnes & Noble is not going to be putting POWER PLAY on their bestseller wall. Their number three hardcover fiction title — and it’s not one of their bestsellers.

Why?

Because they’ve run out of stock. There aren’t enough copies in B&N’s distribution center to supply each of their stores.

I can’t decide if that’s good news or bad news. I just hope that when the next book comes out, they order a few more copies.

I guess you could call this a high-class problem, huh?

The next morning . . .
Woke up with eyes as red as a UFO’s. Went to the hotel gift shop for some Visine and was told by the saleswoman, kindly, that I looked “drunk.” I snagged her last bottle — she said she can’t keep it in stock. Denver, the Mile High City, has extremely dry air, and a lot of visitors suffer eye irritation.

Great.

I have to do a TV appearance this morning, on a Denver business show. The Visine doesn’t work too well. In the TV studio, they mike me up and put one of those Secret Service squiggly earphones in my ear. I’m seated in the newsroom and instructed to look into the robotic camera.

Ten second warning.

But where is the camera I’m supposed to look into? There’s a monitor — showing me, red-eyed, looking confused — and a teleprompter scrolling the anchorman’s script. So I look into the teleprompter and try not to read the questions rolling by while I talk.

They can’t hear me too well, though. When my segment is over, I discover why: my lavalier mike somehow got unclipped and slid down into my crotch.

My name in lights…


How cool is this? This is The Bookstop in Houston, TX, now part of the Barnes & Noble chain.

Thanks to my cousin Ashley Segal for taking the picture!

Graceland

Dateline — Memphis, August 26

When I told Shirley Crenshaw, my author escort in Memphis, that I wanted to visit Graceland, she thought I was kidding at first. She’d only gone once before.

Then she told me her sister had gone to high school with Elvis. Seriously. So we had to go. After all, this is the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death.

First thing I learned is that it’s not pronounced the way Paul Simon sings it. The second syllable is unstressed.

Second thing I learned is that it’s not exactly a mansion. It’s like a big suburban house, decorated in the worst 1970s taste. The famous “Jungle Room” is basically a rec room with shag carpet and fake-fur upholstery. One look at the kitchen, with its cheesy wood veneer cabinets, and you want to tear it all out and renovate.

But hey, it’s Elvis. He bought the house in 1957 for just over $100,000, with a $37,000 mortgage, a year after he hit the top of the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

By the time he died, the poor guy was way overweight and drug-addicted and chronically constipated, and in financial trouble. His manager had sold the rights to most of his songbook back to RCA, for a fraction of what they’d have gotten now — but he needed the cash.

Elvis was a great singer, a charismatic performer, and a very generous guy. But at the time of his death, he was pretty much washed up, and I suspect he’d be all but forgotten, a pop-culture curiosity of the 1950s and ‘60s, a Trivial Pursuit question . . . were it not for his ex-wife Priscilla, who hired a brilliant entrepreneur, Jack Soden, to manage his estate, Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Soden, a marketing genius, didn’t hesitate to file lawsuits against anyone and everyone who dared to use Elvis’s image — his face, for God’s sake — without paying for it. He turned Graceland, this kitschy high-suburban house, into a shrine that gets 600,000 visitors a year, a tourist attraction second only to the White House.

Two years ago, Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, sold 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises to the media mogul, Robert Sillerman, for around $100 million.

She got to keep Graceland, though.

The signing was at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. A nice crowd of people, just about none of whom had ever read any of my books before. Tunica, which used to be one of the poorest places in the country, has exploded in the past five years, with all sorts of casinos springing up. The night sky glows neon.

Cincinnati & Dayton

Dateline: Dayton, OH — A great new Books & Co. store, which put on a real party — lemon bars and chocolaty “magic bars”… An enthusiastic crowd, several of whom drove quite some distance (I guess people just drive more out here in the Midwest) and had bags of my older books to sign.

Boston songs — the first time Books & Co. has ever had Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” blasting over its speakers. Guster a hit – who’s that? I had to explain the principle behind the Boston songs — that either they’re songs about Boston (“Government Center” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, “Charlie on the MTA”) or by artists who got their start in Boston (Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Aerosmith, Guster) or songs irrevocably associated with Boston (Neal Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” played at every Red Sox game or the Dropkick Murphys’ “Tessie”). A lot of requests for copies of the CD, which unfortunately I can’t do, because of copyright restrictions (and frankly, how would I feel about, say, Stephen Tyler giving away bootleg copies of POWER PLAY at one of his concerts? Actually…)

Awoke to an e-mail from my editor telling me to read a review of the book in today’s (Sunday’s) Chicago Sun-Times by David Montgomery.

Off to Memphis this morning. Clair Without an E, my devoted webmistress, tells me to make sure I go check out Graceland. I hope I can.

Louisville

Okay, so here I am, sitting in a huge black stretch limo that’s taking me from the Caesar’s casino in Elizabeth, Indiana, to the Louisville, KY, airport. It’s a 10-passenger limo — a “liz-zeen,” as my daughter used to say when she was little. Cushy leather seats. Cavernous interior. A full bar with racks of champagne and highball glasses. (It’s 8:55 in the morning, so I don’t really feel like cracking out the booze.) This is one of those ridiculous, city-block-long limousines that I always make fun of.

But that’s me behind the smoked-glass windows. Yep, everyday life on book tour.

Yeah, right. You should have seen me jammed into my seat on a Chautauqua commuter flight yesterday. But never mind. . .

I once read a great quote about how stories only happen to people who can tell them. I don’t remember who said it, and there’s no internet access in this limo — not that I’m complaining, mind you — but the last 24 hours reminded me of the truth in that.
Yesterday morning my editor e-mailed to tell me that a review of POWER PLAY was just posted online, a few days early, on the website of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. It may sound like just a regional newspaper, but in fact its readership is large, and the reviewer, Oline Cogdill, is one of the most widely syndicated — and widely respected — reviewers in the mystery/thriller business. A good review from her can sell a lot of copies. Luckily, this was a really good review (you can read it here.) I was at once relieved and elated.

Then a few minutes later he e-mailed to say that a review was in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, by Tom Nolan (which you can read online for a few days, here). Also a terrific review.

So I went out to pick up a copy or two of the WSJ and discovered that my hotel was located on the corner in downtown Louisville — Fourth and Walnut — where the eminent religious philosopher Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain) had a life-changing epiphany in 1958. As he later wrote: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs.”

Well, I was in a good mood too, but not quite that good. I mean, the folks walking around Fourth Street seemed nice and all, but I wouldn’t go as far as Merton.

When I got back to the hotel, I asked the concierge about something I’d read in a history of the Seelbach Hotel I’d found in my room. Apparently Al Capone, who pretty much took up residence in the hotel in the 1930s, had a secret passageway built through the innards of the hotel to allow him to escape from the feds. I asked the concierge, Larry Johnson, if I could see it. Unfortunately, the Oakroom restaurant (the famous 5-diamond restaurant where I’d had dinner the night before) was closed, and anyway, the concealed entrance to Capone’s tunnel, hidden behind a panel in the wall in one of the restaurant’s booths, had been destroyed in a fire a few years earlier.

But Larry told me that just a few days ago, some hotel workers putting in a new air-conditioning duct had come upon a long-forgotten stretch of Capone’s getaway tunnel.

I asked Larry for a copy of the Seelbach history, and it turned out that he was the author: he’s the hotel historian. He asked for my name, so he could inscribe the book to me — and did a double-take. “You’re Joseph Finder, the writer who’s going to be at Caesar’s casino tonight?”

I said I was.

He told me that a friend of his, an 87-year-old woman named Noni Fischer, was a huge Joe Finder fan and was in the middle of KILLER INSTINCT, and would I do him a favor? He picked up the phone and called Noni, then put me on.

I thought she was going to have a heart attack. (Which worried me: I sure didn’t want to lose such a devoted reader.)

A late lunch at a great restaurant called Lynn’s Paradise Café, where I tried (and loved) fried green tomatoes (rolled in cornmeal, not dipped in batter, much better) and a fried catfish sandwich. Delicious. A very cool place, decorated in high kitsch style, with a collection of the ugliest lamps I’ve ever seen. (Keep eating like this, and I’ll have a heart attack before tour’s over.)

The book signing that night was at Caesar’s Indiana — a casino. I’d never done a book signing at a casino before, and Caesar’s Indiana had never done one either. I was their first. And it turned out to be a huge success. It’s a brilliant idea, still quite new, something that my publisher first tried with Janet Evanovich. But I don’t have a fraction of Janet’s following, so I worried that I’d be sitting there under a poster, ignored by the passing parade of gamblers.

Instead, there were throngs of book buyers, most of whom don’t go into bookstores very often, and many of them hadn’t read me before — but they were willing to gamble. The books were sold by Borders, which was delighted. We sold boxes upon boxes of books. (The publishing industry needs to do more of this kind of out-of-the-box thinking, to reach potential book buyers who just don’t visit traditional bookstores anymore.)

Granted, I did have some people come up to me and say, I’m only interested in this book if it tells me how to win. I told each of them that the secret’s inside the book, including the number of the lucky slot machine. (Note to my publisher: whatever it takes.) Posed for pictures with Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, who kept me company the whole time.

And then who should come up to my table but Noni Fischer, accompanied by the Seelbach’s concierge, Larry Johnson. Noni had just finished KILLER INSTINCT and decided she had to get a copy of POWER PLAY. What a sweet lady. We posed for pictures, which are going right up on my website as soon as we get them.

The Red Sox are 6.5 games ahead of the Yankees, so all is right with the world. Maybe Thomas Merton was onto something.

Iron Man and Gatsby

Louisville, Kentucky. A good start to the day. USA Today’s lead story was on the Boston Red Sox — “America’s new home team.” A nice piece, but of course this sort of coverage can only make a Sox fan feel nervous.

An e-mail from John Sargent, the CEO of Holtzbrinck, the parent company of my publisher, St. Martins’ Press — the capo de tutti capi — telling me that we’ve already sold more copies of Power Play in its first two days on sale at Barnes & Noble than we’d ever sold in a week before. Having the book in B&N’s stepladder, for the first time, was surely a major factor. It’s doing great at Borders too, which also has it prominently on display in the front of all stores.

And then a terrific piece on my books in The Economist has just come out, here. The issue hits the newsstands tomorrow, I think. One of the best articles ever written about my books, and in one of the most widely read magazines in the world. (Accompanied by a photo of me sitting on top of the boardroom table at Bear Stearns in Boston, taken by my friend, Norman Lang.)

Louisville was 100 degrees when I arrived. I checked in at the Seelbach, the city’s grande dame hotel, where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out while he was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor nearby, and wrote most of The Great Gatsby (and where his characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan had their wedding: “In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before. He came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”) Apparently Al Capone used to stay here a lot, too. Like a lot of Chicagoans, I feel a connection to Capone. My great-grandfather, who owned a number of dry-cleaning shops in Chicago, apparently tried to stand up to Al Capone but then came to his senses … after one of his shops was fire-bombed or something. I’m hazy on the details.

There’s a big Iron Man triathlon going on in Louisville, which is why the Seelbach is fully booked. The guy at the desk who checked me in asked if I was here for the Iron Man. Flattery always works on me. Well, when I’m on book tour, I do feel like I’m running a triathlon — does that count?

A Red Sox Legend, and some old friends

Philadelphia/West Goshen, PA. The Power Tour road trip started with an event at one of the great independent bookstores in the country, Chester County Book & Music Company. Joe Drabyak, one of CCBM’s booksellers, had invited me there, and another staff member — David English — has interviewed me for his web radio show a number of times.

Tough to decide what the highlight of the event was for me — there were several. Three great college buddies of mine – Peter Evans, Doug Stuart, and Dick Dupuis — showed up to razz me and try to trip me up with embarrassing questions, but I’m sorry to say after so many book signings I’m not so easily tripped up. Peter and Doug sang in the Yale Whiffenpoofs with me; Dick sang in the Whiffs a year ahead of me.

Then there was Elise Parker (the mother of one of my college roommates, Sumner Parker), who used to make dinner for Sumner and me at their house in New Haven when we couldn’t take dining-hall food anymore.

And —OK, maybe this was the highlight — another audience member was one of the great major-league baseball players of all time: Mickey Vernon, who played for the Boston Red Sox in 1956 and 1957. (My hometown team, in case you didn’t know.)
Mickey Vernon, who was named by Bill James as one of the best first basemen ever, was a two-time American League batting champion — he beat Ted Williams for the title in 1946, at .353, and did it again in 1953. (OK, he played for the Washington Senators a lot longer than he played for the Sox, but I’ll claim him.) He holds the major league record for career double plays at first base (2044) and really should be in the Hall of Fame.

And his daughter, Gay Vernon, is famous in Boston herself: a radio host and “personality” on Magic 106.7, and a friend.

That’s INTERNATIONAL Man of Mystery to you…

This week’s ECONOMIST includes an incredibly nice piece about me. You can read it here.

Wednesday, August 22 — Boston to Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, PA — I’ve done a lot of book tours by now, but this one really seems to be starting off right.

Okay, I’ll ignore the fact that I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. after having gotten to bed at midnight celebrating the POWER PLAY launch. (Maybe I should have taken my friend Daniel Palmer’s advice and stayed up all night. After three hours of sleep I look like Herman Munster.)

Woke up, made a large pot of coffee, tried not to wake the girls (being my wife, my daughter and her best friend, who was sleeping over, and of course our dog Mia: I live in an all-female household). Checked my e-mail and found a terrific review of POWER PLAY in my hometown paper, the Boston Globe (the reviewer, Chuck Leddy, called it a “delicious, perfectly prepared mixture . . . a fast-paced fun ride”). This after two really nice reviews in the New York Times, by Janet Maslin on Friday and in the Book Review on Sunday, which is unusual. (The great Robert B. Parker e-mailed on Sunday to say, “Nice treatment in the Times. I have always wished you well, but that well?”).

So we’re off to a fast start. A separate item in the Boston Globe mentioned the case study I wrote for the Harvard Business Review — a prequel to Power Play. I opened the New York Times and found the remarkable full-page ad my publisher took out for Power Play, on the back page of the arts section. A e-mail from my editor telling me to check the rankings on BarnesandNoble.com — Power Play was #3! (Ahead of Harry Potter, I might add. Incredible.)

Last night was an amazing launch party at Borders, in Boston’s Back Bay. The Borders folks really turned it into a party — a cake with the book’s cover on it, helium balloons (including black Power Play balloons), a huge SRO crowd. My assistant, Claire, had to be out of the country for a wedding, but fortunately my former assistant, Sarah, filled in for her, assisted by the great Clair Lamb (Clair Without an E), who runs my website so well. My life really is run by some remarkable women — thank God.

The 5:30 a.m. flight left reasonably on time. No checked luggage this time — based on Lee Child’s advice: “Travel light, travel far.” Three weeks worth of clothes in one small carry-on case. Very tightly packed. Very. An aluminum suitcase, so it’s not likely to explode — or so I hope.

POWER PLAY on sale August 21!


The tour starts on Tuesday, August 21 with the launch party at Borders-Back Bay. Come see me there, or check the main website for other events.


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