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Old Lyme author David Handler celebrates his latest Hoagy and Lulu novel

August 12, 2018 GMT

If Leon is bothered by all this glowing talk of Lulu’s popularity, he doesn’t show it.

It’s a sun-shellacked summer afternoon, and Leon is sprawled in a comfortable, window-facing chair of a 230-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, watching and listening calmly.

“I had no idea, way back at the start, that Lulu would become a star,” says David Handler, seated next to Leon as they ponder the vagaries of fate. “Long before email or Facebook, I used to get letters from people about Lulu or photographs that reminded them of Lulu.”

OK. Handler is a person and Leon is a cat. Nothing unusual about that close human/pet relationship.

Lulu, though, is a dog — and a fictional one, at that. A basset hound of charming eccentricity and an eerily acute awareness of (particularly dark) human nature, Lulu is co-star of Handler’s long-running and Edgar Award-winning mystery series that, oh, yeah, also features celebrity-ghostwriter Stewart “Hoagy” Hoagland.

Their latest adventure, “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss,” hits bookstores Tuesday, following last year’s “The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes,” and it’s business as usual for the two- and four-legged partners who solve sophisticated and twisty crimes in witty and debonair fashion. But these latest two books were never supposed to happen. As far as Handler was concerned, the series, which comprised eight titles from 1988 until 1997, was obsolete.

“By the late 1990s, I felt I couldn’t realistically carry on with Hoagy,” Handler says. “Technology had changed everything. The series was predicated on the fact that Hoagy ghosted celebrity memoirs and, with the internet, there were no longer any celebrity secrets. If something happened, everyone knew about it. Someone in Hoagy’s business would be out of work.”

As much as Handler loved Hoagy and Lulu, he reluctantly shifted gears and started a new (and very successful) series set in a thinly veiled version of Old Lyme called Dorset and starring film critic Mitch Berger and Connecticut state cop Dez Mitry. He wrote 11 of those adventures, as well as two novels with a promising young New York PI called Benji Gold, and there were no plans to resurrect Hoagy and Lulu.

Fate’s curveball

Three years ago, though, in one of those unlikely curveballs of fate, Handler’s agent Dominick Abel was having lunch with William Morrow executive editor Dan Mallory, who mentioned that his mother’s favorite crime books of all time were the Hoagland novels. Why, Mallory wondered, had Handler stopped?

After a brainstorming session back at Morrow, there was a perhaps obvious — at least in retrospect — suggestion: Why didn’t Handler simply freeze Hoagy and Lulu in the early ’90s and continue the series as period books?

The idea flabbergasted Handler and, he admits, slightly embarrassed him.

“It had never occurred to me, but I loved it,” he says.

An added incentive was Morrow’s offer of a two-book deal. Last summer, “The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes,” the first Hoagy and Lulu book in two decades, was published to great critical response and fan rejoicing, followed now by “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss.”

Handler will discuss and sign copies of “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss” on Sept. 7 in Old Lyme’s Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library.

“What’s funny — and what I’d forgotten — was that, when ‘Kaleidoscope Eyes’ came out, I heard from so many people,” Handler says. “And it was always, ‘It’s great to have Lulu back!’ Not Hoagy — at least not at first mention. I’m really pleased at how well received the book was, and I’d frankly forgotten how popular Lulu was.”

Part of the basset hound’s appeal is that A) readers can enjoy her signature and breath-corroding mackerel diet without actually having to breathe in anything and B) she genuinely does contribute to Hoagy’s investigative efforts in ways that add a dash of magical realism to what might typically be expected of a canine.

“Readers, I think, enjoy Lulu in this respect because they read her as a dog,” Handler explains. “But I WRITE her as a person who just can’t talk. She understands everything people say and reacts in ways that Hoagy understands. She’s quirky and neurotic but she sees and smells things in ways that can’t be done by humans. I try very hard to give her a fundamental role but to also keep a realistic balance and not overdo the cutesiness because, in the end, they are crime novels and Hoagy’s doing a lot of the work.”

Indeed, Lulu without question adds an endearing and comic quality to the books, but it’s also only one element to a complex and layered series. There’s a lot of violence in the books, and the subject matter is considerably darker than the “cozies” plots of Del and Mitry. Also refreshing: longtime fans are getting some resolution with regards to unanswered questions about Hoagy’s character development. This also applies to another recurring major character, Hoagy’s captivating ex-wife, Oscar-winning film star Merilee Nash. This particularly resonates since, way back at the beginning of the series, the two separated for some fairly involved reasons and are still trying to find ways to forgive themselves and each other.

In “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss,” Hoagy and Lulu are away from their Manhattan apartment, staying in the Connecticut farmhouse owned by Nash. Newly inspired, Hoagy is at last working on the follow-up to his successful but long-ago debut novel. Merilee, in the meantime, has gathered a group of her similarly successful actor friends — all alums of the Yale Drama School — to rehearse and then present a one-night-only performance of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” with the goal of refurbishing an iconic theater now fallen into ruin.

Yes, Hoagy and Merilee are getting along in a fashion that gives them — and Lulu — cautious hope for a possible reconciliation. This encouraging momentum is jeopardized, though, by a blackmail attempt. One of the cast’s former Yale classmates — a sure-thing thespian who flamed out on arrogance and drugs — has surfaced and threatens to not only derail the production but to also spill a secret that could destroy Merilee’s career.

Unanswered questions

“In (‘The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes’), I was reintroducing a lot of elements,” Handler says. “It’s set in California, and Merilee’s hardly in it at all. I used that book to explore Hoagy’s past and his first great love, and it goes a long way in explaining why he’s never been able to follow that first great novel.

“I wanted ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Miss’ to be about Hoagy AND Marilee, and about HER past and a very dark secret. She’s bought this lovely farm in Lyme and says to Hoagy, ‘If you ever want a place to write serious fiction, this is where you can do it.’ Hoagy has a great idea for a book and new energy, and Marilee has a dream cast and a great cause for her first effort as a director — and they’re in a great place. But then her past surfaces.”

With typical gallantry, the fiercely protective Hoagy puts the novel aside to deal with the blackmailer — but the case isn’t solved without a succession of murders and major emotional carnage. A problem: the blackmailer has alibis for the killings, and so the wonderful and beautifully drawn supporting cast — literally, in Merilee’s production — come under suspicion. It’s a bit melancholy — and very much a tribute to Handler’s deft plotting — to think one of them might be involved in the killings.

Handler says he’s having a tremendous if somewhat wistful time with the resurrected series.

“I was a little nervous,” he says. “Did I still have Hoagy’s voice? He was my age when I stopped writing the books; now he’s still in his 40s and I’m 20 years older, and he’s witty and I’m not. But I think he’s still funny, and what I didn’t realize is that I’m able to add a level of maturity and poignancy that wasn’t there before. Maybe I’m more open to writing about emotions, and I have the benefit of knowing what happens when you get older. Some of it’s sad. But I think I can help Hoagy along. As for Lulu, she’s fine. She’s never going to age.”

Leon, dozing in the sun, seems fine with that.