I first met Jerry Healy back in 2001 when I started going to Boston mystery writing events. At that time I'd had two stories published in small mystery magazines and had a couple of unpublished novels, and Jerry always treated me as if I belonged, which certainly wasn't true of many of the other established Boston mystery writers at that time. Whenever I saw Jerry at these events, we'd talk Red Sox, Patriots, about writing, etc., and he was more than just friendly--he was generous. He was also a bit of a character. He was someone who could be in a tux (and look damn good in it) while everyone else would be in jeans and tee shirts. He was also a dynamic (and fearless) public speaker, sharp-witted, and entertaining. And he helped out a lot of us newer writers.
In my early years as a struggling author, Jerry helped me a number of times. One of these times was when I started Hardluck Stories back in 2002. Jerry agreed to be one of my first guest editors, which gave the zine credibility, and allowed it to flourish. At the time I had one of my good friends (and best man at my wedding) Jeff Michaels, who was also a huge PI Cuddy fan, write the following essay for Hardluck. It's with great admiration that I'd like to republish Jeff's essays about one of Boston's best, and to a man who touched so many--both authors and readers. Jerry, you'll be missed.
A Look at Jeremiah F. Healy’s John Francis Cuddy Series
by Jeffrey Michaels, February 2003
If you’re an avid mystery reader, you’ve probably already read Jeremiah Healy’s work. If you’ve missed him for some reason, you have a great series awaiting you. Six of his novels and five of his short stories have been nominated for the Shamus Award (1), including a win in 1986 for his second novel, The Staked Goat. He has published 13 novels featuring Boston private detective John Francis Cuddy. He has also published a book of Cuddy short stories and a few novels without Cuddy.
Jeremiah Francis Healy III was born in Teaneck, New Jersey on May 15, 1948. He graduated from Rutgers University in l970, got his JD at Harvard Law School in l973, and passed the Massachusetts Bar in 1974. He was an associate with Withington, Cross, Park & Groden, a Boston law firm, from l974 to 1978, gaining a lot of courtroom experience. The Army ROTC helped pay for his education, and Healy served as a military police officer, leaving the Army in 1976 as a captain. He married Bonnie M. Tisler on Feb. 4, l978, the same year he began teaching at the New England School of Law in Boston. He wrote his first novel during the summer of 1981. The book, Blunt Darts, was rejected 28 times before it was published in 1984. The book is dedicated “To Bonnie, who is Beth.” He has since come a long way. His writing has been positively reviewed over the past 20 years, with his characters, plots and style singled out for their quality.
John Francis Cuddy
A recent article on mystery writers in Playboy ranks John Francis Cuddy #6 on a list of current fictional sleuths titled "Ten Dicks Worth Hiring." The Playboy article says this about Cuddy:
Boston P.I. with law training. Uses attorney's skills in eliciting information. Not as flashy as fellow Beantowner Spenser, nor does he eat as well. But he delivers results. Widowed for more than 15 years, he still visits his late wife's grave to discuss his cases. Even weirder, he follows her advice. (2)
This is Cuddy's entrance in Blunt Darts:
"Cuddy, John Francis."
"74 Charles Street."
Social Security number?
"Date of birth?"
I told her.
She looked up at me, squeezed out a smile. "You look younger."
"It's a mark of my immaturity," I said. She made a sour face and returned to the form.
"Empire Insurance Company." I wondered whether Empire had to fill out a form that referred to me as "Previous Employee."
The passage shows Cuddy graduated from the Philip Marlowe wise-cracking detective school, and we learn later that he was fired from his job as an insurance investigator because of his honesty. We also quickly discover Cuddy was an MP [military police officer] in Vietnam from 1967-68. Healy has said in interviews that Cuddy’s MP experiences are based on those of his father and uncle, rather than his own. Blunt Darts concerns the teenage son of a prominent judge who disappears, but it is unclear if he was kidnapped or ran away. The boy’s mother died four years earlier in an apparent suicide, but does that death relate to the boy’s disappearance? It is well-plotted, with a dash of Raymond Chandler and a shake of Ross MacDonald. The Boston setting was introduced by Robert B. Parker in 1973, and obviously influenced Healy. But while Parker’s Spenser was originally presented as a womanizer, Cuddy is the opposite. He is still devoted to his wife, Beth, who died young of cancer before the book opens. Cuddy’s first in a series-long string of visits to her grave site is a one-sided conversation, unlike later books in which the two talk over matters:
"Just carnations." I set them down and stepped back. "Mrs. Feeney said the roses at the flower market were tired-looking." I felt too distant standing up, so I squatted down on my haunches.
"Remember Valerie Jacobs, Chuck Craft's friend? Well, she's brought me a case, and it's a beaut! Rich family and all kinds of troubles. The grandmother you’d like. Good Yankee, you'd call her. The grandson I haven't met yet, and won't, if I don't roll pretty hard and fast on finding him. Still, he sounds like the type you'd have liked too. Serious, studies, and quiet. Just like me." We laughed.
I stared at the carnations for a while. I began blinking rapidly. We talked inside for a bit.
"So, I'm afraid I won't be back for a while. I'll see you when the case is over. Or sooner, if I hit a problem. Just like always."
I straightened up and turned around to walk back down the path. A teenager holding a rake and wearing a maintenance shirt and dungaree cut-offs gave me a funny look. I didn't recognize him. Summer help, probably, and young. Too young to know anything. Especially about cemeteries.
[Blunt Darts, chapter 4]
In a 1997 interview, Healy said the idea for the continuing dialog between Cuddy and his dead wife came to him while at a funeral:
"At the funeral, I noticed an old man holding a hat and rotating it by the brim, rocking back and forth, clearly talking to a headstone...In a sense it was odd, but in a way it wasn't. If you're used to talking to someone every day then wouldn't you continue even after they had died?" (3)
The visit shows Cuddy to be a sensitive fellow, and later in the book we see how much he still loves Beth. The young school teacher who got him into the case tries to seduce him, but he spurns her advances. He tells her it's not there for him, that he and his wife had something special. Valerie, the woman, tells him he should move on with his life and that it takes time to create a new relationship. He replies:.
"But that's just it, Val. After Beth died, and in between binges with the booze, I read all sorts or articles, whole books even, on the need to rebuild, to start over in your life, block by block. The problem is, it's wrong. Those writers were wrong, and you're wrong. There really are special people in the world, people who are special to other people from the word go, and that's the way it was with Beth and me. She was the only woman I'd ever loved. She was the only one who knew me, who knew what I was thinking and could anticipate what I'd be doing. It was magic between us from the first time I met her."
The Staked Goat (1986), the award-winning second novel, is much more violent than Blunt Darts, and teaches us about Cuddy’s experiences in Vietnam. The plot involves one of his fellow MPs from his time “in country,” who is murdered in what is made to look like a sex crime. Cuddy vows to find the killer, and the trail leads back to his years in Vietnam. There is also a secondary plot involving arson and the murder of witnesses. Unlike Blunt Darts, in which he is surprised by the murderer and almost killed, in The Staked Goat Cuddy acts as executioner when he finally tracks down the killer. In the book he also meets, and is immediately attracted to Assistant DA Nancy Meager, who grew up as he did in South Boston. Sparks fly, though Cuddy still distances himself from her in memory of his wife. Nancy is disappointed when he acts as executioner, but near the end of the book Cuddy brings her to the cemetery to meet Beth:
We walked the right path, then eased left. We stopped a few steps later at the familiar marble stone. Nancy slid her arm out from mine.
“Beth,” I said, “this is Nancy.”
Nancy didn’t say anything. She didn’t look at the stone or at me. She just stared down at the ground, where I used to look. Where Beth was.
I said nothing. Nancy glanced up at the inscription, then down again.
“Thirty was too young, Beth,” she said…
[The Staked Goat, chapter 26]
I recommend reading the books in order, because unlike some series, Healy’s connects the plots somewhat, and events carry over from book to book. Cuddy’s relationship with Nancy grows over the books, and unlike some detectives Cuddy gets a little older in each book. Cuddy and Nancy are nearly killed at the end of The Staked Goat, and the scene is recalled in the visit he makes to his dead wife toward the beginning of book three, So Like Sleep (1987). Unlike in Blunt Darts, Beth now keeps up her end of the “conversation,” and offers guidance on Cuddy’s advancing relationship with Nancy:
"I don't know if I like the green paper as well."
The roses were yellow, small but open flowers, sharp but widely spaced thorns. I bent over and laid them lengthwise to her.
"Mrs. Feeney says the company that manufactured the white tissue went bust, and the new outfit would charge her fifty percent more for the white."
I smoothed the paper down. It crinkled. The old paper, the white, sort of whispered.
Don't worry about it, said Beth. What do you think you're doing, working a toilet paper commercial?
I laughed. I looked past her stone to the Daugherty plot. His monument was granite, not marble, and some of the blood from last March was still dried dark on it. I stopped smiling and repressed a shudder.
Have you heard from Nancy?
"No. I thought about calling her, but..."
You're probably right not to push it.
She needs time, John.
"I know that too."
There was nothing more to say on that subject. The sky was overcast, the air still. No sailboats in our part of the harbor. Two Boston Whalers raced on a near-collision course, both heading toward an anchored third, already bucking, its fishing rods bending.
[So Like Sleep, chapter 5]
It takes until the end of book 4, Swan Dive (1988), before Cuddy gives in to his feelings and sleeps with Nancy, after Beth says it’s okay. An excerpt from that book shows that although Cuddy is a sensitive guy, he’s also the traditional tough guy P.I. who can take and give a beating. A lawyer who objects to Cuddy’s questioning asks her assistant/boyfriend to kick Cuddy out of the office. We learn the man, Paul Troller, was a finalist in the Golden Gloves before going to law school and is anxious to take Cuddy on:
The door to the adjoining office flew open and Troller burst into the room. He was wearing suit pants, a long-sleeved oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a handsome regimental tie. He grinned at me and started bouncing on the balls of his feet and shaking out his shoulders.
Cuddy tells us he respects boxers for their strengths, but has also noticed their limitations over the years:
Boxers have a weakness, too, however. They tend to think they're invincible in close. Even when wearing a tie.
I gambled Paulie's first punch would be a feint. He jabbed with his left at my eye, then pulled it short, instead driving a good right up and into my body. I caved, keeping my elbows and hands tight to protect my ribs and face. He followed with a left to the body, stepping forward to really bury it. I folded so that most of the force was spent in the air, leaving him near enough for me to grab his tie. I yanked the shorter end down with my right hand, my left forcing the knot high and hard into his throat. His face bulged, both his hands scrabbling to the front of his collar. I let go of the knot, clamping both my hands on the insides of his wrists and pulling his hands apart to benediction width. I had a feeling my grip would outlast his air.
[Swan Dive, chapter 20]
In book 5, Yesterday's News (1989), Cuddy is hired by a reporter to investigate happenings in Nasharbor, a city not unlike Fall River, Massachusetts. Nancy is mostly “off camera” in the narrative, and as a result the book is more hard-boiled than the previous two. Yesterday's News offers a good example of Healy’s strength in drawing characters. Here’s how he introduces a local pornographer:
Bernard "Bunny" Gotbaum sat like a Buddha in a large judge’s chair behind a desk piled high with paperwork. Obese, his sausage-like fingers played with the collar of a long-point sports shirt that bulged at each vertical seam. Wearing a toupee the color of cream soda, overall he gave the impression of a man who hadn't burned twelve calories since kindergarten. The teeth, however, earned him the nickname. The upper two front ones bucked out far enough to open beer cans.
[Yesterdays’ News, chapter 10]
Yesterday's News is close to a Hammett story, since almost everyone is bad. The book ends with Cuddy watching a Red Sox game on the TV with a new male friend. He has solved the case, killed one person, but left another bad guy alone for lack of evidence.
In book six, Right to Die (1991), Cuddy is hired to protect a right to die activist who is receiving death threats. Much of the book deals with Cuddy's advancing age and his desire to run the Boston Marathon once before it’s too late. He trains for the race throughout the book, and even after he is shot working on the case he still enters the marathon. The marathon is described very realistically. Healy’s Who's Who biography says he is a jogger, and that experience is evident in the book:
Mile twenty one. Boston College and the top of Heartbreak. Exhilaration, then the incredible bunching pain in the backs of the legs from going downhill. My calves went mushy, and my feet kept tangling. My left side felt like somebody was plowing it with baling hooks.
No functioning water stations for two miles until just below Coolidge Corner, where a guy my age and his kids braved the rain outside a majestic synagogue...The marker said "25" at Kenmore Square. Every joint below my waist had tossed in the towel, the bones sawing and grading against each other. The crowd chanted a single phrase. One more mile, one more mile.
[Right to Die, chapter 31 ]
Skipping ahead to book nine, we see Cuddy’s continued aging. In Act of God (1994), Cuddy hurts himself helping his girlfriend bring a huge mahogany dresser up a flight of stairs and visits doctors, eventually suffering an MRI chamber:
We went into a large room. There was very little in the way of furnishings beyond a big metal cylinder like an iron lung from the fifties and a fancy gurney table in front of it.
"Please sit on the end of the table."
When I did, Maureen used a strip of cloth maybe six feet long to bind my shoulders back. I suddenly had a vision from Saigon during the Tet Offensive, suspected Vietcong, on their knees in the street, their arms bound behind them at the elbow, causing them to arch forward, like--
"Am I hurting you?" said Maureen.
You just grimaced, and I was afraid--"
“No, thanks. I'm okay."
The MRI chamber brings back memories:
Maureen moved me headfirst into the iron lung. The first impression was being inside a coffin...Then I noticed the semicircular top and the indirect lighting and the metal buttresses. Suddenly it felt like a day when I got back from the service and a friend took me through the Callahan Tunnel in his new convertible, my head lolling on the backrest, watching the roof of the tunnel as we went by underneath it. Now I had maybe eight inches of airspace between my face and the walls and roof of the machine Above me, a white disk and then two red dots flashed, and I was aware of the whirring of a small fan somewhere. Then, over a muted public address system, I heard Maureen's voice in my ear.
"Are you all right in there, Mr. Cuddy?"
"Please stay completely still. The first imaging lasts for just three minutes."
[Act of God, Chapter 15]
Act of God also has a pretty good mystery, one of Healy’s most complex, with well-plotted twists and turns. As in The Staked Goat, Cuddy metes out justice his way. Cuddy solves the case and decides to execute the killer himself. He confronts the man with the facts and tells him he hasn't yet told the police. Cuddy then urges him to pick up a shovel so they can go dig up the body together. Cuddy wants the killer to swing it on him:
I'd tipped him, but the way he kept his eyes on me while reaching out and grabbing the handle told me he'd been thinking of it before I said it. He brought the shovel into both of his hands, first like Little John with a quarterstaff, which would have been a lot more trouble. Then he switched to a baseball grip, a leftie, and swung at me forehand. I jumped back, the knee twinging as I torqued it. He swung backhand, striking me on the left bicep and knocking me downward as I drew the Smith & Wesson Chief's Special worn over my right hip…From the ground, I could see [the killer] raising the shovel above his head, like a man with a maul to split firewood. When the shovel came forward, I fired three times into his chest and rolled left, the shovel hammering my right shoulder as [killer's] face thumped into the lawn about where my head had been.
[Act of God, chapter 29]
I omitted the killer's name in case you haven't read the book yet, since the mystery is rather complex and deserves to be savored.
Skipping ahead again to the latest Cuddy book, Spiral (1999) the reader is shocked in the very first chapter. Cuddy's girlfriend flies off on a business trip, and her plane crashes, killing all aboard. The two had been talking about moving in together, and Cuddy would have flown with her except for a previous job commitment, which it turns out had been cancelled before he left to drive Nancy to the airport. He gets drunk and mourns her in his own fashion. After a few days he talks the situation over for the first time with his dead wife, who is shocked and saddened to hear the news. She says:
This may not help, but there's a reason why you weren't on that plane.
"Sure there is. I didn't check my messages in time to--"
Not what I mean, John. There's some reason why you were spared.
I thought back to one of the first visits I'd made to the graveyard after Beth had died. "You know that."
"Mind letting me in on it?"
A short pause this time that passed for a small smile. If only I could.
Suddenly, I started to feel the cold. "Do me a favor?"
"Keep an eye out for Nancy. I think you'd like her"
[Spiral, chapter 1]
Nancy was disposed of because, as Healy has said in interviews, he had to either arrange a wedding or a funeral for her. Her death brings Cuddy back to the beginning of the cycle of mourning he was completing in Blunt Darts. The Cuddy series lies at the intersection of hardboiled and puzzle mystery fiction, with Nancy's presence a major factor in humanizing Cuddy and allowing him to be seen as a person and not just a detective. But after 13 novels there was probably little left for Healy to write about the two.
In Spiral, Cuddy is hired by his old commanding officer, just a week or so after Nancy’s death, to solve the murder of his 12 year old granddaughter. Spiral is set mostly around Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where Healy apparently now lives half the year as a snowbird. He dedicates the book to his "friends at the Tennis Club", a setting in the book. Florida flora and atmosphere give the book a different feel, and provide refreshing plot elements, since all the previous Cuddy novels were set in New England. Spiral continues the Vietnam themes found in the series, and the client calls Cuddy “Lieutenant” throughout the book.
When Cuddy reports on a barroom brawl he was involved in to his client, he reminisces about his time in Vietnam, and this internal dialogue causes him to zone out, which is noticed by the client:
I thought back to Saigon, the dozens of times I watched my MPs -- our MPs -- crawl on their hands and knees into bars. Inside, combat troops from the bush on two-days passes did their best to drink a month's worth of booze and forget what they'd just been through and would be going through again. Forget by starting a free-for-all fistfight with whomever supposedly slighted them, any opponents having roughly the same attitudes.
The MPs would crawl into the bars because the safest way to break up a brawl was to sneak up below the revelers' line of sight and whack them behind the knees with a nightstick, causing the muscles back there to spasm so badly that nobody could get to their feet for fifteen minutes, by which times the desire--the raw need--to swing on somebody would have--
The concussion, or just me since Nancy? "Sorry sir."
[Spiral, chapter 15]
The zoning out is noticed by a few other people in the novel, but it doesn’t stop Cuddy from solving the case, which has more suspects than any previous book in the series. But here’s where I must confess I don't generally care about the "mystery" in a mystery novel. Healy's novels appeal to me because he combines hard-boiled with enjoyable writing, strong characters and lively dialog. His books are very well-written puzzles, however, and I haven't provided the details on any endings because readers who care about such things deserve to view Healy's plots for themselves. Hopefully there will be future Cuddy adventures to savor, with hard-boiled Cuddy for readers like me, and a finely plotted mystery for another part of the book buying public.
Healy has recently published under the name Terry Devane, but I lack space herein to discuss those or the non-Cuddy books published under his own name. The Cuddy series offers enough to write about, and I urge you to give them a read. Healy’s legal background gives them added depth, as Cuddy smoothly draws out facts in a lawyer-like fashion from witnesses and suspects who expect to tell him nothing. If you like the honest, brave, loyal knight-in-shining-armor version of the hard-boiled detective hero, Cuddy is worthy of your time. If you want your detective to have a significant other, Cuddy and Nancy are far more realistic than any other couple I've encountered in detective fiction. And make sure you watch out for the series’ inside jokes, like Cuddy watching the filming of the Spenser TV show, reading a Robert Randisi novel, or driving by the site of Travis McGee’s houseboat.
- Blunt Darts (1984)
- The Staked Goat (1986)
- So Like Sleep (1987)
- Swan Dive (1988)
- Yesterday's News (1989)
- Right to Die (1991)
- Shallow Graves (1992)
- Foursome (1993)
- Act of God (1994)
- Rescue (1995)
- Invasion of Privacy (1996)
- The Only Good Lawyer (1998)
- The Concise Cuddy (1998) -- short stories
- Spiral (1999)
(1) The Shamus Award is given by the Private Eye Writers of America to honor excellent work in the Private Eye genre. The award was created by Robert J. Randisi in 1981. To see the list of winners and nominees go to:
(2) Lochte, Dick. “The Return of the Private Eye.” Playboy, March 1, 2000: 96.
(3) Snell, George. “Mystery writer in love with Boston'” Worcester Telegram & Gazette, October 15, 1997: B1.