Murder with a touch of the absurd.

Darkly comic Thrillers with Rich Leder

When Rich Leder finished reading his excerpt from his new book, Cooking for Cannibals, I realized his writing reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s. As the title of this podcast episode implies, Rich’s writing has a touch of the comedic, but not in a har-har way. It’s more like a dash of salt added to a very spicy dish.

In the interview we talk about writing screenplays in Hollywood, writing ‘high concept’ books, and his other mystery series, the crime caper Kate McCall books.

Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor

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This week’s mystery author

Rich Leder has been a working writer for more than three decades. His credits include 19 produced movies—television films for CBS, Lifetime, and Hallmark and feature films for Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Longridge Productions, and Left Bank Films—and six novels for Laugh Riot Press. 

Learn more about Rich Leder and all this books at RichLeder.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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Excerpt from Cooking for Cannibals

Chapter One: A MODERN MARVEL OF MEDICINAL MANUFACTURING

Cooking for Cannibals

It was an unprecedented feat of pharmaceutical engineering with a kiss from Mother Nature and a whisper from God.  Carrie could tell without technical measure, with her naked eye, with the touch of her hand, that the rats were younger this week than last, younger today than yesterday.  There was indisputable clinical corroboration to authenticate and validate her professional observations.  The most rigorous laboratory methodologies had been employed.  The results had been questioned and challenged time and again.  Every test, trial, study, and calculation confirmed the conclusion.  The aging process in all nine rats had been definitively and profoundly reversed.  

The drug worked.

Carrie stood hidden in a dark corner of Lab No. 3 holding a rolling pin.  Her knuckles were white from choking the handle.  Her heart was beating like the bass drum she’d played for a short time in the New Brunswick High marching band back in New Jersey when she was fourteen (an unpleasant memory even now), all those years and three thousand miles ago.  If she didn’t keep her mouth closed, she thought, her heart would pound its way up her throat and shoot across the lab floor. 

In all her thirty-five years, she’d never hit anyone on the head with a rolling pin.  Never broken the law.  Not a speeding ticket.  Not a gum wrapper on the ground.  Panic was a reasonable reaction given the circumstances.  Shortness of breath, rapid pulse, and excessive perspiration were expected outcomes.  Amplified adrenaline wreaking emotional chaos and intellectual havoc was a predictable and projected response.  But Jesus Christ, she hadn’t planned on being such a nervy mess.   

To steady herself, she focused on her alibi.  Technically, she wasn’t here.  Her car was parked in a lot on the other side of the San Fernando Valley.  Witnesses had seen her with a beer in the Foxfire Room in Valley Village.  There was a bartender who would confirm it.  She’d used a colleague’s card to scan her way back into the lab.  If anyone was here with Old Tom, the security guard who worked Wednesday nights after hours, it was Stuart Langston, Alsiko’s biostatistician, the smarmy math creep no one liked.

To calm herself, she focused on the courage it took to do what she was doing, how far she’d come in her own personal development to be brave enough to commit this kind of compassionate crime when her career and life were laid out before her as clear as California.  She was a behavioral gerontologist, not a thief, for Pete’s sake, with a good job and a steady income, a purpose and a conscience.  Maybe a criminal could sneak into the lab, bonk Old Tom on the head, steal the drug, and be done with it—no remorse, no regrets—but Carrie? 

She’d rue the day, but she would do it.  She would make this one illegal detour in her otherwise straitlaced life, get back on the freeway, and avoid the rearview mirror as best she could.

Unfortunately, she looked straight into the rearview mirror and saw her parents, Joanna and Lawrence Kromer, fifty-one and sixty-one years old the day she’d been born back in New Jersey.  Her mother had been a college librarian at Rutgers University for four decades.  Her father had been a sullen research biologist—and a mean drunk.  They’d never meant to marry—for God’s sake, it was one inebriated night at a university cocktail party.  Her mother wasn’t even supposed to have been there.  But Joanna had gotten pregnant by mistake, and the respectable solution was to give the kid a family.  The fact that neither parent had wanted to get married or desired a child was immaterial.

Lawrence had died of a nasty disposition (and cirrhosis of the liver) on Carrie’s twenty-first birthday, about the best present she could have asked for.  Joanna promptly retired with her and her late husband’s university pensions and moved to Los Angeles to live her golden years in the Golden State.  

Carrie went with her.  She’d just graduated from Rutgers (tuition-free because she was the offspring of a university professor and a university librarian) with a degree in psychology and had gone on to earn two master’s degrees and a PhD from UCLA by the time she was twenty-eight.  Each degree was in the field of gerontology, the scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular complications of growing old.  But it wasn’t the chemical equations or the biology of aging DNA that fascinated her; it was the application of the principles of applied behavior analysis in the elderly.  Why old folks ticked the way they did as they got older.  How to analyze elderly behavior and the lives of senior citizens.

Carrie’s curiosity about the elderly had been sparked to life at an early age—when she’d realized Joanna and Lawrence were old enough to be the parents of her classmates’ parents.  And her intellectual captivation had only grown stronger as her mother and father packed on the years.

From her father, Carrie had inherited the research gene—the desire to set a scientific system in place and follow the process to its technical result.  There was no good or bad about it, only the attention to process and analysis of the data.  Lawrence would often take her to the lab because he had no time or patience for ballet and soccer and so on.  As a university biologist, Professor Kromer often worked with lab rats, and Carrie found a connection with them.  She liked working with them, enjoyed watching them live their little rat lives, as short and unglamorous as they were.  There was a lot to learn about human comportment, she discovered, by observing lab rats in carefully controlled conditions.  

From the beginning and for reasons she never understood, she found quiet pleasure in naming them.  Not surprisingly, in elementary school, a certain segment of the student population had called her Rat Girl.  She’d been smarter than those kids, of course—smarter than most kids.  So she’d accepted the name as a matter of observable fact (she liked rats, and she was a girl) and stopped the tease in its tracks. 

It wasn’t that she’d been disliked.  She just hadn’t had a lot of friends.  She was the wallflower geek introvert who preferred science club to glee club, who spent more time with rats than with kids, and whose parents had come over on the Mayflower.  But no one had considered her an anti-social loner, a mentally unstable loser, or an emotionally dangerous outsider.  There’d been no reason for anyone to think of her like that.  She’d never hit anyone on the head with a rolling pin, for instance.

Although, Carrie thought as the Lab No. 3 door opened with a whoosh and Old Tom came in on his rounds, that’s about to change

From Joanna, Carrie had inherited strength of purpose, commitment to task, and devotion to order.  When she hadn’t been in the biology lab with Lawrence, she could often be found in the library with her mother, who’d enjoyed the company of books far more than the company of men, especially her husband.  Which meant Carrie hadn’t had a parental role model for romance.  And that was fine as far as she was concerned.  Like her mother, she didn’t need a man to feel fulfilled.  Her mother had found self-realization in her reference librarian research, in the row upon row of books that filled the university library; Carrie had found gratification in the lab, studying the behavioral effects of old age.  Her mother had been forced into a loveless relationship after one careless night of debauchery; Carrie would not make the same mistake.  If the right man came along one day—her standards were exceptionally high—fine.  If not—and, really, how could any man measure up?—also fine.  But so far, she’d never met a man who’d understood her or even wanted to.

And that includes Old Tom, Carrie thought as the security guard crossed the lab to where she hid in the dark shadows.  

She listened to his footsteps as he walked past the wall of rat cages and thought about the Greek Gods—well, the nine rats in the proof-positive group Carrie had named after them.  

Rattus norvegicus.  She’d chosen brown rats over black rats, Rattus rattus, for Alsiko Labs because of their longer life span—two to three and a half years for the domesticated class—and started with an assembly of several hundred of various ages.  She had analyzed their behavior as they’d aged and died for the full six years she’d been working for Dr. Leo Sikorski.  

The first two hundred had expired of old age—or from one of the many dozens of Sikorski’s failed drug trials—so Carrie had brought in another two hundred for continued testing and analysis.  Many of that second assembly had died as well, more and more of them from the drugs.  And while Sikorski’s endless iterations of experimental white powder had increasingly produced anti-aging properties, they’d also delivered some terrible, sometimes bizarre, side effects—death, of course, being the worst.  

Until now.  

Now, the drug worked wonders.  After six years, Sikorski’s magic white powder had unequivocally made the old brown rats—her Greek Gods—not just younger but much younger.  And with no apparent side effects.  It was a modern marvel of medicinal manufacturing.  Sikorski’s drug would change the course of human history if and when it was approved by the cogs in the arcane machinery of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.  But that was too big an if for Carrie Kromer—and too long a when.

She readied the rolling pin, positioned herself to strike and, as Old Tom went by, stepped out of the shadows and cracked him on the back of the head.

He hit the lab floor face-first.  Carrie looked at him splayed out like a rag doll and hoped she hadn’t hurt him too badly.  She didn’t dislike Old Tom.  Truthfully, she hardly knew him.  

Sorry, Old Tom.  The words were ready to fall out of her mouth, but he groaned. She had to hurry.

She crossed the hallway to Lab No. 2 and went straight to Sikorski’s pharmacy.  She pulled a mini pry bar from her purse, broke open the locked drawer, and saw the only vial of magic medicine on the planet.

Chapter Two: DIDN’T KNOW I HAD A NEW PAROLE OFFICER

Johnny Fairfax was a rock-star butcher—possibly one of the best butchers in LA, certainly one of the most badass.  How badass a butcher was he?  If Johnny Fairfax took a How To Be A Butcher certification class, the other wannabes would want to be Johnny Fairfax, that’s how badass.  Of course, he’d never taken a butcher certification class—Johnny had hated school in any conformation, and school had hated him back.  

He was thirty-eight years old.  His arms were covered with tattoos, two colorful sleeves of chaos.  Both legs too.  And his chest.  And his stomach.  And his back.  Johnny had what most people would consider to be a shit-ton of tattoos.  His hair was long.  His beard was scruffy.  He was tall and lean, wiry and wild.  He rode a beat-to-hell Harley and never wore a helmet.  Like all rock-star butchers, he had every knife, carver, and cleaver in the book.  Knives to die for was what Johnny had.

But Johnny Fairfax didn’t want to be a rock-star butcher.  Cutting wholesale slabs of beef, pork, lamb, and veal into steaks, chops, ribs, and roasts did not fulfill him.  And though he did it with the power of Keith Moon, the energy of John Bonham, and the madness of Ginger Baker, being a butcher did not make Johnny’s mojo jo. 

Johnny Fairfax wanted to be a rock-star chef.

Before and after both of his stints in prison, he’d worked in steakhouses around LA.  But a bad attitude and imperceptible patience meant he’d never stuck it out long enough to move onto the line—from butcher to cook.  No matter how many times he told his chef he could cook like a freak of flambé, like a rogue of rotisserie, like a sultan of sauté, they’d tell him to pay his dues and wait his turn.  But Johnny had paid his dues—done his time, as it were—and he was ready for it to be his damn turn right now.  He could cook, he’d tell his chefs before he bounced, like a hellcat in a kitchen.

“What are you doing, Johnny?” 

Ian Ferguson was the head chef at Melvin’s, a steakhouse on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, not far from Laurel Canyon, where Johnny had been working as a butcher for four weeks.

Johnny was standing at the stove, cutting cubes of beef and vegetables, adding them to a pan and sautéing them over a low flame—wine, beef stock, cream ready all around him.  It was early Thursday morning.  

“Making a fricassee,” Johnny said.

“Who gave you permission?” Ian said.

Johnny kept cooking, cutting more meat and vegetables, adding more spices, careful not to brown the dish, adding the wine and then the shallots, sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper, braising the beef with textbook technique.  He’d had similar conversations at a dozen steakhouses and knew that when kitchen tête-à-têtes started with questions about permission, bad news was in his immediate future.  

“It’s a French stew, Ian.  No big deal.  Most people make it with chicken, like you do.  But it’s better with beef.  You should taste it.”

“Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do in my kitchen.  Why are you here so goddamn early?”

“Was out too late to go home, so I came in to cut steaks, had time to spare, thought I’d make a little fricassee.”  Johnny added enough cream to the pan to turn the sauce white.  “Beef.  It’s what’s for breakfast.”

“Put the knife down.  I have to talk to you.”

“No caramelization.  That’s the trick.”

“Put the goddamn knife down.”

 Johnny turned the flame to a low simmer and locked eyes with the chef.  In his younger years, his teens and twenties, Johnny would have beaten the living shit out of anyone who’d talked to him like that, even someone bigger than him—someone like Ian Ferguson, for instance, who had forearms like Popeye and red hair like the devil and was the size of a small building.  A barrel-chested, hot-headed Scotsman.  

Just like Johnny’s father.  

Johnny had been two years old—too young to remember—when his birthmother, an eighteen-year-old girl whose first name had long been lost to time and circumstance but whose last name was Russo or Romano or Rotolo or something Italian, had walked him down the block to the house of Patrick and Meredith Fairfax, rung the bell, and left the boy at the door with forty-three dollars and a note saying his name was Johnny and that he needed a family.  The birthfather wasn’t in the picture, the note said, which meant even the boy’s birthmother didn’t know who he was.

Merry had miscarried half a dozen times, and the doctor had said that was it, no more pregnancies for her and Patrick.  Young Mrs. Fairfax had been devastated and told her husband God Himself had come to her in a deep dream and said she’d be a mother one day, so they must adopt.  But Proud Pat had refused to raise someone else’s child—not to mention adoptions cost more money than the fledgling butcher had in his bank account—so he and Merry had remained childless.

And then God had delivered their son to the front door.  At least, that’s what Merry had told Pat, and this time she wasn’t taking no for an answer.  Johnny Russo or Romano or Rotolo or whatever had become Johnny Fairfax, and Pat and Merry raised him as their own.

“Say please,” Johnny said to Ian.  

The badass tattooed butcher was not to be fucked with—especially when he was holding a knife.  The chef flinched first.

“Fine.  Please put the goddamn knife down,” Ian said.

Johnny didn’t put the knife down.  He kept cooking.  A metaphor for his life.

“Melvin spoke to your new parole officer,” Ian said.

Bad news, Johnny thought.

“The fucked up part of that,” Ian said, “is that we didn’t know you had any parole officer, never mind a new one.  You didn’t put that in your application—the part about you being a two-time ex-con.”

“Maybe I forgot,” Johnny said, tasting the fricassee, adding a touch more wine.

“Grand theft, assault and battery, breaking and entering.  Ring any bells?”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is Melvin doesn’t want ex-cons in the kitchen, especially when they lie on the application.  My point is Melvin’s investors aren’t happy about it either.  His lawyer, his insurance agent—nobody’s happy.  My point is you’re fired, Johnny.”

Johnny tasted the fricassee one last time, nodded that it was good to go, and reached for one of the warm plates stacked above the stove.  “I’m a hellcat in a kitchen, Ian.”

“I’ll never know.”

Johnny plated the fricassee, wiped the edges of the plate clean, garnished the dish with rosemary and thyme.  It looked like Paris and smelled like heaven.  He figured he had a day, maybe two, before his new parole officer caught up with him.  If he had a job when that happened, he could talk his way out of the trouble he was in right now.  He took off his apron.  He’d set a place for himself at the counter—cloth napkin, small flower vase, wineglass, all the trimmings.  He put the plate down, pulled up a stool, and started to eat.

“I just fucking fired you,” Ian said.  “What the hell are you doing?”

 Johnny ignored the question.  If Ian was too stupid to know what Johnny was doing, then fuck him.  Anyway, he was lost in the flavor of the broth, the tenderness of the beef, the subtle snap of the vegetables, the headiness of the creamy aroma.  “Didn’t know I had a new parole officer.”

“Well, you do.  And he told Melvin he was going to call your landlord.”

Johnny stopped eating, pushed back from the counter.  “Bad to worse to fucked.”

By the time Johnny pulled the Harley up to his hellhole, one-room apartment on Inez Street between Whittier and East 6th, the lowest low-rent region of the downward spiral known as Boyle Heights, it was too late.  His landlord, Rodrigo Ramirez, an old gangbanger turned slumlord, had put Johnny’s meager possessions in the front yard.  Rodrigo, called Rodney the Wrecker by everyone in the hood, sat in a ten-dollar folding lawn chair surrounded by his posse.

“What the fuck, Rodney?” Johnny said, crossing the crabgrass to the ring of Walmart lawn chairs.  Rodney and his boys were drinking cans of PBR at nine forty-five in the morning.  There was a healthy stack of crushed empties in front of them.

“What the fuck?” Rodney the Wrecker said.  “I tell you what the fuck.  Your new parole officer call me to find out how you doing.  You got a job?  You walking a straight line?  You living a clean life?”

Had a job,” Johnny said.  “They just fucking fired me.”

“’Cause you never tell them you a ex-con,” Rodney said.  “’Cause you never tell me.  That what the fuck, amigo.”

“I need a place to live, Rodney.  It’s part of my parole,” Johnny said.

“I hear you, compadre.  But can’t be no convict in my castle,” Rodney said.  “Can’t raise no eyebrows at this address.”

Johnny nodded.  Rodney ran a drug lab in a back room of the house where Johnny had lived for the past few months—until this morning.

“You’re a fucking ex-con too, Rodney,” Johnny said.

“Don’t tell no one,” Rodney said, putting his index finger on his lips.  “Is a secret.”  The old gangbangers, ex-cons one and all, laughed out loud.

“Now I need a job and a place to live,” Johnny said.

“Yeah, you do,” Rodney said.  “Parole man send you back up, is what he thinking.”

Johnny shook his head in defeat.  One of the old gangbangers handed him a PBR.  Johnny popped the top and drank half the can.

“You a cook?” Rodney said.

“I’m a cook,” Johnny said.

“Got some guy know some guy quit his job this morning on account of he can’t get to work no more on account of some guy break his legs on account of he take something don’t belong to him,” Rodney said.  “I ain’t saying what he take or who he take it from or who break his legs.  Just saying the guy was a cook at a place on Palm Avenue called Copacabana.  West Hollywood.  Job come with a place to live.  What they call that, Santiago?”

Old gangbanger Santiago, teardrop tattoos on his face, drained a PBR while crushing the can.  “Room and board.”

“Room and board,” Rodney said.

Johnny ran to his Harley.  Called back over his shoulder.  “You got time to watch my stuff?”

“Yeah, I got time,” Rodney said to his posse as Johnny fired up the bike and accelerated into LA’s morning madness.  “Time for a yard sale.”