Books are food for my soul! Pull up a beach chair and stick your toes in the sand as the Jersey surf rolls in and out, now open your book and let your imagination take you away.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Devil In The Hole by Charles Salzberg (Author Guest Post / Book Review)

In association with Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours, Jersey Girl Book Reviews is pleased to host the virtual book tour event for Devil In The Hole by author Charles Salzberg!

Author Guest Post

It’s kind of fitting that I’ve been asked to write something for Jersey Girl Book Reviews since the true crime I based Devil in the Hole on took place in New Jersey, over forty years ago.

At the time, I was just starting out as a freelance magazine journalist, fresh out of the mailroom at New York magazine. Being a freelancer, I had to come up with my own ideas for articles and, in hopes of obtaining steady work, perhaps even a non-fiction book.

One morning, I opened the New York Times and found, there on the front page, the story of a gruesome murder that took place in Westfield, N.J. A man named John List had murdered his entire family: wife, three teenage children, his mother and the family dog. What made this particular crime stand out, though, was that the murders, which took place in a large mansion-type house in an upper middle-class neighborhood, weren’t discovered until three weeks after they were committed. The reason for this time lag was that List had cleverly planned his crime so that he would have a head start on making his getaway. For instance, he called the school and said his kids would be on vacation. He stopped mail delivery. He even left all the lights on in the house so that people would think the family was home.

This is what fascinated me. I understood someone snapping and committing murder, but this was so well-planned, so well thought out, that it couldn’t have been committed in a moment of madness. There had to be, at least to the killer, a rational reason for the murders.

This, I thought, was a perfect magazine piece, and perhaps even the makings of a true crime book. But I ran up against an unexpected roadblock. I was told that as great a story as it was, until the John List was apprehended, there was no ending. No ending, no story.

And so I waited. And waited. Years passed. But he still wasn’t caught. Nevertheless, the story stayed with me, haunted me, even, as I toyed around with the idea of turning it into a novel. But before I did I had to figure out what could drive someone to commit such a heinous crime. Once I figured that out for my fictional murderer, I could start writing the book, which eventually turned out to be Devil in the Hole.

The footnote to all this is that some twenty or more years after the murders, America’s Most Wanted did a show on John List, appropriately aging his face to what he would look like at the time. Sure enough, someone recognized him and turned him in. He had created an entirely new life, married, had a job, as if nothing had ever happened. He was, of course, apprehended, tried and convicted. Last year, he died in prison.

It turned out his reason for murder was not what I had created for my fictional John List, named John Hartman, but in a way, that was even better. What he did released my imagination and resulted in what some are calling my best work.

About The Author

Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York magazine, Elle, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, GQ and other periodicals. He is the author of over 20 non-fiction books and several novels, including Swann's Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, and the sequel, Swann Dives In. He also has taught been a Visiting Professor of Magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, the Writer's Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.

Devil In The Hole - Book Reading

Book Review 

Devil In The Hole by Charles Salzberg
Publisher: Five Star
Publication Date: July 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover - 254 pages
ISBN: 1432826964
Genre: Psychological Crime Fiction

BUY THE BOOK: Devil In The Hole

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author / publisher in exchange for my honest review and participation in a virtual book tour event hosted by Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours.

Book Description:

Devil in the Hole is based on a true crime that occurred over 40 years ago in New Jersey, wherein a man murdered his entire family, wife, three children, mother and the family dog, and disappeared. My novel uses that event and takes off from there, following the murderer on his escape route. Using the voices of people he meets along the way, and people who are affected by his crime, the reader starts to build a portrait of the man and why he did what he did, in addition to following those who are searching for him.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 5-17-2013
This title publishes JULY 2013

“In this smartly constructed crime novel, Salzberg uses multiple viewpoints to portray an unlikely killer who methodically slaughters his family . . . an intriguing collage of impressions and personal perspectives for the reader to ponder.”


Devil in the Hole by Charles Salzberg.
Five Star, $25.95 (254p) ISBN 978-1-4328-2696-3

In this smartly constructed crime novel, Salzberg (Swann Dives In) uses multiple viewpoints to portray an unlikely killer who methodically slaughters his family. When James Kirkland, a neighbor, notices something odd going on at the Sedgewick, Conn., home of the Hartmans, he calls the police. Inside the Georgian-style mansion, police find the neatly executed bodies of Adele Hartman, her three teenage children, and her mother-in-law. John Hartman, Adele’s husband, is missing. Salzberg adroitly creates the voices of Hartman as he tries to establish a new life for himself; Charles Floyd, a senior police investigator who becomes obsessed with finding Hartman; and Kirkland, whose discovery changes his life. A slew of other characters who knew Hartman or who encounter him as he moves around provide snippets of information. The result is not a finished portrait but an intriguing collage of impressions and personal perspectives for the reader to ponder. Agent, Alex Glass, Trident Media Group. (July) Reviewed on 05/17/2013 | Details & Permalink (July)

Book Excerpt:

Chapter One

James Kirkland

I knew something was out of whack, only I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Just something, you know. And it wasn’t only that I hadn’t seen any of them for some time. I mean, they’d been living there for what, three, three and a half years, and I don’t think I ever had more than a two- or three-minute conversation with any of them. And God knows, it wasn’t as if I didn’t try.

All things considered, they were pretty good neighbors. Mostly, I guess, because they kept to themselves. Which is certainly better than having neighbors who are always minding your business, or who don’t mow their lawn, or who drop in uninvited, or who throw wild parties and play loud music all night long. They weren’t like that. Just the opposite, in fact. Why, with that great big front lawn and two teenage boys you’d think they’d be out there tossing a football or a Frisbee around, or something. But no. It was so quiet sometimes it was as if no one lived there at all. Though I did hear rumors that the boys had a reputation of being hell-raisers. Maybe that’s why they kept such a tight lid on them when they were home. Because I can honestly say there wasn’t any hell-raising going on in that house that I could see. As a matter of fact, the only way you’d know the house was occupied was when you’d see the kids going to school, or him going off to work, or her and the mother going out to shop. Or at night, when the lights were on.

Which brings me back to the house itself. And those lights. It was the middle of November, a week or so before Thanksgiving, when I first noticed it. I was coming home from work and when I glanced over there I noticed the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. It’s a Georgian-style mansion, one of the nicest in the neighborhood, by the way, with something like twenty rooms, and I think the lights were on in every single one of them. But the downstairs shades were drawn tight, so all you could see was the faint outline of light around the edges of the windows, which gave it this really eerie look. Maybe they’ve got people over, was my first thought. But that would have been so out of character because in all the time they’d lived there I’d never seen anyone go in or out other than them. And anyway, it was absolutely quiet and there were no cars in the driveway or parked out on the street.

Just before I turned in, I looked out the window and noticed the house was still lit up, which was odd, since it was nearly midnight and, as a rule, they seemed to turn in kind of early over there.

The next night when I came home from work and I looked across the street the lights were still on. And that night, before I went to bed, after midnight, I looked out and the lights were still blazing.

After that, I made a kind of game of it. Under the pretense of getting some fresh air, I walked close to the house, as close as I could get without looking conspicuous, and listened to see if there were any sounds coming from inside. A couple of times, when I thought I heard something, I stopped to listen more carefully. But I never picked up anything that might indicate that someone was inside. And each night, when I came home from work, I made it a point to check out the house and make a note of how many lights were still burning and in which windows. I even began to search for silhouettes, shadows, anything I might interpret as a sign of life. And it wasn’t long before I whipped out the old binoculars to take a look, thinking maybe I could see something, anything, that would give me a hint as to what was going on. But when my wife accused me of being a peeping Tom, I put them away, at least while she was around.

There weren’t always the same number of rooms lit, but I noticed there were always fewer, never more. It was as if someone was going around that house each day turning off one light in one room, but in no discernible pattern. I began to think of that damn house during the day, while I was at work, or on the train coming home. It became a real thing with me. I even kept a notebook with a sketch of the house and notations next to each window that had a light on.

At night, I played a game. I began to think of that house as my own personal shooting gallery and, sitting on the window sill in my pajamas, while my wife was either in the bathroom or asleep, I’d choose one of the rooms and aim my imaginary rifle and pop! pop!, I’d shoot out one of the light bulbs. And, if the next night that particular room was dark, I’d get a tremendous rush of self-satisfaction that carried me through the whole next day. It was kind of like one of those video games my kids play. Pretty sick, huh?

I mentioned it to my wife—not my silly game, but the fact that those lights were going out one by one. She thought I was nuts. “Can’t you find anything better to do with your time?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m entertaining myself. Leave me alone.” Then I asked whether she’d seen the Hartmans lately, because I was beginning to have this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if something was seriously wrong. That it wasn’t a game anymore.

“No,” she said. “I haven’t. But that’s not unusual. Besides, it’s not as if I’m looking for them. If you ask me, they’re creepy. The whole bunch of them.”

“I know. But maybe . . . maybe there’s something wrong.”

“Go to bed,” she said. So I did, lulling myself to sleep with my imaginary rifle cradled in my arms, as if it would actually afford me some protection just in case something was wrong.

A few nights later, I set the alarm for three-thirty and slipped the clock under my pillow. When the vibration woke me, I got up quietly, so as not to wake my wife, looked out the window and sure enough the same number of lights was burning in the house as the night before. I was puzzled and frustrated because I was dying to know what was going on. I even thought of making up some kind of lame excuse to ring the Hartmans’ bell. But I didn’t have the nerve.

Two weeks later, only three rooms in the house were still lit. Down from eight the week before, fourteen the week before that, the week I began to keep count. I asked my son, David, whether he’d seen the Hartman kid in school, the one in his class.

“We’re not exactly best buds, Dad,” he said. “He keeps to himself. He’s weird. Maybe he’s queer or something.”

“I just asked if you’d seen any of them lately.”

“Not that I can remember. But I don’t go out of my way looking for any of them. They’re a bunch of weirdos.”

I went back up to my room and stared out the window for maybe fifteen minutes, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I wondered if I should do something.

“Come to bed,” my wife said.

“I’m worried,” I said without taking my eyes off the Hartman house. “There’s definitely something wrong over there.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she said. “Besides, it’s none of our business.”

“No, I can feel it. Something’s . . .”

She sighed, got out of bed and handed me the phone. “Well, rather than having to spend the rest of my life with a man who insists on staring out the window at the neighbors’ house all night like an idiot, I’d just as soon you called the police and let them put your mind at ease. At least maybe they can get them to turn out all the lights. Maybe then we can get some sleep over here.” So, that’s how I called the cops.

My Book Review:

Crime thriller fans, boy do I have a riveting book for you!

In Devil In The Hole, author Charles Salzberg weaves a fascinating fictionalized tale based on the 1971 NJ true crime murder case of John List, who mass murdered his family in their posh family home, then fled the scene and eluded capture for eighteen years until he was highlighted on the TV show, America's Most Wanted.

Devil In The Hole is a fast paced page turner that follows the murder case of John Hartman, who cold-bloodedly planned and carried out the mass murder of his family in their affluent Sedgewick, Connecticut home, then disappears and eludes capture for three years.  Author Charles Salzberg draws the reader into this riveting story with a convincing recounting of the murder, escape and hunt for the murderer told in an alternating first person narrative that includes John Hartman and well over a dozen other people whose lives have been impacted by his heinous crime. Each character's voice comes alive as they recount the frustrating hunt for the seemingly mild mannered murderer, who not only escaped the murder scene but also from the torment of his own troubled mind. Through a richly descriptive interweaving of accounts by the various characters, the reader delves into the complexity of the murderer, the crime and the impact that it had on the close knit Connecticut community, and those who became obsessed and doggedly searched for John Hartman.

Devil In The Hole is a haunting novel that will keep the reader in suspense as the dark portrait of a seemingly mild-mannered man's life descent into madness and murder unfolds, leaving a chilling rippling effect on people connected to this man and his heinous crime. As a born and bred Jersey girl, I remember the 1971 NJ mass murder case that John List committed on his unsuspecting family. I have also enjoyed the made for TV movie featured on Lifetime about the List case, so when I read the book description for Devil In The Hole, I knew I had to read this book, and I wasn't left disappointed. The author connects the murder and the ensuing manhunt with intriguing first person narratives that keeps the reader captivated and guessing what would happen next, it is a story that you won't be able to put down.

Devil In The Hole is one of the best psychological crime thrillers that I have read, it is a powerful story that is thought provoking and expertly told by an author who convincingly fictionalizes a true life crime into one hell of a riveting tale that is a must read!


Virtual Book Tour Schedule


  1. Extraordinary review and post!!! I have been reading nothing but rave reviews for this book and I can't wait to read it, especially after reading your review. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Cheryl! You have to read this book, it is simply one of the best that I have read this year. Thank you for the opportunity to host the virtual book tour event, and I appreciate your kind comments. :)

  2. Thanks so much for the sensational review, Kathleen.

    1. Hi Charles! I absolutely loved reading Devil In The Hole. You did an awesome job of fictionalizing the List murders into a tale that kept me riveted and unable to put the book down. This was one of the best books that I have read this year. Thank you for the opportunity to host your virtual book tour event. :)

    2. Thanks so much for your kind words, Kathleen. I'm at Bouchercon now and it made my day. I'm humbled by all the good reviews I've been getting, but yours is one of the best.