Peter S. Fischer began writing the Hollywood Murder Mysteries series as a way to keep himself amused. “After I retired, I'm just sitting around twiddling my thumbs and playing a little golf,” he says, which wasn't enough to fill his days. “So I sat down and wrote this mystery novel.”As the co-creator of Murder, She Wrote and a writer and producer for Columbo and Ellery Queen, he was no stranger to telling mystery stories, but he knew that writing novels required a different approach. His first attempt at fiction, many years ago, never made it to publication. “I had been writing screenplays, but I didn't have the muscles for writing prose,” he says. As an avid reader, he acquired those skills over time, and Jezebel in Blue Satin was published in 2011.
When he began the book, Fischer had no plans to bring his public relations man and amateur detective, Joe Bernardi, back for more. “It was just going to be the one novel, that's it,” he says, before he moved on to another activity. But then he wondered, “What would happen if I took my hero and put him to work again at Warner Brothers and had him solve a mystery involving the shooting of a real movie?” That premise became the defining feature of the series, and the second book, We Don't Need No Stinking Badges, found Joe on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Fischer is an entertainment industry veteran, but for the Hollywood Murder Mysteries, he looked back to an earlier generation in the movie business. “The books really reflect a lot of what was going on in Hollywood at the time,” he says, especially the shift from a production system controlled by the major studios to one that offered opportunities for independent producers to rise.
The well-known movies and actors of that era provide an easy hook for the series' readers. “People know who Brando was. They know something about his personality,” Fischer says, just like people know James Cagney, The Glass Menagerie and the other iconic cultural touchstones that serve as the backdrop for one crime after another.
In the latest installment, Pray for Us Sinners, Joe Bernardi is on site in Quebec, managing publicity for Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess. His biggest concern—at first—is keeping the gossip columns from writing about the tensions between Hitchcock, who preferred to have actors follow his direction without asking questions, and the movie's star, Montgomery Clift, a Method actor who insisted on understanding his character's motivation and thoughts. But when a lawyer involved in an organized crime case is killed, and Bernardi's liaison at the Quebec Film Commission is the main suspect, he finds himself investigating a murder in addition to managing creative differences and rumormongers.
Kirkus Reviews calls the book “well-paced, with exceptional, believable dialogue.” Bernardi's narration has a noir feel, and the reader can almost envision Pray for Us Sinners appearing on a 1950s movie screen. In describing his antagonists, Bernardi does not hold back: “She's out to make a name for herself like Hedda or Louella or Sheila, but she hasn't the wit or the style to pull it off....She's not fun to read, and she won't last long, but in the meantime, I have to deal with her.”
Fischer's background in the industry he writes about is an asset (“I know what happens on a movie set; I know how it operates”), but like any writer of historical fiction, he also does a lot of research. “I've got tons of books about old Hollywood” and old movies on his bookshelves, he says, and he also relies on online resources to help him with the accuracy of even the smallest details: “What kind of restaurants were open, who was around, who was the chief of police.”
The freedom to choose his subject and take the series in any direction he wants is the part of self-publishing that most appeals to Fischer. “When you're in the television business, you're at the mercy of the networks, of the studio you work for,” he says. But now “you can really write what you want, how you want.”
And that is why he is writing this series. “You must do it for your own self-satisfaction,” he says. “The odds of becoming a best-seller are so infinitesimal I don't even think about it.” He relies on his son Chris Fischer for the more business-oriented aspects of self-publishing, including marketing and distributing the books, which are sold at online retailers in both print and digital formats and are also available in bookstores through Ingram's Lightning Source service. Chris also manages the books' release schedules, publishing one every few months. “My son is rationing these out,” says Fischer, who has already finished several upcoming books in the series.
With his son handling the details, Fischer is free to write for the joy of it, and his enthusiasm is evident as soon as he starts to talk about his work. His goal is to provide entertainment to readers, just as he used to provide entertainment for television viewers. But the person who has the most fun with the Joe Bernardi mysteries must be Fischer himself. “Each one is just an adventure,” he says.
On Sept. 15, Fischer launched an adventure of a different sort with the publication of his “unauthorized autobiography,” Me and Murder, She Wrote. The book is more a professional memoir than a personal one and focuses on anecdotes from his years in television. The stories he shares in the book celebrate the stars of the shows he produced and wrote, including Angela Lansbury, Telly Savalas and a young George Clooney. Fischer hopes the book will reach fans of the shows, which have remained popular in syndication, and he hopes that through cross-promotion he can draw those fans to the Hollywood Murder Mysteries as well.
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.