Naughty is not the novel one might expect from the offspring of beloved American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. But longtime readers of novelist and songwriter Monte Schulz will find exactly the sort of well-honed historical noir that elevates the younger Schulz’s new offering above the conventional range of crime novels. With shades of Nathanael West, Denis Johnson and a patina borrowed from James M. Cain, Schulz crafts a tale of fate, murder and redemption that builds upon the author’s abiding fascination with days past.

It’s also a surprising coda from an author who spent a full decade writing his magnum opus, a mammoth construction set in the 1920s that was ultimately published as three books: The Big Town, The Last Rose of Summer, and This Side of Jordan. Written as a tribute to his father Charles Schulz and mother Joyce Halverson, the trilogy will be republished in a single volume next year under the title Crossing Eden. But it’s more recent history that concerns Schulz in his latest novel, which is set in the 1950s.

Is it true, or is it fiction? The answer is yes, as Schulz initially conceived of a fictional story about a troubled veteran who falls in with the wrong woman, the owner of a coastal California hotel. It was only after discussing the story with friends that Schulz realized he was unintentionally mimicking the 1963 murder trial of Ralph and Iva Kroeger, who were sentenced to the gas chamber for the murders of an elderly couple, Mildred and Jay Arneson.

“I was just 10 years old at the time of the case, but I remembered two things,” Schulz recalls. “I remember bodies buried in the basement of an apartment, and I remembered reading how Iva Kroeger banged her shoe on the table during the trail like Khrushchev had done at the United Nations.” 

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By this time, Schulz had already mapped out the first section about the characters who became “Joe Krueger” and the villainous sociopath “Ida,” who murders her parents. After remembering the story of the real life Kroegers, Schulz began merging fiction with fact. While Joe became a younger, more sympathetic character who ushers readers into the story, Ida Kroeger remains as strange and beguiling as the woman that inspired her.

“Joe is a character who really got caught up in something that was too much for him,” Schulz observes. “He just stops at the wrong place at the wrong time in his life. He would lie in bed at night and worry that he was retarded. He just isn’t a smart guy, but he’s a normal guy. He’s lost, but he means well. He’s a man who just needs to be shown a better way, so in that sense the novel is really about fate.”

To capture “Ida Krueger,” Schulz began an obsessive, years-long process of investigating the real Iva Kroeger. He hired a private detective who tracked down original witnesses, contemporary crime reporters and family members to compare stories. He secured a copy of what he terms the “Holy Grail” of the case, the 3,000-page trial transcript. A reporter who covered the story from Schulz’s hometown of Santa Rosa proved to be an invaluable source of stories, facts and clippings about the trial. The Discovery Channel recently interviewed Schulz about Iva’s misdeeds for their popular investigative program Deadly Women. 

Those original sources also help lend credence to Schulz’s adroit use of period language to help set the book’s murky atmosphere.

“It’s my Industrial Light and Magic trick,” the author says of the technique. “It sounds like it would be complicated but I’ve been doing the period language thing for so long that it was probably easier for me. You have a character saying things like she got ‘biffed on the head.’ That’s from the transcript. Iva used these weird forms of verbs; she would say, ‘I taken a broom.’ I’m proud of the language now, but I think it’s sad that hardly anyone notices it.”

They may be criminals, but these characters also come from a class that Schulz identifies with personally.

“I like the idea of writing about people who are living below the radar,” he says. “You see them all the time. My family, with the exception of my father’s fame, comes from lower-middle-class people. Joe is just an ordinary person who meets a crazy person.”

The novel has drawn comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but Schulz found his own inspiration in a combination of sensational 1950’s pulp fiction and his own lingering affection for literary fiction.

“The novel that really put me on this path was re-reading Robert Bloch’s original novel Psycho,” Schulz explains. “I liked it because it was so plain. My writing is far more elaborate but I needed to dial it down to tell this story. My writing is more lyrical and more philosophical, but stripped down I felt it lent more to that noir concept of the empty landscape.”

While readers will definitely feel something in the telling of this mystery through Joe’s eyes, Ida/Iva remains a cipher. One of the reasons that Schulz had to fictionalize her was that the last decades of Iva’s life drew a blank. Her death sentence was vacated by a California court in 1964.

“Ida is the only character where we don’t go into her head, and that’s because I have no idea what she thought about anything,” SSchulz coverchulz explains. “I wouldn’t have wanted to meet Iva Kroeger. If she was that charming and that sociopathic, she’s going to lie during the entire conversation, and be utterly convincing.”

Naughty is published by Fantagraphics Books, an imprint more traditionally known for graphic novels and other sequential art. That relationship came about when Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth invited Schulz to write an essay in response to author David Michaelis’ controversial 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts.

“Gary Groth was so erudite and clever and opinionated about literature,” Schulz says. “There might have been other options but it was Gary who published my 1920’s trilogy, so if Naughty ends up being a big deal, I want it to be a big deal for Fantagraphics.”

For now, Schulz is more focused on his songwriting, and will release an album this fall with his Mission Canyon Band, a traveling menagerie of 33 singers and musicians who back Schulz on a wide variety of tracks. Although he’s not involved in the “family business” of shepherding his father’s legacy and the millions of dollars that Charles M. Schulz’s work still earns, he continues his father’s legacy in a different way by operating the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. Asked why he purchased the conference in 2010, Schulz quotes a well-remembered line from the 1951 film Scrooge.

“’To preserve a way of life one knew and loved,’” Schulz says. “That’s why I took this conference. There are no frills and it doesn’t make much money because it’s affordable for people who love it.”

Schulz had a few opportunities to work with his father—he was encouraged by his father to write the screenplay for the 1988 Peanuts television special It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown —but he recognizes that he walks a different path.

“The advantage of my dad’s name in marketing my books is worth exactly zero, and that’s okay,” Schulz says. “People used to complain to him about MetLife using Peanuts in their commercials. He once told me that people didn’t understand that comic strips exist to sell newspapers. They are inherently a commercial entity. Even though he was considered the greatest cartoonist of the 20th century, he never considered cartooning one of the higher art forms. He preferred painting and literature and music. He liked what he did, but he didn’t have an inflated view of himself.”

He may have inherited a legacy but Monte Schulz remains determined to be his own man.

“I’ve given away decades of my life that I can never get back to these books, so they have to justify themselves to me—maybe not in sales, but definitely in artistic achievement,” he says. “I have to end up pleased with my books and what I did in this world. So I’m careful about what I do to make sure it’s satisfying.”

Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.