Several years ago there was talk of remaking the popular 1970s TV crime drama The Streets of San Francisco—only without its original stars, the avuncular Karl Malden and, as his less experienced police partner, Michael Douglas. Fortunately, the project never went very far. Better that Hollywood should endeavor to produce something different, if not superior, and leave the classic series unsullied by attempts to warm it over for a younger audience.
Such doubts don’t necessarily apply to the novels that inspired the program. You might not know or remember this, but the 1972 pilot film for The Streets of San Francisco was adapted from a novel titled Poor, Poor Ophelia. Penned by Carolyn Weston (1921-2001), a onetime aircraft plant worker who eventually turned to fiction writing, the book starred a seemingly mismatched pair of homicide detectives, Al Krug and Casey Kellog, who worked for the Santa Monica, California, police department. Krug (who became Malden’s Michael Stone on Streets) was the elder and more experienced of the two, an old-fashioned flatfoot with scant patience for prevaricating witnesses or suspects, and a tendency toward snap judgments. Kellog (the model for Douglas’ Steve Keller) was a young surfer type, not long out of college, who wanted to bring modern law-enforcement techniques and sensibilities to his investigations, but grudgingly acknowledged that Krug’s less-enlightened approach wasn’t always a bad thing. Weston went on to compose two more novels featuring the same characters, Susannah Screaming (1975) and Rouse the Demon (1976).
Four decades later, long after Weston’s work had fallen out of print, independent publisher Brash Books acquired the rights to the Krug/Kellog novels from her heirs. Over the last nine months it has reissued all three. In addition, Brash hired Robin Burcell, a former California police officer and FBI-trained forensic artist who’s become an award-winning crime novelist (Cold Case, 2004; Face of a Killer, 2008), to begin spinning out new mysteries for Krug and Kellog to solve. Her first of those, due out in early November, is The Last Good Place, which finds its two protagonists—now working for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), in tribute to the TV show—digging into the case of a woman whose murder might be part of a string of strangulations occurring around Bay Area landmarks. Complicating matters, the deceased may have been engaged in an affair with her neighbor, and she volunteered at the local office of a U.S. congressman who wants to stay clear of the whole sordid business. The publicity surrounding this inquiry puts pressure on Krug and Kellog both, but it’s the latter who seems to struggle most, due partly to the distraction of his trying to win a promotion in rank. While Burcell’s efforts to meld the protagonists from Streets with Weston’s counterparts can jar at times, The Last Good Place is a craftily constructed procedural that bears the tone of Weston’s fiction without slavishly imitating it.
I recently asked Burcell about her initial plunge into fiction writing and how she won the task of reviving Carolyn Weston’s series.
I understand you only began writing “in earnest” when you were pregnant with your first child, a daughter. What year was that?
1990. I had set a goal for myself (sometime in my young adulthood) that I would be published before the birth of my first child. But after I was hired as a police officer, I had enough on my plate just trying to learn the job. I remember telling my training officer about my dream to write, and he said to wait about five years before trying to do anything outside of police work—since it would take that long to really feel comfortable on the job. He was correct. It was at least five years before I had any real confidence to even think about concentrating on anything else outside police work. Writing ended up on the back burner. I didn’t really have time to think about it—until my first pregnancy, when I ended up on bed rest. And that’s when I recalled that promise I’d made to myself about being published before my first child was born. You know what they say about cranking up the tension in a book by adding a ticking clock? Well, suddenly I had one that was going to run out in less than nine months. I wrote very, very fast. Just not fast enough. Or good enough, apparently. But I learned a lot from the experience. Eventually I put [the novel] aside to concentrate on motherhood, not starting a new project until a couple of years later, a time travel/mystery/romance, When Midnight Comes, which came out in 1995 (and was nominated for Best First Book by the Romance Writers of America).
How did you come to write more books in Carolyn Weston’s renowned Al Krug and Casey Kellog series of police procedurals?
Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, the founders of Brash Books, had acquired the rights to the Weston novels to bring them back into print. They realized the series was still relevant and wanted to see it continue. Because I’d already written a number of police procedurals, they called and asked if I might be interested in writing the next in the series. I thought it would be fun to try my hand at updating the Weston characters.
Had you long been a fan of Weston’s Krug/Kellog novels? Or were you more a Streets of San Francisco follower?
In truth, I had never even heard of Carolyn Weston until that phone call. (In the ’70s, I was firmly on a fantasy kick, having just discovered Tolkien’s works.) I was, however, a fan of the TV show (and lived in South San Francisco back when it aired).
What was your principal concern when it came to extending Weston’s series?
The biggest fear for me was taking the characters of someone else, putting my spin on it, then discovering that readers hated what I’d done. I liked Kellog right away, but wasn’t thrilled with Krug’s character. Part of that was because Krug was absolutely nothing like the Karl Malden character I knew and loved from the TV show. Malden was the fatherly mentor to the younger Michael Douglas character. Krug was the complete opposite, especially when it came to Kellog. I had a very hard time trying to mold this man I didn’t like into a character that other readers would find appealing. And yet that’s how Weston created him. The TV show [producers] basically obliterated Weston’s Krug and came up with their own version (Malden the Mentor). What to do? In the end, I made the command decision to bring in the best of both worlds. I took the qualities of Krug that I could live with (grizzled, old-school cop, doesn’t always operate by the books, but knows when it is necessary to do so), then added a dash of Karl Malden and ended up with the modern-day Krug from my book.
Why did you move Krug and Kellog from Santa Monica to San Francisco? And did you ever consider explaining their relocation in The Last Good Place?
We had a frank discussion on what to do with the characters: Leave them in the ’70s, or move them to present day, and also what department they’d be working for. At the time, we figured more people would be familiar with the TV show over the Weston books. That made it an easy decision to move them to San Francisco—especially since I’d done so much research at that department, having set the Kate Gillespie series there. Originally, I’d suggested the idea of explaining the move by having Kellog transfer to the SFPD and Krug, having retired from Santa Monica, moving up there to become a PI. But we decided against this, since by changing their working relationship, we lost the grizzled cop/young cop relationship. In the end, we simply decided it was a complete reboot of a series, and we were moving them to San Francisco, present day—no explanation needed.
How would you say the Al Krug and Casey Kellog in The Last Good Place differ from Weston’s original vision of those characters?
The most obvious change is with Krug—because of our decision to move the series into the present day. In the original Weston novels, the hard-bitten Krug would have no problem beating a confession out of a suspect. Back in the ’70s, this sort of behavior was often overlooked, even accepted as part of the job. In this day of intense scrutiny into officer actions, his behavior would never fly. The first time a bystander used a cellphone to film him, he’d end up on the wrong side of an Internal Affairs investigation. And he’d be lucky to still have a job.
Also, in the Weston novels, Krug often jumped to conclusions, immediately grasping onto the first suspect as the best suspect. Because I cut my eyeteeth on The Streets of San Francisco, I was used to the television version played by Karl Malden, who was more the mentor to the gung-ho Michael Douglas character (aka Casey Kellog in the books).…I liked the Malden character better. He was less prone to losing his cool (saving him from becoming the focus of an IA investigation). He was more apt to let the younger Douglas make a mistake just to have him learn from it. I wanted to bring this personality trait into Al Krug’s character. And yet…I still wanted that brusqueness that Weston originally infused into Krug. But how to do that without getting him fired in the 21st century?
I struggled with this for a bit, and then one day it hit me. I remembered from my own patrol days where the veteran officers seemed to have this knack for knowing how far they could push the bar. They knew when to pull back. The rookies often tried the same techniques, investigative or otherwise, and often failed, because they didn’t have the experience to know when to pull back. It was this quality that I realized was missing from my original version of Krug. The truth was, he was the classic veteran officer. He had decades of experience to draw from. Yes, Krug was around in the days before the proliferation of cellphone videos. He might have roughed up a suspect or two, but my version of Krug knew enough to change with the times. More importantly, he knew what he could get away with when it came time to using unconventional means to get the needed results. My version of Casey Kellog, on the other hand, is still working on this particular skill set. He’s also very intent on trying to bring new-age policing to the old-school Krug. Naturally, they both think their way is the best way.
It seems to me there are two noticeable differences between The Last Good Place and the stories Weston gave us: (1) the case Krug and Kellog are working on in this new book seems far more high-profile (involving serial killings and a prominent politician) than the three they dealt with originally; and (2) Kellog is actually now enjoying something close to a social life. Do these changes reflect a difference in the way you want to tell stories, or in the fact that our present times demand different plots from those Weston offered?
(1) Weston’s novels were originally set in the Santa Monica of the ’70s, and naturally her cases were more a reflection of her setting and time. Moving the series to present day and a major metropolitan setting didn’t necessarily change the sort of cases Kellog and Krug might see (there were certainly serial killers around in the ’70s, and there are definitely uncomplicated homicides occurring today). My choice had more to do with highlighting the young, eager Kellog, and how he would react when suddenly faced with the sort of cases that had the potential to make or break his police career—especially since he wanted that fast rise to the top. The cases [handled in The Last Good Place are] less about being sensationalistic, and more a backdrop to highlight not only the evolving relationship between Krug and Kellog, but also their differences.
(2) In the Weston books, Kellog’s social life seemed more of an afterthought, mentioned only in passing. And since he was so young in her books (she wrote him fresh out of college, single, and still living at home with the parents), his social life wasn’t as important to the story. Moving it to present day, and making it realistic to how police departments really operate, changed things—primarily because no one goes straight to Homicide without the many years of patrol where they gain experience. That meant I had to up Kellog’s age (and patrol time) so that he could actually qualify to work in Homicide, and move him out of the house. (It would just be weird if he was still living at home.) But in keeping with Weston’s vision of him, I was faced with his still being single, and felt this needed to be addressed—after all, he’s now on his own, having been out of college and on the force for at least eight to 10 years (and that’s a very quick time to make it to Homicide). My feeling is that with his attention focused on his career, it’s not too farfetched that being so caught up in the job, he tends to overlook his personal life. With the necessary changes to his age and years on the streets, it was high time to make sure that if the right woman (or women) came along, he’d take notice.
Do you have a long-term plan for this series’ growth and evolution?
No long-term plans yet. I’m not sure I’m that organized to plan ahead that far! I think it would be fair to say that if I do continue the series, we’d see some growth in Kellog as he navigates his way through the law-enforcement world. Undoubtedly it would be how he balances his personal life with his professional life. (Which is a very real aspect of police lives.)