A warm All Things Crime Blog welcome to New York-based crime writer Charles Salzberg whose new novel, “Devil in the Hole”, will be published on July 19th. 

Review written by Patrick H. Moore

The famous American naturalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” This aphorism sums up protagonist John Hartman’s dilemma perfectly, as rendered by crime writer Charles Salzberg in his superlative new novel, Devil in the Hole.

Devil in the Hole, which is based on a true story, tells the chilling tale of John Hartman, an unhappily married “family man,” and apparently indifferent father, who – in a futile attempt to exorcise his mounting emptiness — murders his wife, his mother and his three school-age children.

It is not just the fact that Hartman murders his family that horrifies the reader of this deeply engaging work, but rather how he murders them. The crimes are planned and executed with a meticulous attention to detail that seems to drain them of all passion. Hartman drugs each of his family members, kills them with a single well-placed bullet to the head, and carefully drags them to the great room of his ill-appointed colonial mansion, where he arranges them in sleeping bags as if their “appointment in Samarra” was merely a bland night at the campground. He carefully clean the pistol(s) that deliver the fatal shots, turns on every light in the house, and exits into the North American landscape – into an emptiness so vast that he vanishes with no trace.

Mr. Salzberg – a founding member of the New York Writer’s Workshop and the author of the acclaimed Swann P.I. series – chooses to tell his tale through close to two dozen narrative voices. Among these voices are:

  • James Kirkland, the neighbor across the street, who first realizes something is dreadfully amiss when the myriad lights that Hartman left ablaze wink out one by one as the days pass. Kirkland alerts the local police who discover the five decomposing bodies.
  • Reverend Chapman, who tried half-heartedly to bolster Hartman’s flagging Christian faith, even as his own belief appears tenuous, a fact he tries to ignore.
  • Janie McClellan, a serial seducer of married men who delights in awakening the passion that was locked in the killer’s repressed soul. Janie, however, certainly doesn’t delight in the discovery that Hartman is a stone-cold killer. Once it sinks in, she leaves town, relocates to the West Coast, and presumably continues her errant ways.
  • Charlie Floyd, P.I. extraordinaire, an egotist who early on convinces himself that he can and will find Hartman and bring him back to face charges. Floyd is in many respects Hartman’s double, a kind of voyeur who eludes his own murderous impulses by tracking down murderers such as Hartman. Floyd’s obsession with finding Hartman grows as the impossibility of the task becomes increasingly evident.
  • Soleil, a Miami hooker, who picks up Hartman and is – to her surprise –“screwed” nearly to death. Soleil is impressed and tries to arrange another “date” but Hartman demurs, tips her generously and leaves town.
  • Melissa, a college girl, who blew all her money at the Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale and decides to hitchhike back to New Orleans rather than ask her father for an advance. Hartman gives her a ride, they spend the night together, but this time Hartman is impotent. In the morning he is once again gone.

Through the device of Hartman’s sexual encounters, Charles Salzberg skillfully depicts two of the sides of Hartman’s nature – the repressed, psychologically (and at times physically) impotent individual who is without power and passion, and the raging sexual athlete who forcefully and somewhat effortlessly thrills women when they least expect it.

These two sides of Hartman’s psycho-sexual nature seem to merge in unholy fashion in the actual murder scene. Hartman’s execution (no pun intended) is flawless, his selfishness is off the charts, and the results are absolutely devastating. Four innocent people lie dead, and the fifth victim, his bothersome, hypochondriac wife (who seems less innocent) is equally dead.

Thus, Hartman’s sexuality as depicted in his various encounters succeeds in informing without fully explaining why he murdered his entire family for seemingly inexplicable reasons.

Charles Salzberg’s multiple narrative voices are spot-on throughout this book. His characters speak in natural, believable voices which, in a subtle way, not only add to the horror of the story, but also support the novel’s underlying theme – that most men (and women) do live lives “of quiet desperation” and “go to the grave” without having ever sung their unique song. In this sense, John Hartman symbolizes all of the denizens of the intrinsically hollow society that the author describes. The difference, of course, is that Hartman acts out his anguish in the futile hope that by obliterating his past empty life, he will be able to somehow experience a re-birth into real life. This forlorn hope of Hartman’s may or may not be realized as the book progresses. One must read Mr. Salzberg’s beautifully crafted work in its entirety to answer this question for oneself.

One could argue that the author’s vision is, perhaps, unduly bleak. In his broad, sweeping landscape, which encompasses two continents, there is little opportunity and plenty of dashed hopes and dreams. Be that as it may, Devil in the Hole is a notable accomplishment. Charles Salzberg has taken the crime novel and transformed it into actual literature. This is no mean feat, and whether or not one shares his somber vision, the reader will be transformed and enlightened by this transcendent piece of writing.


_Charles_Facebook_cropped_photo_v2.5Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, GQ, The New York Times and other periodicals. He is the author of the Shamus Award Nominated “Swann’s Last Song” and the sequel, “Swann Dives In”. He teaches writing in New York City, at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.


2 Responses to “Devil in the Hole” by Charles Salzberg Is a Superlative Crime Novel

  1. Peter Prasad says:

    Excellent review. Two sides of a serial murderer that only a very bright writer could create. Definitely worth reading.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      “Devil in the Hole” is truly a work of literary crime fiction, rather than crime fiction that nods toward the literary. I’ll be curious to see how it does. Charles Salzberg, the author, seems to be a fine fellow. He is one of the founders of the New York Writers Workshop.

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