Metamorphosis in more ways than one

Right before New Year’s, I read Tyler Knox’s KOCKROACH, which flips the Kafka premise and opens with a cockroach waking up to discover that he has transformed into a human being. What follows is a very entertaining look at how one man – er, ex-roach, whatever you want to call it/him – adapts its primitive brain to 1950s New York surroundings and spirals down a rough road of power grabs, mob ties, illicit sex and the occasional foray into higher-function-based emotion. I dug it; the book could have taken more chances, but I liked its noir sensibility and the understated way it went with the gimmick.

But my ears perked up when I saw USA Today’s review of the book yesterday; specifically, its sidebar about the so-called secrecy surrounding Knox and the lack of an author photo. Because as it turns out, Knox isn’t a debut writer, but a pseudonym for someone who has written several mysteries. According to William Morrow, Knox’s publisher, the author wants to get “fresh critical attention” and is “not famous.” And so, a little detective work and about ten minutes later I had my answer: William Lashner, author of six crime novels featuring the morally ambiguous and very funny Philadelphia lawyer Victor Carl – last seen in 2006’s MARKED MAN. Confirmation of Knox’s real identity came from his agent, Wendy Sherman, earlier this morning.

So how did I connect the dots? Let’s go through it point by point:

  • Knox holds a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Lashner also graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
  • Knox is a former resident of New York City. Lashner went to law school at New York University.
  • Knox is also a former resident of Washington. Lashner worked for the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (located in Washington) and the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (also located in Washington.)
  • Knox’s agent is Wendy Sherman. Lashner’s agent is Wendy Sherman. (see above)
  • Knox thanks various people at William Morrow, including editor Carolyn Marino. Lashner’s last four books have been published by Morrow (after starting out at ReganBooks) and his editor is Carolyn Marino.

There are a few more things, like how Knox is based in the East Coast (Lashner lives outside of Philadelphia) but the conclusion is clear-cut, and the new name, blank slate approach makes sense. It isn’t just about fooling the computer, but that KOCKROACH is quite a ways different from the Victor Carl books. If anything, it’s more homage to the pulp fiction that Lashner loves (and wrote about on his website) and if Lashner’s name had been on it, would it have been more of a struggle to attract a wider, or more diverse, readership than who read the Carl books? Hard to say.  Maybe it would have been more ideal for Lashner to keep his name on the project, but this is publishing, where ideals crash heavily into bottom-line pragmatism. And when the time comes to change direction, this is – for better or for worse – how it’s done if moving from genre to something not quite.