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Mysteries Are His Specialty : Writer Has Secret for Success: It's a Puzzle

December 08, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

It is no mystery what makes Jon Breen tick: He relishes a good puzzle, preferably one involving a murder, a detective and enough twists and turns to stump Scotland Yard's finest.

For Breen, the only thing better than solving a whodunit is plotting one--which happens to be his speciality. Delivering suspense between two hardcovers is a skill he has been honing since he read his first Hardy Boys mystery nearly 30 years ago.

And as any armchair sleuth might deduce, Breen, 42, is getting good at spinning murder yarns.

He has published three novels, two mystery fiction reference books and a collection of short stories that have appeared in periodicals as diverse as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and The New Republic. And all this while he has, for the past 10 years, been reference librarian at Rio Hondo Community College.

Analysis Earns Acclaim

At the same time, his work as a mystery fiction critic has won wide acclaim. His reference book, "Novel Verdicts: A Guide to Courtroom Fiction," is an analysis of how mystery writers depict the courts in more than 420 books and stories.

It earned Breen the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for best biographical or critical book of 1984. The award, given by the Mystery Writers of America, is a measure of how far Breen has come since he sold his first magazine piece 19 years ago.

"I was 23 at the time, and I was on top of the world," recalled Breen, who was paid $125 for a parody he wrote of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, a series of mysteries about a police precinct in a fictitious metropolis. The parody, entitled "Crowded Hours," appeared in the Ellery Queen magazine, which Breen had tried for years to crack as a free-lancer.

As a child growing up in the South, he faithfully listened to the old network radio detective stories, intrigued by the adventures of airwave heroes like Nick Carter and Mr. Chameleon. By high school, he was writing his own stories, hoping to become the next Agatha Christie by landing in national magazines. "I wanted to become the next prodigy," he said.

But unlike the characters in his books, he had little control over his own fortunes, and rejection slips piled up like phone messages. So when he sold "Crowded Hours," he believed his number had finally been called.

'Once the Glow Faded'

"I used to think (that) if I could get one short story published, I'd be made," he said. "But once the glow faded, I realized I had to get a novel published to make it. Now, I have to publish a book that makes some money before I really make it."

His latest novel, "Triple Crown," may be the ticket.

The book, released earlier this year in England, is about a string of murders at the three horse races that make up the sport's Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

Jerry Brogan, a race-track announcer who fancies himself an amateur crime solver, is hired by a major network to call each race. Brogan, the central character in Breen's first book, "Listen for the Click," quickly becomes embroiled in the killings and sets off to find the murderer.

The story line combines Breen's two loves--mysteries and horse racing. That may explain why he's so high on the 190-page book, which will be out in this country sometime in 1986.

Characters and Clues

"The puzzle in the book," Breen said, "is my strongest to date."

It is "the puzzle" in detective stories--that weave of characters and well-placed clues readers must sort to find the villain--that first hooked Breen on mysteries. While admitting he rarely solves other writer's puzzles, he said the "hunt for clues" keeps him turning the pages.

"Everybody has a little Sherlock Holmes in him," he said.

Success as a novelist didn't come easily for Breen. "Listen for the Click" wasn't published until 1981, almost a decade after he wrote it. The manuscript underwent three major revisions and was read by a dozen editors before a New York publishing house that specializes in mysteries, Walker and Co., bought it.

"You get to a point," Breen said, "where you think maybe (you) should just put the typewriter away--for good."

Breen describes himself as a relatively fast writer who rarely revises his original work.

From September to June, he works full time at Rio Hondo, buying books for the library and helping students and staff with research. The bulk of his writing is limited to the summer months.

Own Worst Enemy

When it comes time to sit in front of his word processor, though, he often becomes his own worst enemy.

"Like most people, I find any little excuse to stay away from it, so I have to flog myself to write," he said.

"But when I get going, it's fun. Sometimes, I don't know how the story will end until I start writing. Often it's a surprise--even to me."

When at home in Fountain Valley, Breen is surrounded by his collection of mystery books that he says numbers close to 15,000.

"You don't think I got carried away, do you?" he said with a smile when asked why there are so many books. He said he has read many of the titles, which is one reason he is so optimistic about the future of mystery fiction.

Plots Exhausted

At the turn of the century, Breen said, many literary observers predicted the popularity of detective stories would end because all possible plots had been exhausted.

"Those critics were right--sort of," Breen said. "There really is nothing new about today's detective stories. The trick is to find fresh variations with new settings. But don't bury detective stories just yet.

"Walk into any major bookstore and the best seller list is full of good mysteries," he said. "Maybe, just maybe, mine will be there someday."

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