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Private Eye Prize to 'Monkeys'


NEW YORK — Los Angeles producer/screenwriter Les Roberts figured that "real people don't win contests," but nevertheless decided to enter a manuscript he had lying around in the Best First Private Eye Novel contest sponsored each year by St. Martin's Press, the Private Eye Writers of America and Macmillan Ltd. in London. "I entered it kind of the way you enter those Ed McMahon sweepstakes," Roberts said on the phone from Cleveland, where he was producing a television program for the Ohio State Lottery. "I sent it in and promptly forgot about it."

That was in July, about four months after Roberts had completed "An Infinite Number of Monkeys," a novel that began as a screenplay, but, as the author soon found, "was crying out to be a book." To his amazement--"I was stunned, absolutely stunned"--Roberts was notified last month that his book had won the $10,000 top prize (plus guaranteed publication in the United States and England) from among 300 entries. "I love challenges," the 49-year-old Roberts explained of his decision to branch out from television and film writing. "And I had never written a book before, so I did."

Beyond publication and the contest's comparatively hefty remuneration, Roberts found he had earned another reward: "I found this is really what I want to do for the rest of my life." As to the title of the novel that stars a private eye named Saxon, Roberts explained, "They say you can take an infinite number of monkeys and put them in a room with an infinite number of typewriters, and eventually one of them is going to write 'Hamlet.' Since one of the characters is a writer, I thought it was apt."

At the Private Eye Writers of America, meanwhile, founder and executive director Bob Randisi reported about contest entries that "the writing was surprisingly good--even the manuscripts that didn't make it to the finals. I really would have liked to take some time to write letters to many of the contestants with suggestions on how to improve the plot or structures of the stories, but that was impossible."

Contest rules and information about the 1987 contest may be obtained by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to PWA/St. Martin's Press Contest, 9918 Avenue M; Brooklyn, N.Y. 11236. Manuscripts should not be sent to that address.

PICTURES FROM AN EXHIBITION: Likened to Picasso's Dora Maar or Rembrandt's Saskia, Andrew Wyeth's Helga is the subject now not only of the artist's reverie, but also of an exhibition opening in May at Washington's National Gallery and traveling to Los Angeles from April to July of 1988. Accompanying that show will be a 208-page catalogue so noteworthy that it is the first art book ever to be chosen as a main selection--for July of 1987--by the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Scheduled for fall publication by Harry N. Abrams Inc., the book will be released by the publisher in May to coincide with the exhibition. "This book is much more than an artist's portrayal of one woman," BOMC chairman Al Silverman said. "The paintings give us a heightened sense of the American experience, of the beauty of the land, of sadness and of the passage of time. In these remarkable studies, boundaries are stretched. We think it's an extraordinary achievement."

JOYCE CAROL OATES SAYS SHE WON'T DO IT AGAIN: Unbeknownst to her agent, the author of 17 novels, 14 volumes of short stories, 8 volumes of poetry, 5 books of literary criticism and 2 plays sold a pseudononymous "first novel" to Simon & Schuster for a $10,000 advance. Oates has said she will not repeat her experiment.

AMERIKA, THE BOOK: Even before the controversial 14 1/2-hour miniseries had actually aired on ABC-TV, Pocket Books received word that the paperback version of "Amerika" would appear on the Feb. 22 New York Times best-seller list. If that sales pattern seems Kafkaesque, what about current sales of that earlier "Amerika," Kafka's own novel about the land of the free and the dream of escape? Kafka publishers New Directions and Schocken Books wonder about a groundswell of extra (accidental?) sales when this month's sales are tallied. Doug Dutton reports that Dutton's Brentwood bookstore moved Kafka's "Amerika" from a back shelf to front table midway in the ABC series. There is, of course, nothing but the name to connect the series and the book. Or is there?

SMOOTH SAILING: And Dennis Conner copped a six-figure advance from St. Martin's Press for "Comeback: My Race for the America's Cup." This "as-told-to" story will be written by Australian journalist Bruce Stannard. Mindful no doubt of Americans' notoriously short attention spans, it hits the bookstores in May, presumably before anyone can confuse America's with Pimm's.

DUSTBUSTERS: In case anyone wanted to stop by with an Instamatic, the New York Public Library issued a photo-op announcement for the kickoff of its five-year, 3.5 million-title book-cleaning project. The tantalizing invitation included a chance to "view, behind the scenes," the 88 miles of book stacks, normally closed to the public, where "Ghostbusters" was filmed. The announcement also revealed that a demonstration of the cleaning process was to be carried out by a specialist team of Soviet emigres contracted especially by the New York Public Library for the project. Does this mean that books gather more dust in the Soviet Union?

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