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Jonathan Ames puts a Jewish spin on the detective novel

Ames's newest book is a detective novel whose protagonist is a Jewish Irish private investigator

Anne Thornton

Jonathan Ames

Jonathan Ames, the novelist and TV writer, is best known for “Bored to Death,” his short-lived HBO series that ran from 2009 to 2011 before it was cancelled after three seasons. The noirish comedy tells the story of a floundering Brooklyn novelist — also named Jonathan Ames — who becomes an unlicensed private investigator after placing an ad on Craigslist. 

But for Ames, who has long been a devoted reader of hardboiled crime fiction, the series may have been something of a diversion. In his latest work, A Man Named Doll — recently published by Mulholland Books — he has produced the real thing.

“I guess I was finally ready to try writing my own detective novel,” Ames, 57, said in a recent phone interview with Jewish Insider from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with a chihuahua-terrier mix named Fezzik. 

Still, the novel, which is the first in a planned series, bears the typical Amesian markings. Happy Doll, the protagonist, is a tough yet neurasthenic former cop and private detective whose Jewish and Irish heritage creates some amusing tensions. “I think I’m the only ex-cop I know in Freudian analysis, but I could be wrong,” Doll tells readers early in the book.

Speaking with JI, Ames discussed his long-held desire to write a crime novel, how his Jewish identity may or may not inform his work and why he loved visiting the Russian baths on East 10th Street in Manhattan before decamping for L.A. in 2014.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JI: There’s something about the crime novel that feels distinctly non-Jewish, like hunting or riding a motorcycle. What are your thoughts on that?

Ames: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I think there’s been a lot of Jewish crime writers, and I’m beginning to personally rethink the notion of limiting what one does by calling it crime fiction. To me, it’s just fiction. That said, I do think there have been Jewish practitioners of detective fiction. Recent vintage: Jonathan Lethem, who’s Jewish, has written more than one detective novel; Michael Chabon wrote The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; David Goodis was a great pulp writer of the ’50s and ’60s — he was a big influence on me. So I don’t have that notion in my mind. I’m not saying it’s incorrect, but it’s not something I’ve thought.

JI: What was the pandemic like for you?

Ames: As a writer, I live a fairly isolated life anyway. A quiet life. Los Angeles is, in some ways, a quiet town. I lived in New York for many years. Los Angeles life is a more homebound life to begin with, and so, for me, in some ways, the pandemic wasn’t that big a stretch. I wasn’t that social before. Obviously, I was a lot less social, and of course it was a stressful, difficult time and a nightmare to witness the suffering going on in the world and to be powerless. But for me, personally, I had it good. I had a home, I had food, money in the bank. My main concern was for my elderly parents.

JI: I read somewhere that your mom had always wanted a book of yours to be published in Hebrew. 

Ames: I think at least two of my books have been published in Israel — my novels The Extra Man and Wake Up, Sir! were both published by a wonderful Israeli publisher. She was very pleased by that, as was I, and I actually went to Israel for publication, I think it was for my novel Wake Up, Sir! I went to Tel Aviv, and it was just a beautiful experience. I so enjoyed meeting the literary world, my brief glimpse of it that I was exposed to, and gave a reading that a lot of young people attended. It was a great experience.

JI: Are there any plans for this book to be published in Israel?

Ames: I’m hoping it was submitted. But I don’t know the status of things.

JI: I’m remembering a line from Bored to Death where the protagonist, played by Jason Schwartzman, is talking to some Israeli movers, and he’s surprised they’re Jewish, and they ask him if he’s a “self-hating New York Jew” or something along those lines. I came across a passage in your new book that feels sort of similar. Happy meets someone who’s Israeli and he asks him if he’s “ex-military.” He replies, “Yes. We’re all ex-military.” I thought that was kind of funny. Do you think that American Jews feel emasculated in the company of Israelis? I recall that you participated in a boxing match when you last visited Israel.

Ames: I don’t have a sense of emasculation, personally, around Israelis. And did I box someone in Israel? Did someone challenge me? I’m trying to recall. I doubt I would have boxed somebody. I mean, maybe I might have playfully thrown a few jabs. I think maybe you’re right. Maybe somebody wanted to do something like that. But boxing is not something you mess around with. It’s too easy to get injured. I did have two fights, as you might be aware, as “the Herring Wonder,” because when I first began my little boxing foray, in the late ’90s, I was living near Russ & Daughters, the great smoked fish emporium. I saw myself as a reincarnated Jewish boxer from from the beginning of the century, and so there I was at the end of the century fighting as “the Herring Wonder,” with the idea that I would derive great strength from the herring, which is a very powerful superfood, as well as have herring breath in the ring to further repel my opponent.

JI: That seems like a good strategy. This is a question that most novelists get, but since so much of your stuff is autobiographical, I’m wondering how much you feel this new character you’ve concocted for A Man Named Doll represents you in any way.

Ames: I guess over the arc of my career, I feel I’ve become less autobiographical. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really stopped using myself as the subject. In some ways, Bored to Death represented the end of that, and that was over a decade ago. Even then, that was fantasy. I’ve lost interest in using myself as a subject as I’ve matured. Happy Doll is a fictional character, but there are elements of my DNA in him. He’s literally like a doll I created that I played with. So, like a child playing with a doll, I guess some of their psyche is in that doll, but it is a separate object.

JI: You’ve long wanted to write crime novels. What took you so long?

Ames: It’s hard to understand one’s own pattern. There’s not, like, a grand scheme. It’s a little bit like some kind of evolution as one changes so much over the course of one’s life. I always had this wish to be a pulp writer going back a long way, but in a sense I got sidetracked writing comedic television. Originally, Bored to Death was a short story written kind of like a piece of pulp but in the style of my essays to kind of fool people because people were very familiar with my essays at that time, and I wanted to sort of escape that. So I wrote a fictional story in which Jonathan Ames, very much in my voice, places an ad on Craigslist offering his services as an unlicensed private detective. When I wrote that short story, back in 2007, there was a yearning for writing detective fiction. But like I said, I got sidetracked, and it was just part of my development to work in TV for the next few years. It’s been an odd path. I guess I was finally ready to try writing my own detective novel.

JI: How did it feel?

Ames: It felt good. I had been reading these sorts of books for so long. I refer to it as a kind of apprenticeship, and I was now ready to try my hand at it.

JI: This book is the beginning novel in a planned series. How many books do you expect to write?

Ames: Oh, that’s unknown. But my fantasy is to sort of be like a Ross Macdonald, who wrote many books about a private detective named Lew Archer, or to be like Richard Stark, pseudonym for Donald Westlake, who wrote many books about this character Parker.

JI: I also understand that there’s going to be a Netflix film based on this book.

Ames: Netflix has optioned it, and there is a director and star attached. I’m not allowed to discuss their names yet, just because of the nature of Hollywood and announcements and things. But like any Hollywood project, nothing is definite. So I don’t know if the film will happen, but maybe it will. I’ve written a draft of the screenplay. That was something I wrote during COVID. During COVID, I revised A Man Named Doll and I wrote the screenplay for A Man Named Doll. I started the next Doll book, which is called The Wheel of Doll, and then I also wrote a TV script for another project. So I was busy. Mostly, it was kind of a doll house or a little doll factory here.

JI: Is there anything else you’re working on that you haven’t mentioned?

Ames: I’m primarily focused on the next Doll book, which I have to hand in in a few months. I’ve toyed in my mind with writing a sequel to my novel Wake Up, Sir! But I can only do one thing at a time personally, so I’ve just really got to focus on the next Doll book. 

JI: Your book is set in Los Angeles. Is there anything about that city that lends itself particularly well to hard-boiled detective novels?

Ames: Los Angeles is kind of like the cradle of private detective fiction because of Raymond Chandler, who picked up the torch from Dashiell Hammett, who set a lot of his stories in Northern California and San Francisco. Chandler made Los Angeles kind of the Jerusalem of detective fiction. So I don’t know if necessarily Los Angeles is the perfect setting for noir; it’s just where a lot of it began. And so writers are kind of drawn to depicting it like moths to a flame in terms of hard-boiled fiction, including myself, because I also live here now.

JI: How do you feel like your Jewish identity infects your writing?

Ames: Well, everything makes up a writer — their childhood, where they’re from, and certainly one’s Jewish identity shapes one’s worldview and sense of self. It’s probably a big part of who I am and then that comes through in my writing. How it comes through, I can’t necessarily say. It’s like you don’t know the sound of your own voice unless you hear it recorded. In my novel The Extra Man, I did tackle more directly questions of Jewish identity because the character has fantasies about being like someone out of an English novel in a way perhaps to escape prejudice and feeling pigeonholed or just wanting to pass in Christian society. In that novel, I was dealing more directly with issues of Jewish insecurity. Growing up, as a Jew, I was often treated as an outsider or other or a figure of scorn. 

JI: Can you elaborate on that?

Ames: In the town I grew up in in New Jersey, there was definitely a lot of antisemitic behavior. I think all minorities experienced this. I guess there’s a certain aspect where people then take on these prejudices against themselves from the culture. You have to come to know your own mind and own self.

JI: It’s interesting, then, that you were often perceived as not being Jewish in your late teens and early twenties.

Ames: I went to Princeton, which was very preppy, and so people would often be like, “You’re Jewish?” or they would say antisemitic things to me not realizing I was Jewish.

JI: Were there any precedents for you personally as you wrote this book? The protagonist seems a little more self-doubting than, say, Sam Spade.

Ames: I guess it was just my own take on the private detective. I don’t know that I had other role models, except that I had read them all and so this was the one that emerged for me, almost like a clown who blows up balloons and makes shapes. This was the shape that came out of me.

JI: Why did you choose to make Happy Doll half-Jewish and half-Irish?

Ames: I’m not really sure. Maybe I wanted a mix of both. It was, I guess, to maybe create some distance from myself, perhaps, and he just sort of evolved that way. He had such a difficult childhood because his mother died in childbirth. 

JI: Do you still read crime novels?

Ames: I’m still mostly addicted to reading these sorts of books. It’s what gives me pleasure. I often reread the books and then I try to find a new vein to tap into. I happen to be re-reading Raymond Chandler. I don’t just read detective fiction, but that is my main source of pleasure and sustenance.

JI: I’m curious what your thoughts are on the state of the confessional personal essay now, given that you wrote so many of them back in the ’90s.

Ames: I don’t have my finger to the pulse on that subject. I don’t really read autobiographical essays. I wrote mine back in the ’90s, so almost 25 years ago I was in that form and sort of stopped it in the early 2000s. I wrote one a few years ago for The Los Angeles Review of Books, kind of about my dog, but I’m not really operating in that form anymore, so I don’t know what’s happening. And I never really read too much in that form. I mean, years ago, I read David Sedaris, and he and I once gave a reading together at some book festival in Amsterdam, which was a lot of fun. But I’m not up on that form. When I was doing it, it was kind of pre-Internet, and I was writing them for a throwaway newspaper at the time called New York Press, which is where people in downtown New York would find this kind of writing. But it was just a half a dozen writers or so doing it, whereas with the explosion of the internet and blogs and all this kind of stuff, it became much more widespread. But I haven’t really tracked the whole phenomenon. As you can tell, I’m not someone who is necessarily on top of trends.

JI: You moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2014. Do you miss New York at all or do you feel settled into L.A.?

Ames: I very much settled into L.A. when I moved here. It was sort of fun to have a change. I was born in New York, raised outside the city, spent really the bulk of my adulthood in New York or New York environs for 30-odd years. So Los Angeles was like a fun change, literally, to do new things with your brain, kind of like the way a crossword puzzle is supposed to keep you fresh. But I do miss New York and my friends. I miss the Russian bathhouse in the East Village. But I guess my life is here now. I don’t see myself living in New York at the moment. But it could be fun again, I don’t know where life will take me.

JI: Is there anywhere to take a schvitz in L.A. that you like?

Ames: I was going to a place here that I really liked over in West Hollywood in the sort of Russian-Jewish neighborhood. It was called Voda Spa. It was definitely fancier than the 10th Street baths, a lot fancier. I heard there was a more old-fashioned place around there, but I never checked it out, and during COVID, I’ve not been back to that place in a long time. But I miss it. 

JI: Wasn’t there a time when you were going almost every day to the Russian baths in the East Village?

Ames: Practically. There were a couple of years there, definitely when I didn’t have to work in television. From 2012 to 2014, when I left New York, I was probably going to the bathhouse anywhere from three to five times a week. It was my hobby, it was my refuge, it’s what I would do at the end of the day. I just loved it. I had friends there. I also was never someone to really go to a gym, so kind of sweating and doing some stretching in the various rooms was kind of my gym.

JI: What time would you go?

Ames: I would go at night. I found out later that my great-grandfather, who I was named for, would go to the 10th Street bathhouse in Manhattan. I found that out after I’d already been going there a few years. I knew that he liked to go to a shvitz, but then I found out, at least according to family lore, that we went to the very same shvitz. That was kind of interesting. It was like in my DNA. Like a migratory bird, I had found my way back there.

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