Les Roberts, Novelist


Les Roberts spent 24 years in Hollywood, producing and writing television shows and churning out screenplays for the motion picture industry. Yet Roberts’s most enduring fictional creation may well be a character whose world is far removed from the entertainment industry and the glitz of southern California2,500 miles removed, to be exact, on the mean streets of Cleveland, Ohio.

Private investigator Milan Jacovich is the protagonist of a series of mystery novels that Roberts has been constructing since he moved from the West Coast to suburban Cleveland Heights in 1989. All of the Jacovich stories are set in and around Cleveland, and most portray corners of the community with which even longtime residents are unfamiliar.

Jacovich is a former police officer with an ex-wife, two sons that he would like to see more often, and a personality that could charitably be described as abrasive. Descended from Slovenian immigrants, his specialty is industrial espionage, but more often than not his beat is the old wards of Cleveland’s central city, the same sort of neighborhoods in which he grew up and in which remnants of Cleveland’s variegated ethnic population still reside.

Middle-aged and decidedly blue-collar, Jacovich wends his way through the entire patchwork of multicultural ethnicity that so enlivens and defines Cleveland. In his work he encounters individuals whose parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents made their way to northeastern Ohio in search of jobs in Cleveland’s thriving industries, homes in which to raise their families, and a safe haven from the deprivations and horrors of the Old World. (A few representatives of the New World appear as well; in one story, the mystery revolves around Native Americans.)

Born in Chicago—itself a city of multiethnic sensibilitiesRoberts was imbued from childhood with a passion for writing. He counts among his literary influences Raymond Chandler, whose fictional private investigator, Philip Marlowe, was as thoroughly identified with Los Angeles as Jacovich has become with Cleveland. But while Marlowe’s haunts were often swank gambling establishments, tony nightclubs and the exclusive Malibu colony, Jacovich knows the taverns, bakeries and butcher shops of Cleveland’s neighborhoods. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty, as befits a P.I. working in a Rust Belt town whose skyline of office towers is punctuated with factory smokestacks.

Through the musings of his central character, Roberts does more than merely portray the surface life of the residents of a major American city. He also illuminates the commonalities that Clevelanders share and the differences that divide them. In one story, for example, the Slovenian-American Jacovich thinks twice about providing his services to help a woman who is of Serbian heritage. Frozen in a moment of indecision by residual antipathies whose origins lie in the distant past, Jacovich reveals just one of the borders that even today continue to separate the disparate elements of Cleveland’s population. It is in scenes such as this that Roberts transcends the genre of the private eye tale. His stories penetrate the unique character of the particular community in which they are set and open it to our scrutiny. And in their depictions of the life of Cleveland’s fading ethnic neighborhoods, they also chronicle a time and place that is fast disappearing.

Mark Gottlieb


Collision Bend

People who haven’t been to Cleveland for thirty years would be surprised by the Flats. Once a barren, weed-choked riverbank, it became a shipping mecca when the steel industry was in full throttle, then reverted to a rusty collection of derelict warehouses.
It wasn’t until the early nineteen eighties that someone got the bright idea to turn it into the fun-and-frolic center of northeast Ohio. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs sprang up first on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, later on the west. Even the venerable Fagan’s, which used to be the only place to eat on the east bank of the Flats, turned trendy, catering to the young hip crowd. In the old days, if Fagan’s didn't have a seat for you, they'd find one, even if it was behind the bar or in a telephone booth. Now the Generation X-ers, the ones who wear the baseball caps with the bill pointed toward the back, stand in long summer time lines to get in.



Collision Bend is about a mile upriver and hasn’t been invaded yet by the hip-slick-and-cool crowd. You can still taste the river and the rust on your tongue, still feel the ground vibrate beneath you with the pulse of the nearby steel mills, still hear the raucous caw of the gulls and experience in your viscera the ponderous passage of the great ore boats on the river outside your window.

Rudy Dolsak and another pal, Ed Stahl, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s gadfly columnist, had prevailed upon me to take a quantum leap into the late twentieth century and purchase and install a complicated computer I can barely operate. I have not, however, gone on line so I can meet people and make new friends on the Internet, get e-mail, and get myself hooked on the electronic bulletin boards that have proved so addictive to so many people. I do, after all, have a life.

Collision Bend
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996)

Knocked for a Loop 

There’s no way to prepare for something crashing across the back of your head with sickening force. A hot red pain spread across my shoulders and down my spine, like someone had just electrified my nervous system, and a vivid light engulfed me behind the eyes, turning the whole world bright red. Suddenly I was ten years old and on the Thriller again, high above Euclid Beach Park. The car was hurtling downward, the wind roaring in my ears, the rest of the world a blur on the periphery of my vision so that there was nothing but the downward plunge, dizzying and terrifying, as the earth sprang up to meet me with a rush that closed my throat and took away my breath.

I don’t even remember hitting the floor.

Deep Shaker  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

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