- Richard R. Karlen,
author of DEVIL’S DANCE, grew up
in Newark, NJ, where he
later practiced dentistry for
thirty-five years. He currently
lives with his family in Scotch Plains,
Dr. Karlen’s fifth work
of fiction is a collection of short
stories. SATURDAY LUNCH and
the KITCHEN SINK will be
published by Ironbound
Press in the winter of 2003.
In 1960 I went into the
practice of dentistry with my father in Newark. Through dental school and the
three years I spent in Korea and Japan in the Air Force, I had harbored the
notion that one day I would become a writer of fiction. After discharge, I
had planned to work seven years with my father and save fifty thousand
dollars. I would invest the fifty thousand dollars at four percent interest.
With a two thousand dollar a year income, my wife and I would be able to live
on a small island off the coast of Greece where I would spend my time writing,
unencumbered by the demands of the “civilized” world.
years, I had the fifty thousand. I also had four children, two of whom were
still in diapers. Our fantasy was delusional and I continued to grind out
amalgams and do root canals for another six years without complaint.
In 1973, I
read an article that stated that the average dentist treated one-eighth of
his/her patients each year. Another way of interpreting the article was that
if I closed down the practice and disappeared for a year, seven-eighths of my
patients would never realize it.
“If professors and school
teachers can take sabbaticals, why can’t a dentist?” I asked my wife.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
My father, who had by
then retired, found my seven-eighths theory to be nothing less than the
ranting of a madman. Who could blame him? From his perspective, he saw a
lifetime of building a practice going down the tube. But after giving up my
seven-year plan, I was determined to have this one-year for myself. At the
time, I was forty-three years old.
As it turned out, threats
of a revolution ruled out Greece and we decided to spend our year in Spain.
My sister-in-law and her boy friend moved into our house and I made a deal
with a young dentist to work the practice until I returned. After selling a
small farm I owned in Hunterdon County for a decent profit, we were off to
by one of my dental nurses, a young Spanish woman, my wife and I and our four
children, ages six to thirteen, flew to Malaga, where representatives of a
large real estate developer met us. The seven of us were herded into two small
automobiles (Spanish Fiats, named Seāts) and driven north up a torturous
mountain road overlooking the Mediterranean until we arrived at the town of
The deal with
the real estate developer was that we were to be housed, gratis, in
apartments in a large complex known as THE COSTA BANANA. In return I agreed
to spend several hours a day looking at different villas and condos that the
realtor was selling to foreign investors.
The week I spent with
Lulu, our Sephardic, Moroccan guide, was time well spent, for it enabled me to
gain a perspective of the region. After a week, I told Lulu that I wasn’t
interested in buying any property from his company, and we were asked to move
out of the COSTA BANANA.
Schlepping around with
four children in a strange, almost alien environment was at times more than we
had bargained for. Though we had planned to move on and spend our year on
Formentera, one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain, we decided to
compromise and go no further. Living in Almuñécar would offer us the peace
and quiet we had been searching for in a semi-tropical climate, and there
seemed to be plenty of villas available for rent.
We lived in a small
three-bedroom villa, Casa Azul, at Colina de la Cruz, numero once,
for nine months. We had a large olive tree in the center of our courtyard,
adopted three cats and two dogs, and possessed a splendid view of the sea (the
cover on MURDER AT THE SEXI was a painting of Almuñécar by a friend from our
patio). Our rent was one hundred and sixty dollars a month, well within our
budget. For six hundred dollars we bought a second hand Seāt, which enabled
us to drive into town within five minutes. After three weeks, Celeste, my
young Spanish nurse, left to visit her parents in Northern Spain and from
there would be traveling back to the States. We were on our own.
Mornings were spent
tutoring the children. In the early afternoons, while the children and my
wife were either on the beach or shopping for food at the market, I would hang
out on the Paseo, the strip of restaurants and shops in town on the
beachfront. There was a lot of endless talk while I drank my café con
leche and played chess with the other foreigners, Americans, English,
Dutch, Belgium, French, Swiss, German, Swede, an endless stream of drifters,
hippies, artists, vacationers and residents like ourselves, expatriates who
had found their Mecca in this quiet little town on the Costa del Sol that
It was from this
embryonic assortment of foreigners that the idea for the characters in MURDER
AT THE SEXI began to germinate. I turned my good friend Arnie into the
unsavory, drug dealer, Richard Canzonetti, our dancing teacher Redsa and her
husband, Henri, into Sybil and Bernard Nice, an English-French dysfunctional
couple that were at each other’s throats (nothing could have been further from
the truth), my bearded, Belgium chess partner, Chris, into the serial killer,
Philip Poolen. A modest young woman from New Zealand became my heroine, Ann
Young, and most shamefully, I transformed one of the kindest men we knew in
Almuñécar, Russell, into the fiendish Nazi forensic pathologist, Max Brunner.
I described the town of
Almuñécar and its surrounding environs, Cotobro and Herradura as best I could
from memory and pictures. My description of the Guardia, the Spanish
secret police, those tough looking guys walking around with their automatic
weapons and triangular hats, was mostly conjecture based upon talks I had with
several Spanish Civil War veterans. One must remember that the year we spent
in Spain was 1973-1974, and Francisco Franco and his Fascist regime, was still
very much in control. Tourists were shown every hospitality, but one had to
be especially on guard when politics entered the conversation.
It might be
of some interest to the reader to learn that the word SEXI in the book’s
title, is derived from the name the Phoenicians gave to this area, which they
colonized more than three thousand years ago. A thousand years later, the
Spanish renamed the village, Almuñécar, but the only decent hotel at the time
we lived there was the Sexi Hotel. In the novel, true to my fabricating self,
I turned the Sexi Hotel into the Bar Sexi, the site of much of the action in
In June of
1974, our lease expired at the Casa Azul, and we were forced to lease
another villa for a month before we would be departing Spain to the Swiss
Alps, where we would be spending the final two months of our sabbatical.
place available to rent was located about ten miles outside of Almuñécar going
north on the road to Motril. We were cramped into an undersized villa perched
on top of a rocky butte directly overlooking the sea. We counted one hundred
and sixty steps from our villa to the narrow strip of beach below, a journey
made as often as five times a day by one of the older children carrying a
bucket, so that we’d be able to flush the toilet. Our electricity was
controlled by a small restaurant about a half a mile down the road and when
the owner would forget to turn on the power, we were not only left in
darkness, but the toilet wouldn’t flush.
place for murder,” I would tell the children, trying to scare them out of
their wits at bedtime. Even Debbie, the youngest at age six, knew what a liar
I was and along with the other children, Andy, Naomi and Michael, I was never
taken seriously. Determined to shake them up, I persisted with my dark
stories of murder and revenge, and eventually the story of Jonathan Cole and
Max Brunner found a life.
I went to
work and wrote a novella. It was hastily written and I tossed it into a
drawer and forgot about it for twenty-five years. While going through old
files, I came across the manuscript and decided that only a full-length novel
could do justice to our Spanish adventure. Hence, MURDER AT THE SEXI.
After our one-month lease
expired, we sold our Seāt and bought a Volkswagon van from a Dutchman passing
through. A local mechanic cut holes into the sides of the van and made
windows and back seats. Somehow, the six of us along with all our baggage
managed to fit into our van, and, quite miraculously, we traveled through
Spain and France to Switzerland without mishap (if one excludes Debbie’s
craving for a hamburger that threatened to drive us all crazy).
In Switzerland, we spent
two months living in a chalet in the town of Champéry, which had been arranged
for us by an old college friend who was living in Switzerland at the time.
The contrast between
living in Champéry at the foothills of the Alps as opposed to living in
Almuñécar on the Mediterranean was more than just a difference of topography.
In Switzerland everything was polished and shining, efficient and comfortable,
in a word civilized. In our chalet our family enjoyed for the first
time in ten months, air conditioning, refrigeration and a TV. I think I was
the only one that missed that air of familiarity and ease that was Spain. I
longed for my early morning swims in the sea and the freshly baked brown bread
that my friend Mead would share with me while we talked about our work in
progress, and those good chess games I’d play with Chris, my bearded Belgium
Still, all in
all, Champéry was a grand experience when you factored in that large municipal
swimming pool and red clay tennis courts and the Dents du Midi, those
towering peaks that touched the heavens. While MURDER AT THE SEXI was drawn
almost entirely from our life in Almuñécar, I could not resist writing a
chapter based on an afternoon spent outside of Zermatt at the base of the
Our year was
up and we were driving to the Geneva airport, when our faithful, reliable
Volkswagon became ill and went into a coma. It were as if some divine spirit
was telling us: “Time to go home. There’s nothing more.”
The van was towed to a
garage in Lausanne and we hired two taxis that arrived at the airport fifteen
minutes before our plane was scheduled to leave. I recall giving my last
Swiss franc to the taxi drivers, and then with my wife, Hiroko, leading the
way, the six of us charged into the airport like stampeding buffalo. On
reflection, I will never understand why Swiss customs, a rules and regulations
organization that make no exceptions, waived us through the gate without
checking our luggage. That same divine spirit must have been watching out for
We were somewhere over
the Atlantic when my wife said to me, “I hope they are able to fix up our
van. They ought to give it to some nice family.” She could have added, “So
they would be able to have as good a time in Switzerland as we did,” but she
didn’t, for she knew I understood what she meant.
A year letter we received
a letter from the Swiss government informing us that the van had been
confiscated since no one had claimed it. The Swiss are not only compassionate,
but fair. Our sabbatical was now officially over.
Last week I discovered
that the farm we had sold in 1973, which made our trip possible, was worth
today fifteen times more than what we had sold it for.
“We could be
millionaires,” I pointed out to my wife.
impressed. Nevertheless, she asked, “Do you think we made a mistake?”
about the Casa Azul and the view from our courtyard—the mountains to
the west, the sea and the town to the east, the glow of the horizon in the
morning, the sunsets at dusk. I thought about the children running on the
beach with their dogs, and my wife bargaining with the shopkeepers in the
market while I am drinking my café con leche on the Paseo and
talking with some young painter from France about Cervantes and Picasso. And
finally there were those two months in Switzerland: the dents du midi
and those good, red clay tennis courts, and the Volkswagon dying on the way to
My answer to
her was in my million-dollar smile.