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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, NJ.
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. 

            After seven 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 Spain.

            Accompanied 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 Almuñécar.

            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 welcomed everyone.

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 the novel.

            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.

            The only 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.

            “A perfect 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 friend.

            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 Matterhorn.

            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 us. 

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.

            She wasn’t impressed.  Nevertheless, she asked, “Do you think we made a mistake?”

            I thought 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 the airport.

            My answer to her was in my million-dollar smile.


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