photos: Carter Fish
In 2003, at the age of 45, Peter Spiegelman had his first novel, Black Maps, published
by Alfred A. Knopf. The book, set in and around Wall Street of the early aughts,
follows the exploits of private-eye John March, the black-sheep son of a prominent
banking family, and is a modern take on a hardboiled detective story. For his debut,
Spiegelman won the prestigious Shamus Award, given annually by the Private
Eye Writers of America for the best first novel in the ‘private eye’ fiction genre.
He followed this triumph with two successful additions to the John March series: Death’s Little Helpers (Knopf,
2005) and Red Cat (Knopf, 2007) – which was nominated for the 2008 Barry Award for ‘Best Novel.’ After these came two powerful standalone books, the heist tale Thick As Thieves (Knopf, 2011), which Kirkus Reviews editor Elaine Szewczyk
recognized as one of 2011’s best novels, and Dr. Knox (Knopf, 2016). In between, Peter published numerous short stories, and edited the crime fiction anthology Wall Street Noir (Akashic Press, 2007).
This Summer, Alfred A. Knopf is publishing Spiegelman’s latest work, A Secret About A Secret. It’s a thriller that he wrote during lockdown – and that takes place in a world that is not quite our own. And B&NC Mag is honored to provide an exclusive excerpt below.
Spiegelman explains, “A Secret About A
Secret is the first in a series set in a world my editor describes as ‘fifteen-degrees off our own’ – a place where the security state looms large, and the rule of law is optional. Its protagonist is an investigator named Myles, an agent of Standard Division, the most-feared element of his country’s security apparatus. Myles is dispatched to look into a murder at the remote headquarters of Ondstrand Biologic, a biotech firm. The set-up is that of a classic ‘country-house’ mystery, but this mystery has a modern twist.”
Peter is now among crime fiction’s most respected authors, and he and his wife, Alice Wang, a high-powered but low-key Managing Director at JP Morgan Chase, split their time between New York City and a tranquil hilltop property in Pound Ridge.
Given his success, being a novelist may seem like Peter’s obvious calling, but his path was anything but a straight line. Born in New York City to parents who were both doctors, he and his older sister (their much
younger brother would not come along for another 14 years) spent their early lives on Long Island and in Forest Hills. He recalls, “My parents were physicians of a sort for whom the work was nearly a religious calling. They were loving and well-intentioned, but things like child-rearing and homemaking came a distant second to the demands of the job. As a result, there was always a degree of chaos in my childhood, which was punctuated by a couple of coast-to-coast moves and a stint in military school. Maybe a bit of chaos is good for making writers.”
The first of the cross-country moves came just after Spiegelman finished 3rd grade, when his family headed west, to Beverly Hills. The next followed just three years later, when his parents decided – on very short notice – to return to New York City. “It was pretty typical of them. They got off the plane at JFK with two school-age kids in tow, no place to live and no jobs, but with the confidence, I suppose, that things would work out. Which, somehow, they did.” As Peter describes it, “It was yet another spur-of-the-moment scramble, but they moved us to Garrison, New York. And only after they’d decided on Garrison did they discover that the local school system was, at that time, pretty bad. Suddenly they had to figure out where their kids would go to school. My sister had always been an excellent, well-behaved student, so plenty of private schools were happy to have her. But I’d been very disruptive out in California, not to mention truant, and schools were less enthusiastic about taking on someone like me. Which is how I ended up at The New York Military Academy for a
year.” While Spiegelman excelled academically there, his memories of the place are not fond. “Lots of hazing – institutionalized and otherwise. Lots of violence. Think ‘Lord of the Flies’ with spit-shined shoes.”
He has fonder recollections of his next school: a small, pre-prep boarding school in Garrison, New York called The Malcolm Gordon School. Though he was there for just a year, he describes it as a watershed experience. “It was a ‘sound mind in a sound body’ sort of place – very sporty, but very demanding academically. I learned to play squash there, to play soccer and hockey, and, most importantly for me, there was a huge emphasis on writing. I worked on the school paper, contributed articles and started writing poetry. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was life changing.”
His academic journey continued at The Millbrook School, a boarding school in Dutchess County horse country. “The school was a very different place then,” Spiegelman observes. “Very homogenous, very ‘waspy’ – not exactly diverse. But it had its pluses and for me it was that the school placed a premium on writing. I worked as an editor on the school paper and continued my own creative writing.”
After Millbrook, and after a false-start at Trinity College, in Hartford, which Spiegelman found “much too much like prep school,” he matriculated at Vassar College, where he flourished. “It was everything I thought college would be: a diverse student body, a vital, almost urgent intellectual life, great friends, passionate debate, passion generally. My passion found focus in Vassar’s exacting English department, and particularly in its creative writing classes. I arrived there under the impression that I was a good writer, but I was soon disabused of that notion. I learned rigor there: that being glib or facile is not the same as writing well, and that discipline is the ally of talent, not its adversary. It’s where I internalized the truth that clear writing is clear thinking, and where I really came to think of myself as a writer.”
Spiegelman majored in English at Vassar, but there were other influences on his undergraduate studies – including family pressure: his doctor parents expected him to follow in their footsteps and apply to medical school. “I was an indifferent pre-med at best,” Spiegelman recalls. “It wasn’t lack of interest – there’s definitely an engineering part of my brain, and I have no problem with math or science. But for me, as the child of two doctors, I think the notion of a career in medicine came with a lot of psychological baggage. That said, I’m deeply grateful for that aspect of my education, as my coursework in math, physics and computer science laid a foundation for the first 20 years of my professional life.”
As graduation approached, Spiegelman considered attending an MFA program. He’d won the Beatrice Daw Brown poetry prize at Vassar, and received much encouragement from professors to go the grad school route. But conflicts with his parents grew when he told them he didn’t intend to pursue medical school. “That was a rough period,” he recalls. “Basically their message was ‘If you’re not going to medical school, you’re on your own’. I took them at their word and packed my bags.”
At that juncture, Spiegelman’s ‘long and winding road’ led him to Washington, D.C., and a friend’s sofa, from which he launched a job search. “I had nothing close to a plan, and only a vague notion of trying to find something writing-adjacent, maybe working on a publication of some sort. But there weren’t a lot of those openings in the job market back then, and the few available went to folks who were faster typists and better proofreaders than I was. It was a sobering experience.”
Peter found work eventually at a small consulting firm on K St., initially as a research assistant, at a time when that meant actually going to a library and plowing through books and periodicals. He found it stultifying. Fortunately for him, there was another division of his firm engaged in something more interesting to him. “They developed and maintained large databases under contracts with government agencies, and used that data in statistical analyses to support research projects for the agencies. They needed programmers and, amazingly enough, that was a skill I actually had. My undergraduate work at Vassar had given me a knowledge of the (now nearly defunct) programming languages FORTRAN, COBOL and APL, and while my employers weren’t using any of those to develop software, I made the pitch that he was a quick study and could do the work. My employers were willing to give me a chance. They dropped some sample programs on my desk late one afternoon, along with some manuals and the specs for a new program that they needed the following morning. Then they wished me luck. It was an all-nighter, but by morning I had something that ran.” It was also the beginning of what would blossom into a successful, nearly two-
decades long career in software development and fintech.
After two years in DC, and then a move to NYC for another opportunity as a partner in a start-up that fizzled, Peter joined JP Morgan. He enjoyed the intellectual and technical challenges of building systems for trading businesses, and learned much from navigating a global firm.
Notably, Peter met Alice Wang on his first day at Morgan – and years later they wed. “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, and the most creative. I thought so when we first met, and thirty-five years later I still think that. And in that time I’ve also learned that, as smart as she is, she is equally as compassionate, generous, tough and good-humored.”
Spiegelman thrived at Morgan, departing in 1994 as a Vice President, to become a partner in The Frustum Group, a young fintech company that had brought a new product to market. It was a fortuitous move. “We had the right product at the right time,” Spiegelman says. “We basically sold a ‘bank in a box’ software that could support the full array of front, middle and back-office processing for a huge variety of treasury and capital markets instruments. It was easily customizable, secure, robust, and it could integrate seamlessly with a firm’s existing systems. And it ran on a client-server platform at a time when firms were eager to ditch their old mainframes. The firm quickly became the leader in its market, with a global client-base of banks, brokerages and central banks. It was a tremendously exciting time,” Spiegelman recalls.
But despite all the demands of his career in fintech, Spiegelman never left his identity as a writer behind. “It was on the back-burner,” he says, “but it was always there. I still wrote poetry, which is where I began as a writer, and I wrote fragments of prose that I thought, one day, might turn into a story. And I think I always had a writer’s turn of mind. Part of which is being interested in people and being a bit voyeuristic too – watching people, paying attention to how they speak, how they treat other people, how they behave under stress. Whether in a restaurant or on a plane or in a business meeting – the overheard scrap of conversation or the odd mannerism always stayed with me, and got me wondering about who this or that person was, what their backstory might be. As it happened, trading floors were a great place to observe human behavior. I definitely saw a lot of people under a lot of stress, and often in the grips of some of the most toxic human impulses – fear, anger, arrogance, greed.”
In late 1996, Spiegelman and his partners sold their company to a U.K. firm, staying on for a period of time to manage the business and integrate it with its new parent. By late 2000, that work was largely done. At that point, Peter and his wife were living in Ridgefield, Connecticut, raising two young sons, and he realized that – at last – he had the opportunity to try his hand at writing professionally. “I’d thought about it for a long while and knew it was time. I also knew that I would write crime fiction. It’s a genre I’ve always loved and it’s been a mainstay of my own literary diet. The Maltese Falcon was one of the first ‘grown up’ books I remember reading, back in eighth grade. I had developed a protagonist, had a setting and a plot in mind, and I’d started working on the story at night and on week-ends, while I was still in the software business. Things moved quickly after that. By the end of 2001, I’d finished a draft of my first novel, Black Maps. By the Spring of 2002, I’d found an agent, and by the Summer I had a multi-book deal with Alfred A. Knopf – who has been my U.S. publisher ever since. I was lucky to have Sonny Mehta, the long-time head of Knopf and a legend in publishing, as my editor until his passing in late 2019, and I’m beyond fortunate to work with Knopf,” Spiegelman acknowledges. “They have been fantastic – incredibly supportive over the past nearly twenty years, and my team there is great– smart and talented and tireless. And my relationship with Sonny was very important to me–I considered him a friend and a mentor, and his loss was really tough.”
Spiegelman’s latest novel is dedicated to Mehta.
Reflecting on twenty years as a writer, Spiegelman
says: “I’m very lucky. I get to do this thing that I love,
that I’d do even if no one paid me to do it. And there
are people out there who grant me the privilege of their precious time – who let me be a voice in their
heads for a few hours while they read what I’ve written. I’m keenly aware that there’s a lot of competition for
people’s leisure time – other books, streaming video,
films, games, social media, etc., and I’m incredibly
grateful to people who decide to spend some of their
time, not to mention their money, on my books. I’m
not particularly interested in fame as an end unto
itself, but I still get a kick out of seeing my books in
bookstores, and few things are more thrilling to me
– even twenty years in – than meeting my readers.
I’m always struck by the diversity of the audience,
and the different story elements they respond to.”
On his writing process and work habits, Spiegelman explains, “Character and setting are always the drivers of my stories–they’re where everything begins. Once I have a good grasp on those, I do an
outline, though my finished product always departs from those. For me the outline functions as more of a security blanket–it gives me comfort that I have a path through the book, even if the path I end up taking is not the one on the outline. I write nearly every day, for at least a couple of hours. Then I edit and plan the next day’s work. My best editorial tool is to read my work aloud. It probably springs from my roots in poetry, but it’s the surest way for me to tell if things like tone, atmosphere and pacing are working well. Another important part of writing productivity, for me, is physical activity. The writing goes better when I’ve gone for a run. If I get two pages done, it’s a good day.”
About his own reading diet, Spiegelman says, “It’s pretty wide-ranging: poetry, short fiction, personal essays, non-fiction–often on topics of science, technology, politics or history. In genre, I read science fiction, and of course crime fiction and thrillers. Authors I return to again and again, and in no particular order) include Elmore Leonard, Larry Block, John LeCarre, Alan Furst, PD James and Joan Didion.”
And concerning the business of writing, Spiegelman comments, “It’s definitely a tough business. There are lots of books out there for people to choose from, not to mention other forms of entertainment, and getting a book on someone’s radar is always a challenge. I’m definitely better at the writing than I am at the marketing part of the business!”
The road was long and secret: a tunnel of trees that leaned overhead and wept like mourners in the wind. It ran beneath iron skies, past vacant fields and the lichen-crusted stones of ragged walls. It ran past a farmhouse, dark and empty, and through a stone village with few lit windows and no signs that named it. It ran on then towards the coast, and even in the hermetic car I smelled salt and rotting seaweed.
My driver had excellent posture, a glossy brown ponytail, and perfect silence. I trusted that she knew our destination—what else could I do?— though she had shared nothing about it with me, instead maintaining a near-statuary stillness as she drove. Nor had I any idea of why I’d been dispatched. To examine, to investigate, to discover, to take a confession, to punish, or simply to bear witness? I was authorized to do all of these, though I wondered lately about my qualifications for any of them. If nostalgia was called for perhaps, or distraction, equivocation, worry, longing, or bone weariness, then I might be useful. But in all these years, my masters had never sought such things from me, and I didn’t think this Saturday in March would be the first time.
The rear seat was deep and enveloping, the doors were distant, and the windows were tinted. Between the tidal sway of the car’s suspension and the thrum of pavement rolling away, I lapsed into a sort of fugue. It was not quite sleep, yet not quite dreamless—an unmooring, a drifting, and as I drifted, I crossed a frontier. There was no razor wire or striped barricade, no skeptical guards or surly dogs, no customs shed for stammered declarations, but a border nonetheless. When I came around, on the far side, it was to another world.
To an uncertain season, neither winter nor spring, under dark, colliding skies—the clouds swollen and malign, obedient to no known physics. To a fading sun pinned wrong in the heavens, casting shadows too long, too dark, and irreconcilable with their antecedent objects. To birds hurtling wildly—careening, tumbling, shedding feathers like confetti, as if they’d been shot from a circus cannon. It was as if the planet had been knocked from its axis, jarred fifteen degrees from true—and not just the planet.
The city, so many miles behind me, seemed even more distant now—a dying ember in my memory. My life there, even my Saturday morning, seemed suddenly remote and abstract—barely a pantomime. The people on my street and in the metro, in the shops and cafés, were like figures in
an ancient film—silent, stiff-limbed silhouettes, thinner than smoke. The grocer, the sour man at the newsstand, my garrulous neighbor—it seemed any breeze could take them all into this alien sky. I might’ve been away from the city for minutes or hours or for a year or more—I had no idea, or any notion of what I’d find when I returned. If I returned. I shuddered and rubbed my eyes, but the feelings of dislocation, strangeness, and dread persisted. It was almost dark when we arrived.
The great house was behind stone pillars and iron gates, down a brick drive bordered with pollarded trees and boxwoods still in burlap, and with brown lawns rolling away. The drive ran for half a mile and rose steeply at the end, to where the house loomed above the sea.
It was an ancient pile of ginger-colored stone, with a massive central section and two long wings that reached towards me. Scrolled and fluted stonework framed dark windows, and stone birds brooded beneath the eaves of a copper roof. The wings embraced a brick forecourt with a fountain in the middle, in gray stone that had fared poorly in the salt air. Its figures were blurred and blunted, and in the failing light I couldn’t tell if the squat shapes spouting water were fish or frogs or demons, or if the male form they aimed at was bearing the world or heaving against a boulder. In either case, a thankless job.
The car swept around the court and stopped beneath a columned porte cochere. The driver remained still and mute behind the wheel but unlocked the rear doors. I’d barely wrestled my bag and briefcase to the bricks when she drove off again. The evening air was cold and briny, and a swirling wind raised funnels of stone dust and dry leaves. Beneath the lapping of the fountain and the sound of the receding car I could hear the heavy, restless shift of the sea.
Lights came on in the porte cochere, and one of the massive double doors swung back. A young woman stood there, small in the yawning doorway. She was slender and pale, in black boots, a gray skirt, and a black jacket with a mandarin collar. Her straight blond hair was parted in the middle and bound in a braid that hung over her left shoulder like the business end of a riding crop. Her white hands curled into fists, her lips made a skeptical line, and her large gray eyes narrowed. She looked at me for a long time—my battered luggage, my dark suit and coat, creased from the journey, my creased face and dark hair, tangled by the wind—before she spoke.
“You’re from Security?” she asked. Her speech was precise, her voice low and controlled, as if it was perilous to give it
“Yes,” I said. “The Division of Security Standards—Standard Division.”
“You have identification?” I drew ID from a breast pocket and handed her the case. She flipped it open, studied it, studied me, and flipped it shut. “Agent Myles,” she said, and returned my ID.
“ ‘Myles’ will do.”
“Why is it ‘Standard Division’? Why don’t you call it ‘Standards Division’?”
I looked at her and shrugged. “Even we cannot control how the vernacular develops.”
The woman shook her head. “We expected you earlier.”
“It’s a long drive.”
“The cafeteria is this way,” she said.
“There’s no need, I’m not hungry.”
She tilted her head at me as if I’d spoken in tongues. “The cafeteria is where we found the body,” she said, and beckoned me on.
Excerpted from A SECRET ABOUT A SECRET by Peter Spiegelman. Copyright © 2022 by Peter Spiegelman. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.