By Len Lear
Chestnut Hill lawyer/civic activist/real estate mogul/detective novelist Eugene Caffrey (whose stories take place primarily in Chestnut Hill) was born 74 years ago and raised in North Jersey, where he commuted to Seton Hall University. After college in 1963, undecided about what to do next, he taught high school French for a year (he had summered in France and even been a street singer in Paris) and then enrolled in grad school at the University of Chicago (psychology).
Caffrey eventually switched gears, graduated from law school and wound up with a large firm in Philadelphia, Montgomery McCracken, and moved to Chestnut Hill. But after careers in law and real estate, among others, Caffrey fulfilled a lifelong dream by devoting himself fully to writing novels. “I am a very eclectic reader,” he said. It is difficult to say who is my favorite author. I have read just about every novel by Phillip Roth, Dick Francis and Anthony Trollope, but my favorite book is ‘Middlemarch.’”
It takes Caffrey roughly a year to write one of his novels: six months to write and six months to rewrite. He has written three in the past three years. “In fact,” he explained, “‘Shock Treatment’ was rewritten every time I finished another novel in an attempt to apply my evolving craft to my first, somewhat stilted, manuscript. When it was finally ready, I was thinking about self-publishing when I came upon a new e-publisher, Automat Press, based in Austin, TX, that was looking for manuscripts to start up its business.
“It was a lucky break. The guy running the business liked my books and agreed to do all the work to get them to the electronic market. So, for a reasonable commission on sales, I avoided the frustration and expense of self-publishing. While I suppose I could have done it myself, the trials of Hugh Gilmore described a few years back in his Local columns dissuaded me.”
The publisher’s official description of “Shock Treatment” says this in part:
“In this lucid and well-plotted first novel in the Owen Delaney series, Gene Caffrey introduces the reader to some memorable characters in the Philadelphia legal and political community and gives a nice feel for life in that city. We also get a glimpse of Owen’s future as he falls for the sister of one of the murder victims and begins a new phase of his life, which in follow-up works depict him as an amateur sleuth. He is energized by a belief that his wild imagination might be his greatest crime-solving asset.”
Caffrey’s second book, “Two Souls,” was released on Jan. 5; and the third, “Sweet Caroline,” will be released on March 1.
One area of minor dispute Caffrey has had with his publisher is price. “He naturally wants to make money,” said Gene. “I don’t care about that. I have always enjoyed conversation and storytelling, and all I want to do with my books is give readers the enjoyment of reading a good story. My publisher and I have compromised. The books will be priced very low to start. The publisher will inch up the price over time.”
Because of Caffrey’s extensive community activities (he won the Chestnut Hill Award twice), we asked him what he would change about Chestnut Hill if he could. “If there is one thing I could change about Chestnut Hill,” he replied, “it would be to abandon the practice of community-based elections for the Community Association Board. I realize that sounds reactionary, but I have observed a drop-off in community commitment and an increase in partisanship since these contested elections started way back when I was involved.
“If I dare say, many excellent people who would be great contributors to the community are reluctant to stand for election because, frankly, they don’t want to lose. Maybe the Association could adopt a hybrid policy: elect some board members and appoint some others.”
Caffrey has been married for 49 years to his wife, Mary Ellen, whom he met in grad school in Chicago. They have two grown children: Michael, who has a music recording studio in New York City; and Kate, who lives on a farm the family owns in Lambertville, NJ, with Gene’s three grandchildren.
When asked what person on earth he would most like to meet, Caffrey said, “This is a hard question, like what is your favorite book. But some years ago, playing this parlor game during a dinner that took place a few days after my wife and I saw the movie ‘Contact,’ I answered Jody Foster who starred in that movie, because she seemed so intelligent and independent. Since that evening, I always answer ‘Jody Foster.’ Laziness, I guess.”
Caffrey said that sales of “Shock Treatment” have been “very good,” but he
insisted that “Two Souls” is better. “It is better paced, better written. Maybe a simpler story, but it’s told from different points of view. Like ‘Shock Treatment,’ it is set in Philadelphia and features Chestnut Hiller Owen Delaney.”
“Shock Treatment” received a favorable review from Kirkus, a well know book review publication with a division that reviews so called “indie” books like Caffrey’s. The review described Owen Delaney, the protagonist, as a “convincing amateur sleuth whose kinks are as enjoyable as his triumphs.”
“As the holiday season approaches,” Caffrey said in an early December email to friends, “I assume many of your thoughts will turn to family and good times. Unfortunately, I can only think about book sales. Keeping up ‘Shock Treatment’s’ sales ranking has become an obsession. So if you’ve read it and liked it, write an Amazon review and consider buying a copy or two as a holiday gift for friends or relatives who like to read mysteries. You can tell them you’ve known the author for (fill-in-the-blank) years.”
Links to on-line booksellers can be found on Caffrey’s website, www.owendelaneynovels.com, or the books can be bought right from the website.