Even though he was born in New York, award-winning writer Joseph Collum has always thought of Fort Lauderdale as home. His family moved there when he was five, so it was where he spent his formative years. “It was like a paradise back then,” he recalls. “I used to play at Whiskey Creek, and I was always out on the water. It was a great place to grow up.” Collum’s fondness for his childhood home has inspired a series of mystery novels set in the city he knows so well.
“Novelist” is a relatively recent addition to Collum’s resume. Although he’d wanted to write a book since age 12 when his dad introduced him to John D. MacDonald’s novels, Collum chose a different career path. “I took a journalism class when I was at the University of Florida and got hooked,” he says. “It was during Watergate when Woodward and Bernstein were all the rage. I liked digging up stories, so I became an investigative reporter.”
This proved to be a wise decision. Collum distinguished himself by garnering more than 100 major journalism awards for tackling issues like elder care and political corruption. His exposé of racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police raised national awareness of the practice and resulted in Collum being credited for coining the term. But it was Collum’s final assignment that caused him to transition from reporter to novelist.
On September 11, 2001, Collum was assigned to cover the collapse of the Twin Towers. “Standing in the midst of all that death and destruction was overwhelming,” he says. “I was struck that all these people had gone to work thinking it was such a beautiful day, thinking they had the rest of their lives ahead of them. And then they were gone. I spent a week at Ground Zero. Nothing I’d ever experienced came close to that. It left me emotionally spent.” Collum also realized that if he really wanted to do something, he shouldn’t put it off until tomorrow. So he moved back to Fort Lauderdale and started working on a book.
Collum’s first book was actually his second to be published. The Black Dragon: Racial Profiling Exposed is an extensive history of racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police. Drawn from over 200,000 documents and personal interviews, the book weighed in at around 800 pages. Collum was unable to find a publisher, so he decided to try his hand at a novel.
“In 2000, while I was still living in New Jersey, I came to Fort Lauderdale for vacation,” he says. “I noticed that by 2 p.m., the beach was in shadow because of all the high-rises that had been built. This stuck in my mind.” It also became the genesis for Brady’s Run, a mystery novel that introduced Collum’s signature character, Max Brady. Brady, an ex-cop and ex-attorney, moves home to Fort Lauderdale after losing his wife in the World Trade Center collapse. “I needed to write about 9/11,” Collum explains. “Max came to Fort Lauderdale in grief, and so did I. It was a catharsis for me to write about it.” Like Collum, Max discovers that the place he remembered has substantially changed. The mysterious deaths of owners of Mom-Pop motels along the beach prompt Max to investigate the “shadow world” of rampant development. His involvement places him in the crosshairs of some dangerous adversaries.
Following the publication of Brady’s Run, Collum asked his publisher to take a look at The Black Dragon. After substantial editing that cut the page count in half, the book was accepted for publication. “I’m happy that it was finally published,” Collum says. “It was an important story that needed to be told.”
Collum’s next release was the second in the Max Brady series. Et Tu Brady is based on a murder that took place at Whiskey Creek in the late 1960s. “It freaked me out that a place I associated with such good childhood memories could be the scene of a gruesome murder,” Collum recalls. “I decided to write about it someday, and over the decades I played with the idea. When I wrote Et Tu Brady, I decided it was time.” In the story, the murder of a boyhood friend has Max looking for a connection between the crime and a mysterious sunken treasure. Along the way, he is forced to unearth some painful memories to prove the innocence of the girl who was his first love. As the story segues between past and present, Collum gives readers a taste of what life was like in the Fort Lauderdale he once knew.
After pouring so much heart and soul into Et Tu Brady, Collum took a break from writing. “Sometimes, when I look back on the three books I've written, I wonder how I managed to plod through them, word by word, sentence by sentence, writing, re-writing and re-writing ad infinitum,” he says. “The idea of starting from scratch on a new project seemed so daunting. “ In spite of this, Collum has begun two books since Et Tu Brady was published.
Collum’s first attempt involved a story he covered as a young reporter about the mob assassination of a cop who was one of his sources. “I had tried to write a non-fiction book about it way back then but didn't have the time or discipline to complete it,” he says. ”I still have a cabinet filled with my original files on the case and immersed myself in them, but my attempts to turn the story into a Max Brady novel were not satisfactory to me, so I put that project aside. I plan to return to it someday soon and give it another go. It is an incredible story. My challenge will be doing it justice.”
During the same time, Collum was writing some articles for a friend who publishes a shipping magazine. One of the pieces was about cruise ship passenger safety. He was shocked by what he found, and because Fort Lauderdale is the cruise ship capital of the world, he decided it would be a great setting for a Max Brady story. “In the name of research, my wife and I took a cruise with some friends last year,” he says. “I gathered a lot of good color which I am employing in the story.” The book, titled A Bullet for Brady , starts out on the inaugural voyage of the world's largest cruise ship out of Port Everglades. It will take Max Brady and his girlfriend - the indomitable Rose Becker - to some exotic locations. According to Collum, “I'm having fun with it but still have many miles to travel before it is ready for public consumption.”
Collum is also plotting another Brady book that he hopes to start soon and perhaps write simultaneously with A Bullet for Brady. “While my production has been fallow since Et Tu was published, I am hoping 2016 brings a surge of productivity and that I’ll have two more books at least written, if not published, by the end of the year,” he says. “I love writing, and I hope to have a few more years on this earth to write a few more books. I hope I’ll get better as I get older. My goal is to have sparks fly off the page.”
For more about Joseph Collum, visit his website at www.josephcollum.com.