Jack Olsen Remembered

Two of my true crime books published by Kensington Publishing Group’s Pinnacle True Crime series, and my fiction novel HEADLOCK, have positive reviews by Jack Olsen prominently placed on the book covers.  I recently was asked, "who is Jack Olsen, and why do you have rave reviews from him on all your books?"

Jack Olsen was the award-winning author of thirty-three books published in fifteen countries and eleven languages. A former Time bureau chief, Olsen wrote for Vanity Fair, People, Paris Match, Readers Digest, Playboy, Life, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, New York Times Book Review and others. His magazine journalism appeared in thirteen anthologies. His books included The Misbegotten Son, The Bridge at Chappaquiddick,, the eco-thriller Night of the Grizzlies, and his monumental study of a Nazi massacre in Italy, Silence on Monte Sole. Three of his works were adapted for the screen, including Have You Seen My Son? on ABC.

Olsen’s journalism earned the National Headliners Award, Chicago Newspaper Guild’s Page One Award, commendations from Columbia and Indiana Universities, the Washington State Governor’s Award, the Scripps-Howard Award and other honors. He was listed in Who’s Who in America since 1968 and in Who’s Who in the World since 1987. The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as "an American treasure."

Olsen was described as "the dean of true crime authors" by the Washington Post and the New York Daily News and "the master of true crime" by the Detroit Free Press and Newsday. Publishers Weekly called him "the best true crime writer around." His studies of crime are required reading in university criminology courses and have been cited in the New York Times Notable Books of the Year. In a page-one review, the Times described his work as "a genuine contribution to criminology and journalism alike."

Olsen is perhaps best known for his studies of rape: "Son": A Psychopath and His Victims, which won a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; Predator, the American Mystery Award winner for Best True Crime, and "Doc": The Rape of the Town of Lovell, awarded the 1991 Edgar for Best Fact Crime. He was named to the MWA’s fact-crime committee in 1996 and appointed chair in 1997.

A nationally respected expert on the psychology of criminals, Olsen appeared on Good Morning America, Sally Jessy Raphael, Donahue, Geraldo, Larry King Live and other network interview shows. He was the father of eight, a native of Philadelphia, a fishing fanatic and former resident of New York City, Bermuda, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, Washington and San Diego. He lived on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Washington where he passed away at the age of 77 on July 16, 2002.

Jack and I first met via telephone prior to the Edgar Awards in April, 1994.  We were both heading to New York for the ceremony, and I was hoping to find a roommate to cut expenses. While we didn’t share a room, we did connect on another level.  The following year, we met in person at an MWA event in Bellevue, Washington where he took me aside and informed me that I was one vote short of an Edgar nomination for MAN OVERBOARD. We got into quite a discussion of journalism, integrity, and different stylistic approaches. Somehow, despite our age difference, we became close.

Although we only saw each other a couple more times before  his death, we kept in regular weekly contact via telephone and email.

He was one of the most generous men I’ve ever met — generous with advice, and remarkably generous in his support and encouragement.  "Get out of true crime,Burl," he advised me, "if you don’t, you will wind up like me."

“What’s wrong with that, Jack?"

"The genre has gone to crap, that’s what. We’re too good to write schlock, kiddo. You are young enough to get out while the gettin’s good. The true crime book I’m writing now will be my last, I promise you."

It was.  Entitled "I," Jack Olsen’s final true crime book was his literary farewell. Sad and depressed over what he perceived as the "burying" of his brilliant "Last Man Standing," by the publisher, Jack felt betrayed.   "I’ve had it, kid," he told me. "and the way true crime is going, it’s nothing but garbage."

He’d been on a "true crime bashing" spree for sometime, and I made a request. "Jack, if you’re going to call all true crime books garbage,could you please say something such as `Burl Barer doesn’t write garbage?’"

"Hey," he barked, "what does Jack Olsen say on the cover of your latest book? I’ll tell you what it says: `Burl Barer writes true crime at its best.’ If it weren’t true, I wouldn’t have said it. So there."

So there, indeed.

That’s Jack Olsen.  He meant what he said and he said what he meant. Jack Olsen was faithful, one-hundred-percent.

He passed away peacefully while taking a nap at his Bainbridge Island home. We should all be so lucky.

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