By Mic Huber
Published: Monday, May 16, 2016 at 6:53 p.m.
It took Charles Berkoff some 50 odd years to start playing tennis regularly, so maybe it should not be surprising that he didn't get around to finishing his first novel until the sneaky Sarasota sod passed his 83rd birthday.
A mere child at the age of 79 when he started gathering material for his medical murder mystery, Berkoff learned along the way that a good book is much more than simply sitting down and knocking out a story on a keyboard.
There is writing. And rewriting. And rewriting. And research. And finding a competent editor. And publisher. And rewriting. And ... the list goes on.
“I grossly underestimated what was involved,” admitted Berkoff about his labor of love. “There is so much more than writing. With everything, it took me about four years.”
But it was well worth the wait. Not only for the Brit, an octogenarian who found a way to show off his wit. But also for readers who get to chuckle their way along the murder mystery tour that is set in Sarasota and pays humorous homage to “old man tennis” along the way.
“PreMedicated Murder" is a delightful read by a delightful man. It is an engaging book made even more enjoyable because it is set in the local community and is full of the sights, sounds and smells of Sarasota and the surrounding area.
Murder is the hook. Drugs, mainly those of the medication kind, play a major role. But it is the large doses of humor that makes the book work, much of it revolving around what Berkoff, himself, terms “old man tennis.”
Though trying to be coy about how just much the book relies on people he knows, it is obvious that the victims and the sleuths in the book are all based on at least bits and pieces of some of the buddies Berkoff has played tennis with throughout the years at the Sarasota Bath and Racquet Club and in the Suncoast Tennis League.
“I keep denying it but some of them know,” Berkoff says, all the while still insisting that “any resemblance to actual persons — dead, alive or in between — is entirely accidental, coincidental and unintentional.”
His protestations usually fall on deaf ears when it comes to his close circle of friends. “Some of them may be too close to reality,” he laughs about the characters he has created. “I didn't want to offend anyone so I keep saying they are bits of people I know.” He must know some pretty funny people because the protagonists in this romp of about 130,000 words are as memorable for witty repartee as they are for being victims, villains and heroes.
The scene is set during a sultry summer in Sarasota and tennis partners “are dropping left and right.” What follows traces the investigation by a pair of remaining players, a couple of older guys who like their liquor and ladies and mix up fantasy and reality.
The result is a book full of double entendre, some eye-rolling puns and a few well-placed witticisms. It reveals what old men are thinking.
It's sometimes a little racy and most of the time entertaining. There are also moments where the author speaks directly to the reader, a little like George Burns did during the old time Burns and Allen show. Or even Kevin Spacy in the current Netflix show, House of Cards.
The dialogue between the two old sleuths help make murder merrier. It might not be Shakespeare, but it is funny as the dickens.
Berkoff, who grew up in London during The Blitz in World War II, insists he has always been able to find humor in almost any situation. In fact, he is starting on his second book and it deals with The Blitz with moments laced with humor.
Berkoff also knows his drugs, earning a PHD in organic chemistry and completing a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University on Baltimore before going on to serve as Director, Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia. He then served as President and CEO of Antigenics, Inc., a biotechnology company, before moving to Sarasota in 1994 and founding CEBRAL, Inc., a drug discovery and development Consulting organization.
Berkoff also had a background in writing, publishing more than 70 scientific papers and patents. He eventually turned to writing humorous pieces for magazines and online but wasn't sure about undertaking something as time-consuming as a novel.
Though he had all the elements for the eventual plot in his mind at age 79, he hesitated, saying, “I decided I was too old to write a book. I know my personality and I wouldn't dash this thing out in a few weeks. I thought it would take at least a year of writing and rewriting, so I held back.”
In the business of medicine, ingredients are mixed together but nothing works without a catalyst. Berkoff'scatalyst came when he and his wife, Heide, spent a month in Tuscany. Sitting in a garden in in Siena, overlooking the Tuscan hills while sipping Chianti, Berkoff found his motivation.
“I decided, 'Dammit, I am going to commit to it and it was very sudden,' ” he recalls. Berkoff immediately began structuring things out in his mind and began to write as they traveled. By the time they returned home he knew there would be a book, saying, “I knew I was going to finish this damn thing.”
Three years later he had a manuscript. Still, there were plenty of hurdles and a lot of work before the official birth of PreMedicated Murder.
Berkoff began seeking help, attending seminars, listening to publishers and editors. He was told to move the action and conflict up earlier. He rewrote. A publisher of mysteries said he needed to cut about 40,000 words. He rewrote again.
“It was painful,”he said. “I had written them and didn't want to waste them. That was another four or five months.”
He finally found Elizabeth Huntoon Coursen, an award winning author and respected publisher and editor, who resides in Sarasota. Coursen convinced Berkoff that it was the humor that was the sustaining characteristic of the story and that he should put back the 40,000 words he had surgically removed.
I got tired of rewriting,” he said. “But I said, 'Screw it. I've got to do it.' ”
He and Coursen also collaborated with Michael White, Illustration Director at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota on the book cover.
The book has been well-received by friends and book clubs in the Sarasota area. Now Berkoff is trying to let the world know about his funny little murder mystery.
It's good. After 130,00 words I wouldn't have minded some more.