|Leighton Gage (May 13, 1942--July 27, 2013)|
The first good friend I made in college was a guy I met on the film committee, where we booked movies to show at the student union. He was also a projectionist. We were hanging out in the booth one night while he was screening Maltese Falcon. He asked if I'd read the book. When he found out I hadn't read any Hammett, he told me I had to read all of it. And then all of Chandler. A few days later he gave me a collection of the Continental Op stories.
In 2000, when he was in his early 50s, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three months to live. He went fifteen.
In 2003, when writing my first novel, I named the protagonist after him.
The book failed to sell to the majors. In 2009 it was published by a tiny outfit that mainly sells to libraries. About six months later I got an email from someone named Leighton Gage, who said he was on the Edgar nominating jury for best first novel. He was outraged he was the only one to vote for my book, and wanted to let me know that, after the awards were announced—he was very scrupulous and fair-minded—he would go online and push the book. He wanted me to know in the meantime the work was appreciated by a fellow author.
What a guy. We began to correspond. Early on I asked if Leighton Gage was a pen name, a pun on Late Engage, because he'd become a novelist later in life. You could hear the chuckling in his response. And it turned out we both loved Portugal, and fado music. Leighton became the best friend I've had that I've never met; we had a digital-Victorian, epistolary relationship. The one Bouchercon I attended was one he missed.
He was of course better than his word. He invited me to blog on MIE, and he posted guest blogs and chat room comments doing everything he could to push a first novel by a complete unknown, simply because he thought it was the right thing to do.
In addition to being floored by Leighton's generosity, I was grateful to have a correspondent so intelligent, so perceptive, so polite, considerate, so in love with his family, so deeply infused with saudade at the memory of the daughter he lost in Lisbon long ago, and just so fundamentally decent, that knowing him, even at a distance, was a seminar in what an adult is supposed to be; a subject at which, at age 64, I'm still grading out at no more than C-.
And I really enjoyed his novels.
This winter Leighton said he was going to be at a convention in Chicago this summer. I immediately responded I'd be there no matter what. I was looking forward to taking Leighton and Eide out for an epic dinner.
He was having trouble with his stomach. The symptoms kept getting worse. His ailment kept getting mis-diagnosed. After too many months, it was finally identified as pancreatic cancer.
Leighton began chemo. He wrote that he hoped he'd bounce back in time to make it to Chicago. I didn't write back that that wasn't going to happen; even if the chemo worked, it was going to be a heavy version that gives you a thorough poisoning and butt-kicking. But the odds were the treatment wouldn't work; it's a disease that's usually fatal by the time it's advanced enough to be diagnosed.
Yesterday another good friend, a good man, died, hard. I can't imagine what such a profound loss means to Leighton's family, and to friends who actually got to meet him.
Made me cry. My wife too.
Lenny––in for Cara on Tuesday