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Mystery Achievement 

Cleveland honors Roberts and his fictional P.I.

Making a killing: Nine of Les Roberts' Cleveland-based - mysteries have just been reissued.
  • Making a killing: Nine of Les Roberts' Cleveland-based mysteries have just been reissued.
After 13 books set in Cleveland, Slovenian private eye Milan Jacovich has become as much a part of the local landscape as pierogies and classic rock. The reason is no mystery to author Les Roberts. "This is one of the few cities where you can find a Slovenian neighborhood, a Lithuanian neighborhood, a Hungarian neighborhood, and all the rivalries that come with them," he says. "When something happens in Cleveland, everybody knows about it, and it's big news."

When he moved here in 1990, Chicago native Roberts' once-simmering career (which included stints as a writer on the Emmy-winning Andy Griffith Show and as Hollywood Squares' first producer) was cooling. He answered a magazine ad posted by the Ohio Lottery, which was looking for someone to oversee its new TV game show, Cash Explosion.

Roberts wasn't thrilled about relocating. "I came with fairly low expectations," he recalls. "I had never been to Cleveland and knew little about it, except [football great] Jim Brown. When I got here, I fell in love with the city."

Apparently, the city feels the same: Mayor Jane Campbell declared that this Friday will be Milan Jacovich Day, and local publisher Gray & Company is reissuing the first nine Jacovich books.

In them, the grizzled detective scours the city's streets and landmarks for clues to a series of crimes that range from robberies to murder. Pretty standard mystery-novel stuff, except that they're speckled with local references.

"There isn't another city in America that's like Cleveland," says Roberts. "I wanted an ethnic private eye, because a guy named Frank Wilson you can have anywhere."

This is the first time so many of Roberts' mysteries have been available simultaneously. And while several of the books do work with a plug-and-play model ("Frank Wilson" could easily replace "Milan Jacovich" in some of the tales), the locales are distinctly Cleveland. The suburbs figure prominently, and local readers will enjoy picking out the area bars, streets, and politicos with which Roberts laces his tales.

A good starting place is Jacovich's debut, Pepper Pike, which reveals that life in the exclusive suburb isn't so tranquil after all. Of course, Roberts takes some liberties with local culture -- Jamaican drug runners figure prominently in Deep Shaker -- but for the most part, the books hew close to life.

"I look around with the writer's eye," Roberts says. "It gives me all sorts of ideas. I never go anywhere without a notebook. I make notes about everything. There are no characters in any of my novels that aren't physically based on somebody I've seen, somebody I've met, or somebody I know."

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