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January 18, 2011

It's Not Right and Never Will Be: Remembering David Thompson

This tribute appeared in the November/December issue of Crimespree, which was dedicated to David Thomspon, publisher of Busted Flush Press and one of the anchors of Murder by the Book, one of the most preeminent independent mystery bookstores in America. He died suddenly on September 13, 2010. A good friend, a great guy. I miss him.

David passed away right at the moment when everything seemed to have clicked into place. Knowing him, I suspect good fortune made him anxious as hell, but I also suspect, in moments of weakness, he permitted himself to see his life as good and happy and pointed toward home.

His personal life had gelled, with McKenna finally getting him to realize how much she meant to him, and how empty his life would be without her. They had that gentle easiness only some couples have, and were a gas to be around. Busted Flush had just locked its merger with Tyrus Books, a deal that had all the earmarks of the fabled win-win.

The economy was atrocious but the store was holding its own. And he was not just respected but much loved, deservedly so. He was generous, witty, kind, smart, enthusiastic, supportive. Not to mention silly, goofy, warm and fun.

He'd reached a kind of plateau in his life, where he could take a moment, glance back on where he'd been, all that rocky distance, and take a deep breath. I like to think he took that moment, embraced it, folded it deep into his heart, before death slipped through the door and reminded him—and us—that being young and happy and loved is no defense against bad luck.

If anyone would have embraced that message, with its noir overtones, it would have been David, but that's a bitchy little irony. He deserved better, deserved to enjoy his success and his home and McKenna's love more richly, for more years, in more ways.

In time the pain of losing him will diminish but nothing will ever make it feel right. Sure, nobody's promised anything, but David did too much for too many to get kicked this cruelly. Maybe Euripides was right, the gods aren't just absent or indifferent, they're petty and vindictive. It's the only sense I can make of this. And I've been through it before.

I will miss the warmth I felt from David, who I thought of as a kind of younger brother. We'd gotten to know each other better this past year, worked together, had a few more projects planned, and I was so looking forward to that, spending more time with him, if only via phone and email. He made me feel like I mattered, that my work deserved an audience, and he would do what he could to help. What more could I ask of anyone—and he gave it so happily, so selflessly. But it was more than that. Excuse the clumsy locution, but he stuck his heart out for people. He did it for me.

Yes, a death like this reminds you to hold your loved ones near, cherish the time you have with them, because it's too damn short no matter what. But there's something else here too, the shadow we'd like to pretend isn't there, the sinister logic deep in the machine. Sometimes things are just fucked up beyond all reason. David's gone, there's no magic that can rip that around the right way, and I'm pissed about it—which just makes me feel ridiculous and feeble on top of bitterly sad. I should know better, but I don't.

Then again, maybe I've got it wrong. My late wife had an estate planning client named Charlie Gambino—merry little tank of a man, retired butcher. He lost his first wife when she was about David's age, and her death devastated Charlie. Seeing how inconsolable he was, his father—another old-school Italian: blunt, goodhearted, tough—took him aside one day and said: "When you go out into your garden to get a rose, which one do you pick? The nicest one. You think God's any different than you?"

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