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Hats Off to Joe Hartlaub: Celebrating Joe as He Retires as Our Senior Reviewer

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Hats Off to Joe Hartlaub: Celebrating Joe as He Retires as Our Senior Reviewer

Joe Hartlaub has been our Senior Writer and our beloved mystery/thriller/crime book reviewer since 1997 (just one year after Bookreporter launched). After 24 years and over 3,000(!) reviews, Joe is stepping away from his role while he is "still at the top of his game." He let us know about his decision in May as he wanted to make sure we had at least three months' notice, which we so appreciated. We will miss him dearly as he has been part of the heart and soul of Bookreporter for over two decades. But we are so happy for him as he turns the page on a brand-new chapter in his life. His plan is to have “no deadlines,” and after years of meeting those deadlines with his three or four reviews each week, we understand and respect this goal.

To celebrate his long and impressive run with us, we have asked a number of authors whose books Joe has reviewed frequently to share a few words about him, as well as some publishing professionals who have known him for many years. Their tributes are below, and there also are reflections from us, his Bookreporter colleagues. As you can see, they love Joe just as much as we do and think so highly of his insightful and spot-on reviews.

Those who are close to Joe know that he loves wearing hats, favoring fedoras but sporting the pork pie hat on occasion as well. So it’s only fitting that we say “Hats off!” to Joe for a job well done as he looks forward to his much-deserved retirement.


Jeff Abbott: Joe Hartlaub has been such an incredible reviewer of books --- always thoughtful, always encouraging, always fair. You can tell he loves our genre and knows it well. But Joe is not just a stellar book reviewer, he's one of the genuinely nicest people in this business. I wish him all the best in his reviewer retirement and know he'll still be reading and sharing his enthusiasm for books. Thank you, Joe!

Ace Atkins: I'm so grateful for all of Joe's reviews. Even the bad ones! I don't usually contact reviewers, but I did after Joe's insight into my third novel, DARK END OF THE STREET. I can't recall exactly what he said, but I knew as a writer he'd nailed a major problem in a way my editor at the time didn't see. From then on, I knew Joe was going to give it to me straight with a perspective that few reviewers have. He's a true student of the genre and the form, and I'll miss reading not only the critiques but also his fine writing. I wish him well in his endeavors and am thankful for his attention to my work over the years. It's meant the world to me.

Linwood Barclay: I don’t know what a book reviewer is SUPPOSED to look like, but you somehow don’t expect one to look like Joe Hartlaub. Joe looks like someone who should be playing trombone in a New Orleans jazz band, or maybe appearing in a movie, playing the tough guy who will make your life very miserable if you so much as give him the side eye. The idea of him taking on the role of anyone menacing, however, is kind of ironic, given that Joe is pretty much a teddy bear, and one of the nicest people in the business.

I first ran into him at a crime fiction conference --- Bouchercon, maybe ThrillerFest, can’t recall --- but even if I can’t remember when it was, Joe himself is unforgettable. And he is one hell of a book reviewer. He’s prolific. He’s tough but fair. He’s one of the biggest supporters of writers out there. And don’t think we’re not grateful. Joe doesn’t write a review that’s so clever you can’t even tell whether he liked the book or not. He’s not a showoff. He’s going to very simply tell you what a book is about, whether it’s any good, and why. In this way, he’s not only the writer’s friend, but the reader’s, too. (And on top of all that, the evidence would suggest that Joe actually READS the books, unlike some reviewers I could mention.) Thanks, Joe, for a job well done, and I wish you nothing but the best.

Lawrence Block: When I heard of Joe Hartlaub's impending retirement, I thought at once of John O'Hara's reaction to another life change: "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

It's hard to imagine Bookreporter, or the whole sphere of contemporary book reviewing, without Joe's presence. He's entitled, after all these years, to put his feet up and read only for his own pleasure --- or to enjoy the sometimes keener pleasure of not reading. But, like O'Hara, I can believe whatever I want.

James O. Born: Joe Hartlaub is one of the premier reviewers in the county. His "day job" as an attorney and his deep love of crime fiction makes his insights fantastic. If Joe says "read it," I read it. He will be missed in the crime fiction world.

C. J. Box: I’ll really miss Joe and his reviews. I always felt that Joe had a unique understanding of my novels and that he always “got” them in the way that a writer hopes a reader will. Whenever I saw his byline on a review --- whether it was a book of mine or another --- I always took the time to read it. Happy retirement, Joe!

Ken Bruen: Joe Hartlaub is a true Renaissance man. Cultured. Humorous. Learned. To read his reviews is a lesson in the true art of critique. His voice is the sound of rare to rarest wisdom.

D.W. Buffa: Other authors have offered their various observations on how, for nearly a quarter of a century, Joseph Hartlaub did his work as a literary critic. He has been described as fair-minded, generous, always willing to put in the time necessary to give readers an accurate account of what a writer was attempting to do. All of this is true. There was no critic more generous in his praise or more fair-minded in his estimate of what an author had achieved. But that does not explain what made what Hartlaub wrote so interesting, and even compelling, to read.

Hartlaub seldom said anything bad about anything; he was too subtle for that. He was one of the very few literary critics who knew how to measure praise. Read that an author has written something that a great many people will find entertaining, and you will think that is high praise indeed --- unless you then happen to read his review of another novel in which he suggests that one of the chapters “is one of the finest pieces of short fiction I have read in 30 years.”

The 30 years spent reading tells you everything. Hartlaub spent much of his time reviewing contemporary works of fiction, most of it mysteries, novels about crime, but his own reading was much broader than that. He knew the American classics so well that he could in one review remind us that in “the first half of the 20th century, there were a number of mass circulation magazines that published short stories by the masters (Hemingway, Fitzgerald).” And then, with that standard, describe what a contemporary author had attempted as “a story of sublimated angst, of the sad and wonderful dance that men and women do with each other in their youth that they will never forget for the rest of their lives.” Only Joseph Hartlaub could have written a sentence like that.

Joseph Hartlaub, one of the last of a dying breed, was a serious reader who, fortunately for us, became one of the few serious critics we had. To say that he will be missed is a grievous understatement.

James Lee Burke: Mr. Hartlaub took his craft seriously. He was diligent, analytical, fair and obviously wrote his reviews with a strong sense of conscience. I would like to thank him for his support of my work and wish him all the best upon his retirement.

Ben Coes: I first met Joe Hartlaub at Bouchercon in Cleveland. When he walked into the hotel bar, we all turned. Joe might review books, but he moves with a mixture of Dewey, Rapp, Harvath and Tony Soprano. He moves with an air of impending danger and intrigue. His hat conceals multiple cold weapons. Beneath his left arm, a concealed M1911A1 .45 ACP with a custom-made alloy suppressor. Joe’s brilliant reviews are matched only by his amazing kindness, generosity and intellect. For as long as I can remember, Joe has sent me personal notes on my birthday wishing me a happy birthday. Last year he didn’t, and I’m extremely upset. But I don’t check my email that often, so maybe he actually did. The bottom line is that I love Joe as does everyone who has had the opportunity to meet him and interact with him. Joe is a treasure, and may his retirement bring him as much happiness as he brought to all of us.

John Connolly: I feel a sense of connection to Joe as he commenced his reviewing career at Bookreporter not very long before I published my first novel, and his generosity of spirit (rarer in reviewing, as in life, than one might often wish) has never wavered, never flagged. For more than two decades he has been kind to my writing, and more than kind. He, I think, has sometimes forgiven flaws and glanced over missteps, conscious that this, too, is part of the reviewer’s art: the ability to view a writer’s career not merely as a series of discrete steps, but as chapters in a larger volume, one on which a novelist may work for a lifetime yet never complete. I wish him only happiness in his retirement, although I know that books will still keep him company, and I hope mine may be among them.

Tom Donadio, Editorial Director of The Book Report Network: I had the absolute pleasure of working with Joe for 19 years as his editor, and I cannot say enough good things about him. Not only is he a top-notch reviewer who never “phoned in” any of his reviews, he is a great guy who I am proud to call my friend. It’s always a thrill for me when I have the opportunity to meet our reviewers, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with Joe on three separate occassions. His sense of humor is infectious, and it’s so much fun to be in his presence. Life is never dull when he’s around!

Joe was mulling retirement a couple of years ago, and he asked me how many months' notice he should give me when he felt the time was right. I told him three months would be ideal, but of course I was hoping that notice would never come. But in May he called me to say that he was finally ready to hang up his reviewer hat. That was a sad day for me, but I so appreciated that he stuck to his word and gave me that advance notice.

Now that he has some free time on his hands, I am hoping he will make another trip to New York soon so I can see how retired life is treating him. While I will miss assigning him books, reading his stellar reviews and seeing his emails in my inbox, I am glad that he is leaving on his own terms. And he knows that the door is always open for him to make a triumphant return to Bookreporter. But that just may be wishful thinking on my part.

Carol Fitzgerald, President of The Book Report Network: We have said more than once that the entire team at Bookreporter and The Book Report Network was built one person at a time. We literally did that. Joe Hartlaub found us after he read a Bookreporter review and contacted the writer to tell her how much he liked it. They started up a correspondence, and she suggested that he reach out to us about becoming a reviewer. And that began the fabulous 24 years of our history with Joe.

I am trying to remember the first time I met Joe in person. I cannot lock in that memory, but I am sure he can. He remembers all kinds of great details. But as I roll through the Rolodex of my mind, I clearly see so many fun moments with him at various Bouchercon and ThrillerFest events. While I have always loved Joe’s reviews, the adventures with him are the ones that make me smile.

As an example, the first ThrillerFest event was held in Arizona in 2006, and while Ali Karim will later write in his tribute about something that happened there, I have a sparkling memory of my own. Joe knows a lot about weapons, and he has various permits to carry them. He brought some guns to the event, including a highly sophisticated one that required an even higher-level permit. They were presented during one of the panels for authors, with Joe and a few other people who were in the know on weaponry and firearms sharing their knowledge with authors so they could “get the guns right,” which is something that can get an author lots of reader notes if any details are wrong. The program was a huge success, and as the event ended, Joe put the guns in his car to drive back home to Ohio. (Another thing to know about Joe: he does not fly.)

As he started his drive, his transmission blew. It’s now 4th of July weekend, and he learns that the car cannot be fixed for a few days. So he gets a motel room and moves all the firearms and weaponry in there, along with his luggage. If I remember correctly, at one point the maid opened the door to clean his room. She saw the guns lined up and ran out screaming, “Merde.” I think from there Joe hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door. This became the longest car repair in history as he sat with the guns in his room until it was fixed. He had picked up some books at the conference, and each time I spoke with him, he told me not to worry about him as he was just sitting there reading.

And another word on Joe and reading. He would tell me that he was reading as he was driving on a trip, let’s say from his home in Ohio to New Orleans. But no folks, he was not listening to an audiobook; he articulated how he would prop the book up on the steering wheel and read while driving. Luckily, that was a habit that he ceased indulging in at some point. By the way, even with this multitasking, he remembered the smallest details about the books.

Joe would also hit the bar to tell stories with the best of them, but I'm not sure how many knew that he does not drink. Thus, when people were telling tales, Joe was actually remembering them.

EVERY time I called him, he would say “CAROL” and then give me his signature laugh. We would talk books and, yes, gossip --- the latter all under the cone of silence. But remember folks, Joe was listening at the bar!

EVERY year he has called and serenaded me on my birthday. He has promised to continue that; I am holding him to it.

I remember when his youngest daughter was born, as well as his oldest grandchild, who is now 15. He is not just the reviewer who has been with us the longest; he is part of the heart and soul of the TBRN family.

When we talked a couple of weeks ago, he promised that it was not going to be our last call. Joe called that one right. He is forever locked onto my phone list. And I look forward to that next call...and the next one. And all the emails in between. He is our Senior Writer Emeritus!

John Hart: Joe Hartlaub is one of the very first names I learned when my publishing career began just a shade over 15 years ago. A prolific reviewer (and one of impeccable taste!), I have always looked for his thoughts on the latest offerings, especially from new writers trying to find their way in this immense, dizzying business. It can be frightening to launch a new career, and Joe has always been there for the newcomers lucky enough to cross his path --- a kind word from him has meant so much to so many of us. He helped launch my career and has been a steadfast supporter throughout. That's another reason writers find Joe's work so laudable: if he likes you, he sticks with you. Book after book, Joe has been there for people like me, a kind and thoughtful reader when such things matter most. He has been a boon to publishing, and the business will be poorer for his absence. That being said, Joe, I wish you the happiest of retirements. If you are ever in the Charlottesville area, please reach out. I'd be delighted to buy you a drink.

Gregg Hurwitz: Joe Hartlaub's delight for and knowledge of crime fiction shined through every review. He read and wrote from a place of deep affection for the genre, and he spread literary goodwill because --- clearly --- he couldn't not. It is simply who he is. The publishing world relies on enthusiasm and word of mouth, and what a champion we had in Joe. We will miss those exuberant words!

Keith Kahla, Executive Editor at St. Martin’s Press: Joe is one of those all too rare people --- an intelligent, knowledgeable reviewer; a true book lover; and a warm, welcome presence at any event. I'll miss his reviews, but I'll look forward to his hearty laugh and friendly smile when next we cross paths.

Ali Karim, Assistant Editor at Shots Magazine: I first ran into Joe Hartlaub via his book reviews and commentary at Bookreporter --- as we shared an avid interest in thrillers --- but it would be at the inaugural ITW ThrillerFest in 2006 in Phoenix, Arizona, where we met face to face. Being the shy introvert that I am [not], I introduced myself to Carol and Joe, who were both participating in the "Jack Reacher Trial" as jurors, and we hit it off immediately --- after his initial shock of being recognized beyond his literary commentary.

Over the years, our paths crossed at various US literary events --- including ThrillerFests and Bouchercons --- and when they did, we would roar laughing as we both shared the same sense of the surreal. This also included Carol, as she would track down Joe and me...which was not hard considering the booming laughter and sense of the absurd.

Many writers owe Joe much for nudging good writing into the hands of readers, helping establish careers. As the years passed, I'd bump into Joe annually, and we'd discuss what thrillers and crime novels we’d be reading. But most crucially, I'd follow Joe on Bookreporter to see what's hot and what books passed over his reviewing table. And I always enjoyed Joe's birthday messages on my Facebook messenger, sung by the Man himself, which was always a delight.

However, it was in 2012 at the Bouchercon event in Cleveland that I recall Joe's presence most vividly. My editor Mike Stotter wanted a leather cowboy hat, and I wanted a pork pie hat --- firstly, a homage to Peter Straub, whose award-winning novella, PORK PIE HAT, is one I read annually and also due to the Heisenberg persona of Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” Who to ask where I could get a high-quality pork pie hat but Joe Hartlaub, famed for his taste in hats? So, together with San Francisco-based writer Kelli Stanley, Mike Stotter and I were collected by Joe from the hotel just prior to Bouchercon, and he drove us to a special hat shop. I got my pork pie hat (as you can see below), which I wear to this day.


The last time I saw Joe was at Bouchercon New Orleans in 2016. We had a blast as we both love music, and the photo below is of me (in the center) flanked by Larry Gandle (the assistant editor of Deadly Pleasures) and Joe (with the hat).

So Joe, I salute you by tipping my pork pie hat. You are what we call in England "a damned fine egg.”


Jonathan Kellerman: Best wishes to Joe Hartlaub. Your fine writing and acute observations will be missed. I’m sure you’ll keep reading albeit in a leisurely mode.

Dean Koontz: As one who can’t find the courage to retire (who would I be?) and who has long benefitted from Joe Hartlaub’s reviews, the news of his retirement fills me equally with envy, admiration and sadness. I’m grateful for the chance to say a few words about him, which follow:

A writer should want only three things from a reviewer: (1) high skill with the English language that proves his or her credentials; (2) the ability to set aside his or her biases and judge a work according to what the author intended; and (3) the integrity to actually read the book closely from first word to last.

One does not expect (1) the effective intricacies of English usage to be recognized, (2) the themes to be properly grasped and their relationship to one another understood, or (3) the existence of subtext to be perceived. It is essential to a writer’s maintenance of sobriety to avoid expecting these three things from a reviewer, because if one expects them, one will be driven to a full bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on 90% of the occasions when one dares read a review, whether it is a rave or an excoriation.

Joe Hartlaub is one of those rare critics who brings to his reviews the first three virtues as well as the second three. Consequently, you better hope he liked the book, because if he didn’t, you need to do some soul-searching as you work on the next one. There are reviews I don’t read, because it’s wise not to let certain people into your head, but I always read Mr. Hartlaub’s reviews. Quite independently of his opinion of any book of mine, I have often thought how well we would surely get along if we had met in life. It is not healthy for an author and critic to be friends while each performs his work, but now that Joe Hartlaub is retired, if ever he should be in southern California, I would want to take him to lunch and see if he could tolerate me. I suspect it might be “the start of a beautiful friendship” --- though I would see myself in the Bogart role.

Jesse Kornbluth, Founder of Joe is the Charlie Watts of book reviewers. No one who writes for Bookreporter has ever been steadier. And when there’s a reason, he steps forward, and as Charlie does with six bass drum shots at the start of “Street Fighting Man,” he has you coming out of your chair.

Michael Koryta: I don't care what authors say about avoiding reviews --- publish enough books, and you'll learn to read at least a few reviews, because you'll learn that the reviewer's opinion has become important to you. Joe Hartlaub has been one of those for me. When some people dropped off as I tried supernatural stories, Joe read on with interest and insight. When I swung back to thrillers, he saw the bridges I was trying to build in my own work...maybe clearer than I saw them myself. And he was going to be honest about it.

I don't have great recall of reviews (maybe a protective psychological mechanism!), but I can remember a couple of lines from one of Joe's reviews damn near verbatim. I don't need to share them, but I do want to share how much they meant, and how special it is when a critic not only likes the book, but thinks deeply about why it worked for them. I'm going to miss having that voice out there as a writer, but even more as a reader, because Joe Hartlaub introduced me to so many great books, so many now-favorite writers. That's such a gift. All the best to you, Joe, and sincere thanks for making my day on a few occasions. I hope our paths cross somewhere along the trail.

Maxine Paetro: Hey Joe, say it ain’t so.

When I heard you were retiring from Bookreporter, I remembered our first meeting at ThrillerFest 2008. I didn’t know a soul, including you, and there we were talking about thriller conventions and, gasp, politics. Sometime later, I read your fantastic short story, “Crossed Double,” in Clive Cussler's anthology, THRILLER. It was great! We spoke again when I was in Ohio attending an arson convention --- it probably wasn’t called that, but I was doing research on fires --- and you live in Ohio. I emailed you, and you reviewed the four fast food restaurants across all four streets from the motel where I was staying. By then, I had found Bookreporter and had the great pleasure of reading your book reviews. I’m a bit sorry that you’re closing that door, but I’m happy for you that you will be opening another and will have time to --- as we used to call it back in the day --- "follow your bliss."

Happy Birthday, Joe. I can’t wait to read what you do next.

Nick Petrie: Joe Hartlaub has long been one of my favorite reviewers. He tells it like it is, never sugarcoating a book’s shortcomings. (Believe me, writers know where we’ve fallen short.) But he does this entirely without malice --- in fact, with a certain kindness. Like an older brother after watching you go seven rounds in the ring, letting you know when you telegraph a punch or leave yourself open to a kidney shot. It’s just how things are, he says. He makes you want to do better. Plus, Joe has regularly pointed the way toward writers I otherwise might have overlooked, enriching my reading life beyond measure. Thanks for all of that, Joe. You will be missed.