Sunday, January 14, 2001

Their marriage is murder

Intrepid duo dares to go where few have survived
- writing mysteries together

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        No, John Celestri is explaining, a Newport Nightgown was not a fashion statement.

        Back in the town's shadowy past, when it was owned by the mob, a Newport Nightgown was a large steel drum that mob types would use as a disposal system: An offending hood was stuffed in, it was filled with cement and tossed in the river.


        Mr. Celestri knows about this stuff. He and wife Cathie, a husband-wife author team working under the name Cathie John, have researched Newport every which way possible.

([name of photographer] photo)
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        They've told it all in a novel called Little Mexico (Journeybook Press; $12.95), a sordid little tale of Newport in the 1940s, when the biggest stars in the country fought to play the glittering showrooms and the nastiest hoods in the country fought for control over the maze of bars, brothels and casinos.

        Nightgowns were a job hazard.

        Little Mexico (Newport's old nickname) is the fourth book from John, a 51-year-old animator who still takes on a free-lance project or two, and Cathie, a 47-year-old trained chef who runs their Loveland publishing company.

        It's an arrangement that would test the strength of any marriage: They write together all day, eat together, spend evenings together and get up to breakfast together.

        Lot of togetherness, 'eh?

        “We do spend a lot of time together, but it seems to be working,” John says. “I think it's because of the team concept. We work like the old Dick Van Dyke Show, where they'd all sit in a room talking out routines. We talk a chapter or scene through, and if we feel it doesn't work, we talk it out again. Usually peacefully.”

        “We're both control freaks, and we both have enormous egos, so it can get noisy,” Cathie adds.

        But at the end of the noise comes a book.

        Their first three — Add One Dead Critic, Beat a Rotten Egg to the Punch and Carve a Witness to Shreds — are all set in Cincinnati, all murders, and all about Kate Cavanaugh, chili fortune heiress and detective.

        Those are pure fiction. Mexico isn't: About half of the people are historical characters — Red Masterson, Pete Schmidt, Charles Lester, Sleepout Louie Levinson — and about half the events are the real thing, set in such places as Newport's now defunct Glen Rendezvous, Beverly HillsSupper Club and Flamingo.

        The book's heroes, the Jules family and Nick Cavanaugh, long-lost uncle of Kate Cavanaugh, are fictional, but the events they observe are historical. A skillful weaving job, that.

        “We went through newspapers, we read books, we went into the archives at NKU, and we interviewed people who worked at the clubs to find out how operations worked,” John says.

        “I'm confident that it's an accurate picture of 1943 Newport,” Cathie adds.

        Future books, they promise, will be as accurate. “We hope to do two more about Nick and Newport, bringing the story up to the '60s when the city was cleaned up, then a big bang when we weave Kate into Nick's story,” John says.

        “They'll be ready to meet by then,” Cathie says.

        Hmmm. These people agree too much. Let's separate them for a round of He Said, She Said. You know, chase one from the room and grill the other, then reverse the process.

        The best part about co-writing with a spouse . . .

        She: John fills in where I'm weak, and I can fill in where he's weak.

        He: The best is that it's easy to be on the same wavelength and go sailing off into the book. Of course, you can also be off the wave.

        The biggest difficulty in co-writing with a spouse . . .

She: Two huge egos that think they're always right. That their way's the best.

        He: Turning it off at night. Like, how do you do it? Sometimes, we just have to say Stop! No more.

        Something I'd like to try that he (she) won't go along with . . .

        She: Oh, he goes along with everything I say. Or else.

        He: This book. She didn't want to do Mexico. Really dug in her heels, but she went along because it was my turn to experiment.

        If I could, I would (wouldn't) go back to Newport in its heyday . . .

        She: I'd love to. Even though we write about the raunchy side, I see the glamour — the evening gowns and the big-name acts. Sounds like fun. And we need glamour right now.

        He: I would go back in half a heartbeat. Love to, because I want to experience it first hand. It was so different from what the world is today. I'd like to make the comparison first hand.

        If I could co-write with anyone else in the world, it would be . . .

        She: I couldn't. I don't think it would work with anyone else.

        He: I wouldn't do it. Wouldn't even consider it.

        One thing you'll never see in our books . . .

        She: No one's pets getting killed.

        He: Lack of effort to do the very best we can.

        Here's how we resolve artistic differences . . .

        She: I refuse to cook dinner for a week.

        He: We resolve them with intense verbal discussion. If that doesn't work, we arm wrestle. Two out of three falls.

        What inspires me . . .

        She: Anger. That's weird, isn't it? But it's what inspires me to keep writing.

        He: In Little Mexico, it's that fact that it was all real. You can't make up that kind of stuff. If we did, people would say, "You gotta be kidding.' But it actually happened.
       Get a taste of Little Mexico, or at least an excerpt, at


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