Editor’s note: When we first heard from Scott Adlerberg, we gave him a hard time. He’d approached us about a “pre-pub” excerpt of a book we discovered had been out for a while, though with a different press than he now has. However, when he told us his tale, we not only understood how it happened, we knew we had to share it with you, too. The only name changed is that of the FBI agent in charge of the criminal investigation. Read on, and enter for your chance to win!
I’ve never considered myself a gullible person. To begin with, my father was a criminal lawyer, and from the time I was young, dinner table chat in our family consisted of crime talk. An excellent raconteur, my father had no qualms about describing his cases and the people he was defending—accused con artists, robbers, murderers, the works. His tone was colorful but matter of fact, and even as a little boy, I could sense and appreciate that he was telling me adult things most parents prefer not to tell their kids. Over pork chops and beans, a story of a guy shooting another guy in a bar. With spaghetti and meatballs, a tale of a husband who allegedly bludgeoned his wife to death, or vice versa (an account of a wife doing in her husband). You get the picture. It was blood and guts stuff—my mother listening, too, of course—but the stories rarely scared me. On the contrary, put into an involving narrative by my father, the cases he had and the clients he defended usually struck me as fascinating.
My father was an avid mystery reader and had a huge library of detective fiction classics (Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, etc.), but I’m sure that my lifelong interest in crime, mysteries, evidence, and the shadowy side of human nature came from his involvement with the actual world of crime. From a very early age, I was aware of the twisted acts human beings are capable of, but aware in a way I felt was positive. Some human beings do terrible things, yes, but that’s no reason to be scared of life. What’s important is to stay alert. Enjoy life, but be on guard.
In retrospect, considering my background, I’m not surprised I took up crime fiction writing, and as a writer immersed in dark material, I never saw myself as naive. Me, a dupe? With all the hours I spend thinking about the various shades of evil? Me, the son of a streetwise criminal attorney? How could I be fooled, let alone victimized, by anyone? That won’t happen, not to me it won’t.
Hope was my weak point, hope the “flaw” that made me vulnerable to deception. As a writer with a first novel completed, I wanted to see my novel published, and it was my eagerness for this outcome that made me repress my self-protective radar. Hope is what every con artist preys on, and crime writers, despite their familiarity with darkness, can be marks like anyone else. When you want something bad enough, you let wishful thinking, rationalization cloud your thoughts.
Here’s how it happened with me:
In 1996, while living in the Bronx, I submitted my novel to a small press operating in upstate New York. The woman who ran the press accepted it, and I was ecstatic. Spiders and Flies would be my first novel published. Ideally, I would have liked to have a large publishing house do the book, but as an unknown I felt that I had to be realistic. “Take what you can get,” I told myself. “At least your book will get into print.” If I rebuffed the small publisher, I thought, I might find no other takers for the book. I signed a royalty contract (no advance, with some costs of the book’s production to be paid by me), but I was excited and optimistic as the year closed.
I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to 1997. The publisher and I would edit and shape the book, or so I thought, and when it was ready to publish, she’d market it. I knew she didn’t have the promotional resources of the heavyweight publishers, but she was promising press releases to get me editorial reviews, a modest book tour, a strong push on Amazon, placement of the novel in independent bookstores and especially crime fiction shops.
To say it again, I was excited. How could I not be?
But nothing much happened in 1997. Nor in early 1998. The publisher sent me one set of galleys, which I corrected and mailed back to her, and there things stalled. I would phone her office, up in an Adirondack town, and usually get her answering machine. To hear her mildly twangy voice tell me again and again to leave a message after the beep became maddening. When she did pick up, and I’d ask, trying not to sound brusque or angry, when I could expect the next set of proofs, she’d say, each time, “soon.”
She had a tiny staff, she assured me, and a number of authors she was working with at the same time. She wanted the best for all her authors, she insisted. But the next set of proofs for me was almost done. She’d send them to me soon as they were. Do you have a timeframe, I’d ask? Two, three weeks, she’d reply. You’ll have them. But the three weeks would go by, a full month, and nothing from her would arrive.
I’d call again and we’d have an identical conversation. From her would come the repeated promise. Soon, soon….the galleys….yes. And as the months dragged on and the infuriating sense of stasis continued, I couldn’t but start to fear the worst: I’d been drawn into the world of a….what? Stone-cold con artist? Or was she a scammer who half-believed her own stories?
On her answering machine, she announced herself as Martha Ivery. The name on the contract I’d signed was Martha Ivery. In correspondence and over the phone I addressed her as Martha.
My “editor,” on the other hand, was called Kelly O’Donnell. Different person. Except that her phone voice had a subtle twang similar to Martha’s. Their intonations too were similar, but not so alike that I could swear Martha and Kelly were actually the same person. Maybe they sounded alike because they came from the same area in the Adirondacks.
Later, of course, it proved to be true that Martha and Kelly were one person, and I felt a sense of acute embarrassment at having been strung along for so long. More than embarrassed, I felt humiliated. I wondered whether every time she spoke to me, feeding me the lines about the galleys to come, whether talking to me as Martha or Kelly, she was laughing at me under her breath. Did she snort with contempt after hanging up? What a fool she must have thought me.
On a couple of occasions, I almost asked her outright whether she was both Martha and Kelly, but I restrained myself because it seemed too far-fetched. She couldn’t really be that brazen, could she? Every single author she’s signed to a contract she’s trying to fool in the same way? I came so close to calling her out, but every time I’d bite my tongue for fear of offending her.
If I voiced my suspicions and turned out to be wrong, she might just get angry enough to pull the plug on Spiders and Flies and I’d be back to square one, an author still without his novel published. I’d have to start the publisher hunt all over again. True, if she pulled the plug, she’d be in breach of our contract, but then I’d have to pursue her in court and go through a hassle I didn’t want. My goal wasn’t to be in court suing someone but to get my novel into print.
“All she has to be is legitimate,” I’d keep telling myself, “and it will happen. She’ll publish the book. Be patient. Be patient. She does things slowly and could be more competent but the woman’s not a con artist. It’ll happen.”
At last I got to do the final proofs, but then came a delay with the cover art. The Spring of 1999 passed. In one conversation she explained that the printer’s studio, located near Toronto, had caught fire and burned to the ground. That meant she needed to find a new printer. Another time, she claimed her entire operation was thrown off schedule because a worker in her town’s post office had for weeks been destroying the mail he was supposed to be sorting. By the time the worker was caught (mental problems apparently), who knew what mail had been lost?
This postal story pushed credulity to the breaking point, and the next one broke it entirely. I received a brochure from Martha inviting me on a writers’ cruise seminar she was coordinating for all her alleged writers. The price of the cruise, to be paid to her: five thousand dollars. Just like that, no bones about asking. I read and reread the invitation, stunned by her absolute gall, and I could only laugh in disbelief. Yet my laughter was sour, a defense mechanism, and I knew that I had to do that or cry. I had to release the emotion somehow or I thought I might drive upstate, find Martha’s office, and kill her. Could I commit the perfect murder, escape detection?
I realized I was thinking like a character in a detective novel but sadly I was caught in something real. Not a book this, no fun whatsoever. But maybe I could give her what she deserved, her punishment… I’d lie in bed with my thoughts circling, going round and round obsessively, and the anger I’d feel made it difficult to sleep.
It’s not easy to admit to yourself you’ve been taken. But I did finally, surrendering to the undeniable truth. She hadn’t mismanaged the money I sent to help cover the book’s production; an out-and-out crook, she’d gobbled it up with no intention of publishing anything. I told myself that. Still, somehow, I checked myself from taking legal action and wrote her a firm but polite letter saying that I would take legal action if the book was not published within a certain time frame. I think I gave her four months.
Why at this point I still held out the faintest hope that she might indeed produce the book speaks again to how much you’ll disregard logic because you want something bad enough. I knew by now Martha Ivery wasn’t a legitimate publisher, but through sheer force of will I’d make her one. Spiders and Flies, no matter what, would be real!
Sure enough it was, to my astonishment. About three months after my threat, a box arrived for me in the mail, and inside I found the contracted five author’s copies. Decent cover art and solid binding. Unattractive typescript, though, and thin paper used for the pages. Almost four years since I’d signed the contract and this miserable effort was the product. I didn’t even want this book to be seen on the shelves of any respectable bookshop.
I needn’t have worried. The promised distribution to stores never happened. Martha did zero promotion. Spiders and Flies went up on Amazon and that was about it. Since this was before the e-book phenomenon and before the social media boom, the few copies available online hardly amounted to a chance to get the book any attention. I told my friends about the novel and they ordered copies from Amazon, but after the long ordeal to get published, I didn’t want to hold a launch party or celebrate at all. Though the book existed, I felt demoralized and exhausted. And within months, my friends’ positive feedback about it notwithstanding, Spiders and Flies slipped into oblivion.
There would be justice in the case, however. A full three years later, in April 2003, I found an envelope in my mailbox from the FBI. Curiosity mixed with apprehension as I opened it. Had I done something wrong I somehow didn’t know about? Signed a petition linked to a dangerous organization? Back in the ’50s, my mother had been a member of the Communist Party, but what did that have to do with me, who avoided political activities like the plague?
What I found inside was this:
This letter is to inform you that the Albany, NY office of the FBI is conducting an investigation into the business practices of Martha Ivery, aka Kelly O’Donnell, doing business as Press-TIGE Publishing Company, Inc., and/or O'Donnell Literary Agency, and/or Writer's Information USAgency, and/or New Millenium Publishing House Inc., and/or Jack Wilson Associates, and/or Creek Lane Literary Agency. You are being contacted because information indicates you have had contact with Martha Ivery.
Please contact this office at your earliest convenience. The contact person is….
A telephone number, email address, and hard mail address were all provided.
So the FBI was not directing its heat at me, I gathered, but at the con woman herself. The “aka” confirmed that Martha and Kelly were in fact one person, and I shook my head at what was suggested by the number of bogus companies she was running. How many people had she stung like she’d stung me? I hadn’t thought much about her over the past couple of years, but the letter made me feel afresh the pang of having been a dupe, the humiliation. At the same time I supposed I could draw bleak consolation knowing I wasn’t her only victim.
I called the Criminal Analyst. At once I felt a sense of unreality, as if I’d stepped into the pages of a thriller. The day had begun like any other, mundane enough, and here I was in the late afternoon asking to speak to an FBI agent.
“This is Agent Gold.”
“I’m Scott Adlerberg. I got a letter from you about Martha Ivery….I’m one of the writers who’s dealt with her.”
Agent Gold explained that the FBI knew about me because a raid of Martha Ivery’s offices had turned up documents and computer discs with my name and information on them. I was one of many authors the FBI wanted to speak to in connection with their dealings with her. Agent Gold was courteous and professional, and the calmness in his voice relaxed me. I could imagine him seeing me as someone pitiful, a person so dumb as to be a con artist’s victim, but a few minutes into our talk and I knew he wasn’t thinking that way. Nothing in his voice smacked of condescension or pity. He was an agent doing his job, the guy on my side.
“If I may ask, what is she being investigated for?”
“Mail fraud,” Agent Gold said. “Tax evasion.”
He revealed these investigative targets without missing a beat, and this forthrightness relaxed me more. When he asked whether I could provide any information about Martha Ivery, I had no qualms about keeping him on the phone another hour as I detailed the maddening experience that had led to the sad publication of Spiders and Flies.
Before the conversation ended, Agent Gold thanked me for my time and I told him I’d be happy to answer any questions that might occur to him later. He accepted my offer to send him copies of the various letters she’d mailed me promising the galleys on a certain date, the cover art by such and such time, distribution across the country, radio interviews, a book signing tour and so on, and said he would contact me if need be. It was clear the FBI was putting its case against Martha Ivery together.
I heard from him once more, months afterward. A bulky padded envelope came for me containing the discs and artwork related to me the FBI had seized from her offices. I was also informed that Martha Ivery aka Kelly O’Donnell had filed for bankruptcy, and that all rights pertaining to the novel reverted to me. No request for me to come testify against her at an upcoming trial, but as I later discovered on the Internet, the FBI did bring formal charges.
Martha/Kelly pleaded not guilty and the case went to trial in Albany. She cut a strange figure testifying. Over time, she had used lots of aliases with different “clients,” and on the stand she had a tough time keeping straight whether she answered to Martha or Kelly or somebody else. Her lawyer tried the “unsound mind” defense, but to no avail. In the end, she was sentenced to six years in prison.
I thought of writing Agent Gold thank-you note but never did. Maybe I should have. On the other hand, months before, I never would have envisioned a scenario where I’d give consideration to writing an FBI agent a thank-you card. I hadn’t been physically harmed, but my pride had taken a beating from the Martha Ivery episode, and I found it particularly heinous that she’d preyed on the dreams of writers. Of course for a writer, everything is material, and now I had firsthand experience of what it is to be a victim. Could be useful in the future, I thought. Could put all I went through into a character…
Which raised the age-old question: Is the pain you experience worth it if you can put it later into a story? Perhaps. But what about the victims who don’t have a creative outlet for the indignity they’ve suffered? What do they do with their feelings?
As for Spiders and Flies, the novel I had the misfortune of sending her? It was so little known after my personal horror story that it may as well have never been published. But in that obscurity I saw an up side. If and when I found a new publisher for it, a real publisher, I’d have a book that I could essentially market as brand new.
To enter for a chance to win one of five copies of the book that started it all, Spiders and Flies by Scott Adlerberg, make sure you’re a registered member of the site, sign in, and then simply leave a comment below. TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia, who are 18 or older. To enter, fill out entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2013/01/caught-in-the-web-of-martha-ivery-scott-adlerberg-fraud-true-crime beginning at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 29, 2013. Sweepstakes ends at 9:29 a.m. ET on February 5, 2013 (the “Promotion Period”). Void outside of the 50 US and DC and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules at https://www.criminalelement.com/page/official-rules-spiders-and-flies-comments-contest. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions.