Blood And Sand Inspire Mystery Writer
Growing up, bestselling author Leonard Goldberg spent his summers on Sullivan’s Island. Today he mixes his medical mysteries with the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean. By Marci Shore. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
Leonard Goldberg spent his summers on Sullivan’s Island in an era when there were no maritime forests, only sand dunes. The author of a series of USA Today bestselling medical mysteries, remembers when I’on Avenue was a bed of oyster shells and when Mount Pleasant was “just a place you passed through to get to Sullivan’s Island.”
On a gray January day, I put my notebook in my bicycle basket and pedal down Ion Avenue toward Dr. Goldberg’s beach cottage. We are already acquaintances from meeting on beach walks over the years, and it was here I learned about his medical career at UCLA and his life as a novelist.
We meet at 2:30 p.m., half an hour after he normally finishes writing for the day. “I stand at a podium when I write,” Goldberg says. He writes on a 14-inch yellow legal pad, using Number 2 Ticonderoga pencils. “Every morning I stroll to the corner service station and get the newspaper. On my walk I think about what I’m going to write about for the day, and when I get back I write for 5 or 6 hours, standing at the podium or walking around the house.”
When I arrive, Goldberg is sitting in the corner chair of the renovated circa 1920 beach cottage. Outside the front door, palms gently sway, concealing a hammock. A retired physician and professor at UCLA Medical Center, Goldberg spent most of his post-medical school life in California. From age 2 until 15, Goldberg and his family travelled to Sullivan’s Island for the summers, staying in the annex to a bigger house at Station 24 (the main house washed away during Hugo in 1989, but somehow the annex survived). In those days, the 1940s early 50s, there were very few full-time residents on Sullivan’s Island. Families escaped the heated concrete of downtown Charleston to spend the summers from June until Labor Day on the island.
The Goldberg’s’ Charleston residence moved around during his childhood: first, in Radclifeborough, then to a residence near College Park and finally to a waterfront condominium on Concord Street. “The summers were just delightful,” he says, with a sudden softness in his voice. He remembers “playing war” in the sand dunes with his friends using toy guns. “Run and hide in the dunes and say, ‘pow pow.’ That sort of thing.” He recalls the tidal pools as being more connected to the ocean, and less like stagnant water as they are now. “I remember the pools being deep enough that we could put out a diving board to dive down five or so feet.”
His friend had a boat that they used to water ski in Breach Inlet, and one of his favorite island memories is fishing with a hand line on the ocean shore. “I never would catch anything. Ten one day, I felt a strong tug on the line. I would pull, and it would pull back. Whatever it was it wasn’t giving up. I started running onto the shore to pull it in and saw a silver gleam coming out of the water. It was a four pounder. We all ate drum that night,” he says, smiling like a proud 10-year-old.
Poignantly, he recalls the heartbreak the community felt when a young member of the Condon family never returned from a midnight sail. “We were all stunned and saddened,” he said. Today, he feels the island still retains that close-knit character of a small town, where individual grief is shared by the community. Gone, though, are many of the beach cottages Goldberg remembers from his childhood. “I don’t particularly care for the big houses. I prefer the beach houses. The mansions are too gentrified. But my block still has several of the older houses.” He also laments the changes of downtown Charleston he’s seen in his lifetime, “but then, if you don’t like change, go live in a museum.”
Goldberg attended the College of Charleston, where he was one of only 400 students. “The entire graduating class could easily all sit on the Cistern.” Next was MUSC, then an internship and residency in St. Louis, Missouri, before draft orders took him to Tokyo to work in an Air Force referral hospital. After the Air Force, he crossed the country to California to teach as a Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA. While involved with a research project, he encountered an unusual blood type. The patient’s blood cells were O-Rh null, and were totally deficient in A, B, and Rh factors and could be administered to virtually anyone without fear of a transfusion reaction. The discovery spurred an idea for a story in which a woman is born without a tissue type, making her organs universally transplantable.
From this idea, came a book. To see if he could get it published, he found the name of an agent and sent in the manuscript. Being a first-time author, he had to send a $100 non-refundable fee to have his booked considered. “I told the agent, I want my check back if she decided to represent me. The check was returned three days later.” In 1980, ten years into his medical career, his first novel, Transplant, was published. The book went through several printings and was optioned by a Hollywood studio.
Goldberg has published a total of 13 novels, with his next due out later this year. “Hospital discharge summaries read like a mystery,” he says, explaining the logical jump from doctor to mystery novelist. “The disease is the villain, the doctor is the protagonist who puts the clues together, lab tests are the evidence. In his first nine novels, Dr. Joanna Blalock was the protagonist and in his next series Dr. David Ballineau, an emergency room doctor and former Special Forces operative, solves the medical mystery at hand. In his latest three-book series, the first of which will be published by St. Martin’s Press later this year, he is back with a nurse as the lead character.
“I’m enjoying life,” he said, as I took notes on his unique wooden coffee table. “That table reminds me that every now and then things just seem to come together. I was looking for a table in an antique furniture store in West Los Angeles. I didn’t see anything I wanted but did notice this long piece of wood on a top shelf. It was greasy and dirty, but I wanted to see it.” The piece of wood turned out to be a door hatch to a boat from long ago. He took the hatch door home, and a former patient cleaned, sanded and varnished the wood. He then put legs on it and made it the focal point of the living room.
His life has come full circle back to Charleston, where he always knew he would end up. “In California, my Charleston accent became more neutral, but it’s now back stronger than ever. It’s like they always say about Charleston: ‘Once you get sand in your shoes you just can’t get it out.’”