For these authors, revenge is sweet

Special to The Times

Susan Diamond and her older brother Jared have been part of the intellectual and cultural scene in Los Angeles for decades. He's the much-admired geography professor at UCLA and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Guns, Germs and Steel." She's the veteran journalist who's better known as the former Los Angeles Times consumer reporter S.J. Diamond.

Now Susan Diamond has written a crime novel, "What Goes Around," just published by William Morrow. Meanwhile, Jared Diamond is at work on a book with an eerily similar theme: revenge.

"We were both surprised to discover that we were writing about the same themes," Jared Diamond said. His nonfiction book compares how tribal societies and Western, Judeo-Christian cultures treat revenge. "Revenge is a basic human emotion, just like love and hatred," Jared said. "But we've been taught to downplay it." As a result, he said, the unhealthy or suppressed expression of revenge is a major cause of modern wars.

"Jared and I both started writing late in life, so we have a lot of catching up to do," said Susan Diamond. But ask the siblings what in their background prompted them to write about the avenging emotion at the same time in their careers and you'll get blank stares. "I have no memory whatsoever of revenge," said Susan. "We've talked about it but can't find a connection," said Jared.

Perhaps some connection will come through when the Diamonds have an open conversation at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA.

"I think it's going to be a very unusual encounter for the audience," Jared Diamond said. Given that the two have spent several hours plotting their public tete-a-tete, listeners should expect some sibling levity, Susan added. "One of the great things about this adventure is that it's the first time in years that my brother and I have sat down to chat."

For her part, Susan Diamond's revenge book focuses on a group of good-looking professional female friends in their 30s and 40s. When one of them is found dead outside an exclusive, men-only club, the remaining five women suspect murder. The police drop the case and the friends pick it up, using their professional skills to find the killer, which they do early in the book. The rest of the story consists of how these mature Hardy Girls exact revenge on three of California's most powerful men -- without actually showing their hand. They put in motion just enough strategic action to let the murderers hang themselves.

It's part murder caper, part revenge tale and part female empowerment quest. Reviews have been positive: Publishers Weekly praised it for its "careful research, clever plotting and credible characters," while the Washington Post called it "intriguing."

Yes, Romantic Times magazine gave it four stars, but do not, gentle reader, rush to judgment. The only men who set the women's hearts a-racing are those who'd just as soon snuff them out. Nor is this a feminist battle-of-the-sexes tale: These characters love men, and a few even enjoy their gloriously flawed marriages. These women are a certain middle aged type, the kind who has gracefully borne both fulfillment and, as Diamond puts it, that uneasy, "pervasive sense that they hadn't ended up where they wanted to go and had no idea how to move on."

By the book's end, we get not only moral satisfaction but also a tutorial on how to craft effective, one-page consumer complaints. "Every one of those letters came from my files on the business desk," said Susan.

The Diamond clan seems to have been unusually accomplished and successful. Patriarch Louis K. Diamond was uprooted from his ancestral home at age 2, when his family left Russia during the 1904 pogroms that targeted intellectuals, anti-czarists and minorities, including Jews. They immigrated to New York, where he became the first in his family to attend college. "Education was seen as our salvation," said Susan.

Later, he became a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, where he was considered the father of pediatric hematology. He retired from Harvard at 65, at which point UC San Francisco hired him. At 85, he again "retired," prompting UCLA to snap him up. There, the professor happily taught until his death at 91.

His wife, Flora, was one of nine children in a family that had survived tough times. She became a concert pianist, linguist and schoolteacher. When her son Jared was born in Boston in 1937, she stayed home to raise him. "My mother taught me about word families," said Jared, who began reading at age 3. "I tried teaching those words to Susan when she came along," but she didn't take as well to big brother's instruction as he had with his mother's.

Even so, Susan became a voracious reader. "When I was 7, I noticed that all of the great writers, like A.A. Milne and H.L. Mencken, used initials. Since I wanted to be a serious writer, I decided to call myself S.J."

The siblings attended schools together in the Boston area, performed piano duets and later dated each other's friends. "I never felt any competition with Susan," said Jared. He left home to attend Harvard, then Cambridge, and in 1966 joined UCLA's Medical School, where he was known as a gallbladder expert. The avid sportsman grew enamored with Los Angeles. "Here's this environmentally diverse region, with the desert, ocean, mountains, all within reach."

Susan Diamond, meanwhile, had graduated from Radcliffe College and gone on to obtain a master's from the University of Iowa as a Writers Workshop fellow. But she decided against fiction. "I was 22 years old and had nothing to say." After teaching a few years at Iowa and Brandeis University, she headed to New York, where she freelanced for the Village Voice, among others, and became an editor at the New Yorker.

In 1967, she followed her brother to Los Angeles, where she too became smitten by the city. "Los Angeles is the most intellectually, culturally and socially stimulating place I've ever been to," she said. She married the late B. Lamar Johnson Jr., the UCLA professor who helped pioneer the study of infectious disease as a sub-specialty of internal medicine.

In 1976, Susan Diamond joined The Times and in 1981 began writing about consumer scams and unfair practices in a weekly column called "For What It's Worth."

"She's always been keen about righting the scales of justice," said Phyllis Eliasberg, a former reporter at CBS-owned KCAL-TV, Channel 9. Susan's column became a must read for many businesspeople, including those at the California Trial Lawyers Assn., which honored her with its annual award. "There's nothing more satisfying than writing about cases that come to judgment," Susan said.

She retired from journalism in 1994 but continues to write the occasional opinion piece. These days, she's hard at work on her second novel, which she was reluctant to describe except to say that it's a caper that will include a male protagonist. "I hope I can pull that off," she said.

Her years of nonfiction work on financial, legal and tax matters are now being synthesized into her fictional work. About the only thing she regrets about her new direction so far is that she agreed to change her pen name from serious old S.J. to the more reader-friendly Susan: "After all these years, I hardly know her now." It's just the inner child, getting a little sweet revenge.

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