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Jerry Healy, 66; wrote mystery series, mentored writers

Mr. Healy wrote books based on a Boston-based detective, John Francis Cuddy.
Mr. Healy wrote books based on a Boston-based detective, John Francis Cuddy.

To what he once called Boston’s “rich and fertile setting” for detective fiction, Jerry Healy added nuance not found in the tough guys who warily stroll the alleys of private eye novels.

John Francis Cuddy, the Hub-based hero of his 13-book mystery series, “is a man who keeps his promises, but isn’t afraid to use violence to do so,” Mr. Healy said in an April 2000 interview with January magazine. He added, however, that “the reason why I’ve been blessed with so many female readers is that Cuddy isn’t sexist. He’s also honorable in his dealings with the women in the books.”

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Perhaps the purest relationship in Cuddy’s life was the one he had with his late wife, Beth, whose gravesite in a Boston cemetery he visited regularly. In scenes that might be called magical realism if the Cuddy books were on the literary shelves, rather than tucked away with mystery novels, Mr. Healy let his most famous character hold conversations with Beth, who offered gentle guidance from the grave. “If you’re waiting for life to be fair, John, I think you’re in for a very long siege,” Beth tells Cuddy in “Spiral,” the 1999 novel that was the last in the series.

Within the community of crime writers, Mr. Healy was as loved for the time he invested as a mentor to aspiring writers as he was respected for his 18 novels and dozens of short stories. Nominated repeatedly for a Shamus Award, which he won for his second novel, Mr. Healy was a regular at mystery writers’ conferences around the world, generously offering tips and contacts. Six years ago, he traded his Commonwealth Avenue home for Pompano Beach, Fla., where he took his life Aug. 14, according to his fiancee, the mystery writer Sandra Balzo.

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Mr. Healy was 66 and had “battled chronic severe depression for years, mostly controlled by medication, but exacerbated by alcohol,” she said in an e-mail to their friends two weeks ago.

In a blunt, informative essay posted on his website, Mr. Healy wrote about being treated for prostate cancer a decade ago and apparently planned to write about depression, too. A week ago, Balzo was going through papers on his desk and discovered a note on a legal pad: “JH memoir on depression: Can’t see the sun even in June. A lifetime of fighting — and beating — depression.”

“Sadly, Jerry didn’t beat it,” she said by e-mail Sunday evening. “But he sure as hell did fight it.”

Writing was Mr. Healy’s third successful career. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he was a lawyer for a few years at the former Boston firm Withington, Cross, Park & Groden before becoming a respected professor at what was then the New England School of Law.

As a teacher, he modeled himself after Charles Kingsfield, the Harvard Law professor portrayed by John Houseman in the film “The Paper Chase.” Mr. Healy addressed students formally, by honorific and last name, and insisted they stand while answering questions.

He saw himself as “the last line of defense” in preparing competent lawyers, said Robert V. Ward Jr., an attorney and former colleague at New England Law who also has served as dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Law. Only at graduation would Mr. Healy address his students informally.

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“Graduates coming across the stage would be floored and talk about how great it was to have Professor Healy call them by their first name,” Ward said.

While teaching at New England Law, Mr. Healy began writing the Cuddy series. “I had two great careers and no life, so I had to choose between them,” he told J. Kingston Pierce for the January magazine interview.

He chose to be a novelist and became “one of the revolutionary figures in private-eye writing,” said Harlan Coben, an award-winning mystery writer.

Cuddy “was sensitive before his time,” said Coben, who added that Mr. Healy’s books were “a precursor to a lot of detective novels that came after. . . . Cuddy was tough without needing his fists. Jerry really managed to take that sort of Chandler-Spillane thing and help bring it more into the modern era.”

At scores of writers’ conferences, meanwhile, Mr. Healy “was very willing to share any information he had relating to publishing, or relating to writing and editing, with anybody who was interested and felt they needed advice,” said Ted Hertel, executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America. “He was just outstanding with that sort of thing.”

Lawrence Block, known for his series of novels about the private investigator Matthew Scudder, recalled that Mr. Healy “would shine at mystery conventions.” He also couldn’t be missed. Years in the courtroom and classroom left Mr. Healy with “a booming voice,” Block said. “He never required a microphone. He was the mystery writing equivalent of Ethel Merman in that respect.”

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Beyond boasting a voice that could be heard in the last row of any class or conference, though, Mr. Healy “was a good-will ambassador for mystery writers,” said Parnell Hall, a mystery writer known for the Stanley Hastings series. “He was always the welcoming force.”

Born in Teaneck, N.J., Jeremiah Francis Healy III shared with his father, and with his most famous fictional creation, a background serving as a military policeman.

He graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey and from Harvard Law School before becoming a trial attorney. After turning to novels, he served as president of the Private Eye Writers of America and president of the International Association of Crime Writers.

New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio called the Cuddy books “a conspicuously well-written detective series” and praised Mr. Healy’s “mousetrap timing and tight plotting.” Along with those books, he published three legal thrillers featuring lawyer Mairead O’Clare under the pen name Terry Devane. Mr. Healy’s books have been translated into several languages.

His marriage to Bonnie M. Tisler ended in divorce.

Like many mystery writers, Balzo met Mr. Healy at a conference. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m reading one of your books,’ ” she recalled in an interview, “and he looked at me and said, ‘But did you buy it?’ ” (She hadn’t. It was a library book.)

Living with Mr. Healy, “every day was a learning experience,” she said. “He couldn’t stop teaching.” Or researching. Mr. Healy marked up newspapers with a red Flair pen, clipping potential ideas for stories and plots and filing them for future use.

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As a writer “he was a master stylist,” Balzo said. “He would edit and re-edit. He would rewrite and go through a manuscript at least 20 times.”

In addition to Balzo, Mr. Healy leaves a sister, Patricia Pinches. A memorial gathering will be held at 4 p.m. on Jan. 10 in the Lauderdale Tennis Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

At conferences and at home, Mr. Healy “was always the life of the party,” Balzo said. “He really, really enjoyed entertaining.”

Beneath the kindness and gregariousness, though, Mr. Healy struggled with clinical depression that had been debilitating in the past, and which surfaced powerfully in late spring this year.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Balzo, who added that Mr. Healy used to say: “When you’re fully depressed, you look in the mirror and you don’t see yourself. You see depression leering back saying, ‘I’ve got you.’ ”

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I’ve come to the realization that this wasn’t about Jerry leaving me or leaving all of us,” she said. “This was about Jerry finding his peace.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.