Joel Goldman corkscrewed to the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West. Writhing in pain at a Westport art fair, his face contorted as all the energy left his body.
“Is he OK?” a security guard asked his wife and two friends in the fall of 2006.
“Oh yeah,” they said.
Goldman struggled to his feet. Still bent at the waist, he looked wearily at the guard, determined to lighten the moment.
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“Officer,” he said. “These people — are trying to rob me.”
The 63-year-old smiled as he recounted the story.
A mysterious malady occasionally may cause Goldman to lose control of his body, but it will never take his sense of humor. That’s just one of the keys that helped the former Leawood trial lawyer reinvent himself as a crime writer after the condition forced him to give up his law practice more than 10 years ago.
“I’m really impressed by his ability,” said his wife, Hildy. “When he first started writing we laughed. You know, ‘You’re never going to write a book. And you’re certainly never going to get published.’ But he’s been pretty incredible.”
He has now written 12 books, gained countless fans and started a publishing company. But none of that might have happened if it weren’t for the odd events of a dozen years ago.
Wednesday, March 24, 2004. Working on an out-of-town arbitration with law partner John Power, Goldman was shaving in the bathroom of his executive apartment. As he looked at himself in the mirror, his upper body began to shake uncontrollably.
“It was like ‘buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh,’ ” he said. “You know, your body just vibrating back and forth like an oversized tuning fork.”
What was happening? The year before he had developed a little tremor in his right hand. Not a big deal, his doctor said. But now?
“I just went into the living room and sat down,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think.”
By that April it happened three more times. His body seized as if he had grabbed a live electrical wire or been poked by a cattle prod. The pain: excruciating.
Goldman consulted movement disorder specialists locally and in New York City, New Orleans and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Unpredictable, his tics and spasms also came with a stutter and — Uhh! — explosive outbursts. They were involuntary since he couldn’t stop or control them, but voluntary in the sense that he wanted the feeling of relief that the movements brought.
“You get this buildup of energy that’s misdirected, so the spasming and shaking is like opening a pressure relief valve,” a doctor explained.
His symptoms resembled Tourette Syndrome. Except: “One of the diagnostic criteria for Tourette’s is onset before age 18,” Goldman said. His condition didn’t start until after age 50.
No one knew what was causing his symptoms or how to stop them. One doctor gave him a sedative, another an old blood-pressure medication. A third told him he was experiencing myoclonus, a spasmodic and degenerative jerking of muscle groups. Then a fourth doctor ruled that out.
The only thing left: idiopathic tics — meaning they arise spontaneously with an unknown cause.
Goldman had enjoyed a successful legal career, including winning money for claimants hurt in the Hyatt skywalk collapse, and loved the excitement and challenge of the courtroom. But as his condition worsened, it was clear he couldn’t keep practicing law.
What would he do? What would his family do? Goldman refused to be defined by his condition.
He decided to write crime fiction for a living. He had always loved reading it and had even written his first book, “Motion to Kill,” which came out in 2002 from Kensington Publishing.
“I started writing it in 1992,” he said. “That made me a 10-year overnight success.”
Dan Margolies, a lawyer and former Star reporter, has been friends with Goldman since high school at Shawnee Mission East.
“I thought he was nuts when he decided to give up the practice of law entirely and see if he could make a living as a writer of legal thrillers,” Margolies said.
Then again, Goldman was pretty good. Years earlier, he asked Margolies to read a draft of his first book.
“I took it on vacation with me to Baltimore,” Margolies said. “I had it for a week and I hadn’t touched it. I thought ‘He’s my friend. I better at least pretend to read the manuscript.’ I figured it would be a piece of dreck and I would let him off kindly and humor him and say, ‘Yeah it’s pretty good.’
“I wound up reading the entire manuscript that day on my in-laws’ front lawn in a hammock. And I thought it was eminently publishable. This was at a time when John Grisham had just published (the legal thriller) ‘The Firm.’ And I thought what Joel had produced was as good if not better.”
Goldman also got feedback from his mother.
“I don’t really read this sort of thing, but I think it’s pretty good,” she told him.
“There’s just one thing,” she said.
‘What’s that, Mom?”
“The sex scenes are a little dry.”
Goldman threw his hands up with a what-are-you-going-to-do look. “If your mother tells you the sex scenes are a little dry, you know, it’s time for a re-write.”
Goldman, who has silver hair and dark square glasses, writes at his desk in a tidy office in the lower level of his home, a space he refers to as “the worldwide headquarters.” Two energetic cockapoos — twin sisters Roxy and Ruby — scampered about.
It is here that he creates his characters and plots their adventures. And it is here that he runs Brash Books, a publishing company he founded with Lee Goldberg, a Los Angeles author, screenwriter and independent publisher. The company publishes new books and secures the rights to backlisted or out-of-print mystery/thriller titles and gives them new life in print and as e-books.
Most of Goldman’s books are set in Kansas City. His protagonists: Lou Mason, a tough trial lawyer; Jack Davis, a former FBI agent beset by the same strange stuttering and shaking as Goldman; and Alex Stone, a female public defender. They all have their own series of books.
Goldman’s latest, “All In,” which came out in September, began a fourth series that features male and female lead characters.
“The woman — Cassie Ireland — is euphemistically called an asset-recovery specialist,” Goldman said. “What she really is is a modern-day Robin Hood working for a mysterious boss named Prometheus.” The man, Jake Carter, is a world-class poker player.
Goldman enjoys creating realistic dialogue and dynamic and interesting characters who slip into and out of trouble with style. And he works hard to make sure scenes are accurate.
In “Stone Cold,” he consulted an accident reconstruction expert. And in the book he’s writing now — which involves a theft from the British Library in London — he interviewed a former officer with Scotland Yard who once worked as director of security at the Victoria & Albert Museum there.
Such attention to detail has not gone unnoticed. In 2006 his book, “Deadlocked” — the fourth in his Lou Mason series — won the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, presented by the Kansas City chapter of the American Association of University Women.
Former colleague John Power is not too impressed.
“Most of the best parts of his books he stole from me,” he said. “In one of our many talks I was telling him of an English teacher I had in college who said, ‘Just because you have a right to your own opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to be stupid.’ And that line made it into one of his books. Without any attribution to me, I might add.”
“I’ve read a number of them and enjoyed them all,” he said.
And he is very impressed with Goldman.
“He’s a guy who was curious and interested in a whole lot of things,” Power said. “Didn’t just want to be a lawyer. He had a deep and abiding interest in his faith and in politics and writing and all sorts of things. And no one thing would define him.”
Least of all an illness.
It hasn’t been easy. Auditory, visual and physical stimuli can trigger painful symptoms. Riding in a car is difficult. A lifelong Royals fan, he can’t go to games anymore.
Even watching his favorite team on TV is hard.
“I have to mute it because the sound of the bat hitting the ball would be like giving me an electric shock,” he said.
While symptoms can disappear for long periods of time, other times they hit so hard he can’t walk. Meditation is the only thing that helps. Still, every day ends the same way as he lies down and shakes and squawks.
Instead of complaining about his illness, he is philosophical.
“We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we respond to it,” he said. “I just look at it as part of my life, and I do the best that I can. I have no complaints. I have a very fulfilling life.”