Crime Fiction Friday: “Cleaning Solution” by Andrew Hilbert

 

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  • Selected and Introduced by Scott Montgomery

One of the many reasons to come to our upcoming Noir At the Bar at Threadgill’s, happening Monday, July 25th, at 7 PM, is for us to introduce our Noir at the Bar crowd to Andrew Hilbert, who has won local acclaim not only as a writer but reader of his work. He mixes genres in a wonderful, weird, tapestry that may be offensive to some. He is also a skilled craftsman with a strong sense of cadence and rhythm that you can see in his latest novella, Bangface And the Gloryhole, and this short story that appeared in Horror Novel Reviews.


“Cleaning Solution” by Andrew Hilbert

“It’s a miracle.” I sprayed the solution on the lady’s doorknob and scrubbed it until it was shining, brand new looking, and clean. “With nothing more than a paper towel and some elbow grease. It’s so easy,” I said, “a dog could do it.”

“Dog’s don’t have hands,” the lady said. She rolled her eyes. “My mom’s not home. We use Windex. And we probably don’t care if our doorknobs are as reflective as mirrors.” She slammed the door.

It was hot. The sun beat down on my bald head so hard I could feel it peeling.

“Johnny!” I yelled. My partner, Johnny, came scurrying out of the bushes and stubbed his cigarette on a parked black Mercedes. “It doesn’t work without a sidekick. Good door-to-door salesmanship requires a one-two punch. A good cop and a better cop.”

“Sorry, boss,” he said. “I just needed a break.”

His teeth were black and rotted behind his smile. He was probably 18 years old, wore clothes two sizes too big, and a backwards black cap.

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Gina Wohlsdorf

 

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

Gina Wohlsdorf has just released her debut thriller, Securityand man do we love this twisty thriller, told from the omniscient perspective of a hotel’s security cameras as a killer stalks a luxury hotel the night before opening. We asked Gina a few questions about her brilliant and oddly affecting debut for a wide-ranging conversation on gothic literature, slasher films, and surveillance. 

Molly Odintz: Security has a fascinating gimmick – the story is told through the perspective of a hotel’s security cameras, thus making manifest the omniscient narrator. How did you come up with the novel’s unique structure? Are the cameras, and the security guards watching them, our modern equivalent of an all-seeing deity? 

Gina Wohlsdorf: I’d had the premise of a killer in a hotel for quite a long time – I think three or four years – but I didn’t know how to attack it. How could I tell it in a way that was particular and unique, a way that duplicated the sustained dramatic irony of a horror film: the no-don’t-go-in-there knowledge that the viewer has and that the characters lack?

Then I was assigned a novel in grad school – Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It was a crazy POV experiment with a first-person narrator who never uses the pronoun ‘I’. This melded in my mind with the old horror hotel plot in a way that was very abrupt, very freaky. The Head of Security started talking, and I listened. The camera splits grew naturally from that, because that’s what he’s seeing. He became my eyes. As near as writing ever gets to easy, it was easy – the biggest problem was keeping up with him.

To be sure, the narrator shares a lot of features with a god – but a god who’s all but incapable of interfering, of hurting or helping, until he accepts his limitations, and how his strengths can survive within those limitations. When our society is assured a place is secure, we tend to believe it. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.

“Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.”

MO: Security is a novel, yet the story is incredibly visual; the chase sequences, surveillance motif, and depiction of space all felt like they could transition easily to film. Are there any film plans in the making? Were you inspired by cinematic style when writing Security

GW: Absolutely horror films were an inspiration. I’m pulling all over the place from cinema – the Killers’ masks and the hedge maze, to name two. I was a horror movie addict growing up; my childhood best friend and I would watch one every weekend (and very often more than one), as well as The X-Files, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, anything that tried to scare.

Now, when you watch enough of these, a sobering reality sets in: it is, in fact, surprisingly difficult to scare. Fear is very basic, which makes the genre predicated upon it very formulaic. That’s why Scream was so revelatory. That movie came out when I was 15. And it’s a movie that’s obsessed with movies – referencing them, nailing down their rules, deciding when to break those rules and calling everybody’s attention to those rules being broken. It’s ironic about irony. It’s irony squared.

As to film plans, management is hard at work on that. It’s bananas to imagine, but it really could happen.

MO: To me, Security seems as much “romantic gothic” as “surveillance noir” – tell us a bit about your gothic influences. 

GW: Ooh, Poe.The Tell-Tale Heart, The Casque of Amontillado. People often say these stories are examples of mental illness being inaccurately adapted to fiction, but I disagree. I think what made Poe amazing is that he very accurately adapted mental illness to fiction. He understood suffering at a cellular level. He was the swiss watchmaker of what made us afraid.

Du Maurier, of course. Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us. Rebecca is the gold standard of ghost stories, and there’s no literal poltergeist, no supernatural events of any kind. It’s a woman’s insecurity (ha!) finding expression in everything around her.

“It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us.”

MO: Security brilliantly plays with archetypes and genre conventions, with an almost David Campbell-esque breakdown of antagonists into characters simply called the Killer and the Thinker. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews your attachment to the slasher genre. What drew you to writing a literary slasher novel? 

GW: Honestly, the fact that one didn’t exist. I suspect that’s the best reason to write any particular book: nobody else is going to write it.

But there’s a great reason nobody had written a slasher novel. I tried writing Security, before that was its title. Before I had the idea of this omniscient narrator; the security cameras; the hyper-realist, visual, real-time connection to the action. That initial attempt was dismally bad. I think I stopped two pages in. And I swore a hands-off policy until I could think of a better way. I’m incredibly glad I found one.

MO: There’s something quite satisfying about an attack on a luxury hotel, yet hotel staff makes up most of the novel’s body count. Why set Security before the hotel opens, rather than having a killer take down a few billionaires? 

GW: That’s a great question. I’ve never asked that of myself. But hearing it asked now, I can give a few practical reasons:

Population control would be a problem. In a hotel like Manderley, would there ever be a guest count low enough that we could get a decent handle on that many characters? They could be painted in broad strokes and forgotten once they’re asleep for the night, but broad strokes are dangerous. I’m doing that with the sous-chefs already, making them a mass – I give a thematic reason for this, but it’s a trick that would wear thin quickly.

It’s also more people to keep track of. The Head of Security is obsessively detail-oriented; he has a deep-seated need to know where everyone is, at all times. I’d wind up splitting the page twenty ways, and my designer at Algonquin would kill me.

Characters’ freedoms of movement and behavior would be inhibited. I worked in a hotel, and it’s a strange gig, because you are ‘on’ your entire shift. The more luxurious the accommodations, the more this holds true: you can’t be you when a wealthy patron could interrupt at any time, asking for anything.

But in a hotel about to open: all that space, zero risk of running into a guest. Nobody needs to keep up professional appearances. They can be themselves.

“America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.”

MO: Forgive me for my ignorance, but what do you consider the difference between a slasher narrative and a serial killer narrative? As an abstract follow-up to that question, what is the demarcation point between a mystery/thriller and horror? 

No worries on ignorance there; it’s very much a matter of opinion, even among us fan-nerds. What I’d say is that slasher narratives include an element of the supernatural. It can be overt or covert, vague or outright stated. It’s best exemplified in John Carpenter’s Halloween, with Dr. Loomis telling anyone who will listen: this is not a man, he is evil walking, he’s not human. Now, throughout the film, we think he’s being metaphorical, and we learn, by the end, that even he thought he was being metaphorical. When Loomis shoots Michael numerous times, and Michael falls backward off a second-story deck, and Loomis runs to the rail and looks down and Michael isn’t there, the doc can’t believe it! What makes Halloween my favorite film, though, is what happens after that: a series of still shots, denoting all the locations Michael has been. He is no longer in any of them – but we hear his steady, oppressive breathing. The lesson? Evil is everywhere.

Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.

I’d put the divide between horror and mystery/thriller pretty close to the same spot. Horror has that extra sense of the villain’s superhuman ubiquity, impossibility, unbeatability – whereas mystery/thriller is a tight contest.

Security plays merry hell with these borders, and that’s part of the fun. Du Maurier toed the line, too. So does Thomas Harris.

MO: Security brings up issues of privacy and safety that are endemic in a post-9/11 world. Just to ask you a gigantic question, how much privacy should we give up to protect our safety? 

Safety is an illusion – but for civilization’s sake, it is a necessary illusion. This has always been so.

What’s new is: modern technology has made violations of privacy so easy and universal that people have begun to accept privacy as an illusion as well. Snowden’s revelations sparked practically no reaction from the American public, because America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.

What’s extra-new is: the American public will tweet about it, forget about it, and try to find something fresh-ish to say tomorrow.

Americans are giving up their privacy willingly. They’re fist-fighting for who can give up their privacy the most and the fastest.

“But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.”

MO: What are you working on next? 

I’m in the final stages of my second novel for Algonquin. It’s a literary thriller about a teenage girl who’s kidnapped by her ex-con father to hunt down four million dollars her mother hid somewhere out west. It’s a wild ride, but very different from Security. Fewer twists and (if you can believe it) more voice-heavy.

You can find copies of Security on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Andrew Hilbert

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Andrew Hilbert’s latest novella, Bangface And the Gloryhole, starts out as a hard-boiled if absurdist private eye novel. Our detective has just survived being shot in the face over pickled eggs, and goes into sleaze-meets-Vonnegut territory with a case involving holes in public places for anonymous sex. The novella comments on everything from prejudice to consumer culture. Andrew was kind enough to take some questions from us about the book and writing.

MysteryPeople Scott: Which came first: the character of Bangface or the idea with the glory holes?

Andrew Hilbert: Bangface definitely came first. I had an idea for him years and years ago but in his original iteration, he just wasn’t interesting besides the fact that he got shot in the face. The glory hole idea came later and it was only when I figured out that the two ideas should come together did the ideas get interesting.

MPS: The book is set in Austin. How did you want to explore the city through Bangface’s eyes?

AH: Bangface is kind of a doofus who harbors a lot of low level prejudice. I figured he’d be the perfect vehicle to make fun of a lot of Austin’s own goofiness while also making fun of the people who harbor the kind of prejudice Bangface harbors.

MPS: The is the second time fast food franchises play an important role in your work. What makes them a cultural touchstone to you?

AH: Whether you’re a vegan or a local-vore, you know what the golden arches are but I can tell you with certainty that I don’t know what company makes the most ethical tofu. You’re never more than 100 miles away from a Mickey D’s in America. I think fast food restaurants are so much a part of our subconscious view of what America is and a perfect symbol for our hopes of society: consistent, stable, fast. Also, chicken dinner for under $5.

MPS: Even though you veer from it, you do maintain the structure of a hard boiled private eye novel. How did using the genre help you?

AH: The genre is visualized as the action but I think hard boiled private dick type stories are more about the dick than they are about the case. The case is a good frame but the story is really the character. The case Bangface is solving is interesting but it was just a way to learn more about Bangface the man and his history, his relationships, etc.

MPS: What I love about your writing is that you’re an equal opportunity offender. Do you feel that a writer should wade into dangerous territory?

AH: Writers should write whatever the hell it is they want to write. But you really can’t write if you’re afraid of a reaction or perception. If you’re always looking over your shoulder, how the hell can you put your nose down and finish? Writers should feel free especially with the comfort of knowing that the only people that will be offended are the people who already put ten dollars down to read what you wrote.

MPS: I’m afraid to talk about Bangface And the Gloryhole without giving too much away. Do you have any last words on it?

AH: Bangface is a comedy about memory. It can be dark and gross but overall, it’s supposed to make you laugh.

You can find copies of Hilbert’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.  Hilbert joins Peter Spiegelman, C.B. McKenzie and Jesse Sublett at our upcoming Noir at the Bar event, next Monday at 7 PM, hosted by Threadgill’s. Noir at the Bar is free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Peter Spiegelman

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

After giving us one of the best New York detectives, John March, Peter Spiegelman has taken fictional flight to the left coast for his unique hero, Dr. Knox. The man runs a free clinic in LA’s skid row and pays for it by doing “house calls” for the rich and infamous who can’t go to a hospital. Backed up by his partner, friend, and former mercenary Ben Sutter, Dr. Knox attempts to get an immigrant boy back to his mother with other parties also in pursuit of the child. 

Peter was kind enough to take some questions from us before his appearance at our upcoming Noir at the Bar, next Monday, July 25th, at 7 PM. Noir at the Bar is hosted by Threadgill’s off of Riverside. Spiegelman joins C.B. McKenzie, Andrew Hilbert and Jesse Sublett at the event. Copies of each author’s latest will be available for purchase at the event. 

MysteryPeople Scott: I’ve always thought of you as one of those New York authors – what caused the fiction move to L.A.?

Peter Spiegelman: I used to live there – in real life! I grew up in L.A. for several weird years in the late 1960s (I am ancient!), and part of my fascination with the place comes out of that. To me, back then, L.A. was mysterious and impenetrable, as the grown-up world can be to children, and also vast and glamorous and tawdry and frightening. To some extent, I still see the city through that lens.

Its main attraction for me, something I suspect I share with more than a few writers, has to do with the amazing dichotomies that L.A. embodies—alluring and appalling in equal measures. The lovely climate and landscape, the fantastic diversity of its citizens and of its ever-morphing neighborhoods are irresistible. So is its sunny mythology as the land at the end of the rainbow, where every fantasy of fame, fortune, and self-reinvention might be realized. On the appalling side of the ledger, there’s the grinding monotony of the weather, the brutal strip-mall cityscape, hellish traffic, simmering racial tension, and the city’s dreadful homeless problem, all the more shocking, hallucinatory even, for the wealth and beauty that exist—as if in a parallel dimension—all around it.

These dualities under the sunshine—of rich and poor, hope and despair, bright fantasy and dangerous delusion—are part of why L.A. looms so large in the landscape of crime fiction—the setting of choice for Chandler, MacDonald, Ellroy and so many others—and why it’s arguably the capital of the kingdom of noir. And they were central to my choice of L.A. as a home for Dr. Knox.

MPS: For a writer what makes the city different to capture than New York?

PS: Both cities present incredibly broad and rich landscapes for a writer—diverse in their own rights, and quite different from one another. That said, I think the challenges of establishing setting are always the same, regardless of the particular place you’re writing about. While you are of course concerned about being factually correct, and want to create a sense of verisimilitude—real seemingness—you are emphatically not writing travelogue. The city you portray is not a real city—it’s a fictional representation—a curated facsimile.

Setting in a novel—if it’s doing its job—is the soil from which character and story arise, and it works to reveal them, and to impart depth to them. So the challenges always are to be attuned to the elements of a place that resonated with you in the first place—that made it assert itself to you as the right setting for your story—and to distill those elements, bring them across to the reader, and put them to work. It’s hard to do whether you’re writing about N.Y.C, L.A., Austin, or Middle Earth.

MPS: How did Dr. Knox and Sutter come about as a series?

PS: The character of Dr. Knox had been percolating in my head for years before I wrote the first words of the book, and arose from my long interest in the parallels between the doctor and the fictional detective. There are the similarities in their observational and deductive skills, of course (recall that Dr. Joseph Bell was one of Conan Doyle’s inspirations for Sherlock Holmes), and also, I think, in their worldviews. Both are privy to some of life’s most grim and intense moments, and see human experience stripped of pretense and nicety. Because of this, they stand at a remove from the workaday world, and are both empowered and isolated by this distance. In Knox, my desire was to create a character who isn’t a traditional detective but has some of those same talents, and who shares the hardboiled P.I.’s perspective, world-weariness, taste for risk, and stubborn appetite for justice.

And I knew from the start that I didn’t want Knox to operate alone (forgive the pun). I’m a big fan of the “buddy” dynamic in crime fiction, and Ben Sutter arose as the dispositional counterpoint to Dr. Knox. Sutter is a (former) soldier rather than a doctor, but both he and Knox have seen the darkest, most cruel, and most brutal aspects of life, and have paid their dues in trying to oppose them. But their reactions to those experiences couldn’t be more different. Where Knox is a brooding and solitary animal—tending to the ascetic in his lifestyle, and reflexively suspicious of happiness, Sutter is the opposite—more extroverted and grounded, happily hedonistic, wildly entrepreneurial, and much more able to live in the moment.

With these two characters—and their back-stories, in mind—along with the L.A. setting, the story possibilities seemed enormous.

MPS: I bought all the medical procedures Knox does. How did you go about getting all the details right?

PS: Glad you found them plausible! A lot of research went into that aspect of Dr. Knox—and not only into the technical elements of the medical procedures, but also into the doctor’s experience of Knox’s kind of medical practice. I read medical texts and a lot of memoirs by physicians, and consulted several doctors that I know. But my most valuable research in this area involved talking to my parents—both doctors, dedicated clinicians of the old school, both retired now. They helped with the medical facts (my mother, like Knox’s, ran an E.R. in a small hospital), but more importantly they shared their insights into the burdens and satisfactions of primary care medicine—the intellectual challenges of diagnosis and treatment, the fascinating, often heartbreaking glimpses into so many different lives, the difficulties of preserving empathy while avoiding emotional burnout and the constant, sometimes crushing weight of responsibility.

MPS: What do you see as the biggest struggle for Knox in the series?

PS: The hardship, cruelty, injustice and criminality of the worlds Dr. Knox inhabits will always pose challenges, of course, and offer little in the way of easy answers or unequivocal victories. But Knox’s biggest struggle, I think, will be to understand and come to terms with himself.

Dr. Knox is a complicated character, and not at all a monolithic hero. He has altruistic impulses, but in acting on them, he puts those he’s closest to in grave danger. Impulsiveness and selfishness are mixed in with his heroism, along with an unhealthy appetite for risk. Knox has keen powers of observation, but an almost willful blindness to his own motives and limitations. His greatest ongoing challenge, I think, will be to untangle these strands of his own make up, to understand them, and to reconcile himself with his own past.

MPS: Can you tell us a little about the next book?

PS: Only a very little. When one of Knox’s cash-only, off-the-record clients is found dead, two LAPD Robbery-Homicide detectives find their way to Knox’s door. Problems ensue.

You can find copies of Spiegelman’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Spiegelman joins C. B. McKenzie, Andrew Hilbert and Jesse Sublett at our upcoming Noir at the Bar event, next Monday at 7 PM, hosted by Threadgill’s. Noir at the Bar is free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with C.B. McKenzie

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

CB McKenzie’s latest novel, Burn What Will Burn, feels is very different from his debut, Bad Country. With more of a Jim Thompson feel, it follows the ne’er do well with a dark past, Bob Reynolds, as his small town purgatory becomes Hell after he discovers a dead body. Yet Burn What Will Burn shares the same literary DNA as McKenzie’s first, unwilling to pass judgement upon its characters, and featuring a hero who lives on the margins.

Mr. McKenzie was kind enough to take some questions from us through e-mail while on tour, which includes a stop at our upcoming Noir At the Bar next Monday, July 25th, at 7 PM. Noir at the Bar is hosted by Threadgill’s off of Riverside. McKenzie joins Peter Spiegelman, Andrew Hilbert and Jesse Sublett at the event. Copies of each author’s latest will be available for purchase at the event. 

MysteryPeople Scott: Bob Reynolds is not your typical protagonist. How did he come about?

C. B. McKenzie: Not sure Scott, if you mean that “your” in a specific-2-me sense or a Universal sense.

Since I only have the one novel published previously, Bad Country, and the protagonist in that noir novel, Rodeo Grace Garnet, PI, is, let’s say, “sensitive macho like Lew Archer”, it might be assumed that that prototype is “my typical protagonist.”

Such is not the case.

I am a novelist, not a “Brand-Developer”, so I create lots of different types of protagonists, as well as a wide variety of Supporting Casts.

Bob Reynolds is a “Noir” character in the actual not the generic sense of that term/word.

Bob Reynolds is “dark-2-black w/ ?????backstory, morally ambivalent himself in morally ambivalent circumstances with an eye on the material consequences of his Action or InAction.

That’s a typical noir character.

As that type of Noir Protagonist, Bob Reynolds is perfect.

Only over/against the Sam Spade version of Noir Protagonist does he seem atypical – to say “Bob Reynolds” is not a “typical” character, as a Universal Noir Protagonist, only indicates that the genre, to you or readers, is somehow fixed.

My Next Protag, Palli Gundarsson, Chief Police Inspector of Westfjords District, Iceland, is another Protag altogether.

55, once handsome but now decaying into his late Middle Ages and only now achieving his first Major (if you want to call West Fjords Backwater “major”) posting in Icelandic Police, cuckolded by an ambitious Academic careerist who’s achieved her own professional advancements at Pallis’ expense and stuck with a semi-drug-addicted thirty-year-old Chef son who wants to start his own “Local Only” restaurant, Palli is another animal altogether.

So, that’s a Big Answer to a small question. Hope you like it.

MPS: Poe County is a fully realized setting that’s the antithesis of a Norman Rockwell painting. What did you want to convey about small town society?

CBM: Burn What Will Burn is More like Edward Hopper, I think. But beyond a Hopper painting, Burn What Will Burn goes to After “After Hours”( which is indicated throughout, but only indicated; (there’s tons of sub text in Burn What Will Burn, by the way) nobody much sees or reads the subtext.

Burn What Will Burn is a seriously creepy book w/out being an Obvious Serial Killer Creepy book.

I don’t understand why my books and “me–CB McKenzie, Author Brand” are so “regional”???? So, if I write about Orthodox Jews in NYC or surrounds, that’s not regional? If I write about Valley Girls in SoCal, that’s not Regional?

My Editor, Peter Joseph says of me and my writing:

I write The Marginal.

I always seem to write about, create characters in/on:

The Margins.

Because that’s where I’m at always have been always will be –

Northwest Arkansas South of Southwest Arizona Arctic Circle Far West of Iceland Deepwoods Vermont.

It’s all the same place to me.

MPS: Colorful and corrupt citizens populate the place. Was there one who was particularly fun to write for?

CBM: I don’t like to write, so any assumption that there’s much Fun in it, at any point in The Process, would be an incorrect assumption about me, Author.

I love The English Language.

So, naturally (as Camus would say about something else) when I turn a phrase and it hits some point I recognize as a natural rebounder towards Fine, then I feel good.

For about fifteen minutes.

MPS: What is the main difference between writing about the south as opposed to the southwest which you did for Bad Country?

CBM: My characters are persistent, wherever the Locale.

As said, I write Margins. And Margins are pretty the same, Across the Board.

MPS: What will we see from you next?

CBM: WestFjords, IceLand (I hope to buy a small house in Bolungarvík eventually and Set a Series there). ‘The Sane But White’ is a Police Procedural with a lot of “character” indulgences and Local West Fjords background. If I have a”series” it’ll likely be this one with Palli Gundarssons as my aging, but still cogent and activated, Protag.

You can find copies of McKenzie’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. McKenzie joins Peter Spiegelman, Andrew Hilbert and Jesse Sublett at our upcoming Noir at the Bar event, next Monday at 7 PM, hosted by Threadgill’s. Noir at the Bar is free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople Review: LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN by Ace Atkins and Marco Finnegan

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780983693710Lately, many crime novelists have been crossing over into comics. Denise Mina did a run on Hellblazer, and there are new graphic novel versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. Greg Hurwitz, Jason Starr and Megan Abbott have contributed to The Punisher’s legend. Duane Swierzcynski and Victor Gischler have made second careers out of comics. The latest author to make the leap into the medium is Ace Atkins with the adaption of his short story, Last Fair Deal gone Down.

The graphic novel features Ace’s first series character, blues historian Nick Travers. His world gets rocked when Fats, one of his favorite sax players, is murdered. Nick hits the Big Easy back alleys looking for those responsible.

Atkins and artist Marco Finnegan completely compliment each other. Ace keeps the story tight and sparse, allowing the visuals to do much of the talking. It makes me want to see him do more work in comics. Finnegan has a knack for catching the right expression on a character, dialing down the dramatic moments, so they never veer into melodrama. The simple black and white inks and poetic hardboiled writing create the mood and even music for the story.

At the end of Last Fair Deal Gone Down, we are told to look out for an adaptation of Ace’s first Nick Travers novel, Crossroad Blues. I already am. Both artist and author are neither afraid of their emotions or influences. Last Fair Deal Gone Down is a fresh look at an old character.

You can find copies of Last Fair Deal Gone Down on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, July 16th, at 3 PM, for an event with Ace Atkins, speaking and signing his latest addition to his critically acclaimed Quinn Colson series, The Innocents. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Douglas Graham Purdy

  • Interview by Scott Montgomery

Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy’s second novel featuring Boston immigrants Cal and Dante, We Were Kings, takes place in the Fifties, covering such topics as gun running, the IRA, loyalty, and the weight of one’s past. Douglas Graham Purdy was kind enough to talk to us about his and O’Malley’s characters and their choice of setting.

“I think local provincialism definitely plays a large part in shaping Boston’s identity and it allows for a rich exploration of crime fiction. And with that particular type of provincialism there’s a guardedness, a suspicion of the other or outsider—when you talk to people from other cities who are familiar with Boston you hear about Boston’s coldness, its reputation as a tough city, a place where you don’t mess with the people.”

MysteryPeople Scott: This book delves deep into the Irish immigrant experience. What did you want to explore in it?

Douglas Graham Purdy: While not as emblematic as New York City, Boston has such a rich history of immigration, and with our characters Dante Cooper and Cal O’Brien both the children of immigrants, it came easy to us. However many people assume Dante comes from Irish parents, when in fact his father was Polish and his mother Italian. While Serpents in the Cold focused on Boston as a sheltered city during a horrible winter storm, We Were Kings offers a wider template as we crossed the Atlantic and showed some of the IRA men deciding on when and how they should take care of a burgeoning problem stateside in Boston. Their story, who they are and how they envision themselves as Americans, pairs well with Dante, Cal, detective Owen Mackey, who are already defined by America as citizens. It was interesting to have the IRA soldiers imagine the country as a land rich in opportunity and wealth, but once they arrive stateside, they find the dream is corrupt, that a great big land for the taking is a mirage. Immigration is founded on dreams and aspirations and imagination, and sometimes those dreams crumble under the reality that America wasn’t what they imagined from afar, yet somehow, someway, they must still become a part of.

Ask Tom, who actually is an immigrant, and he has a unique tale to tell related to Ted Cruz and Bill O’Reilly.

Of course when you’re talking about Boston you’re also talking about one of the largest populations of Irish immigrants in the U.S., the first port of entry for so many Irish who arrived over the centuries, but specifically aboard coffin ships fleeing An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger.

“While Serpents in the Cold focused on Boston as a sheltered city during a horrible winter storm, We Were Kings offers a wider template as we crossed the Atlantic and showed some of the IRA men deciding on when and how they should take care of a burgeoning problem stateside in Boston.”

And it’s not by accident that we show the gunrunning boat, The Midir, at the book’s introduction, which was, to my mind, an imitation of the passage that the coffin ships of a hundred years before would have taken and what the passengers would have experienced and seen once they entered Boston’s outer harbor. The Great Hunger and this manner of migration is referenced again at the end of the book when the IRA gunmen pass through Galway, where so many coffin ships originally set sail from.

I think there’s something incredibly interesting about the ways in which Boston itself was transformed by various immigrant cultures and how the immigrants, in turn, were transformed and indelibly changed by the city. There’s also the complication of seeing and experiencing America via a particular romanticism or mythologization so that it exists in the consciousness as something more than just a place; it becomes the embodiment of ideals, values, and sensibilities that the immigrant desires, projects, and aspires to.

While Cal and Dante are children of immigrants they are also outside of the immigrant experience and the shocking, sometimes traumatic, duality that immigrants experience when their ideas of America are shattered by the reality that is America. And I think we explore a lot of that via the characters of Bobby Myles and Martin Butler, and how they believe Boston and the larger America beyond Boston will allow them opportunities and a distinct type of freedom and anonymity that they could never achieve in Ireland.

It’s also interesting to see how certain cultures reinvent themselves in America, forming many different subcultures within the whole that mainstream American is very often unaware of. To my mind, both the Irish dance hall culture of Dudley Square and IRA gunrunning in New York and Boston of the mid to late 1950s, in preparation for their unsuccessful Border Campaign in Northern Ireland were parts of those cultural subcultures that exist outside the mainstream and are rich for exploration in crime fiction.

MPS: What do Cal and Dante provide for each other as friends?

Their friendship goes back to their childhood growing up on the hard streets of Dorchester, Boston. Even at a young age, they endured a brutal existence, living through the Great Depression and, later, through violence; they’ve helped carry each other into adulthood. Even decades later, after much tragedy, they maintain a close presence in each other’s lives, a bond that may not shine with gold, but is a tarnished union, like two brothers cast out to endure the suffering and pain of a fallen city, in this case Boston during urban renewal and corruption.

Both men have lost their wives. They don’t have much family to cushion the grind of living day to day. Holding down a job becomes tougher and tougher. They’ve become lone wolves carrying their wounds silently, fueled by their own existential grit and a hunger for redemption.

“Even decades later, after much tragedy, they maintain a close presence in each other’s lives, a bond that may not shine with gold, but is a tarnished union, like two brothers cast out to endure the suffering and pain of a fallen city, in this case Boston during urban renewal and corruption.”

Their relationship is one based on trust and loyalty, even if, at times, that trust has been broken and the loyalty severely tested. But like all friendships there is a power dynamic between them and here we see that Cal is, most often, the one putting himself at risk and bailing Dante out of dangerous situations, but Cal is also driven by violent and dark impulses. He has, after the death of his wife, Lynne, something of a death wish and very little to lose. It is Dante who manages to pull him back from the abyss and we know, from Serpents in the Cold, that, if necessary, Dante would risk his life for Cal.

Dante looks up at the Heavens while in the gutter, while Cal looks down at the gutter from the Heavens. They balance each other out, allows them to co-exist in this grim setting, this limbo realm of Boston that is equal parts the gutter and the Heavens. (Yeah, as you can see, these are books are on the bleak side.)

MPS: There are several colorful characters in the book. Did you have any that were particularly fun to write?

I think every character offers something different. While Cal and Dante come across as humorless, scarred poster boys for Noir literature, it was good to offset them with eccentric characters such as the lowly henchman, Shaw, and Shea Mack, the sleazy kingpin. Shaw is great because he’s kind of the idiot who never shuts up, but when it matters, he rises to the occasion. Shea Mack is the self-appointed king of the underground, and every time he makes an appearance, it is usually as ribald as it is sadistic. He pushes the boundaries of taste, and it’s always refreshing to write scenes that push the boundaries into dark, and sometimes comedic, territories. While we always wanted to have unique original characters as our main players, we allowed ourselves to pay respects to the pulp as well. For example, there’s a scene at Fenway Park where Dante and Cal encounter the saddest-looking henchmen, rejects from the Dick Tracy universe, sad f**king bastards.

MPS: What makes Boston such a rich backdrop for crime fiction?

As a city, Boston is not known for being overly kind. It has a hard-knuckled introspective manner to it, uniquely Northeastern, at times terse and moody, at times overly proud, over-protective and provincial. While not as big and crowded as New York City and Chicago, it forms a perfect labyrinthine grid consisting of specific neighborhoods with their own unique cultural identities, their own codes, and their own, distinct immigrant histories.

I think local provincialism definitely plays a large part in shaping Boston’s identity and it allows for a rich exploration of crime fiction. And with that particular type of provincialism there’s a guardedness, a suspicion of the other or outsider—when you talk to people from other cities who are familiar with Boston you hear about Boston’s coldness, its reputation as a tough city, a place where you don’t mess with the people. There’s also the local trait of never forgetting or forgiving a wrong. That type of historical memory is a complex and distinctly Boston thing. It lends itself to a culture of codes and secrets and to very clannish structures that pit different clans against other clans.

“As a city, Boston is not known for being overly kind. It has a hard-knuckled introspective manner to it, uniquely Northeastern, at times terse and moody, at times overly proud, over-protective and provincial.”

Boston also possesses a historical landscape that reveals both its heights as a city and its decline, and the conflict of its Brahmin and working class sensibilities. There’s something quite powerful, shocking even, about suddenly discovering the richness of that landscape with its elaborate history, somewhat subsumed and hidden by the infrastructure of a city trying to be modern, trying to be something it has never been. This allows us to explore, both visually and thematically, the juxtaposition between the grand and the decrepit, the splendor and the vice. Until very recently, change in Boston has been glacial, and that informs the moods and perspectives of its citizens, neighbors and criminals alike.

Ambiguity and deception can thrive in these places where corruption and retribution can take effect at the drop of a dime. Whether along the fading blue-collar bars along Dorchester Avenue, or at the state house exemplifying the ‘city on a hill’, or the college campuses of international renown, MIT or Harvard, and even the tourist traps selling overpriced lobster rolls. There are so many landscapes where a crime can happen, a mystery unfolding. And more and more it’s becoming a city for the rich, the professionals. More people are flocking in and buying up properties at ridiculous prices. One has to wonder when the bottom drops. What criminals will arise from this to pick up the scraps?

Boston is a beautiful city, but by the winter, a gray pallor seems to suck the life out of the streets. The waters turn to slate, the skies turn raw and bleak, and the collective mood of the population sour and at times become downright miserable. For Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings we highlighted the oppressive weather to augment a claustrophobic tension that we hope enhanced the damaged portrayal of our characters. In Serpents it is the coldest winter on record. In Kings, it’s a long, brutal summer with no relief in sight.

Also interesting is its duality, working class town and the hub of academia. It has a transient vibe that clashes with its tried-and-true lifers and townies. You can easily have a murder mystery on a college campus as well as a gritty, raw tale of the desperate low lives, which George V. Higgins (Friends of Eddie Coyle) captured so well.

“For Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings we highlighted the oppressive weather to augment a claustrophobic tension that we hope enhanced the damaged portrayal of our characters. In Serpents it is the coldest winter on record. In Kings, it’s a long, brutal summer with no relief in sight.”

MPS: What part of the city’s history are you going to delve into next?

That’s a great question because many of Cal and Dante’s old haunts are now gone or soon will be as we move into the 1960s. It’s also a matter of how the two recover emotionally and physically from the events that occur in We Were Kings. Often, Doug and I learn about that damage and what it means to the story as we begin writing again. We’ve toyed around with the idea of having the book set in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War at its peak, and the city still disillusioned and heartbroken by the Kennedy assassinations. It would be interesting to see Cal and Dante in the seedy nether world of Boston’s Combat zone, the place of vice and prostitution that thrived after Scollay Square was demolished. Of course, Shea Mack would also have a place there. Such a world was made for the likes of him. We picture Cal and Dante as older men and potentially at odds with each another—can their friendship survive the various traumas and events they’ve experienced, the crimes they’ve committed? There’s guilt and shame in that knowledge and a shared culpability that neither can ever escape.

We’ve also explored Dante Cooper and Cal O’Brien standalone novels that continue the Boston Saga yet allow them to move more freely in their own narratives. But for now, Doug is working on a dark crime comedy, Scumbag, and I’m working on an apocalyptic thriller, At the End the Sea. Both of them are set in Boston.

“While misanthropes, both men believe in the public house, the place to gather and raise a few for the living and the dead. That’s where I’ll always see Cal and Dante, at a bar along the Avenue, the sun laying amber light through the windows as they gesture to the barman to pull another pint and pour another whiskey.”

MPS: Is there anything about your partnership that is reflected in Cal and Dante’s?

I think Cal (Thomas) is an optimistic at heart. He strives to think that there is something better out there. He goes to church. He prays. Dante (Doug) however is anxious at heart. He believes in the day-to-day. He’s the moody existentialist who feels more at home at a smoke-drenched jazz club than the church. But both characters do meet in the middle, the pub. While misanthropes, both men believe in the public house, the place to gather and raise a few for the living and the dead. That’s where I’ll always see Cal and Dante, at a bar along the Avenue, the sun laying amber light through the windows as they gesture to the barman to pull another pint and pour another whiskey. And Thomas and I will be there alongside them.

You can find copies of We Were Kings on our shelves and via bookpeople.com