Patrick Hoffman’s The White Van made our Top 6 Debuts Of 2014. A bank robbery kicks off a careening story of desperate criminals and cops in a situation way over their head in the grittier sides of San Fransisco. I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on thriller writing with Patrick and Jeff Abbott and was happy to catch up with him to discuss more about the book, how to creating tension,his day job as a real private detective, and why he considers himself an equal opportunity crime writer.
MysteryPeople: The White Van has an involved plot where the fates of several characters interlock over a bank robbery. What was the initial idea for the book and how did it come about?
Patrick Hoffman: First off, can I take a moment to say that you are my favorite book seller in Texas, and I am so happy to talk with you about my book, and so happy to have met you! So, lets see, where was I…I was working as an investigator at the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, when I heard about an interesting case. That case supposedly involved a group of people that were taking women to hotel rooms, plying them with drugs, cleaning them up, making them look more professional, and then forcing them to cash fake checks. I said to myself, that would make a great start of a novel. I think I just sat on that idea for about six months or a year before I finally began writing it. Once I started writing, I started becoming curious about the other characters: okay, lets see, if we have a group that is taking women to hotels, why are they doing that? What would force someone to do something like that? That’s when the story became more interesting to me.
MP: The first chapter has a Gas Light quality where you are never on solid footing where you’re not sure what’s going on and you assume the people Emily is dealing with are the villains, but you are not certain. It’s quite effective. What was the goal to that approach?
PH: My goal at all times was to keep things tense. Not knowing what is happening is one way to make a scene tense, but you don’t want to just confuse the reader. I wanted to create a scene that is inherently tense–bringing a woman to a hotel and having her become incapacitated by drugs while be tended to by a male and female pair of Russian gangsters seemed like a tense situation, but then, I also wanted to drag that scene on for a while and not let you know what they were planning on doing with her. I was also trying to play with the character’s perspective, I mean here she is losing control of herself to a drug cocktail that she doesn’t even entirely know she’s receiving, so, of course, you have her perspective, too.
MP: You learn later on that Emily’s antagonists are in over their heads. In fact, practically every character is. Was there a certain reason for that choice?
PH: Again, tension, tension, and tension. But that also goes back to my criminal defense background. I think I was interested in looking at why these characters would do these bad acts, and try and come up with a defense for those acts. It’s all a search for mitigating evidence, right? I would say, okay, this guy or gal did this thing, but look at why he or she did it, she had X, Y, and Z reasons for doing it, and she had to do it! Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you must acquit!!
MP: Your police characters are ethically challenged to say the least, but are quite human. As someone who has had to deal with law enforcement, what did you want to convey about those in the profession?
PH: Under the advice of my attorney, I am going to exercise my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. What are you trying to do, get me killed? Just kidding. Look, here’s the thing, in my decade of working in and around the courts of San Francisco, I saw a lot of shady behavior by police officers. I think one of the biggest problems with our justice system is that the police (and prosecutors) have decided that they can lie with impunity (and, usually, they can!). But I didn’t want to get super preachy, that would be boring! I wanted to treat the cops in my book with the same amount of respect that I treated the drug addicts, and the gangsters. I’m an equal opportunity thriller writer, I make bad things happen to everyone!!
MP: This book is full of fun, seedy characters, who are morally compromised. Was one really fun or easy to write?
PH: I don’t like writing about good people. I think they’re boring. But, I also don’t like cliched bad guys either. I think they are equally boring. My goal was to make everyone a mixture of both good and bad.Once I had those people, I wanted to let them loose on each other and insert them into very stressful situations and see how they responded.
MP: As a private detective, I have to ask, what’s the biggest thing private eye fiction gets wrong?
PH: Private investigation can be super exciting, but it can also be incredibly drudging. My job sometimes feel like all I do is go from one empty house to the next, ringing doorbells along the way. If somebody is home they are usually not the person I’m looking for. Also, and I love this part of it, but sometimes you’re just going over somebody’s phone records with a fine-tooth comb, color coding them, so you know what’s happening, or listening to hours and hours of interview tapes, because you have to listen to everything. I love that kind of work, but private investigation fiction usually leaves the boring parts out. Maybe that’s why there are no private investigators in my book!
Copies of The White Van are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.