Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut, Past Crimes, is an engaging and fresh addition to the crime fiction genre. The story focuses on Van Shaw, a former thief, who learned from his grandfather, Dono. When he gets letter from Dono, asking to come back to their Seattle home, he finds the old man beaten to a coma. As Shaw searches for the perpetrators, he has to confront his past, his morality, and the relationship he had with Dono. We caught up with Mr. Hamilton to talk about the book, his lead, and his town.
MysteryPeople: Most “family crime” novels are a father and son relationship. What made you go with a grandfather as the patriarch?
Glen Erik Hamilton: I wanted a bit of remove between Van Shaw and his grandfather Dono. Putting a generation between them allows Dono to be a little more old-school Irish and mysterious than he might be if he were Van’s father. Dono doesn’t often explain things to Van like a parent would. It also lets me play a little with expectations, undercutting the idea that grandparents are doting and past their prime. Dono is neither of those things. And finally, it lets the two men be connected by their shared love for the woman they both lost, as daughter and mother.
MP: Past and present converse as well as converge in the novel – how did you approach this?
GEH: The main character is a man returning to his hometown, confronting a complicated past and attitudes that he had abruptly abandoned. If I were to write that solely in the present day, the amount of backstory could become awkward. I also wanted to see the lessons Van was learning as a young thief, and have Dono as an active character in that.
Those choices led to writing chapters – almost short stories – showing Van at different ages, and placing them in between the main action. They’re like stepping stones in a river. They allow a much richer understanding of all the characters involved, at least for me. I also think that the occasional digression makes the main story that much more engaging.
MP: Your characters are great for crime fiction since they are fully realized, yet hard to get a complete grasp on. How do you go about constructing your major characters?
GEH: It’s not a hugely conscious process for me. I do consider what the scene and the plot need, and whether there’s a relationship between characters I haven’t tried before. But I give new characters a little room to move, and they often cut their own path. I’ve had complete jackasses redeem themselves (at least a little) and heroes turn out to be unreliable. Some characters have even merged, when I realize that there are more bodies in the scene than required. When characters become recurring (intentionally or because they put a gun to my head) it’s because their dynamic with Van makes him think or feel a little more deeply.
“Past and present converse as well as converge in the novel…”
MP: Seattle comes off more gritty than other stories I’ve read or movies I’ve seen. What did you want to get across to the reader about your city?
GEH: Yeah, it’s not the Seattle you saw with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or on “Frasier”. Would that we could all afford houseboats and apartments so posh that even their views are impossible. Seattle’s latest boom has been great in many ways, but it’s also driving a larger wedge between the haves and have-nots, who used to intermingle a lot more. Blue-collar neighborhoods of the city, which are still a huge part of shipping and other industries, are being steadily driven out by price pressures. Seattle is in danger of becoming San Francisco, too expensive for most locals to actually live in. That conflict is particularly interesting to me, since I think about how crime and criminals are also forced to change.
MP: This being your first novel, did you draw from any influences?
GEH: More than I can remember! But some of the more obvious early ones would be the Travis McGee series, with its hero scrounging a living off his wits and prowess in between the cracks of normal society. Robert B. Parker’s dialogue and sparse prose – characters implying a lot by what they don’t say. Discovering Martin Cruz Smith and Gorky Park was also a huge catalyst on my wanting to write; I love the way his heroes are usually beset on all sides. There’s a touch of Dame Agatha’s whodunits in there, too.
MP: Van should be a great series lead because he can go in any direction with a set of good friends who can pull him into some bad business. What do you see his main struggle being?
GEH: Van went straight from a criminal childhood into the rigors and structure of military life and Special Operations. He does have to find a new moral center, as you suggest, now that he’s been on both extremes. But he also has to learn how to be a functioning adult in civilian society, and that’s an alien landscape for him. He’s never had to look for a job before. He’s never planned for the future, because part of him never expected to live this long.
Of course, if Van is not very careful and very quick, that last problem will brutally solve itself…
You can find Past Crimes on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.