MysteryPeople Q&A with Timothy Hallinan

 

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Timothy Hallinan’s latest featuring Junior Bender, King Maybe, has the L.A. burglar going from one break-in to another in a cheerfully convoluted plot circling round a depraved studio exec. Tim was kind enough to take some questions from us last month about the book and writing in general.

MysteryPeople Scott: King Maybe started with the title in mind. Do most of your books start with something small like that and grow out of it?

Timothy Hallinan: I wish I could say how they start. If I could, maybe I could learn how to write one on purpose. Only once before have I begun with a title, and that was the first book I ever completed. It was about a private eye working in Hollywood (surprise!), and it was dreadful, except for s splendid title: The Wrong End of the Rainbow. For the last 4-5 months I’ve been getting glimmerings of a story to go with it.

All the books start differently. Sometimes it’s a character or an image, sometimes a general situation that seems to have the potential for interesting complication. The one I’m writing now, a Poke Rafferty called Fools’ River, began to develop a year or so ago in Bangkok when a friend took me to a ladyboy bar and I spent the evening talking to an 18-year old wisp who had been born male in Vientiane and, despite looking as frail as a dying plant, had transformed herself from a boy in Laos to a girl in Bangkok, a leap in every sense of the word. She barely spoke above a whisper, but she had a steel of spine, ten times the strength of character I possess. So I’m writing about her now.

MPS: The book has an interesting structure where one act of larceny leads to another, working as a metaphor for Junior’s life. How do you prepare for so many break-ins?

TH: It’s just the way the story presented itself to me, a series of stepping-stone burglaries leading to the ultimate nightmare burglary (from the thief’s point of view). For that third and potentially fatal job, I needed a way for him to hide in a gigantic house that’s crawling with cops. I turned to a friend who’s the home inspector to the stars—he just finished inspecting the old Samuel Goldwyn estate—and he suggested a hiding place that gave me one of the most enjoyable action sequences I’ve ever written and also an entirely unforeseen conversation that I think changed the whole emotional tone of the ending.

When I wrote Crashed, the first Junior book, I needed to find a way for Junior to get into a house in broad daylight through a front door the entire neighborhood could see, so I had him get a truck and a big SUB ZERO refrigerator box. He cut an entry into one side of the box, toted it up the sidewalk on a dolly, positioned it in front of the door, and then stepped into the box and took his time picking the lock. About six months after the book came out I got a call from a police detective in the San Fernando Valley asking suspiciously where I’d heard about “the refrigerator bandit.”

MPS: Even though Junior’s mentor, Herbie, is no longer alive, he pops up in conversation and Junior’s thoughts quite often. How has his death affected Junior?

TH: It forced him to grow up, the second step in a maturation process that began years earlier with the birth of his daughter, Rina. When Junior was in his teens, living with a father who disliked him, he began to break into houses — not taking anything, just seeing what a house could tell him about the people who lived in it. At 17, casing a very fancy house in the hills, he ran into a real burglar, complete with Lone Ranger mask, who claimed the house as his own and paid Junior to serve as lookout. That night they went down to an all-night coffee shop in the valley and Junior heard the first installment of The Gospel According to Herbie, the rules of burglary by which he’s lived ever since. When Herbie died, it took away Junior’s father figure and also set him free to follow the path on his own. But Herbie’s always with him; in fact, in the TV version that might or might not get done, Herbie will appear occasionally in a bright shaft of light in whatever darkened room Junior is burglarizing.

MPS: While still very funny, I found that both King Maybe and Herbie’s Game had a more sober tone. Do you think this reflects any changes in Junior?

TH: The loss of Herbie deprived Junior of one of only two permanent points of reference he acknowledges: Herbie and his daughter, Rina. This is the most pretentious answer you’ll ever get, but Herbie’s Game was the first book I wrote after finishing Proust, and what I took away from Remembrance of Things Past is how the past influences every moment we spend in the present, and how defenceless against memory we are. Junior lived more in the present in Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief. After Herbie’s death, he feels the reverberations of the past much more frequently.

MPS: I’m starting to realize that the series is as much about Hollywood as it is crime with this book being the most jaundice view yet. Is there a reason why most of Junior’s marks are in show business?

TH: Two reasons. First, I was in it for decades, all the way from rock and roll and crap TV through working with The BBC and people like Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn. So I know a little about how it works, and in show business, more than any other realm except politics, the profound wisdom of the Wizard of Oz applies: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Show business is about telling lies (sort of like writing) but the lies come thickest and fastest in the offices where the decisions are made. Show business makes a crook like Junior look like an honest man.

Second, I think people are just interested in show business, and since it interests me, too, why not give it to them?

MPS: I know you always have several irons in the fire, what’s the next thing to be on the look out for?

TH: This October a Junior Bender Christmas novel (!), Fields Where They Lay, will be published. And there will be a new Poke Rafferty Bangkok book, Fools’ River, in 2017 and (if I can get it done) another Junior Bender. And maybe this is the year when I’ll get to meet Joe Lansdale, although I have no idea what I could say to him once I finished gaping.

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

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