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. 

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