Columbo without the Caricature: MysteryPeople Q&A with Jim Nesbitt

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Jim Nesbitt’s The Last Second Chance introduces us to Ed Earl Burch, an ex-Dallas-cop-turned-PI, who gets a shot a revenge at the long-thought-dead drug dealer who killed his partner. The book is marinated in pulp machismo. We caught up to Jim to talk about his hero, Texas, sex, violence, and crime fiction.

MysteryPeople Scott: What made Ed Earl Burch the kind of character for you to start a series with?

Jim Nesbitt: When I started writing the first book, I wasn’t at all sure Ed Earl would wind up being the kind of durable character who could anchor a series. It was certainly what I hoped for. I wanted him to be strong, flawed, reckless, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe — I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys.

“Ed Earl’s a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt — he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Colombo without the caricature — people he goes up against underestimate him and he makes them pay for that mistake.

I love the deceptive landscape of the Hill Country — green at a distance, dry and craggy up close. And I love the harsh starkness of the Big Bend and northern Mexico — how the mountains collide and look like the bones of the earth ripped open.”

What I wound up with in the telling of this story is a guy with whom I think most people can identify. Ed Earl’s a bit of an Everyman who’s been smacked around by life. As a result, he’s placed himself in a box of his own making — one he thinks will keep him from getting smacked again. You meet him as a cashiered Dallas homicide detective, eking out a living as a PI who chases the financial fugitives of the oil and real estate bust and savings-and-loan collapse that scarred Texas in the mid-to-late 80s. He’s got his life narrowed down to the shabby essentials — a ratty apartment, a hole-in-the-wall office and bourbon in his favorite bar, which happens to be my all-time favorite bar, Louie’s in Dallas. Play it smart and cautious. Keep the lines straight. Don’t take a risk. Don’t give a damn. It’s the creed of the terminal burnout and he’s living it a day at a time, drink by drink.

He’s dead wrong about all this keeping him safe from more pain. He’s also his own worst enemy — a cynical smartass who can’t help taking a whack at folks he doesn’t like even when he knows they’ll whack him back. When the action of the story tears him away from his safe haven, he’s surprised to find the grit and determination that made him a good cop are still there, giving him the strength to answer the call. He starts out wanting revenge — for himself and his dead partner. But what he finds is a battered form of redemption.
A friend calls Ed Earl a classic American anti-hero. I’ll buy that.

“Ed Earl’s a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt — he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Colombo without the caricature — people he goes up against underestimate him and he makes them pay for that mistake.”

MPS: The Texas backdrop comes off strong in the book. What did you want to express with the setting?

JN: I spent a lot of time knocking around Texas in my journalism days, including a stint at the old Dallas Times Herald and as a roving correspondent for other news organizations. I love the deceptive landscape of the Hill Country — green at a distance, dry and craggy up close. And I love the harsh starkness of the Big Bend and northern Mexico — how the mountains collide and look like the bones of the earth ripped open. Used to wander up and down the border doing stories on maquiladoras, colonias, birth defects caused by pollution, illegal immigration, drug wars. But what stole my heart was that wide-open, sun-blasted and evocative landscape. It spoke to me then — still does now. And it seemed like the perfectly natural setting for a very primal and violent story of revenge and redemption, although I didn’t deliberately calculate something to express with this setting. It just spilled out of me.

MPS: All the women in The Last Second Chance, whether good or bad, are strong. What did you want to portray with them?

JN: Exactly that — strength. A strong story demands strong characters of both genders. I’ve always been attracted to strong, smart, sharp-tongued women who know they’re smarter and tougher than men and aren’t shy about showing it. I find them endlessly fascinating, maddening, alluring and sometimes dangerous. They’re a force of nature to be reckoned with and I’m usually four or five steps behind them on the uptake. So is Ed Earl. Women seem to like and love him anyway — for reasons I don’t fully understand.

MPS: You don’t pull back on the sex and violence. Is there any kind of line you don’t cross when doing this kind of story?

JN: Yes. My books are bawdy and bloody, but the sex and violence isn’t gratuitous or served up just for shock value. I’m writing a violent tale and want to be frank about both the sex and the violence in service of that story. I don’t want to shield the reader’s delicate sensibilities with euphemisms and sanitized scenes. That’s an insult to the reader. Might be a different story if I was writing a chicken-fried cozy.

“I wanted him to be strong, flawed, reckless, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe — I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys.”

MPS: While you have your own voice, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the tough guy fiction I’ve enjoyed in the past. Did you draw from any influences?

JN: A great question that has me chuckling a bit. Friends often tell me I talk in a unique patois that mixes cowboy-speak with film noir patter. That’s the starting point for whatever voice my writing has. I’ve had one friend tell me he heard my voice as he read the book, which unnerved him mightily. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, so I’m sure they provided some undertones. James Ellroy and Hunter S. Thompson are lurking as well. But I’d say the biggest influences on my writing are James Lee Burke and the late, great James Crumley, a vastly underappreciated talent. Not that I’m in the same league as any of these giants, because I’m not.

MPS: What do you love the most about crime fiction?

JN: I’ve always thought hard-boiled detective novels a particularly American art form. At their best, they’re more than who-dun-its or thrillers, they’re vehicles for a writer’s observations about culture, politics, philosophy, music, history and a time or a place. Or life, it’s own self. When you read Ellroy, Chandler, Crumley, Hammett or Burke, their stories are always about far more than good guys chasing bad guys. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write. Still do.

You can find copies of Jim Nesbitt’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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