Wilson Toney’s Alibi For A Dead Man won the Carter Brown award and much like the work of that awards namesake, the book is a fun, fast moving romp that never takes itself too seriously. It’s two bantering National Agency detectives Bug and Roche (pronounced “rock”) are assigned a car accident that could be fraud. When one of the vehicles was the getaway car for a bank robbery, it leads to a trail of missing money, bad men, and bullets with our heroes in the hard boiled middle. Mr. Toney was kind enough to take a few questions from us.
Scott Montgomery: You have two unique detectives with a unique case. Which came first?
Wilson Toney : The detectives came first. I came up with Roche a long time ago, and while my original take on his character has changed considerably, the constant of him being a work-a- day guy that just wants to do his best then go home, and get paid for his effort, has remained a constant. Bug, however, was something different and is loosely based on a man I worked with for a lot of years. He was unique, and while he wasn’t quite as funny as Bug, still he was never at a loss for words, and didn’t mind who heard him whether it was a boss or not didn’t enter into his thought process.
The case came after a lot of thought and many false starts, and frankly a lot of revisions. It is hard to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, and to make it as logical as possible. I likely spent more time on the plotting than I did the actual writing, for once you get the blueprint in place, the writing goes rather smoothly. I hope to be able to repeat this process in the future, but only time will tell.
S.M.: Was writing a plot with so many moving parts a challenge?
W.T.: Was it ever. Even with a plot outline, it still required a lot of re-thinking and a lot of thought to make sure I said enough to keep the reader interested and not to give away the game too early. But I always liked complex plots, which I think is reflected in my writing. That being said, I wanted to make the plot challenging, but intelligible and try to not have an ending where only the protagonist knows some obscure clue that is revealed in the end, and thus the bad man, or woman for that matter, is revealed. I hate those types of novels, and I hope never to write one.
S.M.: The book’s voice has echoes of the forties and fifties detective novels. Did you draw from any influences?
W.T.: Without doubt, the Gold Medal novels from the 40s-70s influenced me greatly. Some of them were great, most less so, but they had a hard-boiled edge that I enjoyed and likely some of that shows in my books. More importantly, I have read many other types of mysteries and the butler did it type always left me cold and quickly were banished from my budgetary allowance. I am sure that some of the greats such as Chandler, Hammett, and Hamilton influence my thought processes, but I’ve read a lot more bad fiction than good and I am afraid that some of the lesser greats have their share of blame as well. Ultimately, when I decided to write, I decided to write the stuff I would want to read, because, I didn’t really think anyone else would ever see the stuff. I was the most surprised person in the world when I won the Carter Brown prize, but I wrote the novel before I knew of the contest, and I wrote it for myself.
S.M.: What made you decide to have Bug and Roche work for an agency?
W.T.: I knew I wanted to write about work-a-day guys, and those guys just had to work for an agency. My own work history explains most of that decision. I have worked at several engineering firms in my long and not so storied career, and I wanted to give the reader a flavor of just how it would be for guys to be doing this for a living not because they were dedicated crime solvers, not because they were trying to help the helpless, these guys are doing it for a buck, it’s how they earn their living and they do it for that living. I also wanted to be able to call on others in the agency when needed for specialty work such as data analysis and photographic enhancement. The easiest way to accomplish that was to have them work at an agency. Ultimately though, it was because I didn’t really think this particular form of detective fiction had been done to death. The errant knight has been done to death and I did not think I could write a convincing novel using that as my template.
S.M.: What makes the book work is the relationship between Bug and Roche. How did you approach it?
W.T. :Roche is everyman, the guy that’s not special, but does his job, and expects to be paid for same. Bug is the kid in the back of the glass, cutting jokes every time the teacher turns his head. That was the basis of the novel, the interplay between them is based on a lot of years of banter between fellow workers, mostly male admittedly but some female. I personally am likely a mix of the two with Roche being what I liked to think I am, but Bug being who I am more often than not. It was a case of making sure that their dialogue rang true, was funny when comedy was needed and being serious when that was required. All that being said, what really happened was I wrote the thing based on my initial outline, then rewrote it probably two or three more times, thinking of just what these guys would say to each other. I also gave Bug his pet Agnes, because he needed something in his life that was real. Roche is made of different stuff so I gave him bad books to read. I have both a cat and have read a lot of bad books, so like I said, these guys are likely a mixture of what I hope I am. Doubtless I am wrong.
S.M. : What made you want to tackle a detective book as your first novel?
W.T.: There’s an old saying in writing, write what you know. What I know, engineering, is mostly boring and would definitely not hold a reader’s interest, likely not even the interest of a fellow engineer. But I do know detective fiction. I have been reading detective fiction (not exclusively, but more than any other genre except for physics books) for fifty years and I know what I liked when I read those stories. As a result, I wrote a detective novel, again, for myself more than for any other reason. I am glad this work has resonated with those that publish books for a living, and I can think of no better future than writing more Bug and Roche novels until the end of my days.
Alibi for a Dead Man is available for purchase in-store and online now.