Interview  with David Corbett

The Long-Lost Love Letters Of Doc Holliday may be the most fun novel author David Corbett has written. New and old west converge when the supposedly destroyed  romantic correspondences between gunfighter and his first cousin Mattie fall into the hands of former rodeo cowboy and art forger turned western artifact appraiser Tuck Mercer and his arts lawyer Lisa Balamaro, putting a shady judge and  a militia group with their own agenda for the letters after them. David is one of the smartest authors I know, so I hope you can catch him when he discusses and signs the novel on August 27th at BookPeople. Here is some idea of what you’re in for.

MysteryPeople Scott: Even for you this is a very different crime novel, how did it come about?

David Corbett: I love that “even for you.” Yes, I suffer from Ross Thomas Syndrome. I am congenitally incapable of writing the same book twice.

I’ve had a fascination with Doc Holliday since childhood. That said, I can’t pinpoint exactly where that fascination began.

I’m old enough to remember watching the early 1960s TV Series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, in which Doc was played by yeoman character actor Douglas Fowley. Fowley’s credits span five decades, and he often played the suave second fiddle (or debonair schemer) in everything from Charlie Chan on Broadway to Cornell Woolrich’s Fall Guy to Singin’ In The Rain. (Late in his career he even got a shot at playing the mad professor in Buck Henry’s 1977 Star Wars spoof, Quark.)

Going back and watching the available video clips from the Wyatt Earp show, however, filmed at a time when Pinocchio had no monopoly on wooden performances, I can’t say that Fowley’s portrayal captures anything particularly mesmerizing about Doc. I was just a boy, though, and it didn’t take much to stir my imagination.

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday Cover ImageNor do I recall seeing the contemporaneous portrayals by Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature, both enigmatic and compelling in their own right (if wildly inaccurate). It would be decades before I saw the more recently. depictions by Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid, and I only recently managed to catch the (even in more wildly inaccurate) portrayals by Jason Robards and Stacy Keach.

It should be clear, though, that Doc held a special place not just in my imagination but the whole culture’s. Maybe I just intuited that from what I saw and read.

Regardless, by early adulthood, when I began to write, I came across two biographies of Doc that quickened my interest, especially in the fact that Doc had a lifelong correspondence with his cousin, Mattie, who would ultimately join the Sisters of Mercy. The letters were destroyed, which just seemed like a great opportunity for a fiction writer.

Life intervened—specifically, my career as a private investigator, then my early crime novels—but the idea kept nagging me from the back of my mind. Finally, I saw a way to weave the correspondence into a modern-day crime novel by making the letters a MacGuffin—the thing of inscrutable value that all the characters seek to possess and pursue relentlessly, even violently.

MPS: Tuck Mercer is such a stand-out character, former rodeo star, art forger, and now appraiser. He’s one of those great fictional personages that can practically go anywhere. Did you keep anything in mind when writing for him?

DC: I’m glad he resonated for you. I’m not sure he would qualify as a “rodeo star,” since he was just an eighteen-year-old rodeo bum when he suffered the accident that ended his career, but it was certainly a large part of who he once considered himself to be. And he never lost the sense that life is a brutal sport that can end very badly, so you have to grab what chances come your way.

It’s actually the art forger part of his life story that framed the greater part of my understanding of him. He had been no more than a sketch artist working outside rodeo arenas up until his accident, “The Rodeo Rembrandt.” But once his career as a rider—and the love of the woman he was trying to impress—were lost to him forever, he developed a simmering rage to get even: with God, with fate, with the family of the girl he’d never see again and the man she would ultimately marry. That burning need to get even, forged into a meticulous devotion to detail, which art forgery requires, and a growing confidence in the craft of deceit—that’s what I always kept in mind with Tuck.

MPS: Part of the book deals with history and how we try to own it in various ways. What did you want to explore about history?

DC: The saying that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, formed a core theme for the book. Thucydides addresses this in his history of the Peloponnesian War. He did not believe in reincarnation, as some of his contemporaries did, nor that history in any way genuinely repeated. But the power dynamics that naturally occur in social and political arrangements strongly indicates that what happens once will happen again in one form or another. That is why he wrote his history of Athens’ fall. He felt sure there were lessons to be learned from how its arrogance, internal corruption, and descent into rancorous faction would prove helpful to future generations.

In that same way, the story of 1880s Tombstone seemed to be ripe with parallels to the modern day. Democrats and Republicans despised each other to the point of bloodshed, with each side claiming they were the true voice of “the people,” and each had its own official media outlet (newspaper) with its own unique take on current events, neither of which could be reconciled with the other’. Sound familiar?

Another echo from the past, however, this one unexpected, also came up as I researched the book. One seldom hears about the Apaches in the usual stories of the war between the Earp Brothers and Doc against the Cowboys. And yet, right around the same time as the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Geronimo broke out of the San Carlos Reservation, and the Chiricahua Apache band he led began a series of raids across the southwest as they made their way to their traditional sanctuary in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.

The term “Indian Country” was first used during Vietnam to describe land held by the insurgent Viet Cong. More recently, we’ve been engaged in two more counterinsurgency campaigns, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Taliban tactics have been openly compared to those of the Apache. And the veterans of these wars are every bit as embittered, adrift, and restless as those who escaped the Civil War, only to come west and find a place where they could at least try to outrun their demons.

MPS: You recreate correspondences between Doc Holliday and his cousin. How did you go about developing their voices?

This was one of the great challenges of the book. There are no extant copies of any letters Doc wrote, though he is “quoted” in an 1886 New York Sun article. One learns to cast a gimlet eye at such quotations.

And though Mattie wrote a brief history of her side of the family, it reads more like a rough outline than a finished product, and it was produced years after Doc’s death, so might not at all be indicative of how she might have expressed herself when younger—especially in intimate correspondence.

So I had to fashion their voices from what I could learn about them from the various credible sources concerning their lives. Fortunately, in the last two decades, several books have appeared that survive the test of reasonable skepticism.

Karen Holliday Tanner’s Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait draws from family records and lore, and provides a very personal if not always reliably accurate portrait of Doc; Gary L. Roberts’ Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend is an excellent source by a bona fide historian; and Paula Mitchell Marks’ And Die in the West addresses the Gunfight at the OK Corral in a way that focuses a much more jaundiced eye on the hagiography surrounding Doc and the Earps.

I also researched romantic correspondence in the mid-nineteenth century, to get a better idea of the language and, even more importantly, the prevailing themes that appeared in letters between lovers.

Finally, I honed in on what I considered the core of who these two people were. This is always tricky, and I don’t pretend to have somehow magically or mystically divined their souls.

That said, Mattie’s faith and specifically her Catholicism were clearly of great importance to her. This comes across clearly in the brief family history she wrote, which emphasizes how her mother’s faith gave her strength during the horrors of Sherman’s March. It also appears that it was her devotion to Catholicism that prevented her from accepting Doc’s proposal of marriage; Catholics are forbidden from marrying first cousins.

As for Doc, I needed to embrace several conflicting elements of his nature:

His intelligence, and love of learning. Specifically, I imagined him having a particular fondness for Thucydides, and Doc would readily have identified the fall of Athens with the collapse of the Confederacy—who better to represent the mechanical brutality of Sparta than the American North?

His devotion to his mother, and her to him. She died of tuberculosis, the same disease that would fell Doc, and he no doubt saw this as a kind of stigmata, an emblem of his suffering through his love of her. Perhaps more importantly, having sat at his mother’s bedside as she grew increasingly and painfully ill, he knew a similar fate awaited him. He would die young, which created the fatalistic absence of fear for which he was renowned.

His hatred of his father, who married a mere three months after Doc’s mother died—and the bride was a mere seven years older than Doc.

His likely racism. He hated the post-war occupation with its scalawags and carpetbaggers, and considered his father in league with them. He is known to have killed a Buffalo Soldier in or around Fort Griffin in Texas, and at least one of the reasons he fled the South involves a shooting incident concerning a number of black youths at a watering hole on or near his uncle’s property along the Florida-Georgia border.

His fascination, even obsession with gambling, and his skill with a gun.

His fondness for dentistry, which he admitted to a number of people, suggesting again not merely his intelligence but manual dexterity, which no doubt served him well at the card table.

His steadfast loyalty, which not only explains his devotion to Wyatt Earp but his putting up with Kate Elder despite their incessant drunken quarrels. (She once helped him escape imprisonment, a bold act he never forgot, but she also betrayed him to his Tombstone enemies in a drunken stupor, which finally led to their parting for good.)

His hair-trigger temper, exacerbated by his excessive consumption of alcohol, which he used to mitigate the pain and coughing his TB caused.

His manners; he never forgot his breeding, which expected him to be a gentleman.

His turn from Southern Democrat to Western Republican, embracing the vigorous pursuit of opportunity and progress that the industrialists, speculators, and mining interests brought to the frontier.

Putting all that together in one man’s heart, and having him speak a unique American vernacular that somehow captured both his Southern roots and Western adventurism, proved a daunting task, but I’ve been gratified by how many readers have found it compelling, even convincing.

MPS: What was your take on Holliday after writing this book?

DC: Doc is the quintessential American antihero, not just living up to the legend of the “Good Bad Man” that emerged in the late nineteenth century during the taming of the West, but embodying as well something of the Byronic hero, as exemplified by this line from The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d?

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;?

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites.

It would have been fun to talk philosophy with him. I don’t think I would have wanted to play cards against him, nor would I ever have wanted to find myself on his bad side.

MPS: The story examines the relationship between the old west and the modern one. Did you find more differences than similarities?

DC: The difference lies entirely in the settlement of the region. The Old West was wild, unformed, and largely lawless. Doc himself, in the 1886 New York Sun article I mentioned, identified himself as a member of a certain class of men who brought the law, commerce, and progress to a harsh, anarchic, and unwelcoming badlands. That may be a bit self-serving, but the truth remains that the West got gentrified, and the hunting grounds of the Native Americans are gone forever.

That said, a certain toughness, self-sufficiency, and independence still characterizes much of the West, and that has come to define much of what we mean by being an American. Unfortunately, all too often it curdles into a kind of self-congratulatory braggadocio, cruelty, and meanness of spirit.

One sees that embodied in the battle between Doc and the Earps on the one hand and the Cowboy rustlers on the other. Both sides have their apologists and mythmakers, both claim the other side is lying. The Gunfight at the OK Corral is a battle for America’s soul, and its echoes can still be heard if you listen.

 

Interview with Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written another great thriller, this one called The Escape Artist. It is about Nola Brown, an army sergeant, who is presumed dead as the book begins in a strange airplane crash that begins the book. But while the government has confirmed her death a mortician, Zig, who knows Nola and feels an obligation to help her figures out that she is alive and on the run,  

The Escape Artist Cover ImageMeltzer has a varied career, not just writing thrillers but also writing books about heroes (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and writing comic books (including Justice League of America), for which he won the Eisner Award.

Brad agreed to do another email interview about his new book.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Brad Meltzer:  Zig is named to honor a real Zig, but he’s an amalgam of all the amazing morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands (rather than giving a fake prosthesis), so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time…or who spend fourteen straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. Heart. Heart. Heart.

Image result for brad meltzer

SB: Can you speak to what you say in the preface about how this book was partly inspired by a USO trip?

BM: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.

In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.  Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I knew I found my hero.

SB: I’ve heard the last chapter you wrote for The Escape Artist was actually the first chapter. That sounds counterintuitive. Can you explain?

BM: By the time I reach the end of a book, I always have a new view of the beginning. And as I looped around, I saw that opening scene so clearly. It needed the extra punch in the beginning.

SB: Can you tell us about the protagaonist, Nola Brown, and why she is your favorite protagonist? Do you agree with praise that says she could go toe-to-toe with Bob Lee Swagger, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and others? This is the first of a new series, right?

BM: I appreciate those compliments, but they’re not fair to Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and the others. To me, Nola is Nola. She was born on a specific trip. We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalog victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there. And yes, she’s coming back

SB: What does it mean to you to reach the 20 year mark as a published author?

BM: It means I’m old. And it means I can do one of two things: 1) assume I’m amazing at this and keep doing it…or 2) take a hard look at all I’ve done and try to get better. For this book, that’s what I aimed for: I looked back at which books of mine I liked best. The answers all had one thing in common: amazing characters. So I wouldn’t start this book until I had Nola.

SB: You’ve now done all kinds of different ventures from your thrillers to books about adult heroes for boys and girls do you work on television. How do you keep it all straight and which of those is your favorite to do?

BM: I love them all. The kids books are my soul in book form. But the thrillers are the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like building an entire world from scratch.

SB: The quote before the book starts is: “1898, Jon Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.  It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.” Can you explain the meaning and/or foreshadowing of that quote?

BM: Let me just say it: I loved that detail. It just haunted me for years. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.

SB: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Dover Air Force Base. What do you want readers to learn and understand about the place?

BM: It’s so easy to see deaths as just numbers in a war. But it never is. When you’re done with The Escape Artist, you’ll never look at a soldier – or a war — the same way again.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

BM: For twenty years now, all I’ve been doing is telling my own story. Over time, I’ve realized that: 1) my life takes on new hardships and 2) I’m more honest with myself and my readers. So yes, Nola and Zig—and the broken parts of their souls—are a reflection of my own worst moments and fears. Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy.

SB: What are you working on next?

BM: We do have the I am Gandhi graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for Action Comics #1000. Then I am Neil Armstrong comes out in September. And as for the new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So yes, you’ll see them again soon.

Scott has interviewed about 25 authors a year for more than 10 years. You can see an index of the interviews here.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Ausma Zehanat Khan

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan first appeared on our radar with her crime fiction debut, The Unquiet Dead, introducing the handsome Esa Khattak and the sporty Rachel Getty. The two are partners in a special Canadian community policing unit dedicated to sensitive cases involving minority communities. In The Unquiet Dead, they tackle a case involving war criminals, Balkan ghosts, and the intersection of private and public suffering. In The Language of SecretsKhattak and Getty go undercover in a a mosque controlled by a charismatic leader suspected of planning a violent attack – and engaged to Khattak’s sister. In Khan’s third novel to feature the duo, Among the RuinsKhattak just wants to enjoy a nice vacation in Iran, but gets recruited by the Canadian secret service to look into the untimely death of a Canadian citizen and activist filmmaker. Ausma was kind enough to let us ask her a few questions about the series. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

“I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic.”

Molly Odintz: Rachel Getty is my favorite contemporary sidekick – she’s practical, sporty, and is always game to help Esa Khattak both with his assigned work and his efforts to outwit his superiors. She seems to be the average joe of the novel, intended to balance out Esa Khattak’s impressively erudite mind. Is she a Watson, to Esa’s Sherlock? Tell us about the dynamics between Rachel and Esa. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: That’s such a lovely compliment, thank you! Rachel is definitely Esa’s counterpoint, and her story is as important to the books as Esa’s is. I try to have these characters draw each other out, and to serve as foils for each other—I think Rachel is braver than Esa when it comes to personal conflicts and entanglements. She doesn’t always get things right, but she’s much more willing to take chances than he is, though both characters will continue to develop as they grow closer over time. I see Rachel as quite independent of Esa, and as an equal contributor to their crime-solving efforts. I think she also helps interpret Esa and humanize him to my readers.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Robin Yocum

A Welcome Murder, by Robin Yocum, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for April. The novel follows the quirky denizens of an industrial town as they plot against each other, their actions resulting in unpredictable and unintended consequences. Our reviewer Meike Alana caught up with Robin Yocum to ask him a few questions about his latest. 

  • Interview by Essential MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: This book is both hilariously funny yet at times dark and depraved. Did you set out to hit both of those marks (which you did brilliantly, by the way!)? Or did the book start out one way, and then you added elements of the other?

Robin Yocum: When I start writing, I don’t necessarily have a direction in mind. Once I have a premise for a story, I create the characters and let them interact. When the interaction is good, it’s like taking dictation. There are lots of conversations going on in my head, and sometimes the conversations are funny. I am admittedly my own best friend, and I’ll be sitting at the computer laughing along with my characters. The humor seems to appear naturally in their conversations. But, there also is situational humor, too. For example, Johnny Earl gets a new cell mate in prison and it’s this hulking white supremacist. How can there not be humor in the ensuing interactions? Smoochie Xenakis, the town door mat, suddenly thinks he is Vito Corleone. The situation calls for humor. There certainly are dark aspects of the book, such as Dena Marie trying to set her husband up for murder, but the ridiculousness of the premise is funny. She hasn’t thought it out or planned it. Rather, she’s trying to take advantage of the situation. I don’t want to write a book that is so dark and serious that I can’t inject humor. To me, the mixture of the two makes for a much better read, especially if you can surprise the reader.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Gregg Hurwitz

Interview by Scott

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels, most recently Don’t Look Back, You’re Next, The Survivor, and Tell No Lies. Gregg Hurwitz was a mainstay at the bookstore I worked in LA, so I’m excited to be hosting him at our store Sunday, September 7th at 4PM. I caught up with him for several questions about his latest, Don’t Look Back.


MysteryPeople: How did the idea for Don’t Look Back come about?

Gregg Hurwitz: I love the jungle. And having come off a string of Hitchcockian “domestic thrillers,” I wanted to write something where cell phones and cops and evidence played no role. Where an obstacle was an actual physical obstacle. A boulder that blew out a bridge. A band of sweeper ants that eat everything in their path. A tormenta (tropical storm) that dumps a meter of water a day.

MP: How did Eve come to be the protagonist?

GH: I knew I had to write a female protagonist (for the first time) because this character wouldn’t quit working on my brain. I wanted Eve Hardaway to come up against someone who was not just stronger than she was, but who was immensely more capable and menacing. Because this is an “Everywoman” thriller, it was essential that readers understand just how outgunned Eve is. This is a situation she might not make it out of alive. The “bad man” in pursuit of her has a unique set of skills, all of them geared toward tracking and killing people. Eve is a recently divorced single mother from Calabasas. Their views and priorities and strengths are worlds apart. So I threw them together in the jungle and recorded the mayhem. I always knew that Eve had a hidden reserve of strength that she’d have to dig deep to find. Perhaps that’s true for all of us.

MP: One thing that works well in the book is how you believable you make cutting off all the characters from contacting any sort of rescuers in a modern novel. Did you think it is still possible to be in the middle of nowhere and not be able to contact society?

GH: Thank you. And yes, I do! Because I actually went to the jungles of Oaxaca. And I was as cut off there as I’ve been anywhere in the world. Because I see my job as giving readers a front-row seat to the action, I try to experience what my characters do. So I went to  the humidity-drenched jungles, shot down Class IV white-water rafting runs, hiked through ruins, chased after giant snakes, and saw much of what Eve Hardaway encounters in the course of the book. My hope is that the reader can hear the thunder, feel the rain tapping their skin.

MP: What drew you to Mexico?

GH: I chose Mexico because 1. I love the jungle. 2. It was important for spoiler reasons that the jungle in this story is in close proximity to the US.

A perfect storm! Plus I got to drink mezcal. With worm salt. Mmmmm. Worm salt.

MP: You start out with what seems like a killer in the woods story set in the jungle, but the nature of the killer turns it into something else. What is your approach to the antagonist in your writing?

GH: Give him a strong personal motive and well-rounded world view. Early in my career, I stopped writing villains and started writing antagonists. As has been noted by many a writer, “The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy.” So giving him a rationale, or better yet, a rationale we can actually relate to? That’s engaging.

MP: What is your main goal when writing?

GH: To find beauty in darkness.


Gregg Hurwitz will be speaking and signing his latest novel, Don’t Look Back, Sunday, September 7, at 4 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of his new book on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A: DAVID MORELL

David Morrell has written several different kinds of books for over four decades. He gave the world John Rambo with First Blood, wrote one of the most memorable spy novels, The Brotherhood Of The Rose, and recently gave us Creepers, a thriller about urban explorers. His latest, Murder As Fine Art is a historical mystery dealing with Thomas De Quincey. BookPeople’s Joe Turner was able to ask Mr. Morell some questions about this novel and one about his personal favorite.

Joe Turner:  Thomas De Quincey is an extremely interesting and virtually unknown writer to today’s audience. I read somewhere recently that he has contributed the second most amount of words to the English language, that only Shakespeare has coined more words. What was it about this author that inspired you to devote not just a novel but a mystery novel to him? And what book of his would you most recommend to someone who has never read him?

David Morell: When I was in college many years ago, my Romanticism/Victorian professor relegated Thomas De Quincey to a footnote. I suspect that’s because De Quincey was the first person to write about drug addiction in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In his day, De Quincey was notorious because of that topic, and evidently he remained so to my professor. Only a chance reference to De Quincey in a film about Darwin’s nervous breakdown (Creation) reminded me of him. Someone says, “Charles, people such as De Quincey are saying that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions that we don’t know we have.” That sounded like Freud, but Freud came a half-century later. Curious, I started to research De Quincey and was amazed to find that he invented the word “subconscious” and investigated the nature of dreams in a way that may have inspired Freud. De Quincey invented the true-crime genre in the “Postscript” to his sensational essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” in which he described the Ratcliffe Highway murders, the subject of Murder as a Fine Art. De Quincey inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. He’s far more important than literary history acknowledges. The two titles to start with are the ones I mentioned.

JT: Was it a challenge to write about De Quincey and remember to not accidentally ascribe to him ideas that came from Freud and other psychologists who came much later in the 19th century?

DM: In the case of Freud, I didn’t need to worry because De Quincey anticipated him. Basically, though, every scene needed to be watched for anachronisms. At one point, a lock becomes an important plot point, and I almost described the lock from a modern perspective. But then I read a history of locks and discovered that locks at the time didn’t have doorknobs. Nor did they have levers that locked them from the inside. A key needed to be used to secure a door after it was closed. The lock mechanism wasn’t recessed into the door as is the case now. Instead a lock was bolted to the door, on the inside of the building. I spent two years on research. No exaggeration. I have shelves and shelves of books about Victorian life in London in the 1850s. I can even tell you how much a middle- or upper-class woman’s clothes weighed. An astonishing thirty-seven pounds because ten yards of satin were needed to cover the hooped dresses.

JT: At the same time you were telling the story of De Quincey, you were also telling the story of the origins of the modern police force. What were the inspirations for the characters of Detectives Ryan and Becker?

DM: Scotland Yard was founded in 1829. The detective division was founded in 1842. In 1854, when Murder as a Fine Art takes place, London’s police department was still relatively recent. Detective Inspector Ryan is an amalgam of several real-life detectives of the period. Becker, a young man who is trying to make a transition from patrolman to detective, is more my own invention. I enjoy situations in which an older man teaches a younger one. It was interesting to illustrate the crime-scene techniques of the period. Things we take for granted were innovative, such as making plaster casts of footprints and compiling a card catalogue about the physical characteristics of people who’d been arrested.

JT: The ending of the book seems to be left open for more books to come involving these characters. Can we expect more adventures of De Quincey in the future?  Has there been any interest into turning this book into a film?

DM: Nearly everyone who has read Murder as a Fine Art asked if there would be other novels about De Quincey. This caught me by surprise. I’ve written a few sequels (to The Brotherhood of the Rose, for example), but it’s not usual for me. I keep finding new characters that I want to write about. De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, have grabbed me, though. An editor said that it was as if I’d become a ventriloquist for De Quincey. It’s enough to make me believe in reincarnation. I’m almost finished with the second book, and Mulholland Books wants to bring it out, so it appears that I’ll be living in Victorian London a while longer.

JT: And, on a completely different note, are there any plans to reissue The Totem? It’s my favorite novel of yours and I’ve been trying to turn people onto it for a few years now after discovering it in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s 100 Greatest Horror Novels.

DM: I’m very pleased that you enjoy The Totem. At the time, the Washington Post called it one of the scariest books of the last 20 years. It was initially published in 1979. A drastically different version was published in 1993. The difference is explained by a disagreement that I had with my then-publisher. A severely edited version first appeared. Later, I had a chance to re-instate my original text. The 1993 version is still available in a gorgeous edition from Donald M. Grant, who did Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Its list price is $24.95. In 1993, that was costly. Now it’s a bargain, given the quality of the bookmaking. Both versions are combined in an e-book. I don’t put supernatural elements in my work, but the eerie mood has given me many fans in the horror community, to the point that I received 3 Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association. At the same time, I have a Thriller Master Award from International Thriller Writers, which proves that genres can be fluid. While Murder as a Fine Art is a historical mystery/thriller, those fogbound streets of 1854 London are moody enough that they could be considered as non-supernatural horror. The original Ratcliffe Highway murders certainly fit in that category.

MysteryPeople Q&A: Phillip Kerr

Philip Kerr’s latest novel, A Man Without Breath, has Bernie Gunther working for the war crimes department, looking into the massacre of Polish soldiers so it can be pinned on the Russians. When two German signal corps members are murdered, he is also asked to look into it, finding answers that would create more than a few enemies. This is a fascinating book about class and the “rules” of Nazi Germany and the sins a citizen carries for his country. We can’t wait to discuss it further with Phillip at his MysteryPeople signing event on April 25th at 7pm. Because we are so impatient, we had our first floor Inventory Manager Raul M. Chapa ask him a few questions to sate us before the event.

MysteryPeople: Bernie Gunther is a great character to follow; he is everything we would expect of a detective. What real or fictional detectives have served as a format for Bernie?
Philip Kerr: I don’t know that there are any detectives I’ve consciously used very much. Certainly not of late. In the beginning there was a little bit of Marlowe, but really no one else. With regard to Marlowe I had tried to imagine what kind of book Chandler would have written if after leaving school in England – he attended Dulwich College in South London – he had gone to live in Berlin instead of Los Angeles. In fact I think I am luckier than Chandler in that Berlin in the thirties and forties is so much more interesting that LA to write about; and let’s face it even Chandler thought that LA is as dull and uninteresting as a paper-cup. All he had to write about were a few crooked cops and dodgy mayors; I have the Third Reich. It makes for more interesting scenarios. Also I am only pretending to write crime and detectives; the real thrust of the books is politics. How is it possible to remain a committed and social democrat in a Nazi society? How can you work and stay alive if you are a leftish cop with a fascist boss? Can you keep your mouth shut when you see your country in the hands of your political enemies?

MP: Your use of actual historical events to move the story is fantastic. This story centers on the discovery of the bodies of Polish soldiers executed in the Katyn forest. How much research do you have to do to pin down what you want in your story?

PK: As always I do a lot of reading and then a lot of thinking. There was one detail of the Katyn Forest massacre that I discovered which hadn’t ever been noticed before and this transformed my research and my story. I discovered that the man who had ‘stumbled’ across the bones of a Polish officer in Katyn Wood and who set the whole investigation into motion was Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff. I wanted to know more about this man and soon discovered that this incredibly brave man had – at the time of the discovery of the mass grave – been closely involved in two attempts to kill Hitler in as many months. In the second attempt, he planned to detonate two landmines in his coat pockets as he gave Hitler a personal guided tour of Berlin’s Zeughaus – the Arsenal. It was one research detail that informed everything else.

MP: Bernie always has a love interest; things usually work out for a while in the story, but he seems to have trouble with long term relationships. Is this something you see, as a writer, that would need addressing, or will Bernie always be alone?

PK: I think it is existentially necessary that the detective should remain alone. A cosy domesticity is unthinkable as a milieu for a character like Gunther. It just doesn’t work. And that kind of thing doesn’t interest me. Being alone entails angst which is a very necessary mental state for a good detective. I could go on about The Other and Sartre’s idea of peeping through a keyhole being the essence of describing someone else and these are certainly important facets of what being a literary detective involve. I also like the idea of Bernie as an absurd figure – also existential. What could be more absurd than having a left-leaning detective working for the Nazis. And by the way the Nazis used left-leaning people all the time. Heinrich Muller, the chief of the Gestapo was a former communist; he never even joined the Nazi party; it may even be that he was a Russian spy all along. There in essence is what Bernie is all about.

MP: One of the best aspects of Bernie’s character is his willingness to be blunt about things that someone, at least with an ounce of sense, would not want to bring up before Nazis or suspects. How does this make him, in your opinion, a better detective that what you read in contemporary fiction?

PK: I don’t care for a lot of contemporary detective writing. I don’t care whodunit. I don’t care about policemen in my own country. They don’t interest me in the slightest. I can’t see the point of a lot of it. I find the stories lack ambition. It’s of no interest to me if Inspector Bloggs drinks a lot and investigates crime in wherever. Such a novel provides no opportunity for what I call the operatic echo. I like a story to mean something in a larger context and the Nazis can always be guaranteed to provide this.

Bernie’s humor is a political act and his one opportunity for true resistance. It also marks him out as a typical Berliner: Berliners are a little like the English – maybe that’s we like it so much there – in that their humor is anarchic, cruel, black. In some ways Berliners are ungovernable which is why Hitler – and before him Bismarck and the Kaiser – disliked Berliners so much. They are capable of revolution in a way other Germans never were. That is still true today. If you own an expensive car and leave it parked somewhere inappropriate in Berlin today you are quite likely to have it torched as a political act against ‘gentrification’. In 2011 almost 400 cars were burnt in this way.

MP: If you could trade places with Bernie, actually live within the historical events he finds himself in, would you want to?
PK: No. I would hate to live in Nazi Germany. Perhaps for a day or two. But I would find it horrifying to see anti-Semitism practised on a daily basis. That’s the point of the books. This is not to say I don’t like going to Germany. I love modern Germany. Could I live there? Yes, although I’d prefer to live in Munich.

MP: Going by the years that document Bernie Gunther’s life, the books from Berlin Noir to this new book, it feels like we are approaching the end of the story. Do you have plans to continue stories of his life beyond WWII? If so, what do you see in Bernie’s future after the Nazis are gone?

PK: I already did what you ask. Book 3 is mostly set in 1947. Book 4 is set in 1948. I think I got up to 1954 before I turned around and looked back and thought I could pull off a few stories that take place during the war. A lot depends on sources. When I first started writing – back in the mid 1980s – there was very little information about domestic life in Germany. Now there is a ton. Then I had to stick to 1936 because that year was pretty well documented for obvious reasons. However, I don’t know how many more books I can write about this subject. It’s difficult spending time with the Nazis. I always feel like I need to take a shower whenever I finish a Bernie Gunther book.