Retro

by Loren D. Estleman

Published by Forge

304 pages, 2004



 

 

 

 The Amos Walker Series:

Motor City Blue (1980)

Angel Eyes (1981)

The Midnight Man (1982)

The Glass Highway (1983)

Sugartown (1984)

Every Brilliant Eye (1986)

Lady Yesterday (1987)

Downriver (1988)

General Murders (1988) -- short stories

Silent Thunder (1989)

Sweet Women Lie (1990)

Never Street (1997)

The Witchfinder (1998)

The Hours of the Virgin (1999)

A Smile on the Face of the Tiger (2000)

Sinister Heights (2002)

Poison Blonde (2003)

Retro (2004)

For a complete list of Estleman's works, refer to his Web site.

 

 

 

 

 

"By the time of the first Amos Walker, Motor City Blue, I'd read a great many writers who had been influenced by the American [detective fiction] school, and had seen most of the motion pictures based on the work of its founders. A thing like that will play its part. But I credit my writing style, which is very visual, more to my art training than anything else. You don't get more hard-boiled than Goya."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parents, be warned: Childhood influences really can last a lifetime. Just look at what happened to Loren D. Estleman. As a boy growing up in rural Whitmore Lake, Michigan, outside of Detroit, he habitually sneaked downstairs in his family home to watch The Untouchables on television, when he should have been sleeping. More than four decades later, Estleman still has a fond eye for mobsters and molls and other low-grade malefactors, only now he's calling the shots, writing such characters into private-eye tales that can be as engrossing as Eliot Ness' adventures, but boast a punchier line of patter.

It's impossible not to recognize the cadences of America's hard-boiled detective traditions in this author's novels -- 17 of them so far, including the new Retro -- that feature cynical, computer-illiterate and lone-wolf Detroit P.I. Amos Walker. Here, for instance, is Walker preparing for his workday, in Sinister Heights (2002):

I got out of the robe and into the shower, scraped off the Cro-Magnon growth of the night, put on a fresh suit from the cleaners, and drove to the office, where I sat around making a good impression on the walls until the telephone rang at ten.

Or consider the gumshoe's description, in Poison Blonde (2003), of his car -- which suggests at least as much about Walker's resilience amid the steady passage of time as it tells you about vintage Detroit rolling stock:

I climbed under the wheel of the venerable Cutlass and tickled the big plant into bubbling life. I'd replaced the carburetor recently, steam-cleaned the engine, and yanked the antipollution equipment I'd had installed to clear my last inspection. The body was battered, the blue finish broken down to powder, and thirty blistering Michigan summers and marrow-freezing lake effect winters had cracked the vinyl top, but I could hose Japan off the road in a head wind.

Although some critics might dismiss this first-person, wisecracking narrative style as old-fashioned ("not especially original," Mike Ashley writes of the Walker outings in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction), the three-time Shamus Award-winning Estleman is no slavish imitator of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and their fellow Black Mask alumni. Sure, Amos Walker drinks and smokes with scant concern for his health, and he regularly makes the mistake of standing too close to goons with knuckles bigger than their brains -- all of which are staples of American P.I. fiction, along with the protagonist's luckless love life (Walker has an ex-wife and too few girlfriends). But at least he acknowledges being a politically incorrect anachronism in the 21st century, which allows for some colorful introspection in these books. And over the last 24 years, since the roll-out of his first Walker novel, Motor City Blue, Estleman has not only been honing this series' prose, but infusing it with a melancholy appreciation for Detroit that almost makes the reader look back nostalgically on the belching smokestacks and clattering assembly lines that once made the city of Henry Ford and Joe Lewis great. The results speak for themselves. While Estleman was neither the first nor the most enthusiastically received writer breaking into the detective-fiction market during the late 1970s and early 80s, he's one of the few who continues in the game.

Although he was born in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1952, Estleman grew up in Whitmore Lake -- remarkably, in an 1867 farmhouse right across the street from where he now lives with his second wife, fellow mystery novelist Deborah Morgan (The Marriage Casket, The Weedless Widow). Early on, he considered a career in art, but wound up graduating from Eastern Michigan University in 1974 with a degree in English Literature and Journalism. Over the next six years, he worked as a newspaper reporter and, on his own time, wrote fiction -- something he'd been doing ever since his teens. His first book was published in 1976: The Oklahoma Punk, a historical crime novel based on the violent life of a 1930s Midwest gangster. Estleman saw six more novels -- three western historicals and a pair of offbeat Sherlock Holmes adventures (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, 1978, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, 1979) -- published before Motor City Blue made it to print in 1980.

The novel received some favorable notices; New York Times critic Newgate Callendar called it "expertly written," while rival fictionist Robert B. Parker described Blue as "skillfully plotted in the Chandler manner." However, Walker didn't seem all that different from the slew of other tough, smart-aleck sleuths being introduced around the same time (both in print and on television). A 32-year-old Vietnam War veteran and ex-military policeman with a bachelor's degree in sociology, who'd once tried to become a city cop, only to find that "it wasn't for me," Walker tried a bit too assiduously to live up to his publicity as "Detroit's answer to Sam Spade" -- right down to the side-of-the-mouth dialogue and the fedora (which, thankfully, he soon gave up). Nonetheless, Estleman felt confident enough about his own future, and Amos', to become a full-time author.

That faith has since been rewarded. The Walker books have racked up a spate of professional commendations over the last two decades, plus other award nominations on both sides of the Atlantic, and Estleman is now sought after to blurb the works of wannabe mystery writers in the same way that Parker once blurbed Motor City Blue. This year's entry in the Walker series, Retro -- which finds able Amos looking for the long-missing son of a whorehouse madam and trying to solve the 1949 shooting death of a black heavyweight boxing champ who'd been close (maybe too close) to a white Hollywood starlet -- moved the San Diego Union-Tribune to declare that "nobody does the hard-boiled private eye novel better than Loren D. Estleman."

Yet this author is too prolific to put all of his eggs in Walker's basket. In 1984 he launched a second crime-related series, this one featuring Peter Macklin, an average sort of guy who also happens to be a professional hit man. Macklin's debut, in Kill Zone, has been followed by three sequels, including Something Borrowed, Something Black (2002), which found the 44-year-old assassin quitting the mob and honeymooning with his 21-year-old blond bride, Laurie, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately (though as you might expect), Macklin's work gets in the way of their post-wedding bliss. Estleman's bent toward mysteries, combined with his fondness for old movies, has also produced a number of short stories starring a film archivist and amateur sleuth, Valentino.

Some of Estleman's finest work, though, is done in the field of western historical fiction. His 1979 novel,The High Rocks, premiered the character of Page Murdock, an Old West lawman who doesn't abide too strictly by the laws. This series -- the most recent installment of which, Port Hazard, came out earlier this year -- are really detective yarns dolled up with chaps and six-guns and scofflaws who probably bathe less often than their modern counterparts. With the Murdock books, as well as several standalone works (including Billy Gashade, 1997, and The Master Executioner, 2001), Estleman is following a pattern of crime novelists who've crossed over to pen westerns. Less expected were the seven mainstream novels (from Whiskey River, 1990, through Thunder City, 1999) that make up this author's intriguing and frequently powerful "Detroit Series." The idea was to explore, in fiction, the high- and low-lights of Motown's past, including its role in Prohibition-era rum-running, its tormented history of race and labor relations, and its seminal role in U.S. car manufacturing. Few American wordsmiths have spent as much time researching and illuminating the heritage of their hometowns as Estleman has devoted to bringing Detroit's heritage to life on the printed page.

Shortly after the release of Retro, the 51-year-old Estleman and I concluded an epistolary interview that covered his early life and authorship, Amos Walker's evolution as a character, the relative rewards of concocting crime fiction and westerns, his love-hate relationship with Detroit and why he's written more than 50 novels so far on a manual typewriter.

 

J. Kingston Pierce: First, let's talk a little about your growing-up. I hear you were reared on a farm. Was this a working farm? Did you have to milk cows, collect chicken eggs and the rest?

Loren D. Estleman: The farm was subsistence, a cornfield and a large vegetable garden; my mother's canning got us through many a Michigan winter. No cattle, but at various times we kept chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits, which kept my brother and me busy after school. I drove a tractor before I learned to ride a bike.

I read on your Web site that your father, Leauvett "Lutz" Estleman, was "disabled" when you were growing up, and that your mother, Louise, had to work to support the family. What happened to your dad, and how did that influence you?

My father's right retina became detached when the crank handle on an old garden tractor bucked and struck him over the right eye. He retired from truck driving and my mother went to work for the post office, where she retired at age 67. The accident took place in l960, when I was 8. At that point my brother and I took on adult responsibilities to help support the family.

You have only the one sibling, right?

I have an older brother, Charles. He's a private person and I only mention him publicly in regard to his extensive knowledge of firearms and automobiles, which has helped me greatly in getting those details right. (My track record is better with guns than with cars. I get angry letters from gearheads, usually stained with Valvoline.) I've dedicated a book or two to him in gratitude. We're quite close.

It's said that you once aspired to be a painter. What was behind that career dream?

I studied art for l2 years. I had a talent in that direction, but I didn't know how small it was until my third year of college, when I saw what my fellow students were doing and that I couldn't compete. I'd been submitting stories to magazines since age l5, and writing became more than just my fallback. There I felt I could excel.

Do you still dabble in painting or other arts?

The split-personality logo on my Web site, stationery, and on the covers and title pages of my books is my last serious attempt at graphic art, if you can call that serious. I gave up painting in l976, when my first book was published. I needed the time to write.

After you left college, you worked as a photographer and reporter for several small-town Michigan newspapers. Do you look back on that period with any fondness?

I worked on newspapers to pay bills and to sharpen my writing and broaden my experience. I don't miss the work, but I'm grateful for its part in my growth as a writer and as a person. The highlight and my worst experience were one and the same. I published a sheriff's department report of the arrest of a disturbed l6-year-old who dressed up in combat fatigues and fire-bombed automobiles from the second story of his mother's house. I was taping up the front page in the window of the newspaper office when the young man came in, wearing fatigues and what looked like live hand grenades on his belt, and asked if I'd written the article. I feigned ignorance. He paused -- at the time it seemed like a week -- then asked for six copies. A few weeks later he burned down his house with his mother still inside.

I've heard that you wrote your first novel, The Oklahoma Punk [later retitled Red Highway], while you were supposed to be paying attention in a college class on Elizabethan poetry. Is that right? And how did you ever get away with it?

I hate the title The Oklahoma Punk; that was the publisher's idea, and I've struck that clause out of every contract it's shown up in since. Much of that Depression-era gangster novel was written during my Elizabethan Poetry class, yes. In that place and at that time, students were treated as adults and got the education they deserved. I got a damn good one, but then I was motivated; except in that class, which was deadly dull, as dull as any subject can be when the person teaching it is less than enthusiastic. (I aced the course through outside reading.)

Punk was historical fiction, based on the real-life gangster Wilbur Underhill. Can you tell me why you chose him as the subject for your first novel?

Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were taken. I grew up with a fascination for old-time gangsters, bootlegged into me by way of my mother, who dated a member of the Purple Gang before she met my father, and my father, who drank what the Purples were selling. Underhill was a great study, robbing banks and escaping from prisons throughout the Midwest for a dozen years until he was shot to pieces in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in l933. Dillinger lasted l8 months.

I read recently that you had some other second-hand association with gangsters. Didn't your grandmother know Al Capone? How did she happen to be acquainted with the notorious Scarface?

My grandmother, a world-class professional cook, was also a gifted gambler. While living in Chicago, she frequented Al Capone's casinos. My mother's first babysitters were the dealers there, who were most conscientious in looking out for her. Her earliest memory is of a man patrolling a balcony with a submachine gun.

How many rejections did you endure before The Oklahoma Punk finally found a publisher? And were you working feverishly on other books while you waited?

I collected l60 rejection slips (plays, stories, articles, novels) before I sold that first book. While I was peddling it, I wrote a 628-page novel about Ivan the Terrible. It's still holding up the short leg of a table in my study.

After Punk, you started writing both detective and western fiction. Were you really aching to do both as a career, or had you not yet decided which genre fit you best?

I never gave any thought to writing in genre. It so happened I was good at writing about violent death.

In the late 1970s, you came out with a couple of Sherlock Holmes pastiches -- one in which the Great Detective battles Dracula, the other in which he confronts Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr. Hyde. Where did those ideas come from?

Sherlock Holmes was going through a fresh surge of popularity when I wrote Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, thanks to Nicholas Meyer's Seven-Per-Cent Solution; but years before, in junior high, I had written and drawn a comic book about Holmes and Dracula. The characters were contemporaries, so the match-ups seemed natural. (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula has never been out of print since it first appeared in l978.) I think from time to time about doing another book-length pastiche, but mostly I keep my hand in contributing stories to Holmesian collections, when invited.

What, if anything, did you learn about writing detective fiction by playing in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary sandbox?

Most of the detective engineering in the stories isn't applicable to today. What I know about police procedure, I learned as a police reporter. The greatest part of it is common sense.

So, which is your favorite Holmes story?

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band." The sleuthing holds up, and the suspense and the villain are extremely satisfying. It's the model of a good detective story.

If you found yourself somehow transported back in time to meet Conan Doyle, what would you most like to know from him?

I would probably ask Sir Arthur how the creator of the most pragmatic character in literary history could be so taken in by phony spiritualists of the type that still exists on sleazy television shows. Or likely not. The man was a gentleman and entitled to the same cordial treatment he gave others, as well as to his personal obsessions. Lord knows I have enough of my own.

And those would be ...?

Reading, collecting rare books and phonograph records, browsing antiques shops and adding to my huge collection of vintage typewriters. To name a few.

Let's talk for a moment about your two most recent Amos Walker novels, last year's Poison Blonde and the newly released Retro. Every novel starts with an inspiration of some sort. What was yours for Poison Blonde? And did you approach that book -- about a flashy young Latino singer who hires Walker to find the woman from whom she's stolen her stage name -- with an interest in the international politics it involved, or only in the cover-up and crimes that ensued from those politics?

As with most of my books, Poison Blonde started out with a title. I'd thought then to apply it to a Madonna-type character. To blur the distinction, I rolled in a little Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayak, and before I knew it, I was off on a tour of the Latino music phenomenon. The original idea was to explore the nature of celebrity in the age of Instant Me. Politics added the kind of wicked edge that adapts so well to an Amos Walker story. Whenever you turn your lens on entertainment, you can't help but include politics. It's all part of the same show.

What are the most important components of any Walker novel, both to satisfy the reader and to satisfy you? And how did Poison Blonde fulfill those requirements?

Detroit comes first. When I begin thinking Amos Walker, I turn the city to a new angle and think how I can showcase it. The theme of Poison Blonde gave me the chance to explore Mexicantown, the latest and fastest-growing addition to the city's rich ethnic mix. Of course, there must be a murder mystery. Walker has to stumble over at least one corpse, dance his tightrope ballet between the cops and the crooks, and undergo a certain amount of physical punishment. Every writer follows some kind of formula, going back to Shakespeare, who had to please Queen Elizabeth and the groundlings at one and the same time. It's what you do with the formula that counts, and how far you can subvert it without overthrowing it entirely.

While I enjoyed Poison Blonde, in general, the pages really seemed to catch fire whenever singer Gilia Cristobal walked into a scene. Did you consciously enjoy her as a character? And what made her special to you?

Yeah, I like Gilia. Femmes fatales are the saving grace of American suspense fiction. They make up the rules as they go. They tend to be self-made women. Strong, independent women are a running theme in my work.

You said that your conception of Gilia melded Madonna with J-Lo and the lovely Ms. Hayak. But I kept thinking you saw her as Christina Aguilera.

You're not the first to suggest that. The embarrassing truth is I wasn't aware of Aguilera when I started the book. Now I think she'd be ideal for the role.

By the way, I expected the gruff Amos and the glitzy Gilia to become intimately involved, if only for a short period. Was that ever in the cards? Amos could sure use some female companionship.

I've always been reticent about getting Walker laid. It's such a cliché in this form, and writing sex scenes is almost as boring as reading them. Every now and then -- say, every third or fourth book -- he gets lucky; it's the law of averages. But I'm not his pimp.

Did Retro also start out with the title? And how did that lead to the rest of your story?

Retro did come to me first. ... In this case, it referred to the two vintage cases that fell into Walker's lap, one from 1968, the other from 1949. He has to go all the way back to the earlier murder to solve the current one. The line, "Backward is the new forward," explains the title choice; it has nothing to do with Walker or his methods.

Something that's struck me about your recent Walker books is how you've resurrected characters we haven't seen much of (if at all) since Motor City Blue. In Sinister Heights we got Iris Chapin. In Retro, it's Beryl Garnet and Ben Morningstar. Are these just fun reminders for your loyal readers, or are you growing nostalgic for the roots of your own best-known series?

I've created some good meaty characters over the years. Some are one-shots, while others have the legs to appear again. When a character slot appears in a new book and can be filled by someone I've already developed, I see no need to start over from scratch. People are always moving in and out of other people's lives; allowing them to do that with regard to Walker underscores his reality. Series that never revisit earlier territory tend to have a stale, canned feel, like episodic TV.

Which other character from the Walker series would you most like to resurrect in some future novel?

I honestly don't know until a slot opens up.

Have you considered giving Canadian P.I. Llewellyn Hale, who helps Walker in Retro, a novel of his own someday? He's a contrast, in many ways, to Amos. It might be an interesting challenge to follow him through a criminal case sometime.

I wouldn't burn that bridge, but as of now he's fulfilled his purpose.

I understand that you hadn't read Raymond Chandler's work before writing your first Amos Walker novel. Had you read other American crime fictionists?

At one point I immersed myself in a careful study of some of the most famous detective writers, including Christie, Queen, Stout, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Earl Derr Biggers and others. You'll notice this list is strong on cozy and weak on hard-boiled. I wasn't aware of the distinction then, and truth to tell, I don't see it now; Christie was a bloodthirsty old dame. By the time of the first Amos Walker, Motor City Blue, I'd read a great many writers who had been influenced by the American school, and had seen most of the motion pictures based on the work of its founders. A thing like that will play its part. But I credit my writing style, which is very visual, more to my art training than anything else. You don't get more hard-boiled than Goya.

Your Walker series has often been compared, at least on its surface, with Chandler's work. Do you think that's right or reasonable? And in what ways do you think your fiction best compares?

Chandler is the gold standard, and any comparison is welcome. He and I share an infatuation with literary imagery and the rogue verb, things I use just as extensively in my historical westerns and mainstream standalones, where the comparison is never made. Since we both happen to have written stories involving private eyes, the connections were bound to be made. They're made between Elmore Leonard and Chandler, and two more different writers never existed. Lately, some reviewers have begun comparing others' work to mine, which means either I've arrived at last or I'm on my way to the slagheap.

Was there any one novel that convinced you to take up the writing of detective fiction yourself?

You know what inspired me to create Amos Walker? Robert Mitchum's performance in the [1975] movie Farewell, My Lovely. At that time, I hadn't read Chandler, but the bluesy, shabby-romantic style of Dick Richards' direction -- the perfect visualization of Chandler's prose -- knocked me over like whiskey neat. It's still the best adaptation of Chandler, bar none.

Dare I ask what you thought of Elliott Gould's own turn as Philip Marlowe, in The Long Goodbye [1973]?

It was awful, but that wasn't Elliott Gould's fault. It was a job, and he brought the tools he was comfortable with. Robert Altman's hackery doomed the picture from the start. Apart from McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he's never directed anything I could sit through for more than 10 minutes. That includes M*A*S*H, and especially Nashville, the Plan 9 from Outer Space of music-industry exposés.

How do you think your Walker novels have evolved over the last two decades? And do you see Walker in the same way now that you once did?

Walker's aged, as I have, and if we've not exactly mellowed, we've seasoned. Neither of us is as brash or self-confident as we once were. We're a little more careful about inviting blows, since we don't bounce back as quickly as back in the day. But we're more convinced than ever that the world really is black and white, good and evil, and that all you have to do is examine a situation closely enough to see which camp is represented. Most often, in life as in fiction, it's the bad guys who talk about gray areas. We're also more tolerant these days, if for no other reason than we're more aware of our own shortcomings.

Hmm. We're living at a time when simplistic separations between black and white, good and evil, threaten to be exploited in the most dubious of manners -- as justification for strangling political dissent, launching "preventative" military attacks and even justifying crimes such as the murders of doctors who perform abortions. Can we really afford to dismiss the gray areas between black and white, right and wrong?

A lot of evil people down through history have used the Bible to justify their depredations. That doesn't indict the Bible. It's a belief in gray areas, and the people who sold the modern world on them, that made us the victim of terrorists.

Which of the Walker novels has been the hardest for you to write? And what made it so difficult?

The Hours of the Virgin, which is also the best. The time had come to draw the last veil from the mystery involving his partner/mentor's murder, which meant an adept use of flashback and just enough torment on Walker's part to engage reader sympathy without drowning him in bathos. Early in the series, editors wanted me to spill everything about his early life. If I hadn't resisted, the series would have played itself out long ago. I'm proud of how I carried it off.

You're only 51 years old, with your next birthday coming up on September l5. Can you see yourself still writing Walker novels for the next 20 or 30 years?

I feel young and at the top of my game. I intend to write about Walker as long as we can still stomach each other.

If you could do it all over again, would you change something about your original conception of Amos or his world?

I foresee a time when I'll regret having established Walker as a Vietnam vet. When I wrote Blue, I was 28, he was 32. Now I'm 51 and he's somewhere in his 40s. Heroes age on a sliding scale, but unless the earth decides to stop revolving around the sun, as a former GI with a tour in Southeast Asia, he's going to wind up having to pack an oxygen tank with his .38.

So what comes next for Amos? You must have another installment of the series due out next year. Can you tell me something about the plot of that book?

I'm only seven pages into it at this point. ... I may go on with it, or tear it up and make another start. Too early to tell. If I die leaving seven pages (or 70), and some whore publisher hires a hack to finish out the book in my name, I'll come back and boil them both with festering frogs.

All of the Walker novels, and a number of your historical works, are set in Detroit. A lot has changed there over the last quarter-century. But do you have good memories of the city? Was it a place that you visited a lot in your younger days?

I only saw Detroit a couple of times when I was small. During college I went there on a field trip with a journalism class, and was struck by the devastation: derelict cars, weedy empty lots, bums sacked out on the sidewalk (we hadn't gotten around to calling them "homeless" yet) and a big Chamber of Commerce billboard advising me to TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT DETROIT. That was the true genesis of the Amos Walker series, years before I dreamed up the character.

You still don't live too far outside of Detroit. What's the current state of your relationship with the Motor City?

I live an hour west of Detroit. I love and hate the city, which of course you must do in more or less equal measure to write about a place convincingly. One critic -- this line is quoted often -- said that the Detroit Chamber of Commerce should pay Estleman not to write about Detroit. That's harsh, as I've had a great deal positive to say about the city, particularly the heart of its people; but from the start I rebelled against the local TV stations' rah-rah attitude, as if they were employed by the tourism council. They have a lot to answer for. Detroit has a spectacular past and a promising future. Getting [Mayor] Coleman Young out of office was a start. Drive down Woodward [Avenue] today and you'll see the fabulous Fox and State theaters, the library, the Detroit Institute of Arts, construction going on everywhere. To turn itself around, a city depends on a three-way coalition involving government, the citizenry and the philanthropic rich. Young's adversarial relationship with the wealthy suburbs alienated those who were in the best position to help. Now, they're pumping money into the place, and city hall is cooperating with them and the local residents who are dedicated to cleaning and fixing up the neighborhoods.

A lot of people -- mostly those who've never lived there, of course -- say that there's no future for Detroit, that it's the most rusted-out of Rust Belt towns. How do you respond? And how do you see the city being revived or reinvented?

The casinos were a wrong turn. They breed crime and graft and produce nothing but profits for themselves that don't go back into the community. But the city is too great not to survive them, as it did the riots, the murder-city years and 20 years of an administration best described as jaw-droppingly corrupt.

For someone who's just visiting Detroit, which places should they not miss? Taking the opposite tack, what's the most overrated thing about the town?

Don't leave Detroit without putting aside two full days to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. You'll see the chair [Abraham] Lincoln was shot in, Thomas Edison's workshop, the bicycle shop where the Wright brothers conducted their first experiments in heavier-than-air flight, and thousands of other wonders of American history and industry the Smithsonian doesn't have. Ignore the Renaissance Center and Comerica Park. Bad architecture and corporate meddling in organized sports hardly need your encouragement.

You told a lot about Mexicantown in Poison Blonde. You sound enthusiastic about the influx of Hispanics into Detroit, and how they're enlivening at least a part of that city. Or am I misreading cynicism as optimism?

When I'm cynical, you know it; irony isn't a subtle technique. Mexicantown is a prime example of how a group of new immigrants can take a slum and turn it into a thriving community. From its founding, Detroit has renewed itself time and again with the sweat and blood of ethnic pioneers.

You've written about Detroit at various stages of its development, from the Prohibition period right up to today. If you could pick any era in which to live in the city, what would it be? And how would you want to be spending your days there?

If I were to pick a time to live in Detroit, it would be during the l920s when the place was growing so fast you couldn't keep it in shoes. A dozen major department stores, scores of dance clubs, gangsters parading around in their bulletproof Cadillacs -- what more could a writer want? Everyone I've interviewed who was young then has a big fat grin on his face when he talks about it. I think I'd like to be a tabloid reporter, like Connie Minor in Whiskey River -- conversant with the high and low, the bright and the profane; ready to accept a drink and a slap on the back from racketeers, tough cops and the patriarchs of the auto industry by night, and to hammer it all out on a battered Royal by day, never missing a deadline.

You wrote once that the protagonist in a novel need not be sympathetic, but merely interesting. Surely, many novelists would disagree. How do you defend that position?

No, I won't be drawn out on so narrow an interpretation of character. No real writer ever said protagonists must be sympathetic. Some critics have, but being paid to put words on paper doesn't make you a writer.

When I went on record saying a protagonist need merely be interesting to hold the reader's attention, I was referring specifically to Peter Macklin, my other Detroit protagonist. He's a killer. Of course

Do you not find Walker sympathetic, to some degree? He's a lumbering dinosaur of sorts, who isn't particularly pleased with the changes occurring all around him. Surely that merits some sympathy, doesn't it?

Walker's sympathetic. He freely acknowledges the changes taking place around him; if he didn't, you wouldn't know they were there. He embraces some, is ironic about others. He's never condemned a single thing other than injustice, and even then only of a specific and localized type. He's a good guy; and in most of his adventures he's the good guy.

Amos Walker was part of the 1980s "renaissance" in American private-eye fiction. Other relatively hard-boiled private eyes from that same period -- Arthur Lyons' Jacob Asch, Jonathan Valin's Harry Stone and Benjamin M. Schutz's Leo Haggerty -- have all disappeared. Yet Walker survives. Is that because of you or because of him?

I flatter myself by laying claim, with a grateful nod to Art Lyons, Robert Parker and Marcia Muller, who were tilling a fairly barren field when I created Walker, to having sparked the private-eye renaissance. Certainly I was one of the first to base his detective somewhere other than on one of the two coasts. Everyone else you mentioned ... came after me. I knock wood whenever I talk about Walker's endurance. Valin, Schutz and the others are terrific writers, so I can't claim just quality as the secret. I am a stubborn old crock; whenever a publisher went cold, I walked, and battered doors until someone let me and Walker in. Incidentally, my two-book contract with Forge [which produced Poison Blonde and Retro] was the first in the series' history. It was always one book and an option on the next. Walker may be the longest-surviving character ever accepted on consignment. They're never sure they want him hanging around, and while they're still deciding, he's moved in and raided the liquor cabinet.

Is it fair to say that you respect the traditions of detective fiction? If so, why did you decide to spoof the genre with your 1989 standalone, Peeper, which starred sleazy P.I. Ralph Poteet? Did you just need a break from being serious all the time?

I enjoy the traditions, but never considered them sacred. I'd wanted to present the other side of the Walker coin for years, and to test myself with my first deliberate attempt to write humor. There's plenty of humor in my writing, but it bubbles up unexpectedly. Setting out to make people laugh was a challenge I couldn't resist, and since I've received more than 200 enthusiastic letters from fans for that one book, I think I succeeded. The only negative response came from some splenetic critics and a reader protesting the book's treatment of the Catholic Church, but recent events have obliterated the point he wanted to make.

Have you considered penning another humorous detective novel?

I'm often asked if I'll ever do a sequel to Peeper. Apart from reviving the character in a story that appeared in the third Flesh and Blood anthology [Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin, 2003], I've just never had the time.

How do you answer critics who say that the Walker series is too beholden to private-eye conventions, that it isn't breaking new ground in the field?

Breaking new ground is important in building construction, but if you make a habit of it in writing, you'll burn out long before your reputation. I've done quite a bit to make an old form relevant to a changing world, which is more than I can say for those hidebound types who think the genre began and ended with Dashiell Hammett. The problem with staying on the cutting edge is it gets dull quickly.

You had only five Walker books under your belt when you decided to begin another Detroit series, this one featuring hit man Peter Macklin. What did you hope to accomplish with that second series? And what satisfactions does Macklin give you that Walker can't?

I wanted to present a character study of the kind of man who kills professionally. Before Macklin, every hit man in fiction seemed to be either an unfeeling psychopath or a drooling sadist. You don't need those tics to show evil. The very act of reducing murder to a nine-to-five job is sufficient. This is a job where a man commits homicide, tosses the weapon, goes home to his family, has supper, reads the paper and goes to bed, and never talks about his work. Beyond that, the satisfaction is in blocking out the movements of a character who would kill another human being as soon as look at him, without thought. It's very refreshing after having to deal with the complexities of Amos Walker's ethic.

The Walker books are written in first-person, while the Macklins are in third-person. Do you prefer one of these approaches over the other?

The book and the protagonist dictate the perspective. Third-person subjective provides a cool distance between the reader and Macklin, which, careful killer that he is, he prefers. It makes us stand a little apart, remaining privy to his actions without participating in them directly. First-person is the natural way of telling a story, and although some writers find it restricting because so much action must take place off the page, I find that a challenge. It's also subtly powerful. Killing King Duncan offstage in Macbeth was one of the best ideas Shakespeare ever had. On the other hand, multiple perspective allows me to abandon one plot thread and jump to another when I get bored.

Believe it or not, I've met people who insist they cannot read books in which the protagonist is ostensibly a "bad guy," like Macklin.

I respect that. I don't like books in which cats solve mysteries. So I don't read them.

You wrote the first three Macklin books in quick succession, beginning with Kill Zone, but then let the character languish for 15 years before coming back with the wonderful Something Borrowed, Something Black. Why such a lag?

I'd exhausted the possibilities for angst. Macklin had dealt with his deteriorating marriage and his relationship with his son; things millions of ordinary husbands and fathers have to face, exacerbated in his case by his choice of professions. I didn't want the series to deteriorate into an Executioner-type saga, with a soaring body count and numbers on the covers to prevent readers from accidentally reading the same book twice. But after 15 years, it occurred to me that he might have remarried, to a much younger woman who didn't know his past. That opened up a whole new world of complications.

Having reintroduced Macklin to the reading public, are you planning more installments of that series?

Little Black Dress will be published by Forge in the spring of 2005. Macklin gets to meet his mother-in-law.

Do you read much detective fiction these days, and who do you see as up-and-coming talents?

A lot of stuff is sent to me for comment, and my wife prods me to get my nose out of dead authors and read who's out there now. T. Jefferson Parker is a very strong contender, and I just discovered the fine work of William Kent Krueger. Laurie King is doing some nice things with Sherlock Holmes. Eddie Muller's hard-boiled l940s novels about a boxing columnist are first-rate, with covers I'd kill for. There are a lot of astonishing newcomers boiling about.

There's been such an explosion of crime fiction over the last 25 years. What do think have been the good and the bad results of that?

The good is not a result of how many new crime novels are out there, but in their popularity. It means job security, but it also indicates there is a large intelligent readership that's fed up with Nicholas Sparks and the other tree-killers who live on the national bestseller lists. I can't think of a downside, except maybe that too many bad writers have drifted in with the tide, but I blame their editors for that.

I want to ask more about your historical "Detroit Series," which began with Whiskey River and has continued all the way through Thunder City. If I remember correctly, those are all standalones (save for the two installments that feature Connie Minor), each of the books exploring a different phase of the city's physical and criminal development. Did you originally conceive of these books making up a series? And are they designed as much for your enjoyment -- giving you the opportunity for time-travel and historical research -- as they are intended to please readers interested in solidly composed crime fiction?

It began as a trilogy -- Whiskey River, Motown [1991], King of the Corner [1992] -- and went to seven books when I realized how much good material there was in the decades I hadn't visited. The immediate intention was to land a blockbuster contract that would pay for the house I was building at the time. They're standalones, but you'll notice some of the same characters keep appearing, as young men and sometimes infants in the books set earlier and as old people later; Minor also had a cameo in Jitterbug [1998]. They gave me the chance to smuggle mainstream in through the genre fire door, to spread my arms a little wider and experiment with themes you can't get into a series book. I put a midget, a pinhead and a lobotomy into Whiskey River. I'd be lucky to get away with just one of those in, say, an Amos Walker. And in Edsel [1995], I managed to pull off an entire crime novel without a crime.

Are there more installments of the Detroit Series still to come?

No, I exhausted the 20th century. A few more years need to pass before I can write with distance and objectivity about the turn of the 21st.

We talked before about your fondness for Detroit and the city's role in your books. Just as Los Angeles was a character in its own right in Chandler's stories, so Detroit is frequently mentioned as an essential player in your novels. How does one go about making a metropolis integral to crime-fiction storytelling? It's more than just a matter of having people sit down in familiar restaurants, or remarking on noteworthy political events, right?

Every city has a personality, except of course Vegas. You need to understand its history, which dictates its present and future, and you need to spend enough time in it to recognize its texture. And you need the talent you're born with and the skill you acquire to put it all into words that will give the reader some clue about what you're trying to say. Dickens did London better than anyone, and I've yet to find a writer who can capture L.A. half as well as Chandler did in his weakest work. Hammett's San Francisco stories could have taken place anywhere, at any time, for all the detail he provides; but then he didn't set out to sell San Francisco.

If you had to live someplace other than Detroit, where would it be?

Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And that's because ...

It isn't Detroit.

If you can, list your five favorite novels set in Detroit. And you can include one of your own, if you'd like.

City Primeval and Swag, both by Elmore Leonard; The Back-Door Man, by Rob Kantner; Motor City, by Bill Morris; and I'll throw in The Hours of the Virgin, since I find it as much fun to read as if someone else had written it.

In addition to all of these crime tales, you also produce a wealth of western historical fiction. You were reared in Detroit, about as far away -- not just physically, but psychologically -- as you could get from America's Old West. So what accounts for your interest in fast-gunning lawmen and trail-riding outlaws?

I couldn't get away from westerns growing up. They were all over TV and the movies. Early on I recognized the difference between stories based on popular myth and those grounded in reality. Later, when I read about the real West, I discovered a fascinating place that had been obscured by a century of manufactured legend, just waiting to be dramatized. Incidentally, Michigan is the capital of the Northwest Territory, with a history of mining helltowns, Indian war and outlawry that make Montana and Texas look like Maine and Vermont. Most of my early westerns were inspired by the rocky wooded terrain of the Upper Peninsula.

Several of your early western historicals were built around real-life figures: Aces & Eights (a personal favorite, by the way) recounts Wild Bill Hickok's life; This Old Bill is about Buffalo Bill Cody; and Bloody Season re-creates the story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight near Tombstone's OK Corral. At least in the beginning, was it easier for you to work with historical characters, rather than fictional ones?

Actually, Aces & Eights was my first attempt to write about a real western figure, and it was my sixth western. I hadn't the experience to tackle so complex a subject before that. Real people are much harder to write about than invented characters. In fiction, characters must be consistent; in fact, people are anything but. I couldn't figure Wyatt Earp out until I read interviews in which he referred to himself as a businessman. When I realized he became a lawman so he could carry a gun, so he could protect his financial interests, he opened up to me like a cactus blossom.

What are the advantages of employing a real-life character as your protagonist?

The recognition factor is a boost. It took me seven books to make Page Murdock a fairly well-known character, at least among readers of western fiction, whereas in Aces & Eights, all I had to do was mention Wild Bill Hickok's name. And they're so goddamn fascinating to read about. There are only two 19th-century figures whose names still start fistfights: George Armstrong Custer and Wyatt Earp.

You're not the only crime novelist to also pen western fiction. Robert J. Randisi, Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard -- they've all done it. Are there common satisfactions that one derives from working in both genres?

Guns, conflict, law, crime, justice and injustice. No book worth reading failed to contain at least two of the above. Detective and western fiction let you use them all.

Walker fans too often overlook the fact that you've also spent years writing the Page Murdock series. For readers who aren't familiar with those books, can you give me a brief sketch of their protagonist and tell how crime plays as much a part in these western novels as it does in the Walker stories?

Murdock, notwithstanding his connection with the federal court of Harlan A. Blackthorne -- another invention of mine -- is on his own much of the time, bringing his own type of law to some wild places. In order to involve him in the story, a crime has to have occurred on the federal level: mail robbery, the murder of a U.S. official, crossing state or territorial lines to commit a felony or to escape pursuit, etc. Similarly, I have to find ways to justify Walker's part in a modern-day investigation, since crime is police business and he's in private practice. Beyond that, the characters don't bear much resemblance to each other. Walker's a romantic figure, and Murdock represents the kind of man who kept the peace on the frontier, determined and ruthless.

Your latest Murdock entry, Port Hazard, came out in January of this year. For those who haven't read it, can you say a little about the book's plot?

An organization calling itself the Sons of the Confederacy has declared war on the law in an attempt to restart the Civil War. Murdock, who's become a target, is sent by Judge Blackthorne to the Barbary Coast to find out who their leader is. His partner is a black railway porter and former buffalo soldier named Edward Anderson Beecher, and most of the action takes place in the streets of old San Francisco. It's an urban western, without a horse in sight.

I'm familiar with the Golden Gate's delightfully sordid past, having written a non-fiction book, San Francisco, You're History!, about that city's eccentric inhabitants over the decades. You dropped a few real-life oddballs into Port Hazard, right?

Many, including a fellow who wore a ball-and-chain in place of his missing hand. I also had the chance to employ East End street lingo imported to Northern California by way of Australia. Some of the dialogue required many hours spent with contemporary dictionaries of underworld slang. I've included a glossary of terms at the end to assist in translating the more opaque passages. Enchanting place, isn't it? The research reminded me of Oscar Wilde's comment that everyone who disappears seems to be sighted sooner or later in San Francisco; "It must be a fascinating place, with all the charms of the next world."

Are you currently at work on an eighth entry in the Murdock series?

I don't know when I'll do the next Murdock. One of the appealing things about that character is I've never felt the need to visit him annually. I use him when he's ripe. My next western, The Undertaker's Wife, is at Forge and will come out sometime next year.

You've won numerous awards for your western historicals, which must be satisfying. Yet that genre has nowhere near the broad appeal today that crime fiction enjoys.

You'd probably find an argument with Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry on that point; also with Jane Smiley, Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Proulx. Right now the western is entering its most exciting period, economically and culturally. Look where stores are displaying their books; in the Fiction and Literature section, not the Western ghetto next to Foreign Languages. Period, setting, character and subject are entirely the writer's choices. The guidelines are as broad as written culture itself. The next Moby-Dick will have to do with the American frontier.

The interesting thing about writing in these two genres is there's very little crossover. Many western readers are surprised to find out I write mysteries, and when I met Donald Hamilton at a western writers' convention in Santa Fe, he said, "What are you doing here? You're a mystery writer."

If western novels are growing in popularity, then why are western movies and TV series having such a hard time of it? Sure, the HBO series Deadwood has received laudatory notices, but other video westerns, including the USA Network's Peacemakers, haven't fared so well. Any explanation?

Peacemakers, I understand (I don't have satellite or cable), was pretty bad. Hollywood, which will shoot one sci-fi opera after another no matter how many go belly up, is intolerant of low-performing westerns. Deadwood, I'm told, is a significant improvement over its source material -- Pete Dexter's disappointing novel [of the same name] -- and it's a hit, so it's coming back. The only sin in Hollywood is losing money. The point that keeps being missed by the people who are always standing by with a shovel to bury the westerns is they keep making money.

You're frequently mentioned as an authority on the Old West. So I have to ask: If you could go back and experience, first-hand, any event from the region's past, which would it be?

Good question. Unfortunately, my favorite western historical events would get me killed. You needed to be able to stand still at the OK Corral and let the bullets whistle past while you picked your target. Wyatt Earp and I were the same age when we got to Tombstone -- 33 -- and I could tell I wasn't ready to take part in a firefight.

How many western novels have you written? I'm familiar only with the Page Murdock books, plus a few others such as The Master Executioner.

Pardon me while I count. Eighteen, including the latest, Black Powder, White Smoke [2002]. You missed one of my two or three best books if you missed Billy Gashade, [which was] also my longest.

While I'm asking for raw numbers, can you tell me (at least approximately) how many short stories -- of any sort -- you've had published during your career?

Couple of hundred, maybe. That might be an exaggeration. I gave up trying to keep a running total of my short work several years ago. Ed Hoch's got us all beat by hundreds.

You've said elsewhere that you aren't a fast writer. Yet you turn out roughly two novels a year. How do you square these two facts?

I try to produce five clean pages a day. I clean as I go, go back and clean, and clean again, using paper the way computer people use the screen. Some days I reach my quota in two hours; others, I'm lucky if I wind up with two pages. When you keep a steady schedule, you tend to produce.

I understand that you write everything on a manual typewriter. How long have you had this machine, and have you ever considered at least upgrading to an electric?

I have 50 typewriters spotted throughout the house, some more than l00 years old. My main machine is a 40-year-old Olympia, which I bought for $l2 at a Kiwanis sale almost 20 years ago. I'm composing these words on the l923 Underwood I reserve for letters and short stories. I went through three electrics in two years. Then I went back to manuals, and my production doubled. They never break down or wear out, I can fix most of what goes wrong (very little does), and I don't need tech support.

What is that makes you avoid writing on a computer, instead? Merely the fact that a computer alleviates the need to retype page upon page of text for a finished copy would seem enough to convince you to ditch the old machine.

Computers are like salad-shooters. Once you have one, you wonder how you managed without it, but if you never get one, you don't miss it. I do some of my best work during thunderstorms and power failures.

I was interested to learn that you're a big fan of Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe and Edith Wharton. The first three I can certainly understand -- but Wharton, who wrote about the social ambitions of the Gilded Age rich? That requires an explanation.

Wharton wrote with splendid sardonic insight about a place and a people that had vanished during her lifetime. Hemingway, London and F. Scott Fitzgerald owe much to her eye, her voice and her precision of language, and so do I. She doesn't date, while so many writing so many years since her death have managed to become unreadable. It isn't what you write about, but how you do it, and what conclusions you draw from your reader.

I came across a mention somewhere of your being hired to write an original private-eye screenplay for Hollywood. Where does that deal stand?

The screenplay deal doesn't stand; it was laid in state and buried the moment I found out the producer wanted me to write it for free. While it was being talked about, I read some books on screenwriting and started noodling around with a script, which later became Sinister Heights. I knew at the time I'd probably turn it into a novel. It wasn't dumb enough to film.

I hear that you're a huge old-movie buff. Is it true that you own more than 1,300 videos? Are all of the movies in your collection noir classics, or do you mix in something from the post-Beatles era every now and then?

At this point, the movie collection is closer to l,500, including around l00 DVDs. Much of it is noir, but there are many westerns, comedies, straight gangster films, silents, war movies, musicals and, yes, more contemporary fare. But my heart belongs to the old stuff. I pioneered the concept of the home theater, installing a big screen, baroque décor and framed noir film posters in my basement long before there was a term to describe such an extravagance. (The missing man's home theater in Never Street was modeled on mine.)

So which movie have you watched the greatest number of times?

I've probably watched White Heat the most times, but the original Frankenstein and The African Queen come close.

Have you ever imagined who might play Amos Walker, were he translated to the silver screen? Who would you cast?

Hollywood wanted Michael Douglas to play Walker. I thought of Harrison Ford, back when he was still Indiana Jones and people laughed at the suggestion; and Kevin Costner before he became a star and lost his mind; George Clooney, until he dissed Charlton Heston. The exercise is pointless, since I'd never get a say. They can cast Jim Carrey if they like, or Gwyneth Paltrow. All I've ever asked is that they send lots of money and don't ask me to visit the set or see the movie.

Has your self-definition as a writer changed over the years, in terms of what you think you can and cannot accomplish?

I know I'll never write poetry. My talent doesn't bend that way, and anyway I've never seen the point in writing for a market that no longer exists. I'm sorry my artwork was never good enough to hang on anyone's wall, and I doubt my secret wish to sing as well as Dean Martin will ever come true. But at this point in my passage as a writer -- I realize how arrogant this sounds, but if you can't delude yourself, you've no business considering making a living from spinning yarns -- I can't think of any book ever written whose quality I couldn't match.

If you could have written any one or two books that don't already appear under your name, which would they be?

The Bible would be nice; the royalties would support anything else I chose to do.

Finally, what should be the epitaph on your tombstone?

Prologue. | July 2004

 

J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of Eccentric Seattle (Washington State University Press), a spirited collection of essays about the pillars and pariahs who helped to create Washington's largest city. He's currently working on a novel.