Unfaithful Servant

by Timothy Harris

Published by Five Star Press

333 pages, 2004

Buy it online








"I think the world needs the private detective more now, because he's private. It's so hard to do anything on your own. The idea of any man not being connected to a corporation, trying to function successfully, is admirable. But I think it is hard to come up with a way for him to operate that you haven't seen so many other times."











Crime-fiction critics in the 1970s took a real shine to Timothy Harris' first two novels featuring Los Angeles private detective Thomas Kyd: Kyd for Hire (1977) and Goodnight and Good-Bye (1979). Walter Albert, in his entry about Harris in the 1991 tome Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, wrote: "The Thomas Kyd saga bears comparison with the classic novels of [Raymond] Chandler and Ross Macdonald and, a decade after its first publication, seems ... untarnished by time."

So why did it take two and a half decades for Kyd to make a third appearance, in the new novel Unfaithful Servant? It seems that another career intervened. Partnered with Herschel Weingrod, Tim Harris began penning screenplays in the 1980s. The pair scripted a number of hit movies, including Trading Places, Brewster's Millions, Twins, Space Jam and Kindergarten Cop. And Harris produced the 1993 film Falling Down, which starred Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall.

But now, writing solo once more, Harris has returned to fiction and to Thomas Kyd, who, in a new century, is still in the City of Angels -- older and sadder, if not necessarily wiser.

When we first encountered Kyd, in Kyd for Hire, he was a Vietnam War vet with an office in a seamier section of Hollywood, "many blocks east of where the stars' names were in the pavement," amid an urban landscape of "hung-over derelicts, tired hustlers, and neon signs with no magic." The P.I.'s first recorded case found him looking for a vanished heiress, at the same time as he tried to thwart a hit man who looked to be pursuing the very same missing woman. Kyd was a man of the 1970s, but he spoke in a timeless, hard-boiled prose that would have been right at home in Philip Marlowe's 1930s or Lew Archer's 1960s:

I was tired and old and the world looked like it should have been scrapped the day Cain sent Abel to the icehouse ... Outside, the town was motionless under the harsh afternoon sunlight. Only the sound of the nearby ocean seemed alive with an immense and hissing monotony. Emptying and filling, it turned and polished the pebbled shore as inexorably as some great self-winding clock ...

The Chandler tone was even more pronounced in Good Night and Good-Bye, the opening lines of which read like an updated echo of the beginning of Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953): "The first time I saw Laura Cassidy it was four in the morning and she was trying to drive a fire-engine red Volkswagen out of the underground garage of a Harper Avenue apartment building. She nearly sideswiped the stone entrance, knocked over a garbage can at the end of the driveway, and turned right up the hill toward Sunset Boulevard. What held me rooted to the pavement wasn't her driving; it was the man spread-eagled on the hood of her car." The intriguing Laura turned out to be engaged to a high-profile screenwriter; and when that man was murdered, Kyd was hired to find his stolen, hot-property script. In the course of things, the detective fell for the enigmatic and dangerous Laura, who "would have been good company for any apocalypse."

The aftermath of that doomed romance evidently sent Kyd into a quarter-century tailspin. When we encounter him again, in Unfaithful Servant, he is a disillusioned man, as disappointed in himself as he is in the L.A. where he continues to make his all-too-meager living. When an obnoxious but vulnerable child of Hollywood privilege tries to hire him, Kyd is given the unexpected option of a new lease on life.

From London, where he and his family are living for a year, the 57-year-old Harris spoke with me about his peripatetic history, his evolution as a Southern California novelist, his screenwriting experiences, and why he decided to resurrect Thomas Kyd -- a character once described as "an unfortunate genius for lost causes and heroic gestures."


Tom Nolan: Can you tell me a little about your childhood?

Timothy Harris: I was born in Los Angeles, in 1946. I left when I was 5; I was sent to a French boarding school in North Africa. My mother and father were divorced, and my stepfather was an architect, so he worked in a lot of different countries. And my real father remained in California. At that boarding school, I learned to speak French very quickly; by the time my parents came to visit me, I hadn't forgotten all my English, but I think I was so pissed off that I probably pretended not to speak English anymore. I think I was there about a year, and then I lived in Casablanca. We left when there was a revolt there by the Moroccans against the French, and it got a bit too dangerous, 'cause I think Europeans were being sort of attacked. And we moved to Italy. I lived in Italy for a year, and then I lived in Holland for a year. And then I lived in England for about a year, probably.

How old were you, by then?

I was probably about 9. Then my family moved back to America, and I lived in Connecticut for a year; and I lived in New York for probably four years -- the longest time I lived in the States. Then just before I was 15, my family moved back to Europe; and I lived in Portugal for about three years; then I went to boarding school in England, and then to university in England, and stayed on in England for a while. And finally, in my mid-20s, I returned to Los Angeles -- of which I had no memory, really; I mean, it was just on my passport that that was my place of birth ... I'd never really had any contact with my father, who I then went and looked up when I was 19, and found him, in California; and sort of re-established contact with him.

Had all that moving around made you an angry young person?

No, I don't think so ... No, if you're moved that much, from a very early age, you just think that's normal. It's only in later life people sort of said to me, "Wasn't that upsetting?" or, "That must have been difficult." And in retrospect, you think, well, you end up sort of not being able to put down roots or maintain friendships with people, 'cause you're always moving so much ... And I suppose that the end result of it is that it ends in creating somebody who permanently cannot feel at home anywhere. It's not even like being an exile, because exiles still have a memory of some homeland that they've been exiled from; whereas people who've just moved this much -- You can't figure out what you're nostalgic for; you just know that you don't quite belong where you are. But you can also look at it the other way around and say that, actually, you belong everywhere.

Did you have siblings?

I did; I had an older brother, who passed away about five or six years ago. And I have a younger half-brother, who's a writer; and I have a younger half-sister, and I have another younger half-brother.

Were you a reader, as a boy?

I was. I think I started to read a lot when I was about 12; and once I started, I just never stopped. I'm a sort of voracious reader. When I first started, I was interested in sports a lot, so I started reading sporting biographies. And then having gotten into the habit of reading, I just branched out into everything.

It's odd, the one area I was never interested in was crime fiction or mysteries. I liked quite good books, I think. There wasn't as much kind of junk literature around; you tended to get given the classics, and I enjoyed those. That pretty much informed my taste.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was little, I had kind of average heroic ideas of being a cowboy, a policeman, a soldier -- a combination of violence and heroism, I suppose. After that ... I flirted with the idea of being a doctor, but I wasn't any good at science. Then at a really pretty early age, I decided I wanted to be a writer. When I lived in London, I was 7 or 8, and I was ill for about a month ... I was in bed, and I wrote a book. And my best friend's father was a publisher; he worked for Macmillan. And I remember as I was writing the book, thinking, This is great, because I can just give it to my friend, and he'll give it to his father, and it will be published. I think it was set in [London's] Hyde Park, and it was about a group of ants who were being threatened by some large African anteater that had been introduced by the parks department. So that was my first book ...

By the time I was 13 or 14, I was doing well in English classes in school and getting a bit of encouragement. I probably started writing things when I was about 15, when I moved to Portugal; I had a very good English teacher there, and I just got interested in it. I started writing poetry and short stories, stuff like that.

Was your first job a writing job?

No. I've always had a lot of jobs. When I was 12, I had like three jobs. I had a dog-walking service, where I would walk people's dogs -- but [would] usually just tie them up at the basketball court and play a lot of basketball, and then walk them back, covered in sweat; and the owners would always think that I'd taken them for like a two-hour run. Then I also shined shoes, and I was a babysitter. When I moved to Portugal, it was pretty impossible to get any menial jobs like that, because it was a very poor country ...

Actually I worked on a yacht, as [part of] a crew, when I was about 18, for a while.

Then, when I was at Cambridge, all my summer holidays I would fly to Northern California and work in construction, to sort of make enough money for my tuition. And when I was at Cambridge, I worked as a bartender, and rented out punts on the river, and did house painting -- hard-labor jobs, really.

Did you take a degree?

Yeah, I got a bachelor of arts in English, with honors. Oxford and Cambridge are the only universities in the world where, after six years, your B.A. automatically becomes an M.A.; so technically, I have an M.A.

And then?

Well, while I was at school, I wrote a novel. That first summer that I went to Northern California, after a year of university in England, I started a book. Part of it I wrote in California, and then the rest I finished when I was back at university; which I managed to get published in England, and then in America. I was probably 20.

You're talking here about Kronski/McSmash [published in Britain in 1969]?

Yeah. I think the book that inspired me to write it was Terry Southern's Candy. Because I met somebody who knew Terry Southern -- a guy I met on a building site in California, a very erudite carpenter who had lived in Paris and knew that whole generation of writers. I'd read Candy and thought, This isn't that hard. ... I could do something like this. So, [my book] was just a satire on the excesses of the hippies, which were just starting; it was 1966, and I was right at the birthplace of it, in Northern California, living in Big Sur. It was one of those cases of an outsider coming in, seeing a phenomenon and writing a book about it. Probably if I'd known more about it, I would have felt intimidated and not been able to write it, but -- I just sort of thought it was ripe for the picking.

Did it get much notice?

It got published in America [in 1970], it got a few reviews; it never did very much, but then it did save me -- because when I graduated from Cambridge, I went back to California, and I was working on a building site, literally digging a ditch one day, and the foreman called to me; he said, "There's a phone call for you." And all the other guys looked at me -- 'cause nobody ever had gotten a phone call at work, in living memory. And it was my agent, saying, "We've been trying to find you for months; Warner Bros. has optioned the film rights to your novel." So I promptly threw down my shovel, and collected a bit of money, and flew back to London.

Then, in my literary career, there's a fairly long gap there where I wrote several novels -- didn't always finish them -- which I just destroyed; I wasn't pleased with them, and I couldn't figure out what to do.

At some point, I was in Switzerland; I was going to take a train to Paris, and I said to a friend of mine, "Do you have anything to read, for the journey?" And he gave me a Raymond Chandler; I can't remember which one it was. I was then living in Los Angeles; I just happened to be visiting my family in Europe. And I read this book; and I was very intrigued, because I don't think I'd ever read a book set in Los Angeles, and I'd just moved there, so it felt very fresh to me. And I liked the combination of his sort of very elegant English, married to a sort of gangster idiom. Again, I looked at it, and I had one of those -- I dunno what you'd call them; it's like an epiphany, but you go, "You know, actually, I think I could do this." Which gave me confidence.

I went back to Los Angeles, and I started to write the first Kyd book, Kyd for Hire, in an incredibly short amount of time. And I managed to sell that to an English publisher; I don't know why I did that, but I did. And at the last minute -- I think I thought that I was gonna have a different career, and therefore I didn't want to use my name on it. I get sort of awful stage fright before a book comes out; I usually try to either stop publication of it, or change my name, or something; and people just talk me out of it. But this time, I didn't get talked out of it; and I used the name "Hyde Harris" -- Hyde is my middle name.

Let's get back to when you were digging a ditch and you got that phone call. What happened after that? Did a movie of Kronski/McSmash ever come out?

No. [Warner Bros.] hired me to write the screenplay of it, and I'd never seen a screenplay. I think I produced something that was about 250 pages long, and had wardrobe notes. Years later, when I was working in the film business, I was friends with an executive at Warner Bros., and I said, "See if you can find it in the vaults; I'd be so curious, it'd be funny just to look at it." But she was never able to find it. I'm sure somebody read it and threw it in the wastepaper basket.

Did you stay on in Hollywood, then?

I was in Hollywood, but I was still writing novels. I don't know why it never occurred to me [then] to write movies or to work in TV or anything; I was just pretty much dedicated to being a novelist. And I did a bunch of novelizations (including Steelyard Blues and American Gigolo) to sort of support myself, because I couldn't really make a good enough living from just writing the mystery novels. And I worked as a house painter, for years. I painted a lot of Los Angeles. Which is odd, because I'm from a family of painters -- but they're not house painters. One of my grandfathers was somebody called Samuel Hyde Harris [1889-1977], who's quite a famous California plein air painter.

When did you learn that?

I found out about that when I went to find my father. My mother would tell me, in my childhood, odd bits and pieces about my family; but then none of it ever sort of registered. Then when I came back to California, I realized that actually, on both sides, my family, in California terms, have been there for a really long time. My grandfather, Samuel Hyde Harris, was English, and he'd gone there [to California, in 1904]. Then on my grandmother's side was Phoebe Mulholland; her father was William Mulholland's brother, and they'd been there for a long time too. And William Mulholland started out as a ditch digger, as well -- before he became the head of the [L.A.] Department of Water and Power. So I'm obviously following in some unconscious footsteps.

What prompted your move back to L.A. [in 1972-73]?

Partially, my health; I'd had a lot of health problems, with collapsed lungs. Also, I couldn't earn a living in England very easily at all, and I knew that I could sort of exist in California, find work there, and make enough money that I could then take time off to write. Los Angeles was a wide-open city then: you could get a really nice apartment for very little money, and it was sunny, and -- you know, I liked it.

Tell me about writing that first Kyd book. Did you feel plugged into the California tradition?

Yeah, I mean I'd looked at Chandler ... I didn't feel like I was interested in [Dashiell] Hammett, what he was doing ... I think it was just a bit of a copycat exercise, I suppose, and I thought, I can update [Chandler] a bit. But it was fun, because it was using things I was seeing every day, right away, in fiction. And -- I dunno, the longer I've lived in Los Angeles and the more I know about it, probably the harder it is to write about it. I always find it's easy to write about places when you've just got there. This isn't a good sign, I'm sure, but that's the truth of the way I operate. I do the same thing with screenplays, where I'll write the screenplay and then I'll do the research, because I find that if I start the research, I'll never write the screenplay.

Was Kyd for Hire well-received?

It was critically nicely received; I got some good reviews, and it was widely translated. The French really liked it. I remember going to Paris and being sort of semi-famous for about 12 and a half hours, and getting interviewed, and feeling that they took it way, way too seriously! [Laughs]

In America, it was brought out as a paperback original, right?

It was a hardcover in England, then it was a softcover in England, and in America ... a Dell paperback, yeah. I just bought a copy, on Amazon.com, from somebody ... About 15 bucks!

And then your second book, Heat Wave [1979], was a novelization?

Yeah, that was a screenplay by a friend of mine, who subsequently became my writing partner in the movies: Herschel Weingrod, who had written a screenplay which he showed to me, and I showed it to my agent and got him an agent. It was one of those movies where he got it set up in a whole bunch of places, but it was never made. And I guess my publishers liked the screenplay a lot and thought it would make a good novel, so I just turned it into a novel.

During that period, I'd moved back to England. The reason I kept moving back to England was always, generally, because of a woman. In this case, it was the same; I'd moved back to England for about a year and a half. I think I wrote Heat Wave in England.

The story had to do with L.A.'s old red-car streetcar line?


So, then, where did you write Goodnight and Good-Bye, your second Kyd novel?

I think I wrote Goodnight and Good-Bye in Los Angeles.

And it was published in hardcover, in the States?


Had your writing about California developed by then, would you say?

I think Goodnight and Good-Bye delves more deeply into the character of the narrator than Kyd for Hire did, 'cause it's really about [P.I. Kyd's] feelings for this woman [heiress Laura Cassidy]. I know there's a big murder mystery running through it, but that's what interested me. Yeah, I think it's a better book; I wrote it more slowly, and I think I edited it more carefully. And the model for it was the best book Raymond Chandler ever wrote; [though] when I wrote Kyd for Hire, I don't think I'd even read The Long Goodbye, so I didn't quite [use it as a model] ...

And the title Goodnight and Good-Bye is from Chandler, isn't it?

Yes; it's from a list he kept of possible titles, in his notebooks.

How did you move into screenwriting?

When I was living in London, after Goodnight and Good-Bye came out, my agent said that the studios wanted to buy the book, and I had to come back for that. I was waiting for this deal to be done; and I was going out with this girl who worked as a paralegal for a law firm, a sort of feminist law firm handling mainly female clients who'd been screwed out of their money by their husbands. They employed this private detective whose main job was to just go around and find out where these errant husbands were concealing their assets. So I thought, That's kind of an interesting area for romantic comedy -- especially if the private detective is divorced himself and is quite embittered towards women, but his job is to just go around catching guys.

Anyhow, I told the idea to my friend Herschel; and because we were just sitting around and didn't have a project in hand, we thought we'd try writing a screenplay. We wrote it very quickly; and he gave it to a friend of his to read, who worked for some small production company. In her lunch hour, she thought the office was empty and she was just reading the script and laughing, and her boss suddenly came out and said, "What are you laughing at?" And he read the script, and he bought it.

This was turned into probably one of the most awful movies ever made, called Cheaper to Keep Her [1980]. I remember seeing it on Hollywood Boulevard, at a matinee where there were only about five people in the audience. And the guy in front of me was drunk, and asleep. But every 20 minutes or so, he would open his eyes and look up at the screen and go [sarcastically]: "Haaa! haaa! haaa!" and then pass out again. Very sobering! [Laughs]

But the screenplay, before the movie was made, was quite well-received; and as a result, I got a couple of adaptation jobs. I adapted a couple of books [to film].

And you continued to write with Herschel?

I did; and then I never wrote any prose anymore. Periodically, every five years or so, I would try to take time off to do a book. I would try to do a Thomas Kyd book, and I wouldn't get anywhere. I'd try to do something else; I wouldn't get anywhere. And then I'd just go back to writing screenplays. Then I was married, I had children, and I developed a lifestyle and a set of responsibilities that -- You know, I thought the only way I could keep them going was to keep writing screenplays.

Were there ever any Thomas Kyd movies made?

There was an NBC-TV movie made of Goodnight and Good-Bye, with Morgan Fairchild [broadcast in 1988 under the title Street of Dreams] ... I think I'm listed as executive producer, but I didn't really do anything on it; I didn't write it, and wasn't involved.

While you were writing all those screenplays, did the memory of Thomas Kyd persist with readers?

What I do remember is that, when I was living in England, I got a call from my English publishers who'd published the hardcover, the Victor Gollancz edition of Kyd for Hire, saying that they were gonna destroy the books; they'd put them in a machine called the Shredder, which just turns them into kitty litter. I said, "Well, please don't; could I buy them off you?" And they sold me 100 or more, for about a dollar a copy. I then shipped those back to the States; and in one afternoon, I just drove around to all the mystery bookstores [in Southern California] and sold them the books out of the trunk of my car. I think I made like twice as much as I'd ever made from my advance. So I was sort of aware that there was some residual interest in them.

Did you miss writing prose?

I did. I didn't actively miss it, 'cause I was so busy writing other things, which I have to say, I liked. Practically everything I was writing was comedy, and I enjoyed that. I didn't enjoy other aspects of the film business that much; but I actually liked the act of writing comedy, which is fun to do with somebody else. But as time went by, I think I did miss [writing prose] more and more. But then I suppose there's also a fear that goes with it, because ... writing screenplays, you don't use any of those [prose] muscles, at all. So you just start to go, well, you may miss it, but -- could you do it, again? Could you write a novel, again? And I was fairly convinced that I probably wouldn't be able to.

And then about two or three years ago, Herschel and I decided to go our separate ways. And interestingly, what I did was -- The project I'd been working on just before I partnered up with him back then was this 18th-century boxing movie, called The Fancy, based on the life of Daniel Mendoza, who was the first Jewish heavyweight champion of England. And that was the first thing I went back to. It was as if I'd taken one road in life; and then I retraced my steps, right to the point where I first took my step on that road -- and I took an alternative one. So I wrote The Fancy, and then I wrote another screenplay -- and then I decided to write a novel. And did.

What was it like to return to your series character, in Unfaithful Servant?

It was very difficult, because when I was writing the first two, I was single, and a young man. I'd never had children. By the time I wrote the third one, I was twice married and had two teenage boys. And had a whole career behind me. ... The only way I could write the book was to find some emotional spine that appealed to me, that I felt that I could make the center of the book, more than the crime plot element.

And what was that?

I think it's the relationship of the detective towards that teenage boy [Hugo Vine] in the book.

Where has Thomas Kyd been all these years? What's happened to him?

I sort of have him being asleep: spending the 1990s drunk, or in bars. That doesn't have anything to do with me, 'cause I spent the 90s being with children, working very hard and being fairly respectable. But I had to invent something about where he'd been. I think I have him sitting in a motel room, eavesdropping, and he's suddenly disgusted with himself; and he asks himself, "What's my problem? It's that I haven't grown at all; I haven't changed." I think he's very dissatisfied with his life, and there's this sort of emotional impoverishment. And I can imagine that's how I would feel if I hadn't had children, and I hadn't had to give myself and sacrifice myself to other people; if I'd just lived on my own. I don't know what you do with all those feelings, if they're not taken up and used.

Frankly, the fact that there was such a long gap between the books posed a lot of problems for me. It would have been much easier for me if I could have made him younger, or not had to deal with trying to figure out how could he have been in the Vietnam War without being 100 years old now. I sort of fudged it; I said he lied about his age, he went into the army when he was 16, a few months before the war ended. And I think I chronologically got it so that it slightly made sense.

That's one of the problems with writing books in a series: each time you write one, you've created this record which you then have to carry on your back into the next one.

Did you draw on your own Hollywood experience, in writing this new Hollywood-oriented book?

Yeah. It was curious: When I came to write Unfaithful Servant, I hadn't looked at the earlier books for years and years and years. I had to look at them again, and I'd forgotten -- there's so much stuff about Hollywood in those two. Even though I hadn't worked in Hollywood when I wrote them, I seem to have just absorbed all this knowledge; they're all about agents and actresses. I think by the time I wrote Unfaithful Servant, I knew a lot more about it, yeah. And I hope I was able to handle it in a sort of slightly more realistic way. 'Cause the bizarre stuff that truth is made up of can be even more interesting.

Kyd's experiences in Hollywood aren't especially pleasant. How about for you? Was your time there fun? Interesting?

I find that the prevailing mood in Hollywood is one of dread. The dread is felt by the people who aren't successful, and it's felt almost as much by the people who are successful. I mean, if you've ever been to a premiere, they're not joyous occasions; there seems to be way too much adrenaline and fear. No, I don't think it's a happy place.

Do you miss it?

Well, there is this sort of great adrenaline charge that you get if you do business in Hollywood and [are] successful, and everything goes well and you have a hit -- that's undeniable. And I've been lucky enough to have had that. I think it's a lot more fun the first two or three times that you go through the spin cycle. By the time you've been through it enough times, you can see things coming: the falling-outs, the arguments over credit, the treachery; because it's predictable, it's sort of nauseating. Whereas when you're just going through it the first time, you're just surprised, and entertained, even.

You're still involved in film, right?

I am, yeah. I'm living in England, so I'm trying to get movies made here, independently. I'm not involved with Hollywood or big studio projects, like I was.

How's that going?

It's going good. Independent filmmaking is a sort of nightmare, but it's very appealing because you can get movies made without as much interference as you would producing the average Hollywood product. That's the upside. The downside, I suppose, is that it's so hard to get financing, and you have to do everything on a much lower budget; and it's a lot of hard work.

Did you enjoy becoming reacquainted with Kyd?

I did. I think I'd like to write another one; but if I do, I'd like him to not be in such a depressive state as he was in Unfaithful Servant, because I think that depressed me, a bit. I'd like to inject him with more energy. Give him a bigger house, you know! I put him into a tiny little shack. He has no friends; he can't drink, he can't smoke. There're a lot of negatives in there.

What are you reading these days?

I live right next door to a huge, great library, and I just take out endless books all the time. I just read Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight ... A whole bunch of Tolstoy, of Dostoevsky, of Maupassant ... I'm reading a V.S. Naipaul book, In a Free State, [and] a book by Ian Banks, The Wasp Factory.

Do you read much crime fiction?

I started to read it again. I'd read it when I was writing the first two Kyd books, then I didn't read too much of it. I like Elmore Leonard; I always read his books. I've enjoyed some of the Carl Hiaasen books. And then when I came to write Unfaithful Servant, I looked at Walter Mosley's books, which I enjoyed. And I thought Dennis Lehane's Mystic River was a fantastic book. Michael Connelly, I think, is good.

My definition of a really good book is a book I would read twice -- not back-to-back, but a few years will go by and I'll happily pick it up and read it again. And most crime fiction doesn't come into that category, but some of it does. I mean, I think Crime and Punishment is the ultimate crime fiction -- and you even know who did it, so there's not even a mystery in it.

How do you like living in England now?

I find it very congenial. I like it partially 'cause I spent so many years in Los Angeles, so it's nice to be somewhere else, where I speak the language; also, I have friends here, and my wife is English. She's got a big extended family here.

L.A. feels so much like a company town; the film business is all-pervading, you can't get away from it. Whereas if you live in London, you meet people at a party or somewhere who have nothing to do with the film business, and they're not even interested in the film business. It's refreshing. You end up learning a lot more things; there's a bigger variety of people. Whereas in L.A., if I went to the dentist -- my dentist wants to talk about the movies!

Do you have any thoughts about the American private-eye figure, and what function he serves in our literature? And have your feelings about the P.I. changed over the past 30 years?

I think that when I wrote the first two Kyd books, I had a feeling that I was coming in at the collapsing end of a tradition that had lost its relevance, really, because it just felt hackneyed, or it felt very hard to do anything fresh with it. But then I think there've been a bunch of good European detectives [since]; there's one Italian [police detective] called Aurelio Zen (created by Michael Dibdin), who's very interesting; there are some Swedes.

I think the world needs the private detective more now, because he's private. It's so hard to do anything on your own. The idea of any man not being connected to a corporation, trying to function successfully, is admirable. But I think it is hard to come up with a way for him to operate that you haven't seen so many other times. | May 2004


Tom Nolan, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999) and editor of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (2001). His work also appears regularly in various publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.