Julia Spencer-Fleming: We've been talking about superstorm Sandy along with mysteries this week, but today's guest, Timothy Hallinan, is a little removed from all the drama - he's in Bangkok, where he lives for half the year (the other half he's in LA. I, for one, am jealous.)
Tim is prolific - He's written ten novels, edited two story collections, and he teaches writing. His free online course, FINISH YOUR NOVEL, is a fantastic resource for aspiring authors. But even a seasoned pro might blanch at the prospect of starting a new series by publishing three novels in November, January and June. What's his inspiration? Easy. He likes to hang out with crooks.
I love them because they're so much fun to write. They make up their own rules. As children they paid no attention to the hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk, and as adults they pay no attention to the Ten Commandments and the million lesser laws the Commandments spawned. They bubble and seethe, crablike, with malicious energy. They don't have to be politically correct. They can offend people.
They frighten me because they have a way, unless they're watched very closely, of walking away with my book.
Our heroes have to behave, at least until we've pushed them to extremis. Even then, most of the time they can't get any fun from damage they do. That might lose the reader's sympathy. Our crooks, on the other hand, can win at chess by sweeping the pieces off the board and then shooting the person sitting opposite, shrugging it off as a striking variation on the Sicilian Opening.
We've seen this taken to unfortunate extremes lately, especially in the serial-killer genre, with sadism and murder serving as straight lines for Schwarzenegger-style wisecracks. I think this is dishonest writing and actually violates the writer's agreement to take the reader's intelligence seriously. On the other hand, some of these books sell quite well, so what do I know?
But I understand the appeal of that energy. I have to admit that I'll be digging away at a book, trying to figure out where in the world I'm tunneling to (I don't outline and generally have very little idea what's going to happen until it actually does) and all of a sudden the crook tears open the page and climbs through the hole, and I experience a burst of electricity. Crooks and villains seem to bring their worlds with them, while I feel as though I have to work to fill in the worlds of my more sympathetic characters. In the fifth Poke Rafferty book, The FearArtist, we don't get anywhere near the villain of the piece until page 141, if you don't count a four-line exchange of dialogue in the second or third chapter.
All the villain, Haskell Murphy, does in his first close-up is get off a plane, climb into the back of a car, and be driven to his house, and within the four or five pages that drive took, I learned so much about him that I had to rewrite the first part of the book. That's energy. It felt like I'd been digging away at the story with a tablespoon, and all of a sudden I was holding a jackhammer. Murphy even brought a whole new character with him, his daughter, whom he calls Treasure, and she changed not only the ending of the book, but also the book I'm writing right now.
But, as much fun as he was to write, I couldn't give Murphy the book. It's a series, and most readers expect the really important series characters to be alive at the end of the book. If I'd given Murphy his head, it would have been Armageddon.
So I'm dealing with it. I'm dealing with it by writing a new series with a hero who's also a crook, a burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks. When a crook gets ripped off, he or she is not going to call the cops. They're going to call Junior.
I wrote the first two Junior books, Crashed and Little Elvises, as ebooks, but pretty much the moment I finished the third, The Fame Thief, they suddenly got picked up for everything – publishing (Soho), film (Lionsgate), and audio (Blackstone). So the fun I had writing them is apparently detectible on the page.
Right now I'm writing the sixth Poke Rafferty book and the fourth Junior Bender (all of the first three will be published by June) and I'm hoping that the energy will average out between the two series. As much as I love writing the Pokes, they're less fun (read: harder work) than the Juniors. Almost everyone in the Juniors is crooked to one degree or another, and they've all got that energy. Writing them is like playing with matches—the old matches that would strike on anything. I never know when the page is going to catch on fire.
Crooks. What would we do without them?
What are your favorite crooks, creeps and villains, dear readers? Let us know, and you may win one of two copies of the first Junior Bender mystery, Crashed, or a copy of the latest Bangkok thriller, The Fear Artist.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thrillers, the Simeon Grist Mysteries, and, now, the Junior Bender Mysteries, to be published beginning this November by Soho Crime. Hallinan also edited the ebook SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, which raised money for Japanese tsunami relief, and and MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, the first in a series of TWENTY-ONE WRITERS books for aspiring novelists. Tim blogs at The Blog Cabin. You can follow him on Twitter as @TimHallinan and friend him on Facebook.