DEBORAH CROMBIE: Can I just rave a little about our guest today? Glen Erik Hamilton's first novel, PAST CRIMES, comes out on March 3rd. This really is a "can't put it down" book, and one of the most polished first novels I've read in a long time. Here's a little synopsis:
When his estranged grandfather is shot and left for dead, an Army
Ranger plunges into the criminal underworld of his youth to find a
murderer . . . and uncovers a shocking family secret. From the time
he was six years old, Van Shaw was raised by his Irish immigrant
grandfather Donovan to be a thief—to boost cars, beat security alarms,
crack safes, and burglarize businesses. But at eighteen, Dono's namesake
and protégé suddenly broke all ties to that life and the people in it.
Van escaped into the military, serving as an elite Army Ranger in Iraq
and Afghanistan. Now, after ten years of silence, Dono has asked his
grandson to come home to Seattle. "Tar abhaile, más féidir leat"—Come home, if you can.
some well-earned leave, Van heads to the Pacific Northwest, curious and
a little unnerved by his grandfather's request. But when he arrives at
Dono's house in the early hours of the morning, Van discovers the old
thief bleeding out on the floor from a gunshot to the head. The last
time the two men had seen each other Dono had also been lying on the
floor—with Van pointing a gun at his heart. With a lifetime of tough
history between him and the old man, the battle-tested Ranger knows the
cops will link him to the crime.
Advance praise has compared Hamilton to writers like Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, and John D. MacDonald, but it was Lee Child that popped into my mind when I began PAST CRIMES. Like Reacher, Van Shaw has served in the military and is a bit of a loner, but Shaw is very much his own man. And yes, I got to read an advance copy of the book, and I got to ask Glen at least some of the things I was dying to know. Here's Glen to share!
DEBS: The setting of Seattle is so palpable in PAST CRIMES. Why did you choose to set the book in the marinas and working class bars of Seattle?
GLEN: The marinas were an easy choice. I grew up aboard boats, and setting scenes in and around the harbors and waterways just felt natural. It’s also useful for fiction. Seattle is darn near an island itself, it isn’t far from dozens of actual islands both
in and out of the States, and of course it’s one of the major shipping
ports of the Pacific. Water, water, everywhere. If you’re writing
about crime in Seattle, it opens a lot of possibilities.
I did not grow up in bars, happy to say. But like the marinas, bars are useful for a writer. They’re gathering places for friends and sometimes neutral ground for enemies. They’re a signal of different social classes – clubs vs. pubs. They are places of late nights, lowered guards, and grand schemes. Not a bad way to launder money, either.
DEBS: Your protagonist, Van Shaw, is a complex character . . . he's clearly wants to leave his past behind, but has a very strong sense of loyalty - how do these two desires play out in Van's decision to return home to help his grandfather?
GLEN: Van has matured during the years he’s been in the Army. He may not completely forgive or even understand his grandfather, but he also knows that he’s not blameless himself. The two men are much more alike than either of them realize, in their faults and their loyalties.
Part of the book’s theme, if you’ll pardon the pretension, is learning which parts of your past to embrace and which to reject. Van had completely bought in to the criminal life as a teenager. When he left it, he left everything from his youth along with it. That may not be the right choice for him. It might not even be possible.
DEBS: How long have you known Van Shaw? He's so well developed he almost walks off the page and sits next to you at the bar to down a whiskey with the reader. Kudos.
GLEN: Thank you! I like Van a lot, and although many of his attitudes are the same as mine (most notably a suspicious eye towards authority), I’m not him. He developed out of a lot of thinking about how his unusual background would shape his outlook and approach to problems – often an equal-parts mix of cunning and aggression. Van often does what I wish I could do and says what I wish I would have said. However, for all his experiences, he’s still a young man. He makes mistakes which I hope I would be wise enough to sidestep. Heroes are great; flawless heroes are as dull as a dowel rod.
DEBS: Van Shaw begins a relationship with Luce, the niece of his grandfather's ex-business partner. What are you trying to explore through this subplot?
GLEN: Van and Luce had similar childhoods, and share some traits because of that. They are both tough-minded, fiercely independent people. But they are not the same. Luce responded to her criminal surroundings by striving towards the straight and narrow. Van escaped his criminal youth – removing himself from temptation – and returning to Seattle means confronting that head on. Luce and Van can understand each other, and they are hugely attracted to one another, but that doesn’t mean they always agree. Neither is much given to compromise.
DEBS: Kirkus Reviews recently called you "heir to the classic detective novel," first, how did that make you feel? Second, did you set out to write a detective novel?
GLEN: It felt fantastic, of course! It sounds like a platitude, but it’s the truth: I started writing to see if I could tell a good story. Any ideas of publication were secondary. To have a first novel which people enjoying reading and is getting good reviews is extraordinary. It’s too big of a concept. I have to digest it in very small bites.
I didn’t set out thinking of PAST CRIMES as a detective story, but detection – and whodunit – are major elements in the novel. Van evolved because I liked the idea of someone solving a crime without having the clout or resources of a law enforcement officer, and who in fact was closer to the other side of the coin, without being a crook. Van still has to adhere to certain rules and expectations in his world, even if those aren’t the laws of the land.
DEBS: I'd love to know more about your growing up on a sailboat. (My brother is a sailor and lives aboard his catamaran, currently--I think--in New Zealand. They've made the Pacific crossing a couple of times.) How did your upbringing come about?
GLEN: Though adventurous parents. They caught the sailing bug when I was very young, and the condition became chronic. Like your brother, they also wound up in New Zealand, eventually, during their own Pacific voyages. My excursions with them were mostly during summers and school holidays, around the Northwest and along the coast of British Columbia. I worked some in our marina, and sometimes for my Dad in his business of refinishing brightwork on boats. It was a great way to grow up.
But for anyone who is considering moving aboard, envisioning days spent sipping margaritas while swaying gently in a hammock, I recommend being independently wealthy. Having done it without piles of money, I can state definitively that riches are the way to go. If that’s not in the cards for you, the next best option is having many kids or gullible friends to help with all the labor involved in maintaining your vessel. My parents worked very hard, living that life of leisure.
Also, rocking hammocks usually lead to spilled beverages, and then you’ll have to swab the deck. Again.
DEBS: READERS, Glen asks, "How do you feel about a protagonist who skirts, and perhaps occasionally breaks, the law? Do you prefer your White Hats unsullied?"
Comment and get your name in the hat, white or black, as Glen is giving away a copy of PAST CRIMES to one of our lucky readers.
A native of Seattle, Glen Erik Hamilton grew up aboard a sailboat, and spent his youth finding trouble around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in California with his family, punctuated by frequent visits to his hometown to soak up the rain.