The depth of David's knowledge about writing and literature leaves me humbled. His non-fiction book, The Art of Character, should be mandatory for anyone attempting a novel. And now, oh joy, a new novel! Whenever I see David, I always ask for more stories about his work as a PI, but until now, he's never written a novel with a private investigator as the protagonist. But here, I'll let him tell it!
DAVID CORBETT: Despite having worked as a private investigator for fifteen years, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. (My most recent novel, The Mercy of the Night, due out today, has a quasi-PI, legal jack-of-all-trades protagonist – more on him shortly.)
The reasons for my reluctance were simple enough.
First, none of the PI novels I’d read, even the best – including Chandler’s, Hammett’s, and Ross MacDonald’s – bore much resemblance to the work I’d done as an investigator, though MacDonald’s came closest.
From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.
For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses, debunked prosecution theories, and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants.
My work resembled more that of a reporter than a gunman, and I was only in physical danger once. (Ironically, the guy who tried to kill me was a doctor, but that’s another story.)
In other words, the vast majority of the work I did wasn’t the stuff of action-packed thrillers. (I also worked civil cases, of course. To paraphrase James Ellroy: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz….)
Second, it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table. A small gaggle of misfits might, of course – call them the Noir Crowd.
(Note: I’ve written elsewhere on the perils of having one’s work deemed “noir.” To be brief, you might as well slather DEPRESSING across the cover. But I digress.)
It did seem that readers would at least tolerate hearing from the criminal himself, and that also seemed to provide me more juice as a writer. I found myself far more excited telling the criminal’s tale than belaboring the investigative steps taken on his behalf once he was caught.
The result was The Devil’s Redhead, with a hero based on several pot smuggler defendants I’d helped represent over the years, and that was as close to my own PI experience as I got for the first four novels.
After that, I chose as my protagonists a cop (Done for a Dime), a bodyguard (Blood of Paradise), and a Salvadoran-American teenager smuggling his deported uncle back into the US (Do They Know I’m Running?).
I was pretty happy with those books, and they were well-received critically.
But then in conversations with Charlie Huston and Michael Koryta, who between them have sold about a gazillion more books than I have, I began to reconsider my anti-PI-novel agenda.
When I told Charlie my job hadn’t been that dramatic, he asked me to describe an average day. I said I was the guy who had to go the door of the family of a murder victim and try to find someone in the house who didn’t want the killer – my client – executed. Charlie replied simply, “I think that’s interesting. You should write about that.”
Michael, a former PI himself, thought I was turning my back on a goldmine of material. When I told him the rough idea I had for the next book (which would ultimately become The Mercy of the Night), he expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea.
Also, by this time I’d read more in the genre and realized I’d given short-shrift to the suspense inherent in a good investigation – finding the truth is a tricky business, regardless which side you’re tracking – and I trusted my own instincts as a writer a bit more. I felt, at least, up to the task of trying.
The challenge proved far more daunting than I’d expected, for reasons I hadn’t foreseen.
And I should have. I wrote a book called The Art of Character that, in a chapter titled “Protagonist Problems: Stiffs, Ciphers and Sleepwalkers,” addressed the very problem I encountered: basing your protagonist on someone too much like yourself. Perhaps I believed that having written so sagely on the topic I was somehow immune to the affliction.
Oh, the folly.
I learned the problem with Write What You Know is that you can easily assume something is on the page that isn’t. And the reason for that is because you just implicitly understand its presence without double-checking to make sure the reader is equally aware.
Two of my early readers just couldn’t connect with my PI protagonist, which was somewhat humbling since he was so much like myself. (Might I also be that hard to connect with, I wondered. “Don’t ask,” my wiser half replied.)
And so I learned firsthand the wisdom of Eudora Welty’s revision of Write What You Know. She advised: Write What You Don’t Know About What You Know.
This was how I realized I needed to make my hero different from myself, someone I recognized but didn’t fully understand, so I would have to discover him.
That act of discovery would ultimately translate on the page into a series of reveals that would intrigue the reader, making her wonder: Who is this man? Why does he get up in the morning? What keeps him awake at night? Who and what does he value and love, and why? How far would he go to protect those people and things?
By basing the character too closely on myself, I’d neglected all that, taken it for granted. It was a fatal flaw. The character lay there inert on the page.
And so I conjured Phelan Tierney – the oddity of the name alone made me wonder about him.
I made him a lawyer, not a PI, which also required me to raise my game. I’ve known a number of lawyers who’ve traded their bar card for a PI license, and most of them have done so for the simple reason they preferred interacting with people to shuffling paper.
But my own experience with lawyers (including my marriage to one) also made me aware of the distinct habits of mind they acquire. The best combine a bare-knuckle pragmatism with a capacity for abstraction that an algebraist would envy. That too engaged me in a way my bland cipher of a PI hadn’t, and it helped me avoid some of the classic tough-guy clichés that afflict too much PI fiction.
Given these differences I felt okay also giving him a few traits I did know a bit more personally.
I made him an intellectual magpie, curious about everything, from Caravaggio to a Salvadoran flower called loroco – “knowledge that’s a thousand miles wide and two inches deep,” as my former boss put it, describing what a PI needs to be able to talk to anyone.
I made him a wrestler, who gained a scholarship to Stanford through the sport. (I was never that good, but I wrestled in high school and still follow the sport at the collegiate level.)
I made him a recovering Irish Catholic, for I understand with stinging immediacy the moral vision that predominates in that particular corner of the faith.
Most importantly, I made him a widower. I didn’t do this for the usual reason, to add the gravitas of grief. That, to my mind, is just a cliché.
Rather, from my own experience and that of a close friend who also lost a cherished wife to cancer, I saw how we’d come out of the experience unaware of how it had both made us better men and yet also imprisoned us. I won’t go in to the particulars – you’ll need to read the book – but we both realized we’d developed an inclination for helping women in unlucky straits, unaware we were still stuck in that hospital room, hoping for a better ending.
This was one element of my own biography that, with the help of readers who let me know what was working, what wasn’t, I ultimately managed to render meaningfully on the page. And it became a crucial element of the plot, which concerns Phelan’s obsession with trying to look out for a girl who wants no part of him. One thing those in trouble can sniff out in a heartbeat is the hidden agenda of someone who says he only wants to help.
And that was the unique angle I believe I ultimately discovered, my own personal take on the form. I decided to write about a man who’s carved out a distinct niche for himself in the justice system. He knows what it takes to help those in trouble, and the unsparing honesty required from all concerned, even himself (especially himself). He has a special devotion to those who hope to turn their lives around, and for those who, for whatever reason, find they’ve become invisible, or voiceless.
I discovered Phelan Tierney, who – luckily, for both of us – isn’t me.
If you’d like to read an excerpt, one was selected as Narrative Magazine’s Story of the Week for April 5-11.
What do you look for in a PI protagonist? Who is your favorite, and why? Which PI heroes have felt lacking – again, why?
DEBS: Here's a little more about The Mercy of the Night.
Jacquelina Garza has been to hell and back. Abducted by a child predator when she was eight, she managed to escape after three days – physically, at least. A decade later, she still bears the scars of the incident and its all too public aftermath, living on the street, hustling whoever she can. Phelan Tierney, an ex-lawyer with a stormy past of his own, has been tutoring her for the GED at the halfway house where she’s been trying to get her life back on track. Then suddenly, just as ten years before, she disappears. Tierney heads off to find her, only to discover her strangely unhelpful family and an army of others who seem only too happy she’s vanished. Whose secrets is she protecting? Can he find her before they claim her life?
DEBS PS: I do wish David had included a photo of his indeed adorable wife AND dog!