Friday, February 13, 2015

Glen Erik Hamilton--Past Crimes

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.

Taking 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.


  1. Having already read, and greatly enjoyed, "Past Crimes," I must say I'm really hoping there are more Van Shaw stories to come. Thanks for a great interview. [But I'm passing on the whole living on a sailboat experience; I can get seasick just looking at a boat.]
    As for the "unsullied white hats," those who skirt the edges of the law are often far more interesting.

  2. This sounds like a great story. Seattle is one of my favorite cities, so I'm definitely picking up this book.

    A protagonist who skirts the law is the most interesting kind. Come to think of it, any amateur sleuth does that, even in cozies. Otherwise they'd call the police, tell them they found a body, and the book would be over. ;^)

  3. Pubs, Irish, crime - what could be better? It's on my t-b-r list as of now.

  4. Throw my black hat in the ring with the others. Robert B. Parker's Spenser (especially the first books)was a character who operated by his own set of rules, as we all know. And he accepted the consequences of those rules. I might not agree with those rules, but as long as they make sense to the character and he/she's consistent, then I'm along for the ride!

    Congratulations, Glen, for the publication of your first novel and for the great reviews--can't wait to grab a copy!

  5. The book sounds intriguing and Van seems like my kind of guy.

    For myself, I don't mind a little rule-skirting when the character has a very clearly defined personal code and (generally) does the rule-skirting for the "right" reasons. It's okay if that white hat is a little gray, as long as the heart of the guy/gal wearing it is gold. Tarnished gold, maybe - but gold underneath.

  6. Past Crimes is one of my most anticipated books of the season. I am happy to see it move closer and closer to the top of the TBR pile.

    As for Glen, one would be hard pressed to find a nicer guy to strike up a conversation with. I became a bit of an unintentional stalker at Glen, when we continued to shop up at the same panels and events, so I know he has good taste.

    Good luck with the impending launch week, Glen!

  7. Welcome, Glen--and congratulations!

    You had me at swabbing the decks. It is 19 below zero here, or something like that, and if there's deck swabbing, there must be sun, right?


    We're about to hit another blizzard, incredibly, so curling up with a good book sounds like just the thing.

  8. I prefer the law-abiding protagonist, although I do enjoy reading an occasional "heist" type of novel! It's probably my desire for justice that makes me want to read about people who try to "get" the Bad Guys.

  9. These are great replies! Thanks everyone for the encouragement on Past Crimes.

    We definitely seem to have a preference for hats with a little gray in them. (Perhaps appropriate, given the shading of a certain movie that opens today...)

    Edith is absolutely right that our protags have to at least ignore the presence of the "proper" authorities! Maybe that adds the little bit of tarnish to the heart of gold that Mary mentioned.

    And Hank, remember we're talking about Seattle here. Just like rain doesn't get your car really clean, precipitation doesn't mean you don't have to scrub the deck. But we can both dream of sunnier days...

    Thanks, everyone!

  10. It's clear that our justice system is radically incapable of delivering real justice much of the time, but I'm not a fan of vigilante-ism. A protagonist who has a strong ethical code and occasionally bends or breaks the law to bring about real justice is fine with me, however.

  11. Congratulations, Glen! I love detective novels, I'm addicted to all of the masterpiece mysteries, and boy howdy would I love to get compared to Dennis Lehane.

    White-hatted characters are pretty one dimensional. I like my heroes with shadows and dark recesses of the soul, people who do the wrong things for the right reasons.

  12. Glen, how long did it take you to write Past Crimes? I suspect that's a hard question to answer because most of us don't sit down and plow through a first novel without stopping. But I was curious because the book is so polished.

  13. Welcome, Glen and congratulations! I definitely like my white hats with a bit of grey (although NOT 50 shades....)

  14. Congrats on your first book!

    I must admit, I prefer protagonists who are mostly white hats. As Edith points out, the amateur sleuths I love to read about do skirt the law. Yet I find reading about criminals as the main character rarely appeals to me.

  15. I'm definitely hearing a theme here -- Gray is okay, but a strong sense of ethics is critical. No crazed vigilantes need apply.

    Deb, to answer your question: Past Crimes took about three years to write. It's a little flexible, because the original story and subplots went through some significant revisions, and I was also still very much a beginner writer, so there was some learning curve as well. Not that that curve is done -- I still feel like I have a lot to learn about writing in this genre and others, and I always feel more energized when I'm a student.

  16. Hm, mostly white hats is good. Although there are those situations that require an elastic view of the law.
    Pure white can be rather dull. Like vanilla ice cream it benefits from hot fudge sauce!

  17. Having just finished reading "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman," I have to say I'm far more intrigued by heroes who skirt the law for a greater good.

    Glen, so great to "run into" you again ... always in unexpected places. The gumbo party. The Santa Claus pics line at the Americana. And now here on my favorite blog.

    I can't wait to read your new novel. Congratulations!!

  18. As I contemplated the white hat/black hat preference... I was struck by a conundrum. I was thinking of what characters I admired and trying to think of examples and I thought of The Avengers movie like Captain America. Yes. Love him and them. But then it struck me that he is good with all capital letters but actually operating outside the law, though associated with S.H.I.E.L.D., a shadowing organization itself. My mind is blown for the day. :)

  19. Good point, PK. Come to think of it, even Superman operates outside the law...

  20. Glen, congratulations on "Past Crimes." Have to add it to my TBR pile. Your questions come just as I'm trying to decide how far over the line my protagonist is willing to go, so I guess that puts me into the grey hat category.

  21. Thanks everyone for dropping by and chatting! It's great to see some of my friends from the conventions and organizations -- if you've never gone to Left Coast Crime or Thrillerfest or Bouchercon or one of the many others, come out and play!