Tuesday, April 7, 2015

David Corbett--The Problematic “I” in PI

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My buddy David Corbett is one of the best writers I've had the pleasure to know. Here's a quote from the fabulous Cornelia Read: "David Corbett is the finest crime writer alive. He's also better than most of the dead ones. Read him. Now." Can't say better than that!

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?

David Corbett is a recovering Catholic, ex-PI and onetime bar band gypsy who’s written five novels, numerous stories, multiple scripts, and far too many poems. One novel was a New York Times Notable Book, one an Edgar Nominee. The latest, The Mercy of the Night, arrives this week from Thomas & Mercer. Two of his stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories and his book on craft, The Art of Character, has been called, “A writer’s bible.” He lives with his adorable wife and insane dog in Vallejo, California, which really, truly isn’t the hellhole it’s cracked up to be.

DEBS PS: I do wish David had included a photo of his indeed adorable wife AND dog!


  1. It's quite interesting to learn some of the thought process in the evolution of creating a character for a story; I'm looking forward to reading your book.
    I don't know that I have a favorite PI protagonist [although I have a feeling that will change just about the time I finish reading "The Mercy of the Night"] . . . .

  2. Hey, David! So delighted to see you on Jungle Red! And I'm printing this and pasting it to my forehed: Write What You Don’t Know About What You Know. Fantastic advice.

    What do I look for in a PI protagonist? Not realism but believability. A sense that he's got a real world, a job, friends, family... not just one case. A good sh-t detector and a bizarre sense of humor.

  3. Hey, David! SO great to see you!

    In a very early draft once, an editor told me a character of mine "didn't have a life outside the book." I freaked, then got defensive, then thought, okay, well, tell me more. HOw do I find that place, I asked?

    She said" Who moved her in to her apartment? How did that happen?" And as I tried to answer, relationships appeared, and finances, and emotions, and timing, history and circumstances ..and now I use that all the time as an example to writers.

    What do I look for in a PI? Gosh, depends. I want to say--honesty. About actions, and about motives. But it would be fun to read about a dishonest PI, right? But thinking more--that probably wouldn't be a main character.

    Hey--I need your character book, too. Off to find it. xoxo

  4. I'm right behind Hank in search of the character book because "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?" are the most provocative questions I heard asked about a character. The answers are really what readers want to know, far more than who dunnit. Excellent post, Jungle Reds and David Corbett.

  5. What a coincident - I just bought "The Art of Character" last week and I'm well into it and grateful for it as I work on my new novel. Thank you, David! And this is a fascinating article. I like PI's who work as if they have been given a math equation to solve. I don't mind the tedious work to reach the solution, as long as the overall equation is smart. I love it when things add up, which they often don't in many crime/PI novels I read lately. As for the books that do work, I've been reading a lot of older writers like Dorothy Salisbury Davis and early PD James. But I can't wait to read yours. Wishing you great success with it!

    PS - I'm following Hallie's lead and pasting this to my forehead to: Write What You Don’t Know About What You Know.

  6. This post got me to thinking about the word character. The people you create in your novel (which now I've got to add to my TBR list, btw) are characters. We describe someone as "Quite a character!" And then there's the description of someone who we say has "a lot of character." Or, the opposite, someone who "lacks character."

    In a roundabout way, this leads me back to one of my favorite protagonists--Anne Perry's William Monk. When we first encounter Monk, he has awakened in a hospital with no idea who he is. Throughout the course of that book, he figures out who he was, what his job was, but his memory doesn't return. And so Monk tries to figure out the man he was--what kind of character did he have? And from those clues, he must decide what kind of man he wants to be--what kind of character traits does he admire? In the end, he discovers there was much not to like about the man he was. Through all the subsequent books, there is the same brutal honesty about this character.

  7. Welcome, David! You had me at ex-Catholic.... Hallie, I love all the points you make about a great detective — bizarre sense of humor is always good.

    What I don't like in a detective — sexist attitudes, either deliberate or unconscious on the author's part.

  8. A friend of mine who works corrections once said he earned 90% of his pay in 10% of his work - meaning it was all pretty routine right up until it wasn't. I suspect it's kind of the same for a PI.

    What do I look for? Honesty, a sense of integrity and a desire to "see it done," for lack of a better word.

    Looks like I have another craft book to look up - as well as some more fiction.

  9. Please excuse my late entry into the discussion. I'm on west coast time, and I've been felled by a curiously insidious stomach bug -- Easter at the hospital, etc. I'm swaying a bit at my desk as I type, but I'll get to each of you in turn.

  10. Joan: I would be extremely flattered if Phelan turned out to be a character you wanted to revisit. That's kinda sorta the plan.

  11. HI, Hallie:

    Thanks for the warm welcome. I wish I could take credit for the phrase. Eudora Welty also gave me another line I use if not daily, almost: Writing is rewriting.

    I think I covered most of your checklist with Phelan. I tried, at least. I agree that everything you listed is crucial. We shall see, said the blind man.

  12. Hi, Hank:

    You might be interested to learn that the original title of this novel was The Wrong Girl. Guess who beat me to it? (Turns out it worked in both of our favors. I love the title, and it's certainly served you well. It made me dig for a new one, and I'm happy with the one I ended up with.)

    I was talking to Cara Black the other night, and she mentioned a panel that she and Jackie Winspear once gave where they showed the little physical knickknacks they used to conjure the world of their characters -- things that suggested the out-of-the-ordinary objects in their homes, their lives.

    There are a lot of ways to go about conjuring that kind of specificity, but your point -- discovering the relationships that make them who they are -- is by far the most important imo. The isolated hero is a classic trope, but he earned that isolation somehow.

    IN The Art of Character, I try to emphasize at every turn that the most important question is: How does this detail influence the character's interactions with others. Even physical details -- yes, they conjure a physical image, but they also tell us something about the character's confidence among others, her style (her way of telling others who she is), etc.

    What do we mean by the truth is a major part of The Mercy of the Night, and how Phelan uniquely defines it is a crucial element of his honesty.

    Hope you find Art of Character useful.

  13. Thanks, Michelle. I probe a lot of other questions in The Art of Character, and I think every writer comes to develop a certain toolkit of central issues that help them bring their characters vividly before their own mind's eye, which is the first crucial step in getting them down on the page. Thanks so much for commenting.

  14. David, so sorry you are unwell!!! Take care of yourself. You're a trooper for showing up here and we appreciate it.

    Thanks for all the great writing tips. You know I have The Art of Character, and if I used even a fraction of the great advice therein, I'd consider myself successful.

    And CANNOT wait to read The Mercy of the Night!

  15. Hi, Kim:

    Thanks for picking up The Art of Character. I'm glad you're finding it useful.

    The detective you've identified is the classic Hercule Poirot type, and they have retreated from the scene somewhat. No wonder you're finding more of them in older works -- they used to be much more popular.

    Part of the problem is Chandler's classic essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," which criticized the Agatha Christie-style mystery as unrealistic.

    Plus the postmodern mystery critique, made famous by Frederich Durrenmatt in The Pledge (where a cop the narrator addresses criticizes as unrealistic exactly the kind of mathematical/logical case solution you describe), took another swipe at the form.

    But on two cross-country drives recently, my wife and I have listened to the BBC dramatizations of the Poirot stories, and I found them really intriguing, entertaining, and satisfying.

    Thanks for the lovely comment.

  16. Hi, FChurch:

    I think Anne Perry is brilliant, and the honesty you see in Monk is reflected in his creator. I love that whole premise, about amnesia awakening you to a deeper sense of self, rather than a shallower one. Sometimes the greatest story ideas are simply taking a convention wisdom -- someone with amnesia doesn't know who he is -- and turn it on his head.

    Anne and I both contributed to an anthology that came out in February titled Faith: essays by believers, agnostics, and atheists. Anne's and my essays were excerpted for the Toronto Star, hers from the believer's perspective, mine the agnostic's. I love her essay. It's so deeply personal and profoundly curious. She is a born seeker.

    Thanks for bringing her into the discussion. Makes me want to go find another book of hers to read.

  17. HI, Susan:

    Actually, I said recovering Catholic. :-)

    And Irish to boot.

    But I sense we share a bit of history there. Glad it struck a chord.

    Ditto on the sexism. A total turn-off, always.

  18. HI, Mary:

    I've heard a lot of guys in law enforcement describe their jobs that way. Being a PI is a bit different because you're for hire, and every client expects results, usually yesterday. So there's a bit more jump and run, at least if the phone is ringing.

    I think those three traits you describe are a perfect encapsulation of the Will to Justice we want from our mystery/crime hero/ines.

    We'll tolerate some dishonesty as long as it serves a higher purpose -- "the honest con" as we called it, or "permissible deceit" as the Supreme Court has described it.

    And even if there is a bit of shabbiness when it comes to total honesty or total integrity, we need to know that the devotion to see it through testifies to a need for a fair and complete result. This usually results from a connection to another character, usually a victim or someone close to the victim, who inspires the character, despite his other limitations, to "raise his game."

    Thanks for chiming in.

  19. Hi, Deb:

    Oh, this isn't so grueling. I'm a bit wobbly is all.

    I say in the introduction to The Art of Character that it should be used as a toolkit, where every writer selects what tools they need for any given task. Using the whole book would be unwieldy -- and a great excuse for procrastination. I hope every writer uses it as you do -- finds a few things that really help, and leaves the rest for a later time, or simply decides it's not necessary.

    Thanks for your sweet concern. You're a pal.

  20. Wow! I found so many quotable statements in this post that I might have to start a David Corbett Quotes page on Pinterest (hehehe).
    Some of your erudite commentary that I found particularly, well, erudite, was as follows.

    "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."

    "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."

    "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 love the description, "invisible or voiceless," and I will have to read a book that has a character dedicated to those people.

    I don't know how you've escaped my notice, David, but you are clearly in my sights now. I plan on purchasing The Art of Character, as well as The Mercy of the Night.

    You have created the P.I. protagonist that I look for in my reading. Someone who has had to deal with some major disappointments or losses in life and can bring the strength and compassion needed to deal with those setbacks to the people with whom he strives to help. He is strong, but with the right amount of vulnerablity. Although he would never admit it, he aspires to a higher purpose than just putting in the time.

  21. Thank you for all the kinds words, Kathy. I could use you as a publicist! That was a far better encapsulations of who Phelan Tierney is and why he does what he does than I could manage, and I created him!

    I believe every character secretly yearns for a higher purpose. Most of them deny it or shrink from it or hide from it in other ways. The best find a way to honor it.

    Happy reading!

  22. Thanks, David (and Debs) for a great blog today!

    In the Macdonald classification of readers, I'm in the Ross camp. Lew Archer was the PI who brought me back to the genre as an adult.

    The playing field has changed so much for the PI in the information age, that when reading an older book - or Kinsey Millhone - the tools they have to work without are striking.

    I don't dislike darkness in a protagonist or a bit of corner-cutting when he/she is not a public servant.

    It's really hard to pick a favorite, but since he hasn't been mentioned, I choose Jackson Brodie. I don't know that I'd hire him. I couldn't live with the trauma, tragedy and upheaval that accompany him - but I do love to read about him.

    I'm anxiously waiting to find out about the little girl with a birthmark in the shape of Africa. I've been waiting quite a while now, but Kate Atkinson doesn't produce many books and the last two haven't featured Jackson Brodie.

    I'll be looking for The Mercy of the Night on my next visit to a bookshop.

  23. Hi, Sharon:

    I had Jackson Brodie very much in mind when I thought of what I wanted from my PI protagonist. His will to justice springs from a need to find the lost and heal the wounded, and that's as fine and noble a motive as I can think of.

    Yes, things have changed a great deal since the old days, but there still is nothing like a face-to-face encounter to discover the real -- not the virtual -- truth. And you can't put a FaceBook profile on the stand.

    You might have better luck finding The Mercy of the Night online. The publisher is Thomas & Mercer, which is an Amazon imprint, and so far I'm hearing it's much easier to locate on IndieBound or Barnes & Noble's online store or, of course, Amazon. Regardless, thanks for commenting, and for your interest in the book.

  24. Racing in after a crazy day--David, that's amazing. Ah. A little known bit of mystery connection--I love it! And yes, we both came out fine.

    "Easter at the hospital, etc" is the best example nonchalance I've ever heard. Hope you are recovering..and thank you thank you for everything--the title, of course, and your inspiration and guidance.

    I hope our paths cross in person soon!

  25. Thanks for the tip David. I'll call my local mystery bookshop to check if they'll be carrying your book and order it if the answer is no.


  26. David Corbett is just the ROCK! I read most of his book.. Can you tell me his latest book? Thanks in advance~ Linda Swift| Visit my ausCovertinvestigations.com.au