Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Daniel Friedman's RIOT MOST UNCOUTH

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce Macavity Award-winner Daniel Friedman, fellow novelist and friend. Dan and I, who share the same literary agent, met when his novel, DON'T EVER GROW OLD, featuring the irascible octogenarian Buck Schatz, and my novel, MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY, were both nominated for an Edgar award. Dan was the late Miss Edna's Absolute Favorite Novelist of All Time and I finally scored points with my mother-in-law when I invited Dan to dinner. 

Dan's newest novel is RIOT MOST UNCOUTH, about Romantic poet Lord Byron and his pet bear (yes, that's right) at Cambridge University. It's had wonderful reviews, including a starred one in Publishers Weekly: "Thriller Award–finalist Friedman (Don’t Ever Look Back) succeeds in making his unique blend of humor, crime, and an unusual protagonist work in the first of a new series starring the famous Romantic poet...Besides adroitly placing the major plot twists, Friedman manages to make one of the most obnoxious leads in recent memory oddly endearing and even sympathetic." 

Reds and lovely readers, Here's Dan!

DAN FRIEDMAN: There are some assumptions that are so intrinsic to the very nature of crime fiction that they often go unexamined.  The most basic is this:  There is a crime, and someone will solve it.  For every bad guy, there’s a good guy, and through the methodical practice of diligent investigation, the bad guy’s plan will be unraveled, and he will be exposed so that justice may be rendered unto him.

There are some variations on this concept; there are noir novels in which heroes discover evils so well-established that they can’t be dislodged by something as trifling as the truth -- “down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean,” and all that.  But there are always heroes, and they always manage to get to the bottom of the mystery, even if solving it is ultimately an empty gesture.

But what happens when the good guy isn’t all that good? And what happens when the process by which he endeavors to solve the mystery isn’t especially effective?  And what happens if he lacks the resolve to take a stand against the forces that will align against him when he closes in on the truth?

That’s going to be a pretty weird story.

And that’s what I’m exploring in my new novel, RIOT MOST UNCOUTH.  And, on top of all that other stuff, it’s a mystery novel in which the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, decides to try to solve a series of murders in 1807 Cambridge, England with the assistance of his pet bear.  

It’s not unusual to see a mystery novel with a historical figure at its center; there are novels in which Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and the ghost of Dorothy Parker all try their hands at solving mysteries.  But both historical mysteries and mysteries that incorporate famous personalities skew toward the gentler, cozier end of the genre, and RIOT MOST UNCOUTH goes in the other direction.  

The murders are sad and gruesome, and the arrogant, hedonistic protagonist has a personality comprised almost exclusively of flaws.  When he comes face to face with something truly evil, he tries to do the right thing, and that’s his redeeming quality, but he’s not the kind of person who has an easy time figuring out what the right thing is.  Publishers Weekly found him to be “one of the most obnoxious leads in recent memory,” but they still gave the book a starred review.

A lot of research went into this book.  I write short chapters, and this book has 42 of them, but each one of them begins with an epigram drawn from Byron’s poems and letters, so readers can compare my version of the poet to the real thing.

I also learned about an early nineteenth century England that was a lot more squalid and tumultuous than is commonly depicted in popular culture.  When we think of this period, we think of great houses and beautiful clothing and elegant manners, and of stories about love triumphing over rigid protocols and social conventions.  But the reality is very different, and very interesting.

King George III was mentally unfit to rule, which threw government into turmoil.  Industry had displaced agriculture as the primary driver of Britain’s economy, raising the fortunes of a lot of common folks while ruining a lot of landowning elites, who had depended on agricultural revenues to fund their lifestyles.  

London had grown much more dense, and it was almost completely lawless. Even the rich had little protection against crime, because there were no police, and no official apparatus for pursuing and apprehending criminals.  When homes were burglarized, people hired “thief takers” who were generally just crooks who helped the victims pay ransom to get their stuff back.  Local magistrates put bounties on wanted men, hoping private actors would bring them in for trial.  But if there was a crime whose perpetrator was unknown, there was no procedure for figuring out who’d done it.

So when a woman is murdered in a boardinghouse, and nobody knows who has done it, there’s really no better investigative procedure than Byron’s, and his plan is just to get drunk with a bear and then see where the night takes him.

This is a book about writers and butchers; about buckets of Champagne and buckets of blood; about broken hearts and runaway stagecoaches and wine glasses made from human skulls; about the intersection of passion and prudence; about longing and abandonment and guns and knives and teeth and claws. 

It’s different from my Buck Schatz mysteries, and it’s got a very different tone than most historical mysteries, but it’s a cool book, and I’m proud of it, and you should read it.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I heartily second that — it's a cool book, I'm proud of my friend Dan, and you should read it. Reds and lovely readers, what do you think of an "unlikable" protagonist. Do you need to adore your protagonist or is there room for flaws? What if the protagonist is as flawed — and obnoxious — as Lord Byron? Please tell us in the comments!


  1. Being relatively ignorant regarding the history of crime in England in 1807, I am a bit surprised to learn that people hired crooks to retrieve their stolen belongs, but I guess that makes sense in an odd sort of way.
    The idea of Lord Byron setting out to solve murders is quite an intriguing idea for a story . . . although it’s nice for the reader to actually like the protagonist, it’s very true-to-life for that character to have flaws. The “flawed and obnoxious” is a bit more difficult to judge without reading the book, so I’m looking forward to doing just that.
    Besides, I definitely want to know more about the pet bear . . . .

  2. I don't know a single person worthy of our admiration who isn't visibly flawed. Maybe they're too busy getting the stuff done. Where would we be without them. No no. I didn't say it was okay. It's understandable. The very things that allow people to accomplish the most difficult or tedious tasks are the ones that can make them unpleasant. I think I only adore the flawed, not for their flaws, but for their embracing who they are, so they can do whatever it is they do. But they must do something. They can't just be flawed. We are all flawed. Don't be afraid to show it a little. Don't demand perfection. It's an illusion that holds you back from life.

  3. Congrats on the new book Dan--it sounds fascinating. Love that you and Susan have a bond from the beginning of your careers!

    Reine, you are so right--we're all flawed. It's what we do in spite of that pushes us to do what we need to do.

  4. I liked Lord Byron in RIOT — truly an odd, funny, obnoxious fellow. The bear was pretty fab, too. I kinda like flawed protagonists. Some are just so ... earnest. That's one thing Byron is NOT.

  5. I think one of the hardest things to do is to get readers to commit to reading a book if the protagonist starts out being nasty and unlikeable. (Would Gone Girl works if the main characters were revealed for who they are right away.) And if the character's really really obnoxious and nasty, then does he have to "save the cat." Wondering, Dan, if you thought about a moment where he's slightly redeemed?

  6. It sounds marvelous and original and I will read it (because you told me to).

  7. I like writing flawed characters. Flaws give them room for self-improvement and personal growth. That said, they're a hard sell to readers who want only "nice" people doing the sleuthing, and since I write at the cozy end of the spectrum, this can be a problem. My solution is to stop reading reviews of my books on Amazon and Goodreads. Byron and the bear sound like a winning combination.

  8. I don't need my protagonist (or any of the characters) to be perfect. But I do need a reason to root for them. Characters who are just a bunch on unpleasant people are not a group I care to hang out with for 300-500 pages. Dennis Lehane's The Drop is an example. There are no "perfect" characters and most of them are pretty darn unpleasant, but at least I was invested in how the main character was going to act/end up.

    Lord Byron and a bear. As a person with two English degrees, I'd love to see him as a detective.

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  10. Every character is the hero of their own narrative, and has some sort of justification for what they do. If they're nasty, there's usually a reason why they they think people deserve to be treated that way. Sometimes it's even a good reason.

    Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay comparing Bernie Goetz the subway vigilante to Batman, and talked about why Batman is a hero while Goetz is considered a pretty bad guy even though both of them are basically known for doing the same thing. The difference is Batman is presented in a way that justifies his behavior, and Goetz never figured out how to portray himself that way.

    People actually like Goetz better when they know less about him. When they just think he's a guy who shot a bunch of muggers, they approve, but when they hear him actually open his mouth and explain himself, they start to think he's the kind of person who should never be allowed to own a gun.

    Similarly, it's really easy to imagine a story told from the perspective of somebody like the Riddler, where Batman is a terrifying lunatic who runs around in a skintight rubber sex suit breaking people's legs.

    In RIOT MOST UNCOUTH, I present Byron's horrific childhood as a sort of explanation for the man he has become. A lot of people believe Byron suffered from bipolar disorder, and my narrative strongly hints that his heavy use of alcohol and drugs are a way of self-medicating an untreated mental illness.

  11. Hello Daniel! I adore flawed, difficult protagonists. This sounds right up my alley. It must have been tricky getting the balance right so readers would want to follow your Byron through to the end. I admire that.

    Craft-wise, was there anything you did to help you get the balance, right? (I need beta readers to help me when it comes to this kind of stuff.) How much did your portrayal of Byron change from the first draft to the published version? I'm interested in the crafting of these kinds of protagonists. Thanks!

  12. I have never been so riveted by a blog! Daniel, you know I completely adore you, and I cannot believe you've gone off in this direction--amazing! The description of the book--with the part about buckets of blood and etc--is off-the-charts great.

    As for flaws--I am more put off when the main character is too cute and perfect. THAT drives me crazy. Flaws, real logical flaws--fine with me.

    And you're so in the zeitgeist flow, with your bear and Revenant's bear, I mean. Right? Did you do bear research?

  13. Dan spent a lot of time with Noel (aka Bear in the Big Blue House) to do research. NO, JUST KIDDING! Seriously, what was bear research like, Dan?

  14. This is a story about a character who is funny, but it's not a funny story, and the hard part was modulating the shifts in tone between the heavy stuff and the funny stuff.

    Early on, there's a flashback to Byron's childhood, in which Byron's father is extremely abusive toward Byron's mother. In an original draft, he was wearing a ring on his finger that cut her face when he slapped her, and that particular detail was so upsetting that it caused early readers to disengage from the story. I wanted the scene to be upsetting, because it's context that helps us understand why Byron is such a mess, but I didn't want it to be quite that upsetting, so I got rid of the ring, but kept the slap.

  15. Sometimes it's the littlest changes that make the difference--it's amazing. What would we do without beta readers?

  16. Beta readers and many drafts.... Also, if there's a film version, Noel volunteers to play the bear.

  17. The bear was the thing that got me interested in Lord Byron, and once I started researching him, I decided that he was a good character to use to explore some other concepts I'd been wanting to mess with in a mystery, which I can't discuss in too much detail without spoiling the book.

    I did a fair amount of bear related research; I had to figure out how big the bear would have been, what its fur felt like, what its teeth and claws were like, and how safe a tame bear can reasonably be.

  18. So...HOW safe can a tame bear reasonably be?

    (And that ring thing IS upsetting. Haunting. And very realistic. Fascinating how the one tweak makes a difference.)

  19. Domesticated animals like dogs and housecats have been bred over a lot of generations to select for traits that make them more sociable to humans. Wild animals like bears have traits that are naturally selected by environmental pressures, and tend to be less sociable. So even a tame bear raised in captivity is still a wild animal with wild instincts.

    According to my research, captive bears are significantly more dangerous than dogs, but less dangerous than big cats or, interestingly, elephants.

  20. Dan, I'm very excited by what I've learned of your new book here. Lord Byron was a fascinating person. How different we can see him outside of our 11th grade classrooms and trying to make sense of "She walks in beauty... ." The real Lord Byron with all his excesses including food, drink, men, women, and animals is far more interesting than Ms. Kent-Worthington, who I now see what she must have twitched over but never let on... how far more interesting was he than we ever were allowed to pursue. Even then, or especially then, when we were subjected to the misguided molding of those adults responsible for our care and guidance we were guided away from the flaws of those we admired.

    Thank you.

  21. What other recommendation do we need than Miss Edna loved it! I'm a huge fan of quirky, so Dan, you sound right up my alley. My favorite thing about historical characters used in fiction is that authors seem to come up with the odd bits about these people that are infinitely more interesting than what they're famous for. Daniel, I'm looking forward to putting you on my new author to read list and diving in. Thanks.