Brian Lindenmuth with Craig McDonald
Brian Lindenmuth: Given his influence on Lassiter what went through your mind when you heard that Jim Crumley died?
Craig McDonald: I was flattened. He was a tremendous influence and he very kindly blurbed Head Games. My interview with him — one of his last — leads Rogue Males, my second interview collection that Bleak House will publish in May. It makes the release of the book pretty poignant for me…I’d promised him a finished copy.
Brian Lindenmuth: In your interview with Dan Brown (collected in Art in the Blood) you asked him the following question: "You've taken on some fairly powerful entities in your books – the Catholic Church... the masons...various alleged secret societies and government agencies. Are you starting to have any fears for your own safety?” Your own work deals with secret societies; In Head Games you've taken on the Bush family and Skull Bones and in Toros & Torsos a secret cabal of Surrealists.
What is the fascination with secret societies and have you felt any pressures for your portrayal of infamous secret societies.
Craig McDonald: It’s tough not to be enthralled by secretive groups, particularly when they’re populated by movers-and-shakers a la Skull & Bones. For a novelist, the beauty of these groups is all that secrecy creates voids that can translate into plot moves. As to any repercussions, so far, all is well (so far as I know). The surrealist circle I write about in T&T has passed from the earth. Skull & Bones is a very different matter, but I was fairly playful in my handling of that group, particularly in comparison to some recent nonfiction books that have tackled Skull & Bones. Book three examines the FBI’s war on writers under J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, so I’m not exactly shying away from more of the same.
Brian Lindenmuth: This is a question that you have been asked before but I don't care I'm going to ask it again anyway. Will we ever get to see excerpts or a full Hector Lassiter story? It could be a fun voice to write in.
Craig McDonald: Possibly. Or possibly, you’ve already read his stuff. In a sense, particularly as he narrates some of them, these are Hector’s books. One of the inspirations for the Lassiter series is James Sallis’ Lew Griffin cycle, in which it becomes a little fuzzy in terms of the exact nature of the story you’re being handed in each novel. Sallis tells us that some of the novels Griffin—who is also a crime writer—has penned share titles or plot elements with novels in the Griffin series. It gets a little mind-bending as Sallis’ series unfolds. You can expect something similar to start to assert itself in Lassiter #3, Print the Legend.
Brian Lindenmuth: I know that you are working on a graphic novel for Head Games. Two questions: 1) Do you read crime comics? 2) Will it be a (relatively) faithful adaptation to a new medium or something not seen in HG?
Craig McDonald: I read a fair amount of crime comics and have been reading graphic novels for quite a number of years. I grew up collecting comics, of course, so I’m steeped in the form. The basic plot moves of HG will carry through in the graphic novel, but the camera angles are changed, so to speak. There are some things filtered through new prisms to exploit the visual format, and some characters and events from not-yet-published novels crept into the script, too.
Brian Lindenmuth: Speaking of crime comics I've been pushing everyone to read Scalped -- have you read it? Brilliant stuff.
Craig McDonald: Scalped I got onto a while back and voted for it in the Crimespree Awards. It’s a terrific, dark piece of work.
Brian Lindenmuth: The first two books are with Bleak House and the next two are going to be with St. Martins. Is it hard to switch publishers in the middle of a series?
Craig McDonald: My most intense interaction with Bleak House came via my relationship with my editor, Alison Janssen, so making that break is bittersweet, but I have this gut instinct somewhere down the line we’ll work together again. Probably the most dramatic effect on the series in terms of the switch in houses makes itself felt in publication sequence. I wrote seven Lassiters and had a kind of plan for publication sequence. My new editor read all seven, and decided he wanted to start the Minotaur Books run with what I regarded as books six and seven. So you’re going to get the books in a radically different sequence than I originally intended.
Brian Lindenmuth: Much is made of Hector's interactions with actual historical figures, he claims no less than Ernest Hemingway as a running buddy, but he is ultimately a fictional character. What crime fiction characters would be running buddies with Lassiter? I can't help but think that he and CW Shugrue would kick up some dust.
Craig McDonald: They’d have a few years’ gulf between them, but I can see those two having a time. I could see Hector getting on with some of Ellroy’s guys. Hector’s got a strong disdain for private eyes, so he wouldn’t be tight with Marlowe or Spade. Hec and Modesty Blaise could be fun together.
Brian Lindenmuth: When all is said and done and all seven novels have been published how will the short story “The Last Interview” fit in?
Craig McDonald: Well, in what would have been novel seven, but now will be four (Gnashville, Mon Amour) I’m going to address that quite directly. But you’re going to start getting a sense of where I’m headed in Print the Legend, which begins to recontextualize events as we thought we knew them in Head Games and “The Last Interview.”
Brian Lindenmuth: So, who do you know that has a heart condition or a congenital heart defect?
Craig McDonald: Actually, Hector’s daughter’s condition was something done strictly for story reasons…it has no direct biographical tie to me, or anyone around me.
Brian Lindenmuth: The reason I asked about the heart condition is because I was born with a congenital heart defect that needed repairs and they, in general, don't seem to be something that the public is largely aware of.
Craig McDonald: I'm so glad you came through your condition... Having kids of your own you know how it is to see a child when they're ill.
I never really understood utter vulnerability until we had our two daughters. When the teenage years come, I'll be that guy sitting in a chair with a gun to greet the suitors...
Brian Lindenmuth: Let's talk Bud Fiske, you said, "I figure when Bud grew up, he ended up being a little like William Burroughs." -- That's an interesting destination for a character; will we see Bud in another novel Lassiter or otherwise?
Craig McDonald: One of the great surprises for me has been the strong attachment some have formed for Bud. There’s a certain type of reader I’m finding who actually prefer Bud to Hector in Head Games and keep asking for a Bud novel (not going to happen). That said, yes, Bud will be cropping up again, and in fact he has a fairly major role in Gnashville.
Brian Lindenmuth: One of the themes of Head Games was myth, reality and how the two interact. Today we seem to expect our heroes and public figures to have feet of clay. Does this expectation of the human limit our capacity for myth and legend? If so how does it affect our stories, the ones we read and tell?
Craig McDonald: I’d submit that many of the classical heroes were pretty gray characters in many ways. Some of them did some pretty appalling things or had serious character defects. The difference between then and now, I think, is that many characters we get in contemporary fiction are almost stubbornly unlikable. I find myself dropping a lot of books lately because the characters have no redeeming qualities and so, for me, no reader appeal. If you have talent, you can have it both ways — James Ellroy excels at writing gripping bad-asses who have very dark sides yet they remain compelling and even a bit winning. Despite their tremendous flaws, they are ingratiating. It’s a talent for characterization more contemporary crime fiction novelists need to cultivate. As to the other part of your question regarding myth and legend, I think that many current writers also trump story for character or atmosphere, or even attitude, and those qualities — sans strong story — do not a saga make.
Brian Lindenmuth: For the historical figures you write about are you interested more in the myth or the man? For Lassiter -- which are you writing, the myth or the reality?
Craig McDonald: That question goes to the heart of the Lassiter series as we think we’re receiving it. Hector is known as “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives” and the tension between those two paths is the fulcrum for all seven books. So I’m going to dodge some of that question for now. As to the historical figures, I try to do with them what I try to do with historical events and eras in the Lassiter novels. I’m not really trying to put across a historically accurate snapshot of a time or place, so much as to evoke a sense of what I think to be our collective impression of 1935 Key West, or 1924 Paris, or in the case of Head Games, of the late 1950s. I think we all get the past through similar still images, old films and paraphernalia, so I want you to look at my Hemingway and say, “Yeah, that’s how Hem would have been,” or, “Yeah, that’s Tijuana in 1957.” It’s not about accurate depiction of person or place, but rather accurate depiction of shared sense of person and place.
Brian Lindenmuth: Question dodging -- pfft what is that :)
You once said "...I spent several years reviewing crime and mystery fiction, but drifted away from that over the past couple of years, not just because my own fiction-writing career was gaining traction, but because I found fewer and fewer things to be surprised by or to enjoy." Are you still suffering from genre fatigue?
Craig McDonald: Figure this one should stir up some discussion among the cognoscenti...
I think I am. A lot of my recent reading has been stuff to feed my own novels. What I have now are destination reads. I’ll make a point of finding the new Woodrell, Sallis, Bruen, Ellroy, Koryta and Abbott…a few others. But I’m not reading in vast swaths like I used to. There were years where I’d managed to read numerous Edgar nominees before they were announced — even the really obscure ones. This year I hadn’t read any of the books that were picked.
Brian Lindenmuth: Nah, the cognoscenti don't read me -- and the ones that do don't know what to make of me actually. I was actually chastised at Bouchercon for some of the reviews that I wrote. How dare I have an opinion about a book that differs from the group and oh the horrors that I've written negative reviews. I found the face-to-face experience enlightening but it's not going to make me change how I do things.
Craig McDonald: Bouchercon was an experience for me, too...I picked up some of what you experienced, too, but on a milder level. And yes, there aren't enough honest reviewers, or at least, those willing to write the negative review. On the other hand, there are a few reviewers (print side) I sense really use their reviews to further their own nascent writing careers. It can all be a bit unsavory.
Brian Lindenmuth: What will it take to shake the genre up? Does it need shaking up?
Craig McDonald: I think what we’re really lacking is more writers willing to swing for the fences. We need more big stories. The authors we grew up reading didn’t have to compete with near uninterrupted reruns of CSI and Law & Order, etc. Whatever you might think of the strain those shows put on reality and procedure, they tell slick, well-crafted crime stories that render a lot of crime novels as they are written now, redundant. You can’t build a writing career on the small case, anymore. I think the key to staying relevant as a genre writer now is to be found in mounting the kinds of bigger stories television and film can’t afford to produce.
Brian Lindenmuth: What do you make of the genre now?
Craig McDonald: I think a lot of folks are flailing, in many ways. There are probably more gifted writers in the field now than at any other point in its history, and they are telling very slick, well-crafted stories, but going back to my earlier point, the stories are all a little too familiar. The great P.I. novels have been written…police procedurals are a very crowded field and so consequently it’s hard to stand out writing in that sector. Hard noir, sadly, is an express ticket to the midlist or oblivion, I think. The writers I’m drawn to seem to be the envelope pushers. There’s also a sense of panic about the state of the business that I think a lot of blogging and cross-talking tends to exacerbate. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break from the news, or from the trade blogs — I think it can even be a healthy thing in times like these. Better, maybe to keep your head down and just write.
Brian Lindenmuth: For you who are the envelope pushers? The already mentioned Woodrell and Sallis or others?
Craig McDonald: As to envelope pushers I was thinking mostly of Sallis and some of those writers you mentioned. I liked House of Leaves, a lot, and regard it as a bit of a crime novel, in its way. There was an obscure book a few years back I read called Throat Sprockets about an obscure underground film that kind of anticipated House of Leaves, and in some ways, reminds me of the cult film thread running through Sallis' Cypress Grove.
Brian Lindenmuth: House of Leaves was just mind-blowing but I've never heard of Throat Sprockets (I'll have to check it out) but there is also this novel called Flicker by Theodore Roszak that was a mix of fantasy, horror, film history and weird that fell through the cracks. Also there was an interesting book that came out last year called Crimson Orgy about exploitation films in the 60's that is a mix of mystery and horror that is a who's-gonna-do-it novel. It kind of fell through the cracks because it's really a mystery/crime novel that only takes place on a horror movie set, but since it was pushed more to horror readers the mystery/crime crowd didn't hear about it.
Craig McDonald: Crimson Orgy I have heard of, but it did get by me. I'll look it up. There definitely does seem to be some collision of horror and crime now (I can't make the leap to the strong urban fantasy stuff, but stuff that walks the borderline more closely intrigues me).
Brian Lindenmuth: In a conversation on experimentation in the mystery/crime fiction genre Jay Tomio speculated that maybe the revolution was televised but no one watched, especially in the wake of writers like Kobo Abe, Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem. Laura Lippman once said "There are experiments within crime fiction, but they tend to be experiments within the form; we still color inside the lines, but our skies might be red, our grass blue. More calibrations than experiments, playing with small changes and readers' expectations to push and pull the form a little."
Craig McDonald: To varying degrees, I agree with Laura and with Tomio. The thing is, there’s not a lot of reward for trying to extend the form. In fact, it will buy you enmity in some quarters, particularly from more traditional readers and writers who want things to stay rigidly within those lines Laura refers to. Last year’s Edgar nomination list definitely skewed “literary.” This year’s list, in many respects, struck me as a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. In retrospect, we’ll see all this quite clearly, I think. When you’re in the thick of the melee, as we are, all you can really concentrate on is throwing (or ducking) the next punch.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the more innovative stuff being ignored by the reading public at large? Will it have any long term effects?
Craig McDonald: Absolutely — the best stuff is clearly flying under the radar. In a perfect and just world, James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell would be bestsellers. They write wonderful and accessible stories with great characterization and dialogue and atmosphere and yet something more. But they are regarded as writers’ writers. I think they are each having their influence on other authors coming up, but it’s an incremental advance and the increments of movement are frustratingly slow.
Brian Lindenmuth: I've actually been toying with the idea of pitching a column idea to Jon called The Long Tail Reader which would talk about writers and books that just don't seem to be on very many mystery/crime fiction readers radar screens. Writers like Will Christopher Baer, Jay Russell, Brian Evenson, Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Joe Meno, Steve Mosby, Kem Nunn, Jack O'Connell, Peter Moore Smith, Rupert Thomson and Frank Turner Hollon who are all doing some really interesting things and I find myself increasingly drawn to.
I almost wonder if it's because they don't participate in the community, I mean someone like Jeffrey Ford won The Edgar a couple of years ago and still there are a lot of readers within the community who haven't heard of him. But they also seem to be writing crime fiction of a different paradigm and that's part of the enjoyment.
Craig McDonald: I like your idea for the column, and I think you're right in that these people don't really play the promotions game.
But then neither do Sallis and Woodrell, etc. So they probably are stunting themselves in that sense. A column such as you envision might be the only way to get them on the map.
Brian Lindenmuth: I have been talking about some of these books and authors over the years online here and there at places like Patti Abbott's Forgotten Friday Book project or in discussions and reviews and I could formalize these past discussions into a series of columns and post them at Bookspot Central but since that audience is already a mixed bag I feel that they might be better served in a magazine whose audience is primarily consisted of mystery/crime readers. Of course I still have to find the time (and convince Jon :)
Ford is great. He studied under John Gardner and his first few novels were these great fantasies that defied description then, over the last couple of years has moved in the direction of mysteries. But he never fully leaves behind his sense of the fantastic which helps to set his work apart from the rest.
Craig McDonald: Ford I know by name but have not read...I'll have to rectify that.
Brian Lindenmuth: When John Connolly wrote the following:
"I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.
"I'm not sure who, if anyone is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?"
I took this to be a call to arms but surely I can't be the only one right?
Craig McDonald: The tough thing about mounting any kind of revolution is the fact as writers we have market forces to consider and we are relying on publishers to pay us for our stories. You can maybe take a few more risks if you’re handled by independent publishers, but the downside to that is exposure/distribution/sales. Eventually, if you stay with a smaller house, BookScan will kill your prospects for advancing to a bigger publisher if that’s an objective. And if you want to be a fulltime writer, you’re going to need to make some commercial concessions. That’s just the reality of the world and I think it’s always been that way to some extent. With the economic situation we’re groping our way through now, there’s even less prospect or reward for being a crusader, right now. The cutting edge is the bleeding edge.
Brian Lindenmuth: Mystery/crime fiction, much more so then any other genre, is far more obsessed/enamored with its pulp fiction roots. To me this is ultimately a longing look backwards at days gone past.
Craig McDonald: I just wrote a column touching on some of this for Crimespree Magazine. I think there’s a value and necessity in knowing your own roots. The writer I probably feel the greatest kinship with right now is Megan Abbott. We both revere James Ellroy and we’re both writing similar eras and characters. We were talking about mulling contemporary settings, and we simultaneously began ruing the cell phone…ruing the connectivity we all have with one another now and the fact that so much contemporary suspense writing — be it in books or on film — all spins on the gadgets. You’d have to rewrite both of the most recent Bond films if you took away the cell phones as plot elements. I blame some of this on Bin Laden, too. In my first interview book, I kept hearing time and again from authors they couldn’t really write contemporary stuff in good conscience in the wake of 9-11 because it just dwarfed their sense of genre fiction. I’m not sure many of us have come out of that effect, even eight years later. Many of those writers drifted into historical fiction. It’s kind of why I’m writing the books I’m currently writing.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the genre's current obsession with pulp fiction a healthy one?
Craig McDonald: I think it’s fine if you’re taking the best of the pulp tradition and updating or spinning it in some fresh way. I think where it’s perhaps been unhealthy has been the effect the obsession has had on some European writers who are writing in cultures and settings outside that American, post-war pulp tradition, yet trying to graft that sensibility on to their works. It’s produced some curious and not particularly effective hybrids, I think.
Brian Lindenmuth: Are you referring to some of the UK writers from the last couple of years like Ray Banks and Russel McLean who are writing PI novels or something else?
Craig McDonald: As to those European writers, I wasn't thinking of those two writers you named... McLean and I share an editor, but I haven't read his book yet. Ray? I actually read Saturday's Child in manuscript and I enjoyed Ray's Big Blind. I'm not sure I can call to mind a name of a particular writer, but I just remember reading some primarily British writers a few years ago who were trying to take that 1950s-style American crime novel sensibility and graft it onto their home territories, even carrying over British versions of American tough guy jargon, etc. and it just came off as painfully spoofy.
Brian Lindenmuth: I didn't necessarily mean to call out Ray and Russel I just happened to have their books nearby. Because I do like the UK crime novels that steep you in THEIR world and slang/language/jargon; the US crime novel can be a great framework as a style as long as the rest is filled in with what makes the other location culturally significant.
I knew that you and Russel share an editor (as an aside -- John is really sharp, he engaged with hard questions right out of the gate and
was focused like a laser) I can imagine that he is a great editor to with.)
Craig McDonald: John Schoenfelder is a very very sharp guy. I've got a few years on him and thought I'd read well and deeply...widely. But not like him. He's truly a bit intimidating in terms of his steeping in (and out) of genre.
Brian Lindenmuth: Does the obsession stifle creativity, experimentation and growth in the genre?
Craig McDonald: That depends on the writer. It’s like Frost’s comments on blank verse poetry — he said it is like playing tennis without boundaries. If the world is your oyster, you can go seriously astray or just diffuse into nothingness. I think there are things to be gained by some confinement…some obeying of the rules or standards.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the future of the genre in good hands?
Craig McDonald: I have no clue. Frankly, I’m not sure whose hands the genre is in, right now. To echo Connolly, is it in the hands of the publishers? Some select cadre of writers? Writers’ groups? The print critics’ ranks are fairly decimated now, so I’m not sure they are gatekeepers in as meaningful a sense as they once were. A lot of this stuff is maybe being mediated by folks with web sites and blogs now, but that’s a real mixed bag, too. There are some excellent blogs and online writers/critics focusing their eye on these matters now, but there are also a lot of unsavory sites or people who are using their crime blogs for logrolling, self-promotion and the like. I’m not sure I can point to a center or an authority, or even a few writers and say, “There’s the future, and it’s a good one.” That said, I’m not pessimistic — these things are cyclical. The wheel will turn.
Brian Lindenmuth: I find that I have a very personal and gut level response to Lassiter; he reminds me of my grandfather. Looking at my own personal response and then one of the epigraphs from Head Games, "Rakish in his eye patch. Pundit went sane...A reminder: men were men then.” was Lassiter meant, in some way, to be a tribute to that generation of men?
Craig McDonald: Absolutely. I dedicated the novel to the memory of my grandfather, Bill Sipe, who gave me Doc Savage paperbacks and crime novels to read…turned me on to Ian Fleming. He was a retired structural steel worker who took on that career during the Depression. Before that, he kind of rambled around…was an extra in old Westerns, supposedly with Tom Mix, and the like. He wore sports jackets, regardless of the weather, and smoked Pall Malls and carried a Zippo. He was a salty talker… Lassiter is intended to celebrate that generation of men born between 1900-1910.
Brian Lindenmuth: I pride myself on being a close reader and missed the dedication -- ack!
Mine was in the navy, fought in the war, saw the world; He was a taxi cab driver and drove liquor trucks during Prohibition; his sister dated a small-time local Baltimore gangster, during the Depression he swallowed a quarter that he found, causing quite the stir, and I miss him.
Craig McDonald: Your grandfather sounds a great guy. I still miss my grandfather and think of him all the time, even though he died in fall of 1980. His age was such he missed both the big wars, but his sons served...one in Europe, and one in the Pacific. I was around them a lot too, and had an uncle who was a Vietnam Vet, so I really grew up around a lot of these soldiers when I was coming up.
Brian Lindenmuth: Not too long ago there was an article in The Observer called 'Why Do Young Male Writers Love Icky, Tough Guy Deadbeats?' One of the ways that the premise was stated was "Over the past decade or so, characters like these seem to have become the vehicle of choice for young male writers seeking to express a certain sort of disaffection." One of the things that I took away from the piece was that it was written by someone who doesn't read crime fiction. Putting this seeming omission aside for the moment.... Daniel Mennaker stated that the modern incarnation of the tough guy is a "sociological outgrowth of some gender-role ambiguity introduced beginning in the '60s or '70s, when the way a young guy ought to be became less clear." Do you agree with this statement?
Craig McDonald: I think I do. I’m not what I’d call a “young male writer.” I was in my early 40s when I created Hector. But I did come up through that strange period of time when you could actually get a glare or even some harsh words if you dared to hold a door for a woman. We aren’t that far out there anymore, but the 1960s and 70s definitely constituted a deliberate or accidental war on the man’s man. I think there is room for this kind of guy, even now. We’re not talking misogynistic dinosaurs, but men who are just…men. And frankly, the enlightened, feminized male doesn’t strike me as a very sturdy or convincing vehicle for carrying a crime novel.
Brian Lindenmuth: The feminized man maybe not but the more domesticated male probably has potential.
One of the things that I found interesting about the presidential election was the presentation of gender roles. On one hand we had John McCain the rugged war hero and Sarah Palin the hunter; on the other hand we had Barack Obama the book reading intellectual (dare I say tough guy) and Joe Biden who can't help but react emotionally when talking of his deceased first wife and daughter. Like I said it was interesting if not often commented on.
You once said "But Hector is a 20th-century man, and a veteran, with all that implies." -- Over the last few decades the societal roles of men have been undergoing a change. Is the character a response to this change?
Craig McDonald: Again, yeah, that’s what I’m aiming for with Hector. Everything repeats itself. There was a time I thought I’d have a very different life from that of my grandfather or his sons — no catastrophic economic crises, nothing like that back-shooting shock of Pearl Harbor…no long, ongoing wars. Well, we’re kind of living our own version of those bloody 20th Century landmarks, but we’re relying on a much different flavor of man to carry us through these hard times. A part of me wishes some of those old warhorses and tough guys were still around to see us through. I don’t put much trust in my own generation’s effectiveness in certain areas of endeavor.
Brian Lindenmuth: In a visceral response to The Observer piece Susannah Breslin wrote in part the following: "Where's our 21st century Kerouac? The man on the train so skullfucked by the hijacked American way that he can't help but see the world and himself truly? He's probably in diapers. It'll take a post-male man to bring literature out of the ladies room."
One of Breslin's readers responded by talking about Chandler's Marlowe as the ultimate tough guy -- the archetype -- and speculated that the lack of real world experiences of these young writers influenced the diluting of the brand. He also went on to speculate that it would take a few decades for young men writers to "know what they're about."
Does the tough guy have a place in the 21st century and if so what is it? Or if it's not there yet then what will it be?
Craig McDonald: I think there is a certain danger for writers who are published early. I’d have loved to have been out there in my 20s, but I wonder if I’d still be around. I think your experience of life is still pretty thin in your 20s, and so the well you have to draw on can run dry too fast. I didn’t really find my writer’s voice until I had some years behind me, had my own family and really got mired in life in a way I could kind of duck and dodge through my youth.
I keep saying that these things go in cycles, and I think we’re headed back into the cycle of the harder man. You look at the new version of Bond that goes back to Fleming’s original conception of Bond as thug — well away from the Simon Templar spin on Bond that came in with Roger Moore… You look at the kind of quiet success Mad Men is having…I think there is a craving for a return to some kind of harder-edged masculinity and I think that trend is building, even now.
And I would quibble with Marlowe as the ultimate tough guy. I recently interviewed Megan Abbott for Mystery News. This part didn’t make the final cut, but we were talking at some length about the very feminine aspects of Marlowe that a lot of readers try very hard to deny is there. If you read Chandler’s books with a cold eye it becomes tough to regard Marlowe as something other than a kind of feminized man, in some ways. As Megan said, he’s not “butch.” And there are undeniable moments when Marlowe reveals a strong disdain for women, and sometimes in something other than a misogynistic way. Marlowe is a compelling character, but he does not embody my vision of the classic tough guy.
Brian Lindenmuth: Sandra jokes around and calls me 'old man' but I feel old in ways that I never dreamt possible when I was in my 20's. Divorce, children, "real" jobs, compromise, single parenting...these things have taken their toll. Yet I wouldn't change my life's trajectory for the experience that they have given me.
To be fair to that responder I heavily paraphrased what he wrote.
Craig McDonald: I do believe a lot of young writers really only have one effective book (maybe two) in them, and those can run a bit thin because they haven't had those life experiences, not directly, so their works tend to of have voids in them, or even more treacherous, they sort of borrow experiences from other books and authors so there's a falsity there. There really is something to be said for having been knocked around a bit by life in order to grow and evolve as a writer.
Brian Lindenmuth: I have this working theory about the development of a language of self-expression, particularly in crime fiction, for men of a particular age group, that utilizes pop culture references, lines from movies and song lyrics temporarily as it becomes a fuller and more complex means of expression. I'm still working it out but may write something on it if it coalesces.
Craig McDonald: I think you're right about some writers sort of using that stuff as a kind of shorthand. The problem with that is it assumes we all move in the same pop culture pool, and I think with all the fragmentation and options open to us that is less true with each passing day, and if you're thinking at all about your long game, some of the more ephemeral references are going to be swiftly rendered meaningless by the simple passage of time.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the masculine image of Lassiter an anachronistic one?
Craig McDonald: Well, some of Head Games and Toros & Torsos’ readers would tell you it is. Guys tend to love him, but he isn’t to every woman’s taste. My agent says Hector appeals to “the kind of women who love men who love women.” I think that’s true. The majority of women who write about him or write me really love the guy, but there are some women here and there who find him too strong a cup of coffee. But while I use him as a kind of prism through which to view our times, I am writing him in his own historical context, and we’re going to see him through the 1920s and well into the 1960s and some of those changing roles of men and women make themselves felt as the series moves closer to our times. In Print the Legend, Hector is 65, and he’s running up against a very different type of woman than he was encountering in 1935 Key West. Hannah Paulson in Print the Legend is a world away from the women he runs up against in Head Games or Toros.
Brian Lindenmuth: If you were in a bar full of cozy writers and things got ugly how many cozy writers would it take to bring you down?
Craig McDonald: Sadly enough, one cozy writer could take me down if that writer had a cat in tow. I am toxically, deathly allergic to cats. One minute in a room with a feline and I’m totaled.
Brian Lindenmuth: In an interview you once said "And James Sallis - his Lew Griffin series is probably the most profound influence on the Lassiter books, something that may become more apparent as subsequent novels appear." Besides the 7 book structure, how so?
Craig McDonald: Without throwing a spoiler in there for Sallis’ series, the Lew Griffin cycle builds to a twist ending that forces us to re-evaluate the nature of fictional characters and our relationship to them as readers. I mean to do something in a similar vein with my series, but focusing more on the question of what to make of books being related to us by a crime fiction writer. It goes back to that earlier question you posed about Hector the man and Hector the myth. Can we trust these texts Hector is handing down to us?
Brian Lindenmuth: What would you have liked to see but were born too late for?
Craig McDonald: VE Day in Times Square…I’d really like to know who Jack the Ripper was…and the Cleveland Headhunter. And what the hell really did happen to fellow Ohioan Ambrose Bierce?
Brian Lindenmuth: I'm interested in different people’s perceptions of novels that are dark. What makes a novel dark for you and what are the darkest novels that you have read?
Craig McDonald: A crushing ending that lets in no light. I think Bruen’s The Dramatist was a dark book in that sense. The Big Nowhere by Ellroy has a real darkness and is probably my favorite of his novels. William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. In terms of pitch-black novels, I’d have to say Gregory Mcdonald’s The Brave, which is unsavory and dark and just wrong.
Brian Lindenmuth: I heard a story once about Lassiter and Emerson LaSalle, any truth to it?
Craig McDonald: The way I hear it is they tied one on at the Edgar Awards Banquet circa 1961 and the night almost certainly crescendoed into something involving a holding cell.
Brian Lindenmuth: Final question: You are in many eyes (mine included) the best interviewer out there. How does it feel to be on the other side?
Craig McDonald: Well, first thank you very much for that very nice compliment. And thank you for taking so much trouble with this interview and all the great questions. Being on the receiving end continues to be very, very surreal to me. I don’t think that feeling is going to go away.