St. Patrick's Day was an interesting evening at the Poisoned Pen. Three authors were scheduled at 7 p.m., Keith Thomson, Tom Kaufman, and Michael Wiley, but I was lucky enough to be early, and have the chance to sit in while the Association of Former Intelligence Officers talked to Keith Thomson. Thomson, who writes about the intelligence community for the Huffington Post, discussed his debut novel, Once a Spy.
Once a Spy is the story of a former spy, now retired, who is suffering from Alzheimer's. He's seen as a threat to leak secrets, so for the greater good, it's decided that he needs to be neutralized, the nice term for killed. His son, a professional horseplayer, is a ne'er-do-well. The two of have estranged for years. The son grew up thinking his father was an appliance salesman, and it takes him a while to realize the violence occurring is not directed at him, since he's in debt to the tune of $23,000 to Russian loan sharks. Once he realizes his father is a target, the chase is on. And, it's a chase book, mostly set in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The people have them are quite sophisticated, using traffic cams and gadgets, including a bat drone. It's a drone that flaps like a bat and uses sonar in caves. It recharges its own battery, and people fifty miles away can see via the drone. Thomson said his publisher is saying it's an international spy novel, and, with the bad guy's connections to Martinique and Havana, it does have foreign intrigue.
I snuck out of that discussion to move over and hear Tom Kaufman and Michael Wiley. Tom Kaufman was there to discuss his debut novel, Drink the Tea, and Wiley was promoting his second book, The Bad Kitty Lounge. Both men were winners
of the same competition, the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) & St. Martin's Press Best First Private Eye Novel, awarded to a previously unpublished author. The prize is publication.
They said PWA defines a private eye as an investigator who is not paid institutionally, but is paid. That means they're not an amateur sleuth. Technically, an investigative journalist could be considered a PI, because they are paid. The PWA presents the Shamus award for the best PI novel. Again, the PI must be paid, and they owe loyalty to a client, not an institution that employs them full-time.
Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, said she thought the private eye grew out of the western. Wiley said he thought it went back to Shakespeare, and Hamlet, while Kaufman said it goes back even further. He said it goes back to the knight errant who roamed the country, helping others, and breaking rules. Like the knight, the PI has a moral code in what they're doing for the client's issues. They consider the client's best interests, even though it sometimes causes tension between the client and the PI. In fact, Marlowe's The Big Sleep has a tribute to Sir Thomas Malory, with a "cheesy" moment when the Lady in the Lake is portrayed in stained glass.
Kaufman, who is a director and cameraman, said he went to USC film school, and that's where he became interested in mysteries. A friend introduced him to Chandler in his freshman year. He had the best experience discovering mysteries and private investigators. Wiley said Chandler was also his first love in the field. He read and reread him. They agreed with Barbara that Chandler is more popular than Dashiell Hammett because Chandler's stories are character-based. Hammett was a PI himself, and he was interested in the procedure more than the character. They all admired Chandler's sense of place, LA. Kaufman said Chandler was educated in England, but had an ear for American slang, an ear for dialogue. They also said everyone owes something to Hammett and Chandler. They did say it was interesting that Robert B. Parker, who did his PhD on Chandler, turned more like Hammett in his later writing as it became very sparse.
Michael Wiley's books are set in Chicago. Kaufman's are set in Washington, D.C., as are those of George Pelacanos. Tom said Pelacanos is a neighbor, but he doesn't write about the same D.C. Kaufman said there are two Washingtons, one on Capital Hill, and the other is spitting distance away. That D.C. has other problems including drugs. Kaufman wanted to show how uneasy it is between those two worlds. He works in D.C., and shot documentaries about the homeless. There's a homeless veteran in his book, Drink the Tea. And, he shot political ads with focus groups. That's part of the book. Kaufman said it's hard to avoid politics in a PI novel set in D.C. But, Pelecanos does avoid politics. The federal government and the Capital isn't his focus.
Wiley said Chicago is synonymous with crime and corruption. He likes to go into the neighborhoods. He hasn't lived in the city for twelve years, but since moving, it puts the city in greater relief. He includes the coldness and hardness of the city. He and Barbara, who is from Chicago, agreed that the city still has qualities of blood in the gutters. It's a brawling city.
Wiley's first book was set in Little Vietnam. Chicago is a segregated city. But, there's an extraordinary park system, seventeen miles, available to Chicagoans. Chicago is a beautiful garden city, but, block by block, it's segregated.
Tom mentioned that D.C. and Chicago both had beautiful mansions built in the 1920s. Then the children of the wealthy builders didn't want to live in the city. In D.C., those mansions are now embassies. In Chicago, there are incredible mansions in bad neighborhoods.
When Wiley and Kaufman discussed the complex girlfriend relationships in their books, Barbara Peters said committed couples are hard to deal with in PI novels; there's too much baggage. It's the same when a woman detective has kids. What does she do with them when she's on a case? Wiley has an eleven-year-old named Jason in his latest book, the nephew of his detective. He said kids do cause more problems. What does his character do with the kid?
Once Keith Thomson joined the group, he introduced his book, and told some of the earlier stories about Once a Spy. He said the sequel, Twice a Spy, is due at Doubleday. And, Sony bought the movie rights. Kaufman has already submitted the sequel to his book. St. Martin's likes the book, Son of an Elephant, but they're waiting to see how Drink the Tea does. It has the same detective, and a lot of the same people.
Michael Wiley said he has sleazy titles. The Bad Kitty Lounge, his current book, will be followed by the third with St. Martin's, A Bad Night's Sleep.
Kaufman's debut novel is called Drink the Tea. The title is based on a tea ceremony. George Pelecanos asked him what kind of private eye novel can it be with a title like that. Kill or Dead isn't in the title. Wiley said he didn't get to pick the title of his first book, The Last Striptease. And, there's an unrobed, mostly naked woman on the front.
The discussion went full circle at the end, when Wiley and Kaufman said the PWA/SMP competition does reserve the right not to pick a winner. But, Steve Hamilton, Michael Koryta, Michael Wiley, and, now, Thomas Kaufman, all came out of that competition.
And, Barbara Peters, the perfect host on St. Patrick's Day, treated us to Irish soda bread, and gave away prizes, two Irish potato candies from See's Candies.