Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Q: What makes Scott Elliot different from other (unofficial) PIs?A: It's nearly impossible to do anything completely new in the PI subgenre. Elliott's claim to originality may be his relationship to postwar Hollywood. He's a former actor turned soldier turned operative for a shady security company, Hollywood Security, a firm as likely to cover up a crime as solve it—if that's what it takes to protect a star or a movie. In taking this job, Elliott is working out (or feeding) his unrequited love for the town he left behind when he was drafted in 1941.
Q: How did you come up with the character?
A: I started my career writing about an amateur sleuth named Owen Keane, a failed seminarian who was very non-violent and cerebral. After four Keane books, I decided to try a second series, and I wanted a protagonist who was different from Keane, to give me a real change of pace. So Elliott is more of a man of the world and a man of action. The period Hollywood angle came about because I had an idea for a sequel to the classic film Casablanca. I decided to write a murder mystery set in 1947 in which Warner Bros. tries to film the sequel. The result was Kill Me Again.
Q: What's next for you and Scott?
A: 2011 saw the publication of two Elliott books: a collection of Elliott short stories, The Hollywood Op, and a new novel, Dance in the Dark. The novel is set in 1969, which follows my pattern of aging Elliott quite a bit between books. I'm making notes now for a novel set in or around the mid 1970s. Every Elliott plot is built around a pastiche of a famous movie. In this case, it would be The Sting. I'm thinking there would be a "contemporary" plotline concerning a film about a sting or a con game, on which Elliott would be serving as a technical advisor, and a flashback plot, set in the late 1940s, in which Elliott and his boss Paddy pull off the very con on which the '70s film is based.
Q: How did the return of Scott come about?
A: He never went away entirely. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published a number of his short stories after the last Elliott novel, Raise the Devil, appeared in 2000. And he's turned up in a couple of anthologies as well, most recently in Hollywood and Crime in 2007. Those stories are collected in The Hollywood Op, along with a previously unpublished story in which Elliott tries to tie up a loose end from The Big Sleep. The collection was made possible by Perfect Crime Books. Perfect Crime is a new company that has already brought out some interesting collections, so I was pleased to do one with them. Dance in the Dark is a book I wrote because a single image or idea fascinated me: a 1940s private eye wandering around a 1960s rock concert. I thought it would be interesting both to shove Elliott outside his comfort zone and to have him comment on that moment in time. Working backward from that, I came up with a story that combines Viet Nam, drug smuggling, pornography, and runaway teenagers. The film being "pastiched" in it is Easy Rider.
Q: What are your thoughts on ebooks as a reader AND a writer?
I haven't taken the plunge yet as a reader. Like a lot of book lovers, I hate to give up the physical book. But I expect I will soon. Two of the Elliott books are available as ebooks, and I'm going to start reissuing my Owen Keane series this year. To a midlist writer, this is the big attraction of ebooks: the chance to make out-of-print titles available again.
Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
A: A violent, loose-cannon sidekick working with a thoughtful point-of-view character like Spenser lets the author have it both ways. He can combine sensitivity and graphic violence in the same story. It's not a technique I've used myself. As any reader of my work knows, I'm not into extreme violence, not even in the Elliott books.
Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
A: Writers like Lehane, who are currently at the top of their games, will be major influences for years. But I think Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald will serve as wellsprings of inspiration for the PI subgenre for as long as people are writing it. As for the major influence of the 21st Century, who knows? Probably someone we've not heard of yet and perhaps someone for whom an American PI working in Los Angeles will be as exotic and distant an ideal as the knight-errant was for Chandler.
Q: Tina Whittle came up with the following question: what kind of detective do you think you’d make?
A: Probably a very timid and reluctant one, much more like Owen Keane than Scott Elliott, though I share Elliott's love of Chandlerisms and wisecracks. So I'd probably be beaten up a lot.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
A: Is there a future for the PI subgenre in the face of the current competition from cozy mysteries and police procedurals/crime scene investigation procedurals?
A: I think there is a future for the story of the lone PI questing after the truth. I hope there is. One tenet of my writing faith is that the mystery can be a serious novel. And I think it's more likely to achieve this if it operates somewhere between the very puzzle-oriented cozy mysteries and the pseudo scientific ones that hold out the hope that the truth is hidden in blood splatters or in bits of DNA, waiting to be exposed by the proper lab test. The truth about human beings is always going to reside in the human mind and the human heart—the real mean streets—waiting to be rooted out by a person with more guts and curiosity than common sense. A PI, in other words.