By Ian Walkley
Best-selling crime author and Nero Wolfe Award winner Dick Lochte is a character almost as big as those in his novels. He is as prolific as ever, with his fourteenth novel, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, being released in February by Severn House.
According to Kirkus Reviews, “Few capture California better…” and in this first of a new series by Lochte, ex-con Dave Mason returns to Los Angeles expecting to help an old friend out of a jam. But the friend is harboring a secret and before long Mason is being chased through the city’s mean and tinseled streets by an oddball British hit man, a homicidal porn star, several CIA agents, a Russian mob boss, a superstar-computer game creator and a beautiful woman who’s more dangerous than all the rest.
Dick, how does BLUES IN THE NIGHT compare with your earlier works?
My earliest books, SLEEPING DOG and LAUGHING DOG, are reflections of my taste in crime novels at the time. Rex Stout, Leslie Charteris, Craig Rice and Don Westlake were, and are, some of my favorites, writers who were able to put a lot of humor into their books without undercutting the tough, suspenseful elements. My last solo novel, CROAKED!, was very much in that comedy-mystery mode, as are the books I write with Al Roker. BLUES IN THE NIGHT is closer to my two New Orleans-based novels, BLUE BAYOU and THE NEON SMILE, still humorous, I’d like to think, but darker and with a harder edge. (I’m pleased to note that Perfect Crime Books is bringing both NO novels back into print as trade paperbacks and eBooks.) My new protagonist, Mace (full name Dave Mason), finds Southern California’s sunny beaches, hidden canyon roads and tourist-packed Hollywood streets just as sinister and dangerous.
Why make the protagonist an ex-con?
Mace’s development has been a long one, going back to the Seventies when, in my journalism phase, I spent a few hours interviewing Robert Mitchum and decided to write a movie for him, whether he wanted it or not. That movie Mace was a tough, laconic older guy who’d returned to the City of Angels after spending twenty years behind bars for beating a bad man to death. The film was about his adjustment to the way the city had changed. Since it was never produced, it probably wasn’t the noir masterpiece I thought it was, but it did get me a screenwriting job or two. A short while ago, I was reminded of it while watching Mitchum in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE on TCM. I dug the script out, flipped through it and thought some of it might be worth reworking. Particularly the protag, Mace, whom I now saw as resembling the younger, OUT OF THE PAST Mitchum. I liked the idea of him returning to L.A. after a long absence and being confounded by the changes, so I kept him an ex-con. But this time, instead of being found guilty of manslaughter, he was arrested after breaking the jaw of a club bouncer who was choking his best friend. I think we can identify with a hero like that.
And pretty soon, Mace gets himself into trouble again…
Yes, almost immediately, he finds himself in the middle of a hunt for a mysterious coin that’s being sought by an assortment of homicidal villains.
Tell us a little more about some of these characters.
Paulie Lacotta is somewhat sleazy and self-important, but he is a pal of Mace’s. Paulie asks Mace, the only man he really trusts, to return to L.A. to find out if the woman he loves has been responsible for the failure of a crucial business deal. Others are buzzing around that deal. Honest Abe Garfein, a Lincoln lookalike, is a Sunset Strip coffee-house entrepreneur with sidelines in prostitution and porn film production. Corrigan and Drier are two ex-CIA agents who, for all their sinister manipulations, are oddly likeable. Maxil Brox is a ruthless Russian mob boss who’s not likeable at all. Thomas Weidmann is a dapper, faux British assassin with a deadly aim. His brother, Timmy, six-foot-six and bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley, is just as homicidal as Thomas, despite a mental deficiency and a fondness for wearing a Superman costume. Jerry Monte is a pretentious showbiz superstar-computer whiz, a combination of Tom Cruise and Mark Zuckerberg, who tosses parties at his canyon compound that even Hugh Hefner would classify as too hedonistic. And Angela Lowell, Paulie’s ex, is the wild card, beautiful, sexy, whipcrack smart and probably deceitful.
The song “Blues in the Night” is a 1941 classic from the Great American Songbook. Did the song have any influence?
I’m a big fan of Johnny Mercer, one of the great pop lyricists. He wrote the words to “Blues in the Night,” and Harold Arlen the music. It’s the antithesis of a love song, sung by a loser who’s discovered that his mother was right when she warned him that women will always “leave you to sing the blues in the night.” Should be number one on the noir hit parade. In the novel, Mace is given a phone by one of the villains and told to expect that further instructions will follow. When that call comes in, the ring tone consists of the opening bars of “Blues in the Night.” Having just linked up with Angela Lowell, Mace wonders if the bad guy is trying to tell him something.
What does LA offer in terms of a setting for your novels?
Show biz razzle. Goofy architecture. Hardboiled history. Bank robberies. Money. Poverty. Violence. Homicidal gangs shooting up the scenery, trying to establish ethnic supremacy. Dangerous roads. Deep canyons. Carjacks. Earthquakes. Hot desert winds. God knows why we live here, but there’s a lot to write about if you’re writing crime thrillers. I’m also interested in the effect the passage of time has on people and cities. In Blues, the changes are important primarily in the way they affect Mace, increasing his vulnerability by making him less sure of himself, less confident of his surroundings.
Is the novel a series book?
It’s the start of a series. I’m nearly through the sequel, which shares its title (at least at present) with another Johnny Mercer song, “Midnight Sun.”
Did you write an outline, or did the plot and characters just develop?
I usually don’t do much of an outline, but in this case, I made a fairly complete one. I knew that the plot would have a lot of twists and turns and that hardly anyone Mace met would be whom they claimed to be. Actually, I saw the plot as being a little like THE MALTESE FALCON on speed. The only way to keep everything straight was to outline very carefully.
You are widely recognized as an outstanding book reviewer. Have your ways of analyzing/reviews other novels helped in some way your own writing?
Writing novels has helped me be a better critic. I have a better understanding of why one book works while another doesn’t. I can see what the author was trying to do and whether he or she was successful. And that, in turn, has helped me be a better fiction writer. Win-win.
Your novel, SLEEPING DOG, was named one of the 100 favorite mysteries of the century, and you did a sequel, LAUGHING DOG. Have you considered another with Sarah grown up to capitalize on the popularity of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO?
I like that frame of reference. Actually, I started a third novel with Serendipity Dahlquist and Leo Bloodworth and got a few chapters into it before wavering in my conviction that they shouldn’t age. I’d thought I might follow Sue Grafton’s lead and keep them and the book back in the eighties. But that didn’t work for me. Too hard to weed out the anachronisms. Props to Sue. And if I had Serendipity move on to adulthood, her relationship with a seventy-five year old Leo just wouldn’t be the same. So, at present, no third book, unless some publisher buys your Dragon Tattoo idea and makes me an offer I can’t refuse.
How has writing screenplays influenced the way you write your novels?
I use the three-act structure, but, aside from that, in my opinion writing a screenplay is as different from writing a book as riding a bike is from playing tennis. You may be exercising your muscles but other than that it requires a different skill set. I’m not sure I’d say scripts are easier to write, but they definitely take less time. The big difference is that film is a collaborative effort. That means you write your pages and take your money and sometime in the distant future you see a movie or a TV show with the same title as the script you wrote. And maybe your name appears along with a bunch of other writers, or maybe not. And maybe you recognize a line you wrote or maybe not. Books, on the other hand, are the work of you and you alone. Even if an editor insists on major changes, which is rare, you get to make them yourself. So, hooray for books.
So who are some of the people around you that influence your work?
My wife has been quite helpful… no, make that, she seems to get a kick out of pointing out mistakes I’ve made. Like, how am I supposed to know that banks wouldn’t have stacks of one thousand dollar bills because this country discontinued printing all denominations over $100 more than fifty years ago? And Mel Berger, at William Morris Endeavor, has been the only agent I’ve ever had. I have great respect for his opinion, his honesty and his continuing efforts on my behalf. He’s kept me working for lo, all these many years.
What’s the most enjoyable part of writing?
A while ago, on the old THE DICK CAVETT SHOW (or maybe THE TONIGHT SHOW), Truman Capote gave the best description I’ve ever heard of the writing process. It was like surfing, he said. You sit for hours or days, waiting for the big wave. Little ones come along that keep you hopeful, keep you going. And finally, often for no reason you can define, you’re carried forward, faster and faster until you arrive at the shore. It’s a sort of magical moment when instead of feeling lucky to have written three or four pages a day, you hit that point in the manuscript when you’re writing ten. Fifteen. That’s the best part of the process.
And how do you find balance as a writer, in terms of its solitary nature?
I’ve never found it particularly difficult to maintain a social life. I put in an eight hour day, the same as an office worker. I may not be surrounded by co-workers, but there’s the phone and lunches with friends and dinners with family and friends. There are writers’ meetings and speaking engagements, nights out, conventions. Sometimes solitude seems like a good idea.
BLUES IN THE NIGHT will launch in February 2012 in hardback, from Severn House.
Lochte is the author of a list of popular crime novels, including the award-winning SLEEPING DOG, named one of the “100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century” by the Independent Booksellers Association. He is also the co-author, with Al Roker, of the best-selling Billy Blessing comedy-crime series. He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.