By Andy Straka
Timothy Hallinan’s comedic PI novel CRASHED launches what may well be one of the most exciting new private eye series to come along in years. Already optioned for television and film, CRASHED introduces Junior Bender, “the favorite burglar-turned-private-investigator of Hollywood crooks.”
Since he first started breaking into houses when he was fourteen years old, Junior’s never once been caught by the law. In CRASHED he is blackmailed by Trey Annunziato, one of the most powerful crime bosses in LA, into acting as a private investigator on the set of Trey’s porn movie venture, which someone keeps sabotaging. The star Trey has lined up to do all that’s unwholesome on camera is Thistle Downing, America’s beloved child star, who now lives alone in a drug-induced stupor, destitute and uninsurable. Her starring role will be the scandalous fall-from-grace gossip of rubber-neckers across the country. Junior knows what that he should do—get Thistle out and find her help—but doing the right thing will land him on the wrong side of LA’s scariest mob boss. With the help of his precocious twelve-year-old daughter, Rina, and his criminal sidekick, Louie the Lost (an ex-getaway driver), Junior has to figure out a miracle solution.
CRASHED is Hallinan at his comedic best. Not that Hallinan is any stranger to success. A 2011 Edgar Nominee, Hallinan’s ten previous novels, all thrillers, have received high critical praise. In the 1990s he wrote six mysteries featuring the erudite private eye Simeon Grist, a series which made several Ten Best lists, including that of The Drood Review. Now regarded as a cult favorite, the other books in the series were widely and well reviewed, and several of them were optioned for motion pictures.
In 2007, the first of his Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART was published to unanimously enthusiastic reviews. “Hallinan scores big-time,” said KIRKUS REVIEWS, which went on to call the book “dark, often funny, and ultimately enthralling.” “Nail” was a BOOKSENSE Pick of the Month and was named one of the top mysteries of the year by THE JAPAN TIMES and several major online review sites. Rafferty’s Bangkok adventures have continued with THE FOURTH WATCHER (2008) and BREATHING WATER (2009), THE QUEEN OF PATPONG (2011) and THE FEAR ARTIST (2012) all of which have appeared on several “year’s best” lists.
Hallinan took some time out to speak to us from Southeast Asia, where he is at work on his next Poke Rafferty novel:
CRASHED is the first book in an exciting new comedic series starring burglar-turned-private investigator Junior Bender. What inspired the new series and the character of Junior?
Like a lot of crime writers, I love writing crooks. They live outside the usual moral code, so they have to invent one for themselves, often on the fly. It’s actually probably harder than living by the rules we all grow up with, but crooks are wired differently. (I’m talking about smart crooks here, not the omnipresent Slow Learner thugs for whom stealing or strong-arm is just the shortest distance between two not-very-sharp points.) And I’m fascinated by this sort of shadow world that exists alongside the straight world. One of the things that’s always interested me about writing is the idea that setting is actually the interaction between a place and a character. The San Fernando Valley, where the Junior Bender books are set, is about as prosaic a location as there is, but to a crook it’s a completely different environment, jammed with risks and opportunities the rest of us don’t see.
So I was writing BREATHING WATER, the third Poke Rafferty book, when a voice began talking to me, a very contemporary, very energetic voice without a lot of formal education but a very distinctive turn of phrase. I tried to ignore it for a week and then gave up and wrote what it told me, which turned out to be a short story about a crook and a hamster. The voice belonged to a former getaway driver named Louie the Lost, and when somebody stole his pet hamster, he turned to a guy named Junior Bender to solve the crime. After I finished BREATHING WATER and sent it off, I wrote the first Junior book, CRASHED, in about eight weeks, which for me is the speed of light.
Television and movie rights have already been sold to Lionsgate (Hunger Games). Will you be involved in the screenwriting or production?
Not if I can help it. I don’t know anything about writing for film. It’s taken me all these years to learn how to write a novel, and I still haven’t reached the stage of confidence in that area where I’m comfortable calling myself an “author.” When people ask what I do, I say I’m a writer, and even that feels slightly presumptuous. I’ll leave the screenwriting, if the project gets that far, to people who know how to do it.
You launched the Junior Bender series to stellar reviews independently as ebooks before selling them to SOHO. Can you tell us more about that experience?
The reviews were kind of startling, to tell you the truth, because Junior had been rejected. At the time I wrote CRASHED I was under exclusive contract to HarperCollins, and they (a) didn’t like it, and (b) wouldn’t let me sell it to anyone else. An exec there said that she “didn’t think the public associated me with comic thrillers.” I said that I didn’t think 99.9 percent of the public had any idea I existed, whereas I was sure some of them liked comic thrillers, but the argument didn’t prevail.
So Junior was a returned letter as far as publishing was concerned, and when the idea came to me for LITTLE ELVISES, I wrote it just for fun. In the meantime, I’d put my first series, from the 1990s, up as ebooks and people were actually buying them, with real money and everything. So I put up CRASHED and LITTLE ELVISES but did nothing to promote them. The reader reviews surprised me into writing the third book, THE FAME THIEF. I gave it to my agent for a quick edit, and unbeknown to me, he passed it around. Within about a week, Soho had stepped up for publishing and we were in bidding wars for both film and audiobook rights. Lionsgate won film and Blackstone got audio.
You’ve stated on your website: “My writing drifts irresistibly into comedy. Even action scenes, even love scenes, even scenes in which someone’s life is at stake.” What do you think makes for great comedy in such dramatic situations? What other writers have influenced you in this regard?
This is going to sound really pretentious, and I apologize. Years ago, an amazing man named Jonathan Miller, who began with a comedy group called “Beyond the Fringe” and went on to direct plays and operas (and who is also a medical doctor) said to me that the key to Shakespeare’s comedies is that they’re deadly serious. What’s at stake for the characters matters to them absolutely, and that’s part of what makes them funny.
So I think things can be funny especially when someone’s life is at stake. I think the scene in CRASHED, when Junior is hanging from a chandelier with a pack of starving Rottweilers waiting for him to drop into their mouths is funny, although Junior certainly doesn’t. I don’t know that I can claim to write great comedy—in fact, I’m fairly certain I don’t—but I do think life is frequently funnier than we appreciate at the time, and that’s one of the things I like to write about. Inspirations for comic writing? Donald Westlake, Richard Russo (especially Straight Man, which had me laughing so hard I had to put down the book and walk around the room to catch my breath), and the great Kingsley Amis.
It’s often been said about comedy that we laugh so we don’t cry. In CRASHED Junior, who is a burglar working as a PI for gangster making a porn movie starring a drug addicted former teenage starlet, seems to walk just such a tightrope. How does Junior manage to cross the wire to some sort of redemption? Do you see him as a romantic at heart?
I think of Junior as a very middle-class guy who happens to be a burglar. I believe that normal, middle-class people commit acts of heroism and self-sacrifice on an almost daily basis. You work for your kids, you love your wife and husband, you postpone your dreams in favor of theirs. All of that strikes me as profoundly romantic. In the case of CRASHED, Junior preserves his moral imperative, so to speak, by changing sides; he protects the former child star rather than participating in her exploitation. Along the way he steals a necklace and a couple of dreadful paintings and he sets up a corrupt cop for a bad beating, but that’s all in a day’s work for a middle-class burglar.
The LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS has called you “a modern successor to Raymond Chandler.” With this new PI series, you’ve also been quoted as saying that Junior Bender finds himself “on the wrong side of his already paper-thin moral code.” In a culture that often seems to tend to the absurd, what do you think this says about the modern private eye novel?
First, if I’m a successor to Chandler, it’s only in a temporal sense, in that I wrote after him and stole everything I could get my hands on. What I love about Chandler, other than his incomparable use of language, is that sense of cold evil glinting in bright sunlight. I believe the moral code of the average American in Chandler’s time was perhaps narrower than ours is today, in ways that are both good and bad. We’ve lived through the revelations of the Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia, the (in my opinion) slow decline of American democracy into a sort of puppet show in which “right” and “left” just refer to which hand the puppet is on, but down below the audience’s sightlines, both hands belong to the same entity. If our moral codes haven’t frayed, we haven’t been paying attention.
And I believe all that has enriched the private-eye novel. I think our private eyes today have more complex private lives, a more flexible approach to the situations they encounter. I actually believer this is a golden age of mysteries and thrillers. If I started listing the fine writers who are working today, many of us would die of old age before I finished. It’s a privilege to be writing in this time.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, most recently 2012’s THE FEAR ARTIST, and the Simeon Grist PI series, set in Los Angeles. His Junior Bender series, originally written as ebooks, is being published by Soho Crime and have been optioned for film by Lionsgate. Hallinan is also the editor of MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, a book for aspiring authors, just published in ebook form, and edited SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, an anthology that raised funds for Japanese tsunami relief.
To learn more about Timothy, please visit his website.