By Josie Brown
When a political candidate with a wandering eye wakes up naked in a stranger’s home, where a priceless painting has been stolen, the first person he calls isn’t his campaign manager, his press officer, or even his lawyer:
It’s Jack MacTaggart.
GREEN-EYED LADY, the second novel in Chuck Greaves’ mystery series, has all the elements readers loved in the first book, HUSH MONEY: slick sleuthing, snappy dialogue, a cavalcade of characters who leave you laughing, keep you guessing, and keep you up all night.
Here’s what Chuck has to say about writing relatable heroes, and stories that keep you on the edge of your seat…
Wow, GREEN-EYED LADY sounds like my kind of book! I love mixing mystery with politics–and humor. So, how did the plot come to you?
During my 25 years as an L.A. trial attorney, I had occasion to handle a few cases with political implications, plus I served for many years as campaign treasurer for a friend who’s an L.A.-area city councilman. But the genesis of GREEN-EYED LADY was actually a short story I wrote on spec, about an art heist. As I sat down to plot the next installment in my Jack MacTaggart series, I realized that the short story would be a perfect jumping-off point for a work of book-length fiction. So the man in the story – the sting victim – became a U.S. Senate candidate, and I was off to the races.
I love that this story has an art theft angle, not to mention that the mystery involves a politician. How much of your story ideas do you pluck out of the news, as opposed to your own knowledge of the law?
Conflict is essential to compelling fiction, and nobody’s doing conflict like today’s hyper-partisan political class. Stephen King teaches that you take a character, put him in jeopardy, and spend the rest of your novel getting him out. What better source of conflict, and what higher-stakes jeopardy, than a married Senate candidate in the last weeks of an already-bruising campaign who’s arrested, alone and naked, in a stranger’s home from which a priceless painting is missing? It’s like a politician’s worst nightmare on steroids.
Agreed. This is a follow-up book in your series, the first book of course was HUSH MONEY. What do you feel are the joys, and the pitfalls, of writing a series?
The key to a successful series is a compelling main character. If readers are rooting for Jack – and thankfully, they are – then the rest is easy. So the joy lies in creating and maintaining a likeable hero and a colorful cast of supporting characters. The pitfalls come when the nature of your character’s profession, or the setting in which he operates, becomes repetitive or restrictive. I hope to have avoided that with a series built around an L.A. trial lawyer, because the possibilities are endless.
You write with a sense of humor, but readers also gets the chills. Why is humor so important in your books?
Humor is a useful device in any writer’s toolbox, but it’s one that many mystery authors, I think, are afraid to use. But life is funny, right? If you’re like me, you gravitate toward funny people. I want my readers to gravitate toward Jack, to enjoy the time they spend with him. The key, of course, is that you don’t overdo the humor. Like regional dialect, a little goes a long way.
So, what’s the key to snappy dialogue? (Frankly I think it’s an art myself, so that makes you its Michelangelo…)
Elmore Leonard is Michelangelo; I’m just a guy on the boardwalk sketching caricatures. Part of it, I think, is innate – having an ear. Part of it, thankfully, can be learned, by studying others who do it well. As a litigator, you tend to read a lot of trial and deposition transcripts, so maybe 25 years of that has helped.
From reading HUSH MONEY, I deduce Raymond Chandler is mother’s milk to you, with Dashiell Hammett as an apt chaser. Am I right? Or do you have other literary influences?
Definitely Chandler. Also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Among the moderns, I enjoy Leonard, Thomas Harris, Nelson DeMille, Michael Connelly. Truth be told, however, I mostly read literary fiction.
In your books, SoCal is also a colorful character. What is it about LA that makes it so right for mystery, and for poetic prose in general?
L.A. is a city of parts that never quite add up to a whole. It’s a great incubator of mystery fiction because characters can move seamlessly from the glitz of Beverly Hills to the hopeful squalor of Hollywood to the mean streets of South Central. Plus, thanks to the film industry, readers already know the city, or think they do.
Having worked as a bartender, a construction worker, a librarian, and a lawyer, you have quite a skill set. When it comes to writing thrillers, I can see how the last two come in handy. I’m sure the first two gigs had something to offer as well. Want to elaborate?
Jack MacTaggart is a blue-collar guy operating in a white-shoe world of money and privilege. William Landay calls him “Jim Rockford with a law degree.” I like to think that my own blue-collar background and life experiences inform the novels in a way that makes them real, and funny, and at times even poignant.
What’s more fun to write: thrillers, or literary fiction? And why?
As you know, I write both. The mysteries, I think, come easier, in the sense that Jack’s first-person voice is fairly close to my own. Plus, plotting the twists and turns of a complex thriller is just flat-out fun. Literary fiction – like 2012’s HARD TWISTED – is a lot of work.
What’s next up for you and that handsome devil, Jack MacTaggart? (That’s not to say you aren’t devilishly handsome, too…)
Jack’s next adventure, from Minotaur in 2014, will take place in California’s wine country. (I’m a vineyard owner in real life.) After that, I’m writing an historical novel for Bloomsbury set in New York City, chronicling the early days of organized crime. Talk about conflict!
Love it. Historical fiction. I can’t wait for it to come out.
Chuck Greaves’ debut novel, HUSH MONEY, won an international writing contest and was a finalist for several national awards and honors, including the Rocky Award from Left-Coast Crime, the Reviewers’ Choice Award from RT BOOK REVIEWS, and the Audie Award for Best Mystery Audiobook of 2012.
To learn more about Chuck, please visit his website.