By Ian Walkley
Rex Burns once said that he wanted to write about the people who wouldn’t rate a footnote in a book but whose stories portray the dark reality of the common man. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Burns is a first-rate storyteller and is still writing at a remarkable rate at age 79. Critics rate him among the best fictional police writers, with a hardboiled style, a keen eye for procedural detail, and superbly drawn characters.
His latest offering, CRUDE CARRIER (October, Mysterious Press), is the second in his current series, which follows the adventures of a father/daughter team of private investigators of James Raiford and Julie Campbell, operating as Touchstone Associates. Burns’ first series introduced Gabe Wager, the Denver police detective, and his debut novel THE ALVAEZ JOURNAL won an Edgar Award. A second series featured a private detective in Denver, Devlin Kirk, who specialized in industrial security. The Touchstone Associates series was launched in 2013 with BODY SLAM, which focused on the world of professional wrestling.
In CRUDE CARRIER, a sailor dies under unusual circumstances on a supertanker. When the shipping company stonewalls the investigation, the sailor’s parents contact Touchstone. James Raiford joins the “Aurora Victorious” as an electronics officer, and Julie digs into the proprietors’ shadowy background. They quickly discover that international oil shipping is a ruthless business, and its secrets run as deep as the ocean itself.
Firstly, Rex, why a story about international oil shipping?
I wanted a setting and case that would be somewhat unusual for Raiford and his daughter, so I gave her London and him an oil tanker. But also, I like ships and deep-water cruises—even on troop ships. And since I’d found fascinating information about the merchant marine in my research, I hoped to share that subject with readers. As for the London setting, well, it was a pleasure to re-visit some of my favorite corners of a city with so many literary echoes.
Can you tell us a little about James Raiford and Julie Campbell, and what they’re going to be confronted with in this story?
James and Julie—father and daughter—are still recovering from the death of James’ wife (Julie’s mother). Both are bright and, without having to preach about it, dedicated to helping people in trouble. The father/daughter relationship is one of both love and caution: Julie, a divorcée in her mid-twenties, values her independence, and shares her father’s stubbornness; James worries about her but tries hard to let her live her personal life as she deems fit. As principals of Touchstone Associates, they are observant, logical, detail oriented, and persistent. But they are not jaded about human iniquity and are still able to be shocked by what people can do to each other.
And who are some of the bad guys they encounter?
Generally, the bad guys and gals are those who are careless about everyone except themselves. Sometimes that leads to the dishonesty of moral slipperiness or pilfering, sometimes to such criminal actions as assault or murder.
Did you uncover anything interesting in your research for the book?
The technical aspects of oil tanker operations were very interesting: its history, the seafaring issues, and the home office details. There was also the writer’s challenge of how to present what could be rather dull factual data in a manner that would capture and hold the reader’s attention. In the moral sphere, the legal status of ships’ crews seems little better now than in Richard Henry Dana’s TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST and that became a sub-theme in the tale.
How did you come up with the father/daughter combination for the Touchstone series? What does that character mix allow you to do with the storyline?
Well, I do have a daughter in her twenties. While Julie Campbell is not modeled on her, my experience of the inevitable familial conflicts and resolutions does provide material that, I hope, makes it easier for readers to identify with the fictional characters. And their generational misunderstandings can bring humor to the story: James Raiford is not out of a fifties family sitcom and he’s not always right in his suppositions, while Julie is assertive in defending her independence while still learning the sleuth’s trade. In addition, the use of two protagonists in the series allows differing, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives on the case at hand. This increases the possibilities for plot complications.
What made you finish the Wager and Kirk series and begin another?
In a word: sales. Although both of those series won good critical response, neither gained enough readers to stimulate further interest by traditional publishers. I feel fortunate that Mysterious Press picked up my out-of-print novels and is interested in the new Touchstone series as well. And of course I hope this latter effort will garner a good readership. Wager does make a cameo appearance in BODY SLAM, and there may be another book in the Wager series, but I haven’t decided that yet.
You wrote several non-fiction books, one on the evolution of the mystery suspense story. Was deconstructing the mystery tale something you wanted to do in order to better understand the key elements driving such stories? Do you believe that has helped your story development?
I was one of two authors of that study, and it did help very much in getting a feel for plot, which is the heart of the mystery genre. But I believe that “good” writing is such regardless of genre. A writer learns from other writers—it’s a process of self-education—and my stylistic models include (among many others) Faulkner, Hemingway, and Jewett, as well as Chandler, Sayers, and Hammett. But since the mystery yarn is heavily plot-driven, the attainment of originality by a writer in this field is difficult. Generally, it comes when the mystery writer sees and presents the world he or she lives in (or, perhaps, wishes he or she lived in). An original voice—the style of writing—comes when the writer admires what another writer has achieved and wonders, “How can I get that same effect in my own way?”
In terms of those deconstructed elements, how does a writer manage to keep the reader interested, yet withhold information sufficient to sustain a mystery to the end?
For this writer, it’s usually by re-writing: that is, going through the first draft to take out anything that reveals too much too soon, and planting the things—physical clues as well as narrative pacing—that lead the reader to accept the solution. And by not talking too much.
How much of your story do you plot out? Is it more important with a mystery to have a plan, or can mystery writers still wing it?
I guess I still wing it. I usually don’t plot my stories until I’m well into the first draft, mainly because I don’t know what’s going to happen or why. It’s a clumsy and effortful manner of working, and I do envy those authors who can sketch out a complete plot before writing. But I can’t work that way.
You have a PhD and taught at the University of Colorado at Denver for over thirty years. Did your teaching work have to do with writing? Or was writing something that you took up as a separate pursuit?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I learned to read. I took my PhD in American Studies as a foundation for writing about America. My subsequent teaching assignments dealt with reading and analyzing literature as well as with the practice of creative writing. In short, teaching paid me to write. And my department on the UC-Denver Campus was good enough to let me substitute fiction for the far more serious and weighty publications that many English Departments demand.
One of your novels, THE AVENGING ANGEL, was adapted into a film with Charles Bronson. Tell us about that experience?
Oh boy—I was advised by my agent to take the money (up front) and run. Good advice. The film, MESSENGER OF DEATH, ended up using only the opening scene of the novel. The rest was the product of I don’t know how many scriptwriters, script doctors, actors, et cetera. That’s not all their fault since my agent was wise enough to prohibit any reference to Gabe Wager or the Denver Police in their adaptation. (That prevented me from losing my protagonist to the film company.) I did receive a telephone call from one of the producers who said they were a tad stuck and wondered if I would look at the script and provide an ending for it. I supposed they hadn’t read the whole book, but I did provide another ending. One producer, not knowing that I had written it, later told me he preferred that ending but it didn’t meet Charles’ (only a star’s first name is used on the set) approval. The result was an ending whose purpose was to focus on Charles rather than on the logic of the plot: caveat emptor for the buyer, caveat Hollywood for the seller.
I have to ask about your stories featuring the Australian Aboriginal detective, Constable Leonard Smith. How were you inspired to write that character?
I’m glad you asked! My now-deceased wife was Australian and she led me in my discovery of that country. I am especially enamored of northwest Oz, the Kimberley: its topography, the indigenous culture, the flora and fauna, and the current massive changes—both good and bad—caused by mining and agribusiness. Constable Leonard Smith is my excuse to look more deeply into the region and, I hope, to entice my American readers to enjoy it as well. He is also a means of deflating, in a gentle way, some of the pretensions of our self-defined superior civilization as well as some of the more romantic conceptions of Aboriginal life.
If a young aspiring writer asked what is one thing they should focus upon, how would you respond?
Students have indeed asked, and my half-serious reply is “have another job.” It’s hard to make a living on writing alone, so those who are driven to try must recognize the economic challenges. As far as craft, Ben Jonson said it long ago: “Hear the best speakers, read the best writers, and practice, practice, practice.” I’m always taken aback by people who want to be writers but who tell me they don’t like to read. Carpenters have to learn how to handle their tools and material, so do writers, and the best way to learn is to look closely at the work of masters of the craft.
And what would you recommend that aspiring writers avoid?
Believing that there’s nothing new to write about.
Have you read any good novels/authors lately that you’d like to share?
We seem to be in a period of writing ferment because of changes in the publishing industry and because the Boomers are reaching the age of self-reflection. As a result, there are many good writers whom I haven’t had the opportunity to read, so I can’t claim wide knowledge in this area. But here are a couple I’ve enjoyed most recently: Ros Barber’s THE MARLOW PAPERS (told in blank verse) and T. Jefferson Parker’s mystery tales set in what I consider my home town: San Diego.
Have the changes in online distribution increased exposure to your works? How do you deal with the whole social media experience?
Fortunately, online distribution by Open Road Media brought my out-of-print books back to life in trade paper, e-format, and audio form. I’m very grateful for that, since it’s somewhat awkward to be buried while still breathing. As for using social media, I still have much to learn—but here I am, trying. Some would say “very trying.”
I believe you use a computer. Do you have certain times of the day that you find most productive?
Mornings are my usual time for writing, though if I’m stuck I’ll write whenever there’s a crack in the obstruction. The computer is a good substitute for the pen and legal pad I began with so long ago. It’s flexible and the print’s a lot easier to read than my scrawls. But I don’t use any author software, primarily because I don’t know much about it. My desk has its own space in my home, which makes me feel comfortable enough to forget everything except what I’m working on.
What do you enjoy doing in Colorado when you’re not writing?
I volunteer with the Boulder County Open Space program as a “ranger” on the trail systems. That entails hiking or snow-shoeing, and the honorific of being called “Ranger Rex.”
What’s your next project?
Volume three of the Touchstone series, and that’s all I can say on that topic.
Rex Burns, author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and stories, won an Edgar for THE ALVAREZ JOURNAL. THE AVENGING ANGEL became a Charles Bronson Film. His “Constable Leonard Smith” stories appear in “Alfred Hitchcock Magazine.” CRUDE CARRIER is the second in the “Touchstone Associates” series and is available in print, e-format, and audio from Mysterious Press/Open Road Media.
To learn more about Rex, please visit his website.