By Ian Walkley
Bob McClure was reading pulp fiction as a kid when he should have been studying schoolbooks, but he ultimately cracked down enough to graduate with a B.S. in Criminology from Murray State University and a law degree from the University of Louisville.
Now an attorney and crime fiction writer who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky, McClure’s debut novel DEADLY LULLABY is based on his short story My Son, which was originally published on ThugLit.com and appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009.
DEADLY LULLABY is published by Penguin-Random House’s Alibi imprint in North America, and will be published next year by Calmann-Lévy in France, by Euromedia in the Czech Republic, and by Ikar in Slovakia.
DEADLY LULLABY is at heart a father-son story with a twist—in this case, the father is a career hitman and the son is a flawed cop. As might be expected, this makes for some great conflict and character interaction, which is helped along by McClure’s gritty prose, strong dialogue, and dual first person narrative by the father and the son. And there’s much that goes on between them to spur talk: Fresh off a nine-year stint in San Quentin, Babe Crucci plans to finally go straight and enjoy all life has to offer—after he pulls one or two more jobs to shore up his retirement fund. More than anything, Babe is dead set on making up for lost time with his estranged son, Leo, a rising star in the LAPD.
The road to reconciliation starts with tickets to a Dodgers game. But first, Leo needs a little help settling a beef over some gambling debts owed to a local mobster. This kind of thing is child’s play for Babe–until a sudden twist in the negotiations leads to a string of corpses and a titanic power shift in gangland politics. With the sins of his father piling up and dragging him down, Leo throws himself into the investigation of a young prostitute’s murder, a case that makes him some unlikely friends—and some brutally unpredictable enemies.
Robert McClure took some time to answer a few questions for The Big Thrill about his thrilling debut.
Bob, what type of readers will DEADLY LULLABY appeal to—what other authors would it be close to in the bookstores?
Early reviewers are describing DEADLY LULLABY as a violent crime thriller with a murder mystery component that still manages to be darkly humorous; the primary focus of the book remains on the family issue of whether Babe Crucci can achieve his goal of successfully reuniting with his son Leo. With all these themes embedded in the book, hopefully it will draw a diverse group of crime fiction readers.
My editors at Penguin-Random House compare my work to Harlan Coben and Robert Crais. During the submission process, acquiring editors compared the book to those of Elmore Leonard and a “young Dennis Lehane.” Otto Penzler, the editor of Best American Mystery Stories, blew my mind by comparing my style to that of Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s.
Tell us about some of the underlying conflict in the story.
The main conflict is between Babe and Leo, father and son. A career hit man, Babe has served two prison terms that caused him to miss Leo’s formative years. Just released from San Quentin, Babe yearns for a relationship with Leo. Leo is an LA police detective cursed with a good streak that dilutes the thuggery Babe stamped on his DNA.
Leo wants a relationship with his father, too, but is loath to admit it. The problem is that Babe and Leo were estranged years ago and they have personal issues to resolve that neither is equipped to confront. When Leo’s pursuit of a young prostitute’s murderer leads him into a violent clash with Babe’s mob associates, Babe and Leo’s issues come to a head.
And with regards the bad guys—almost too numerous to name—what are the readers going to encounter here?
You’re right, the baddies are too numerous to name. In fact, most people would probably have a hard time finding a character in the book who’s “good” in the traditional sense, including the two protagonists. From the very start, though, my goal in writing crime fiction has been to create characters that thieve, kill and create other forms of mayhem, but who readers can’t help but love. The guiltier the reader feels about it, the better.
Stridently summarized, while some dwell more on the dark side than others, the primary bad guys are an LA mafia kingpin, who is Babe’s ex-boss, the kingpin’s henchmen, a Russian gangster who spent time in San Quentin with Babe, a Cambodian who helped found The Oriental Lazy Boyz gang in LA, and Babe’s sidekick Jack Barzi, nicknamed Chief.
In terms of life theme, or what readers might take out of the story, what would you like it to be?
Babe Crucci himself poses the theme very early on in the book, something he says he “knows beyond all else”—a son is the product of his father’s labors (or the lack thereof) and for that reason a father’s love for his son depends on nothing except that his son is his son.
I guess you’ve had some fascinating cases from your years as an attorney. How close are elements of the story what you’ve seen or experienced in real life?
There’s not much in the plot of the book I’ve experienced (thank God). The characters are quite a different story. I have been up close to a lot of, shall we say, morally flexible people over the years, and not all of them in the course of practicing law. I was born and raised in downtown Louisville, Ky., directly across the street from the backside of Churchill Downs Racetrack, the site of the Kentucky Derby. My father Charles (who died young when I was twenty-two) was a gunsmith who owned Charlie’s Gun Shop. Charlie’s was a small business Dad eventually expanded into a standalone building on 7th Street Road, not far from our house right in the heart of a notorious block that was then known for its strip clubs and prostitutes.
Growing up around Churchill Downs was a study in the characters that surround any large institution that thrives from gambling—professional gamblers, bookies, bail bondsmen (one of the most notorious being the father of my then best friend), fences, pawnbrokers, loan sharks, prostitutes and pimps, hustlers of all stripes and nationalities, and cops. Lots of cops. All these people were my father’s customers, especially the detectives and patrolman who purchased their service weapons from us and often asked Dad to modify shotguns and handguns to their specifications.
Regardless of which side of the law they occupied, Dad welcomed all these people into Charlie’s and treated them with equal respect. It wasn’t unusual to walk inside and see a cop shooting the breeze with a known criminal. I hung out at Charlie’s a lot and worked the counter during summers when I hit twenty or so, and like my father grew to respect all these people, and I liked most of them. Every single one informs my writing to some extent.
What has motivated you to write fiction, and particularly at this point to transition from short stories to novels?
I had a few so-called scholarly articles published while serving on my law school’s law journal—the one titled Thy Shalt Not Kill (Thy Spouse): A Recent Exception to the ERISA Pre-emption Doctrine, should have given me a clue where it was all headed, but didn’t—and got a real charge writing a piece that someone else deemed worthy to print and sell. Combine that with my lifelong love for crime fiction and my overactive imagination (one my editor at Random House lovingly describes as “sick”), and my path to short story writing was a natural one. When a few of my short stories experienced success, advancing to novel writing also seemed like a natural choice to make.
Your debut has been described as “pulp fiction the way Chandler and Hammett did” it, with “pitch-perfect dialogue” and “whiplash pace.” What experiences have helped you with this?
Two things: As far as dialogue goes, I really listen to the way people talk and try to absorb how they say things as much, if not more, as the substance of what they say. Accents, the rhythm and flow of spoken language, have always interested me, as has the art of impersonators; to this day Rich Little is one of my favorite all-time stand-up performers. More generally, I’ve read fiction obsessively since I was a kid, and like all good writers I learned storytelling from the greats—or tried to.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
To avoid the risk of omitting one of my living favourites, I’ll list the ones who aren’t around anymore to care whether I list them or not. In no particular order, then: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, Damon Runyon, O. Henry, James M. Cain, John Kennedy Toole, Mickey Spillane, George V. Higgins, Martin Booth, James Crumley, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
Only if you’d describe as “quirky” rising as early as I can to write, usually at 5:00 a.m. but often earlier. A lot’s going on in my head when I write that’s interesting, weird even, but the mechanics of the process is boring to describe: Just sit at the computer and stroke the keyboard. That’s the one thing about writing that doesn’t beat being a trial lawyer: No one ever admires you while they watch you work—and why would they?
What is one thing that not many people would know about you that they might find interesting?
My parents were rural people who moved to the city before they met, making me a first generation city boy. I was the first in my immediate family to graduate high school, and the first in my entire family—with the exception of a distant cousin—to graduate college. To my knowledge there’s no one in my line to have ever obtained a post-graduate degree.
Any thoughts or suggestions for aspiring novelists that you’d care to share?
I feel a bit pretentious answering this question since I’m so new to the craft. A lot of people do approach me, though, to ask for advice about how to start writing fiction, and my response is generally threefold: First, focus on writing stories of the genre you love to read. Second, become totally absorbed in reading that genre. Third, sit on your butt and write every spare moment you can. Closely related to the latter piece of advice is usually the final comment I make to aspiring writers: If you don’t become totally addicted to the writing process, if sitting at the keyboard and hammering out words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes and scenes into stories for hours on end is not something you absolutely must do to be fulfilled, stop doing it.
What’s next for Robert McClure, author?
I’m working on the sequel to DEADLY LULLABY, presently titled The Slow Dawn.
Robert McClure read pulp fiction as a kid when he should have been studying, but ultimately cracked down enough to obtain a bachelor’s in criminology from Murray State University and a law degree from the University of Louisville. He is now an attorney and crime fiction writer who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. His story “My Son” appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, and he has had other works published in MudRock: Stories & Tales, Hardboiled, Thug Lit, and Plots with Guns.
To learn more about Robert, please visit his website.