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Seeking Insight from the Universe

By Nish Amarnath

Life sometimes unravels in ways that transcend logic. On such occasions, you might seek insights from beyond the physical universe. The psychic world provides just that—or so some believe, even if those insights are so ambiguous that you sift through multiple interpretations to suit your own reality, not necessarily in favor of your personal wellbeing.

In the US, the psychic services industry churns out roughly $2 billion in annual revenue, according to market research firm IBISWorld. And scams, where psychics have claimed that their clients are hexed or insisted on the possibility of reuniting with a loved one, are increasingly rife. Chasing such charlatans is not high on the priority list of mainstream detectives—although a few lone private eyes, like retired NYC cop Bob Nygaard, have helped wealthier clients recover their fortunes from crooks.

In his latest oeuvre, SWANN’S DOWN, celebrated crime novelist, journalist, and fiction-writing instructor Charles Salzberg has skillfully woven the pressing reality of psychic chicanery into an intriguing web of subtly nuanced mystery, amid questions of moral compunction. SWANN’S DOWN is the fifth of Salzberg’s popular detective series revolving around New York-based sleuth Henry Swann.

Meandering from the psychedelic dissonance of Manhattan to the sultry shores of a beach shack in Fairhope across Alabama’s Mobile Bay, SWANN’S DOWN unveils surprises about Swann’s seemingly slovenly business partner, Goldblatt, whose ex-wife, Rachel, is found to be a victim of a psychic fraud. Even as Swann steps in to find the fraudulent fortune-teller, who has closed shop and vanished, he is pulled into another case involving Nicky Diamond, an infamous contract killer scheduled to go on trial for a murder he doesn’t seem to have committed. Diamond’s only way out of this morass is his missing girlfriend, Jana, who is to appear as a court witness.

Charles Salzberg

Salzberg, whose Swann’s Last Song—the first book in the Henry Swann series—was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best PI novel, is a high sensation-seeker in that he believes that traveling with his story as it unfolds has a stronger potential to surprise him; this means his readers would most certainly never know what’s coming next too. And that is a hallmark of a gifted novelist who can truly enthrall and delight.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on the next page. I don’t like to know where I’m going. And that often results in some really surprising and important directions in the novel,” he says.

In the following conversation with The Big Thrill, Salzberg opens up about the sources of inspiration for SWANN’S DOWN, his writing process, and how his roles as a journalist, novelist, and teacher inform one another.

What inspired the mystery revolving around a missing psychic in SWANN’S DOWN?

I wanted to explore Goldblatt’s background in more detail. Also, my journalistic instincts propel my desire to learn about subjects of interest that I haven’t known much about. I’ve always been fascinated with psychic phenomena. I had also professionally interacted with psychic detective Pam Coronado earlier on, and drawn inspiration from magician [James] Randi, who offered $1 million to anyone who could demonstrate a psychic ability that he himself couldn’t replicate with magic. So, I decided that one of the plot lines [for SWANN’S DOWN] would have something to do with fortune-telling, seeing the future, and communing with departed souls.

In SWANN’S DOWN, what was your approach to combining the gritty elements of crime with strands of karma and irony?

I decided that I would have at least two cases for Henry Swann because skip tracers in real life can’t afford to spend all of their time only on one case. The first case that came up on my mind was the case of the psychic scam involving Goldblatt’s ex-wife. Further, I like to deal with ethical problems. So, the idea for the second plot line, which is that of scouting for a missing witness, was driven by my thoughts around, “What if someone who earns a living by murdering people—a hit-man, so to speak—is arrested for a particular crime he may not have committed?” Does it matter if he is convicted of that crime since he’s guilty of so many others? Or is it morally and ethically sound to have him acquitted because he’s innocent of this particular crime he’s been arrested for?

Salzberh surrounded by his many books

Why did you choose Alabama as one of the settings in SWANN’S DOWN?

I love Alabama. One of my friends, Roy Hoffman, lives down there. We had both worked for New York Magazine, back in the ’70s. [Roy] moved to Mobile, Alabama, when he was offered a writing position at the Mobile Register. I’ve been down there so many times that it’s like a second home. I love the people. So, I thought it would be fun to set part of this book in Alabama. Fairhope [in Alabama] is also very interesting because it’s a liberal area filled with writers and artists in a state that’s not liberal.

What was your process of building on Goldblatt’s character from earlier on in the Henry Swann series?

I realized that Swann needed a foil, someone to work with him who would be his exact opposite while also challenging him in many ways, and befuddling him. Goldblatt is a mystifying character, so you never quite know what his patterns are. For instance, he is a disbarred lawyer and Swann doesn’t even know what Goldblatt did to get disbarred. Also, I needed Swann to have to do something for Goldblatt. The character of Goldblatt is named after one of my best friends, Mark Goldblatt, who’s very different from the Goldblatt in the Swann series. But, [Mark]’s really proud and pleased to have his name in the book.

How is SWANN’S DOWN different from the other four novels in the series?

Goldblatt plays a bigger part in this book than in the previous ones, and Swann is working with a real crime and a real criminal—a.k.a. the sleazy hit-man [Nicky Diamond]. I’ve never had a character like [Diamond] in the Swann series so far. Also, the previous Swann books address smaller crimes of embezzlement and art fraud, and the stakes aren’t as high as life and death, which is the case in SWANN’S DOWN.

Most of your books in the Swann series, if not all, explore the angle of missing persons. Does your intent involve having Swann and your readers find missing pieces of themselves from the complex of attachments and separation-related fears that make up the human psyche?

Yes. In a way, what Swann is really looking for is himself. We’re all looking for our real selves. Swann feels that something is missing. His wife was killed in a freak accident, so he’s not whole. He is looking for missing people and objects in an attempt to put himself back together. You think that you’re going to be whole again once you’ve found a lost person or object. Yet, you’re not. But that’s what keeps Swann going.

You’ve also written non-fiction books spanning sports such as basketball and baseball. Would you explore these themes in your future fiction titles?

I am working on a new book called Canary in the Coal Mine where a character is an ex-baseball player who got hurt and has anger management issues. In that sense, I’m also addressing violence as a theme that I’m looking to explore more, over here. I hope to wrap up this book by end of this summer. I am to complete another novella for the next edition of Triple Shot and Three Strikes. Additionally, I’m thinking of doing a spin-off of The Second Story Man [since] people respond to Francis Hoyt and he’s a fun character to write.

Given that you have moved between journalism, teaching, and crime fiction, how have these roles assisted one another?

Henry Swann was inspired by an interview I did with a skip tracer for a magazine article as a journalist. Journalism taught me to be crisp and succinct and make every word count in my novels, without any padding. The other aspect that bleeds over from being a journalist is the practice of meeting deadlines. I give myself deadlines for my novels, and writing each one takes roughly around a year. As a fiction teacher, I get to see some really good writing from my students; critiquing others’ writings as a teacher stimulates my own imagination, creativity, and critical thinking capabilities, and these enhance my writing. I get excited when my students go on to get their books published, because that’s a hard thing to do. You have written a book too, so you know.


Nish Amarnath
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