Peter Steiner is the author of the critically acclaimed Louis Morgon series of crime novels. He’s also a cartoonist for The New Yorker and is the creator of one of the most famous cartoons of the technological age which prompted the adage, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
With his latest historical thriller, THE GOOD COP, Steiner wants people to recognize and understand the threats that face our fragile and precious world.
Here, he takes time to talk with The Big Thrill about THE GOOD COP and some of the milestones of his varied career.
Do you consider yourself a cartoonist who also writes novels or a novelist who draws cartoons for The New Yorker and Washington Times? What made you decide to detour into the longer format?
I started writing novels almost by accident about 20 years ago, more or less as a diversion from my cartoon work. Making a cartoon involves lots of sitting and thinking, but the actual production of the idea takes very little time, and I think I was interested in having a more sustained project, something I could immerse and lose myself in over a long period of time. I enjoyed writing. And so I started writing, was captivated, and it led me into a novel.
A lot has changed since then. I no longer draw cartoons for either The New Yorker or The Washington Times. I only still draw a weekly cartoon for my own pleasure and satisfaction. And these cartoons appear in the local paper and on the Internet on Instagram, etc. I certainly spend more time these days writing than I do cartooning. But maybe because I came to writing so late (I was nearly 60 when I started), and making a living as a writer was never a necessity for me, I feel a little fraudulent calling myself a novelist. At the same time, no matter how little I draw cartoons these days, I have no doubt that I am a cartoonist and always will be. So, someone else will have to decide whether I am one or the other.
Your other novels are the books in the Louis Morgon series. What led you to write THE GOOD COP?
I had several reasons for this change in direction from my other books. A practical reason was that, after five books in the Morgon series, none of the publishers I approached, including St. Martin’s Press, the publisher of those first five, was interested in a sixth. All five Morgon books came with decent reviews but lousy sales. Anyway, I was already nursing an idea for a novel about the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler, and the difficulty of resistance to him. So I didn’t greatly lament being cut loose by St. Martin’s.
Knowing something about German history and culture from my years as a German professor, I had gotten interested in the similarities between the rise of nationalism and fascism in Germany after World War One and the changing political and cultural climate in the United States. Hitler rose to power by means of lies, and the same lies are being propounded now: that we are being cheated and abused by other countries; that we are being invaded by aliens bringing crime, foreign culture, and the ruination of our country; that the press lies about everything and can’t be trusted, and on and on.
The first thing that interested me about the rise of tyranny was that it always seems to employ similar means, and it often comes about gradually, in tiny, almost imperceptible erosions of existing liberties and norms. And second, I was interested in how I personally might deal with rising tyranny here in the United States. History tells us most of us would look away when things go bad. We will ignore the abuse of our liberties or of others in order to get on with our own lives. I believe we adopt such willful blindness at our own peril.
I wanted to write about an actual historical moment, so I set my story in Weimar Germany. And I invented a cast of characters who, when confronted with the rising dictatorship there, have all the various reactions one could imagine, from cowardice to opportunism to courage.
I wanted the principal characters to be forced to confront the choices everyone would eventually face early in the process. I made two of them journalists and one a cop. Willi Geismeier, a Munich police detective, finds himself investigating crimes that seem straightforward enough. But as Hitler’s popularity and influence grow, and justice and the law go their separate ways, Willi’s investigation leads him to more and more dangerous conclusions. Pursuing the truth turns deadly.
In conducting your research for the book, what was the most interesting item you found, related to either Hitler or the time period? Was there any surprising revelation?
The most interesting thing I learned, and also the most surprising, was the story of The Munich Post, a Social Democratic newspaper that began following Hitler from the moment he came on the scene. Their reporters went from rally to rally, fact-checked his speeches, exposed his lies, and generally explained again and again the danger he and his party posed to democracy, to Germany, and to the world. The Post was not the only newspaper that opposed Hitler, but it was among the first and quickly became the focus of his rage. Hitler called The Munich Post “die Giftküche” (the poison kitchen) and referred to all the papers which criticized him as “die Lügenpresse” (the lying press).
In 1933 shortly after Hitler was named chancellor, storm troopers descended on The Post and arrested and imprisoned most of the editorial staff. The presses were removed and destroyed, the building was permanently closed, and so furious was Hitler’s rage that he even suppressed the street number of the building. He literally killed a newspaper and, with it, Germany’s free press.
The jacket copy for THE GOOD COP has current political overtones. Was that deliberate? Does the novel carry that theme, emphasizing the parallels between the time between the wars and modern day? Or is it more subtle, with the reader left to draw individual connections?
It was my intention to show the similarities between then and now, but I did not want that to be the main theme of the book. In fact, the trick was to write the book so that aspect of it remained in the background. I wanted to tell the story without ever explicitly making the point that some of what was happening then is happening now. I wanted to leave it to the reader to discover the parallels. But I also wanted to make it all but impossible for the reader to ignore them. Still, parallels or not, the more important theme of the book, the main theme really, is how tyranny sets in—slowly, subtly, and what our choices are once it does.
What’s next for you?
THE GOOD COP ends—except for a postwar epilogue—around 1932, before Hitler managed to become first, chancellor and then president and establish the Third Reich. I’m working on a sequel to THE GOOD COP that will depict life within the Third Reich and show us what survival means—for Willi Geismeier and for others—and the heavy costs they must pay.
In the meantime, I’m getting some of my cartoons together for an upcoming exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Krems, Austria. And, of course, I’m continuing my ongoing cartoon assault on current American politics. You can see my cartoons on my blog.
Peter Steiner is the author of the critically acclaimed Louis Morgon series of crime novels. He is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker and is the creator of one of the most famous cartoons of the technological age which prompted the adage, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
To learn more about Peter and his work, please visit his website.