Talking Crime with Walter Mosley, Donald E. Westlake and Elmore Leonard
I know something you don’t know.
The good news is that I’m willing to spill my secrets without as much as a pipe to the kneecaps because I’m in a good mood.
Over the rush of a few days over Christmas, I ended up writing for one of those fancy we-print-on-paper magazines, doing a few short features about next year’s hotly anticipated mysteries, thrillers, and other pulp fictions. Usually, you fire off a few e-mails to publicists and maybe authors give you a few minutes. Mostly they don’t because they’re (wisely) busy writing the next book. With less than 72 hours to go before the holiday blackout, I wasn’t expecting much. So imagine my surprise when the phone rang one frigid morning.
“Hey, man, it’s Walter Mosley,” he says. “We should talk.”
It’s no secret that I dig Walter Mosley’s work. He may be getting critically batted around right now over his experimental “sexistential novel,” Killing Johnny Fry but that’s no excuse for not celebrating a career’s worth of criminal workmanship, with more to come. So it was a hell of a morning for me when Mosley, laid out by a cold and stuck in Brooklyn, spent an hour on the phone pontificating about mysteries, politics, and the secret to writing a novel.
“The truth is that I do want I want to do,” Mosley told me. “If I want to write a political monograph, I write a political monograph and someone publishes it. No, it doesn’t sell like a traditional mystery, but I don’t care. I don’t write for that reason. If you want to make money, you should go into real estate, you know what I mean? If your love is writing books, that’s a passion that’s way outside of the umbrella of income.”
So what’s next for Walter Mosley? I’m happy to report that there’s a new Easy Rawlins book starring his soulful, enigmatic Los Angeles PI due later this year. But Mosley is also working on something else that sounds like one of his fascinating experiments.
“I’m having a lot of fun right now,” Mosley said. “Sometime next year, I’ll have a straightforward crime/noir novel called The Diablerie, although there’s no central detective in it. It has a criminal who may or may not have committed a crime that he doesn’t remember. The story is about guilt and innocence and one’s sense of self, which are concepts that I found really exciting.”
Also due from Mosley in April is a captivating little lesson book called This Year You Write Your Novel, a concise 100-page summation of what Mosley has learned from his time crafting mysteries and other novels.
“When I was learning to write, I would get all these books about writing and didn’t understand them,” Mosley said. “The big questions never came up and they kept on trying to obfuscate by pretending that writing is mysterious. And they were always too long.”
So what has Mosley learned over the course of 25 novels and a fistful of short stories?
“That’s a hard question -- not because I don’t know -- but because there are so many things I’ve learned,” he said. “The modern novel is about character. That’s why people are reading them. They’re looking for the transition of a character within the milieu of the book’s environments. In order for there to be change in a character, there has to be some kind of problem, something that the character is trying to solve. If it’s done well, it’s not just external. It has to balance on the inside as well as the outside. As I discover something about you, I’m also discovering something about me. In that process, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of issues either in myself or in these characters and the world in which they live.”
“It’s really increased my language, meaning my ability to articulate problems and issues and realities that I see in the world,” he continued. “The reason I think that’s so important is because I think language is more important to human society than DNA. In our language, we hold our history; we hold everything that we know. All of our communication builds upon itself and upon history. To be able to make language grow in yourself or other people is amazing.”
I hang up and shake my head in amazement. The phone rings.
It’s Donald E. Westlake. That’s the celebrated Donald E. Westlake, mind you, the writer who created Parker (of Point Blank and Payback cinematic fame), who fashioned the hilariously inept thief Dortmunder (see The Hot Rock), and who wrote the blistering, Academy Award-nominated 1990 screenplay for The Grifters, adapting the novel by Jim Thompson. This is the guy telling me about his new book, What’s So Funny?, due in April.
“This is the first time that I’ve truly violated my own rules,” Westlake said of his newest Dortmunder caper. “I’ve seen a lot of people who have series characters who go to the well too often and they end up doing shtick. The characters get thinner instead of more complex and it just becomes a vaudeville routine after a while. The writers very often don’t see that they’re diluting the mix.”
To avoid that end with his popular loser of a thief, Westlake always promised that he would write a Dortmunder novel, then two more books (independent of the Parker novels written under the Richard Stark pseudonym), and only then would he hit up Dortmunder and his cronies again for a story. But after Dortmunder tales in The Road to Ruin and Watch Your Back!, Westlake found that his new story, which finds Dortmunder wrapped up in plots to steal a mysterious chess set from a bank vault and the dome from a mosque off the Belt Parkway, just wouldn’t get out of his way. So he banged out What’s So Funny?
“What’s funny is that I did three in a row!” Westlake laughed. “Whatever else I do after that, it has to be something else. You do three in a row, you’re really going too far. I’ll have to write a greeting card next or something.”
“Nobody Runs Forever ended with the character being chased by the police and dogs and a lot of people thought it was the end of the series,” Westlake said. “Ask the Parrot gets him off that mountain. I knew it was a strange book because most of the time, in the Parker series, all the characters are, in one way or another, involved in criminal activity whether they’re thieves or fences or cops or whatever. In Ask the Parrot, Parker is the only criminal among civilians. At the end of that book, he finally gets back into the world where he belongs but I realized that there was stuff left behind in that book that would be useful to a third. So I’m doing the third and then I’m out.”
In fact, Parker was originally supposed to lead The Hot Rock, the comic caper that originated Dortmunder and was eventually made into a successful film with Robert Redford.
“Parker deals badly with frustration so it would really get up his nose if he had to keep stealing the same thing over and over again,” Westlake said. “But it was such a comic notion that every time I thought about it, I would start to laugh. The worst thing that you can do to a tough character is to make him inadvertently funny. So that’s how Dortmunder came about.”
I asked if it was difficult for Westlake to change hats in switching from Dortmunder to Parker.
“It’s not difficult because it always begins with the language,” he said. “You’re using a different vocabulary and it leads you in a different direction, be it comic or serious. The Dortmunder novels are much more baroque than the Parker novels, because Parker is much more blunt.”
I hang up. I’ve talked to a couple of the best writers in the crime business in the course of a couple of hours. I can die peacefully now.
Except that the phone rings. And it’s Elmore Leonard on the other end of the line.
If I can’t talk to the late John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard would be the guy next on my list. Like MacDonald, Leonard has taken the art of the crime novel and infused it with literary grace. Over his 81-year lifetime, he’s carved out a host of masterpieces as well as recent brilliant gems like Get Shorty, The Hot Kid, and my personal favorite, Pagan Babies, not by prattling on but by carving down his books to their most primary ingredient: character.
“I discovered that character was important when I realized that it would be futile for me to write in a literary way where the author is definitely the voice, where the author has all the words and all the language,” Leonard said. “I’ve never felt that confident about language. But if that language comes out of my characters, then I can handle it. Many of the poor guys (in Leonard’s novels) are just dumb. I could never write, for example, a serial killer because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.”
Due in May, Leonard’s next book will continue the adventures of Carl Webster, the “Hot Kid,” of the U.S. Marshall’s Service who was created in The Hot Kid and became a hunter of German war criminals in Comfort to the Enemy, the crime writer’s serialized novel published recently in The New York Times. His new novel, Up in Honey’s Room, finds Webster chasing Jurgen Schenk, a former Afrika Korps officer, all the way to Detroit. There, the Hot Kid gets wrapped up with a host of Leonard’s remarkable characters including Vera Mezwa, the head of a Nazi spy ring; Walter Schoen, a German born spy running a butcher shop in Detroit; and Honey Diehl, Walter’s pistol of an American wife.
“I originally called it Hitler’s Birthday,” Leonard said. “But when my editor announced the title to the publisher, there was dead silence. By the time I got into the book, I saw that the title didn’t apply easily. The German agent who was going to do something on Hitler’s birthday wasn’t going to be as big a deal. But I had this girl who was married to him, thinking she could turn him around, but she fails and so she left him. Then I changed her name to Honey and she really jumped off the page then. I figured that I had a character that I could run with all the way.”
Like many of his recent outings like Tishomingo Blues and Mr. Paradise, the comedy in Up In Honey’s Room isn’t a wink and a nudge kind of joke. Leonard is, as always, a master at walking the line between the criminal and the comic.
“I really do like the new book,” he said. “It’s really funny because there was a lot of opportunity to say funny things. When Barry Sonnenfeld made Get Shorty, I told him that I hoped when someone said a funny line that he didn’t cut to someone grinning or winking because these people are serious. The fun has to be recognized by the reader. You have to play it straight.”
Clayton Moore will return next month with tales of gun slinging game wardens, murderous media conventions, dead villains, and a shark that makes Jaws look like a goldfish. He can be reached at email@example.com.