I came to fiction rather late in life. After 50 (the late 1990s) I realized that save for a few required novels back in college, I hadn’t read much fiction, but had focused on non-fiction—history, how to do books, etc. Whatever writing I’d done suffered from the foggy lingo of “academese.” Then I bought a bunch of Easton books—you know, those wonderful leather editions, etc. Soon after I was immersing myself in literary fiction as well as 50 or so books on writing fiction, and took part in several online crit groups. I did take one useless graduate class on fiction writing. After a few dozen short stories and a dozen or so published by obscure magazines, I thought I’d write one about the stereotypical private eye, but had no basis for the character beyond a few Bogie films. So, I scoured out a bunch of sales and bookstores and read over 50 different PI tales. I joined Private Eye Writers of America after I’d done a couple of PI short stories. All the advice I got was to make my PI stand out from the others—make him different, yet keep within the genre limits.
I fell in love with all things Raymond Chandler. I still read him and find him fresh and enchanting. Even though I liked his mentor, Dashiell Hammett, and was chilled some by Mickey Spillane, I thought Chandler lifted the PI genre to a higher plane, a literary plane.
The PI is a descendant of the Wild West gunslinger hero, a loner who had to keep peace by his six-shooter, fists and courage. A loner against lawlessness. Moving into the 1920s and 30s the PI was still a loner, but now fought against political and urban corruption as well as other crime. Save for a few rare passages, when it came to sex, the PI’s I read about just faded to black after some flirtation. I didn’t want to write porno, but had enough poetry in my prose to take the sex scenes further, and try to write them well without too much graphic description. I see this as a major change from the traditional PI tale, and one that’s perhaps more accepted today. I still seek to write in the mainstream of the genre, however.
While writing my first PI short stories, I discovered I too was a loner, loving the kick-in-the-ass, anti-PC aspects of the genre. They were a blast to write! My first novel, Dark Quarry, resulted from the “stitching” together of 4 short tales of PI’s. Not something I’d recommend as it was so much work, but it got me past my anxiety about writing anything as long as a novel.
Mike Angel is a romantic with a weakness for a wide variety of dames, especially those in trouble. He began as an investigator at the young age of 30, taking up his late father’s ambition to establish an elite agency. He changed his name from D’Angelo to Angel upon the murder of his father. Mike’s other quest, if it is one, is to find the perfect love, though even after it’s clear that he’s succeeded, he struggles against commitment and losing choices. He also struggles about his career choice, his failings for women in trouble, and his suitability for Molly. He’s somewhat of a cynic like other PI’s but not completely so. At times he’s downright moonstruck. Like other tough guys he had a weakness for the bottle, too, but overcame that after drying out at a sanitarium.
I also differentiate Mike with a touch of the supernatural—after taking up his late father’s cross Mike “hears” his voice in times of imminent danger. He also gained a long scar on his jaw from hunting down his dad’s killer. Dad “tells” him that he may warn Mike about dangerous situations through sensations in the scar, especially when St. Peter has limited his “quota of words.” Mike knows the voice is his dad’s, that it’s heard only by him, but isn’t quite sure if he’s inventing it as a way of holding on to his father or that he’s going nuts, strain from investigations. He doesn’t hear the voice at other times, usually, so isn’t sure how real it is. Mike’s ambivalent about investigating as a career but secretly enjoys the violence sometimes involved. Big cases are his meat. The “voice” and his love of violence are restraining elements that keep him from fully committing to Molly Bennett, his rose-colored-glasses love interest.
My Mike Angel Mystery novels (having finished 7 now) have been compared to Chandler, Spillane, and others. For me this is the highest compliment, but no one will attain Chandler in my estimation. I’ve also been influenced by John Lutz, and Loren Estleman.
Along the way I developed Mike’s partner and alter-ego, Rick Anthony, a retired NYPD detective and partner of Mike’s late father. Rick is over-educated with a stunning vocabulary, and a horndog for his age (in his 60s). Molly Bennett became their office whiz—she’s permanently optimistic, a judo student (brown belt) and is convinced she’s the right woman to settle down with Mike. Yet, she gives him enough rope to slowly reel him in. These two main characters were built from Mike’s influence, and met the sorts of traits that he might do well with. Still a loner by instinct, he appreciates Rick’s analytical balance and 29 years of NY street experience.
Putting together a PI character has been fun and productive. I know just what Mike will say and do in any situation now—as I do the other two main figures in the stories. Mark Twain said to create good characters and turn them loose. Mike, Molly, and Rick often ask me to begin another episode. When I do, they simply take the ball and run with it.
David H Fears
By way of a bio, David Fears adds:
Back in 1971 I discovered that Mark Twain had traveled through my hometown in 1895 on the way to his world tour to get out of debt. That seed began to grow until in 2004 I began what has become a monumental, 4-volume work, Mark Twain Day By Day, an annotated chronology in the life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Each volume (3 are now published) is 1150-1250 pages, and sell to universities, libraries, societies, and Mark Twain scholars. Just before I got into the Twain writing, I began writing short stories, a few of which morphed into a hardboiled private eye detective novel. After studying hundreds of such books, and admiring Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane's work, I wrote four of them--and oh! how much fun they were to write. No one had to be politically correct, and the protagonist was driven to live up to his father's legacy--he was too young to be a PI at the start (30), but he had the help of his late father's detective partner on the NYPD, and the love of a good woman who was willing to wait until wild oats were sewn. So I got totally wrapped up in these characters. I believe good mysteries must be complex page turners; hardboiled should have the protagonist fighting corruption. There's sex, violence, and psychological reflection in my novels. I also studied composition theory, and read thousands of short stories. I taught writing at two for-profit colleges. Like Mark Twain, I love cats, am father to 3 girls, and am a westerner who has lived in various parts of the country.