Northcoast Shakedown: What Was I Thinking?

Northcoast ShakedownOne of the biggest jacket blurb cliches from the last decade was “In the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald,” meaning Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross McDonald, as if those three were the only ones who ever wrote private eye fiction. I’m pretty sure Private Eye Writers of America chief Bob Randisi would have something to say about that. I should know. I was a member of the PWA for several years.

For non-hardboiled fans, there seems to be a perception that every private eye story is a rehash of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. So the Hammett and Chandler comparisons are inevitable even for the ultra-violent Mickey Spillane. But is it fair?

Well, I’ll cop to Raymond Chandler in that I wanted a private eye who was something more than a sarcastic guy in a trenchcoat taking names and kicking asses. If anything, Nick Kepler gets his ass kicked more often than he kicks asses. And I did try to put a little style into my prose. But was Chandler the most influential writer on Northcoast Shakedown?

Actually, it was the late Robert B. Parker. I avoided what turns many people off to Parker’s later work: the psycho sidekick, the cutesy patter, and the nearly goddess-like place reserved for the annoying girlfriend. No, I took my queues from Parker’s opening salvo. I read The Godwulf Manuscript back in high school and was blown away by the prose. Parker had a way of hanging descriptive tags on people and places that gave the reader a quick shorthand to carry through the rest of the novel. I picked up on that in my writing early on.

But there’s more. Parker is from Boston and has a certain New England vibe that’s hard to articulate or replicate. You see it woven through Parker’s first ten or so Spenser novels. It’s a big red neon sign in the work of Stephen King, who first surfaced about three years after Parker. Dennis Lehane, whose writing leans more toward King than Parker, is probably the smoothest at it.  And it’s been a growing presence in some of Dave Zeltserman’s more recent work. What is it?

I don’t know. I know it’s pretty obvious when King and Lehane talk about their characters’ childhoods, but beyond that, I don’t know. It’s a vibe that’s crept into my own work, which I suspect is a by-product of growing up in Yankee-influenced Cleveland instead of the languid river vibe of Southern-tinged Cincinnati.

But getting back to Parker himself, it’s also the humor that really shows up in my work. It often shows up in sarcasm, and Nick Kepler is nothing if not sarcastic. Sure, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe cracks wise, but Spenser took it to another level (before Parker got comfortable and let it get out of hand. Let’s just say his later work is more for himself and his fans.) So Robert Parker’s Yankee-tinged smart-assery was a huge influence.

One author that was not an influence was SJ Rozan. I bring that up because, despite being acquainted with SJ for several years, I was a late-comer to her writing. So imagine my surprise when I read her dialog-heavy, spartan prose and found it similar to my own. So I’d love to say I was influenced by her, but I can only say that a better writer simply confirmed for me that I was doing something right.

During the run-up to the aborted publication of Northcoast‘s follow-up, Second Hand Goods, JA Konrath suggested I’d been reading a lot of Mickey Spillane. In the case of Second Hand Goods, I did, actually. In that one, Nick is pretty enraged. There were a couple of lines I put in his mouth that could have come right out of I, the Jury.

And then Nick pulls out a gun during an interview and casually lays it in his lap, denying that it’s a threat. We’re back in Spenser territory.

But of course, none of this was deliberate. You don’t really pick your influences. They simply grab you.


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