It's been some time since my last McConfidential, so I'm very pleased to be back with one of my favourite hardboiled detective story authors, Sean Chercover. The natural successor to Chandler, Parker, and Crais, in my humble opinion...
Rafe: Tell me a bit about your latest novel or current series.
Sean: Trigger City is the second book about Chicago investigative reporter-turned PI Ray Dudgeon, who first appeared in Big City Bad Blood. In Trigger City, Ray investigates a murder-suicide that has connections to the intelligence community and a powerful military contractor under investigation by Congress. He’s in way over his head, and bad shit happens. I’m thrilled to report that Trigger City won the Dilys and Crimespree awards, and is up for the Barry, Macavity and Anthony.
Rafe: Which authors have had the strongest influence on your writing?
Sean: God, that’s tough. Not sure who to blame for my writing; I’m influenced by so many. In no particular order, and off the top of my head: Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Goodis, Spillane, MacDonald (both)...Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Graham Greene, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Derek Raymond...and then there’s a huge list of influences outside of crime fiction.
Rafe: What are your five favourite novels that aren’t normally considered crime fiction?
Sean: I don’t have a specific ranking, but here are five books that I love deeply and return to often:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The Stranger, by Albert Camus
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Light In August, by William Faulkner
...of course, if you ask me again tomorrow, you’ll probably get five different answers, no more or less true than these.
Rafe: Who is your favourite contemporary crime fiction author?
Sean: Damn, I don’t know. I don’t do “favourites” very well. But I could easily go with Ken Bruen. I always get an electric jolt when I pick up a new book by him.
Rafe: What books are you reading at present?
Sean: I recently finished The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane, which was spectacular. I’m now reading American Gods, by Neil Gaimen. Awesome. I’m also spending a lot of time with the Bible, and a variety of books on Christianity and Voodoo and quantum physics – all research for the current work-in-progress.
Rafe: What projects are you currently working on?
Sean: I’m working on a standalone right now. Can’t say much about it yet, but the reading list I mentioned above will give you some indication of the ideas bouncing around inside my skull.
Rafe: A fellow Vonnegut fan! I was lucky enough to discover Vonnegut early on; Mother Night was my first, and is still my favourite. Can you tell you me what it is you like about Vonnegut in general, and Breakfast of Champions in particular?
Sean: I absolutely love Vonnegut, and yeah, Mother Night is awesome. I first read him in high school (not for a class; they were nowhere near enlightened enough to assign Vonnegut) and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My first was Slaughterhouse Five. Then Cat’s Cradle. I was hooked, and I went back to the beginning with Player Piano and read through everything he’d ever published.
At the time, Vonnegut’s writing was called “Experimental Fiction,” a term that seems to have been replaced by the term, “postmodern,” which I do not care for one bit. But whatever you call it, the way he spoke directly to the reader and put the author directly into the narration, while maintaining the emotional connection to his characters and their fate … it blew me away. The way he stepped back and gave definitions of simple objects and places – putting them in historical and cultural context with just a few perfect lines – it was all new to me. He could paint a picture with what seemed like hyper-objective, almost cold prose, but you find yourself choked-up by the end. He was tricky that way. He made readers feel the absurdity of the human condition without ever holding humans in contempt, so you came away filled with pathos, rather than sneering.
Why Breakfast of Champions? You know, it’s a personal thing. I don’t think BoC is his best novel, not by a long shot. But it’s the novel I return to most often. Emotional connections to art have a lot to do with where you were in your life when you encountered the work. Take the Beatles: I wouldn’t argue that Revolver is the best Beatles album, but it is the one to which I feel most connected.
Rafe: I was lucky enough to have Mother Night as a 'set book' when I was 14 would you believe...for which I'm very grateful. Patricia Highsmith is another author who comes up regularly as a favourite among hardboiled writers I’ve interviewed. I’ve read one of the Ripleys, many years ago, and can’t remember much about it, but I think it’s probably time I tried another. Why has she been so influential in crime fiction?
Sean: Highsmith takes us into extremely bleak territory, but unlike writers such as Thompson and Goodis (both of whom I love), she doesn’t telegraph her intentions with fraught, tough-guy prose. Her characters may be raging sociopaths, but they can appear so normal – and so unemotional about their bad deeds – that the effect is actually darker. Graham Greene called her “a poet of apprehension” and she truly was. The Ripley novels are terrific, of course, but she wrote a ton of great books. The first I read (and I think the first she published) was Strangers On A Train (much darker than the Hitchcock adaptation). This Sweet Sickness and Deep Water both also stick with me.
Rafe: I won’t ask you anymore about your standalone, but it obviously looks like there might be an occult theme. Do you read horror fiction, and – if so – which authors?
Sean: Like everybody else, I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe at an early age, and return to him often. I don’t think I’m very well read in the horror genre, but I don’t really think about genre as much as I should. Most of my favourite so-called “lit-fic” novels could just as easily be called, “really well-written crime fiction.” Anyway, over the years I’ve read terrific stuff by Stephen King and Peter Straub and Joe Lansdale. And as I mentioned, I’ve recently been reading Neil Gaiman. I didn’t think of Gaiman as Horror, but he won the Bram Stoker award so I guess he is. And although considered a mystery writer, John Connolly scares the crap out of me. I love his stuff.
Having said all that – my work-in-progress may incorporate Catholicism and Voodoo and quantum physics, but it is definitely not horror. I wouldn’t want to misrepresent it, and anyone expecting a horror novel will be disappointed.
Rafe: I thought Trigger City was even better than Bad City Bad Blood, so best of luck with the awards. What’s next for Ray Dudgeon?
Sean: First of all, thank you! That’s very gratifying to hear. I have a couple of different things planned for Ray, assuming that people want to read more Ray Dudgeon stories and publishers want to publish them. In Trigger City, the antagonistic forces he’s up against are about as big as they come. Next, I’d like to go in the opposite direction, with a more personal foe.