Friday, March 1, 2019

STEPHEN MERTZ on Private Eye fiction - and his new series, KILROY

Where the magic happens. (photo by Paul Bishop, I think)

Mr. Stephen Mertz, after forty years writing action-adventure, thrillers and other cool stuff, has returned to hardboiled private eye fiction with his new Kilroy series. That seemed an occasion momentous enough to sit down for a chinfest about it. Here goes:

ME = You’ve written about a zillion books, under your own and other names, and I’ve read a lot of them, but my favorites are the ones about music. There was Hank and Muddy (reviewed HERE, and talked about HERE) and Jimi After Dark (HERE), and now a brand new one called The Devil’s Music, the third in a series about a hardboiled detective named Kilroy. How did this Kilroy series come about?

STEVE = Well, the private eye story was my first love. Not only my first novel, but my first short stories were private eye stories. Eventually I got swept up in action-adventure for a while, but the private eye thing never went away. In my books about Mark Stone, MIA Hunter, it’s well established that he’s a private eye working in L.A., but with a strong commitment to the MIA issue that was prevalent in the seventies. And then I had Steve Madison, who was an industrial consultant to the rock industry, and he was essentially a private eye. So eventually I just saw a time where I should try putting out a series and see what I could do with the genre – and that’s Kilroy.

ME = Most of the writers you’ve told me you were weaned on, guys like Brett Halliday and Richard Prather, Carter Brown and Frank Kane - we're writing in the 50s, so how did you end up setting Kilroy in the 70s?

STEVE = A couple of reasons. it just seemed to be a decade that has been overlooked. Max Allan Collins has a great this series of books about Nate Heller, and he goes all the way back to the ‘30s, bringing it up to the ‘60s, and a lot of private eye stories out there take place today. But I think the idea of using a historical context really frees up the thing in a lot of ways. And in some ways these Kilroy books are an homage to those writers you just mentioned, because those are the writers I read when I first came up, and back then I didn’t really know why I loved them. But from this point in my life I can see why I loved them, because in some ways they had a real influence on the man I became.

The private eye is a great literary conceit. If you go back to the cowboy days, or forward to the guys in outer space, there are these iconic types that really resonate with readers. The western character is just free to roam anywhere. He can ride his horse in the first chapter in a town in the Dakotas or into Arizona or New Mexico. He can go everywhere, and that’s really intrinsic to the American thing, because we can just get in our car today and drive anywhere we want to go.

Well in our time, in the 21st century, the private eye is that guy. He’s always a loner, and always falls back on his own devices, because he really doesn’t trust the system. And at the same time, his best friend is usually a cop, he has a buddy on the newspaper staff, he has a good woman who stands by him.

The key thing about those stories is that it makes the private eye a great vehicle for the writer to take a look at society. The conceit of the private eye fiction is that he is completely at home in every level of society. He can bump shoulders with the President. He can walk into a nunnery and charm the head sister and get the information he wants, or he can down to Desolation Row and either kick ass or get his ass kicked. So that allows the writer to get inside as a character and do things most of us are unable to do.

Because I read those stories as a kid, I can now talk to bikers and nuns with equal ease. So, Mama, don’t let your children grow up to be private eyes, but those were my heroes back then. As the writer I am today I was able to re-examine that type of character and see what I could do with it.

I set the Kilroy series in Denver in the ‘70s, because I lived there my late twenties and early thirties. I was a working musician, running with all kinds of people, and that allows me to write with about it with a degree of authenticity.

ME = Were you reading those detective paperback books before you got interested in the pulps?

STEVE = Yeah, I think the paperbacks got me into the pulps. I remember in eighth or ninth grade, a buddy of mine’s mom was a great Mickey Spillane fan. Before that I’d been reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr. But once I read The Big Chill, and The Private Practice of Michael Shayne, I was hooked. And back then, that kind of private eye was just falling from trees. There was Mike Hammer, and there was Peter Gunn, and Richard Diamond, and Johnny Liddell, and Peter Chambers, and Shell Scott and Ed Noon. The list is endless.

Right around 1960 or ’70 there was real shift in the private eye genre. I think the mainstream success of Ross MacDonald is what started it, and for about fifteen or twenty years it seemed like every writer who was doing detective stories had this heavy social agenda, and the guy was either an alcoholic, or he shot somebody by mistake when he was a cop, or just wearing this hair shirt. The stories were going into the detective’s emotional past, and I don’t mean this as a slam on the writers who did that.

Ross Macdonald was a fine writer, and my favorite is The Underground Man,  but the private eyes I grew up with, who were ready to kick ass, usually had a cocked eyebrow on the cover, and maybe a barely covered babe holding a .45. It was sort of like the difference between Bill Haley & the Comets and The Moody Blues. Both would be considered rock music of a sort, but man, were they were a world apart from each other.  

Anyway, during the Ross Macdonald era those guys I liked just sort of disappeared, and that’s about the time I stopped reading detective fiction. I went into the army, and got married and everything, and by the time I really started publishing as a writer, I was into international stories. Don Pendleton came along, and I got into action adventure

As you get older, you realize how many other types of writers there are, and how many genres, but the stuff you started with is sort of like the first girl you ever kissed. It just sort of stays with you. So today, it just seemed like a good time for Kilroy to show up, and remind people what my kind of private is like.

So Kilroy, he respects women, he respects everyone he meets. He’s a good guy, and embraces a lot of the recognizable private eye traits. And for my money, in today’s market, he’s a breath of fresh air. He’s not carrying a shitload of angst around in his back pocket. He’s just there to solve the mystery and see if he can get laid and avoid getting hit on the head.

The detective story is a such a great genre. It’s my favorite. You’ve got a protagonist who has to move through a web of lies trying to pick out the kernels of the truth, not knowing who to trust, and by the end he is able to solve whatever it is that’s puzzling everybody. Wow. What a great metaphor for life. Except for that last part, of course – we hardly ever solve the mysteries. That’s basically a metaphor for what everyone has to do during the course of their life – try to weed out the lies from the truth and figure out what the hell is going on.

So, to me, of all the different forms of the mystery story, the private eye story is the best one for my means, and my point of view, that really captures what a novelist should be doing. But at the same time some mainstream writer tries to write a detective novel, and they usually don’t do so well, because there are basic demands of the form. There’s nothing I practice consciously, but it’s pretty much ingrained in me because that’s what I started reading as an adult.

ME = When you were talking about the relationship between the cowboy and the private eye stories, that really struck a chord. Carroll John Daly’s Two-Gun Gerta and one of the early Race Williams stories were set in Mexico, which was the Wild West of the ‘20s.

STEVE = Right, you know, right from the start, those stories where the private eye and the cowboy mix up carry through right until today. You’ve got The Continental Op in “Corkscrew,” and Pot Shot in the Spenser series. One of my favorite Ed Noon novels is Lust is a Lady. That’s another nice thing about the genre. Those two protagonist types are so alike that they’re easily interchangeable into wherever the writer wants to use them.

ME = Well, Kilroy is well poised for that, being in Denver.

STEVE = Yeah, that’s a good idea. I might have put Kilroy on a horse.

ME = Kilroy, I see was with the Military Police in Vietnam, he was stunt-man in Hollywood and he was repo man in California. So how much of that stuff did you do?

STEVE = Well, I’ve been around. The basic ingredients for a writer are experience and imagination. I purposely keep his background obscure, because of the plethora of private eyes with emotional baggage that wear the reader down. So I’m distancing myself from that. As for moi, let’s just leave it at . . . I haven’t worked a regular job since 1972.

Everybody’s got to keep money coming in to keep the wheels greased, so I’ve managed resorts, I’ve run second-hand record shops, I’ve played on the road, I’ve done of things I probably shouldn’t share. You anything to keep the fearful specter of honest employment from the door. But I was born a writer. It’s a calling, as much as anything.

Papa Hemingway made the observation that a writer has to feel about his work the way a priest feels about God. So what I’ve come to think of as my art – which for most of my life on the road I thought of as my hustle – is writing. It dictates where I live, it dictates who my friends are and who I have relationships with. It’s what I do, and for about a quarter of a century I worked as an online instructor for Writer’s Digest Magazine. So there was always money coming in.

I’m responsible for denuding a number of forests. I’ve written a lot of books under names I have no reason to publicize. But the books under my own name was always my intention, always the goal. That was the light at the end of the tunnel. And I’m there now. Wolfpack Publishing is bringing out my entire backlist, even some of the books that were pseudonymous, and they’ll keep them in print in both and eBook and paperback format. 

My first story was published in 1975, and I never wavered from then until this conversation we’re having right now. Nothing dissuaded me. I never had a net, never had anything to fall back on. I always knew that writing was what I was born to do. One of my mentors Michael Avallone called it being blessed with the bugaboo of expression. It’s a curse and a blessing, you know. It’s a blessing because it’s allowed me to become who I am and do what I do, and I’m satisfied with that. But it’s a curse in that a lot of people don’t understand how a writer needs to live and think.

It’s another way I feel like the private eyes in the stories I used to read. The women were always crazy about them. They didn’t have any trouble attracting the women, they just had trouble holding onto them. And that’s my life. I love the ladies, but from their perspective living with a writer isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. So there’s a price you pay, but as far as I’m concerned, the writing life is worth everything it’s cost me.

Mojo and the Outsiderz

ME = I see some of your determination as a writer in Kilroy. He's that way about his detective business in that he’s unstoppable, and he's kind of a Steve Mertz clone anyway. He’s got long hair, wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt. He's rough and tough and a chick magnet.

STEVE = (laugher)

ME = You dedicated The Devil’s Music to Michael Avallone. Did you ever meet him?

A = Oh yes, I did. You’re talking about one of my favorite people in the world. I was guest at his home, and I think he and I and his son David went to see one of the Indiana Jones films. Now David and I are friends, and he’s a writer. Writes for Playboy and does comic scripts. Mike was the first real writer I ever knew. I wrote him a fan letter, and a very meaningful friendship grew out of that.

ME = You have some great supporting characters in the Kilroy books. I like his cop friend Joe Gallegos, and his D.A. adversary Neil Dickensheets because they’re both sort of stereotypical characters, but you've given them more shading and shown other sides to their personalities.

STEVE = Thank you. You know, character is everything. Good fiction is always character-driven. A lot of the Sherlock Holmes plots don’t stand up, but what a great character. Same with Tarzan, Perry Mason and James Bond. Good fiction is character driven, across the board, whether it’s literary fiction or pulp fiction, and I feel I really came into my own as a writer when that sunk in. So I put a lot of work into those secondary characters.

Of course, the Kilroys are in first person, but in my third person books I try to filter the story through viewpoint, which enhances the characters as well. To do that you have to know who these people are, where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But what’s important in the portrayal of these characters as they interact is where are they today, and what do they want tomorrow to be. So that applies to Kilroy, too. We know he was this and we know he was that, but it’s all about the here and the now. So that’s the concept I’m working from.

ME = So your new one, The Devil’s Music, is all about the Blues. Kilroy and his buddy Carl are both huge Blues fans, and Carl has a fantastic record collection. Is that pretty much your record collection?

STEVE = Yeah, that aspect of those two guys is me. You know, where it’s people out there today, doing it brand new, or if it’s Robert Johnson, whether it’s Brooks and Dunn or the latest hottie in country music, or the Carter family or Jimmie Rodgers the blue yodeler, I just love it.

There’re only two kinds of music. There’s good music and bad music. It’s Sturgeon’s law applied to music. At any given moment there’s more crap than there is the good stuff, but the good stuff always lasts. Elvis, and Scotty and DJ and Bill, they could get on a honkytonk stage tonight and blow the audience away. Hank Williams and Muddy Waters could get on stage tonight and people would go home loving them. If it’s good now, it’s gonna be good tomorrow. And conversely, if it was good seventy years ago, it’s gonna be good today.

For a lot of people, music is just a social lubricant, but it’s the stuff that flows through my veins. Back many years ago when I was writing the Mack Bolan books, I used to have a picture of Chuck Berry doing the duck walk up in front of my desk, because I wanted to plug into that energy and get that feeling going.

It goes back again to when I was a kid. If I wasn’t reading a Shell Scott or a Michael Shayne novel, I was tracking down the latest James Brown or Rolling Stones album. So I guess those two interests have been intertwined from the beginning in my work.

ME = Well, now I know your secret. That Chuck Berry picture worked.

STEVE = (laughter)

ME = Now I have to ask you this. I enjoyed your McShann novel, Say It Was Murder (HERE). Are we going to see him again?

STEVE = I don’t know. I’ve got to let Kilroy run a few more laps and see how he does. I like the McShann character an awful lot, but I never intended that to be series. I just wanted to write a novel about where I live, down here in Cochise County, Arizona, outside of Tucson along the border. It’s a great milieu for a detective story, and I don’t believe it’s ever been used as such. J.A. Jance is down here, but she writes more police stories. But anyway, right now McShann is staying on the back burner, and Kilroy is where the griddle is cooking right now.

ME = Did you say you have a fourth one already done?

STEVE = Well, not done. I’ve got a few in a holding pattern. You know, I banged out three in a row, and it was a lot of fun. I write a lot of different types of stories. There are books like The Moses Deception (HERE), a big 90,000 word thriller. I write Blaze, the husband and wife gunfighter team in those little 30,000 word novellas (HERE, HERE and HERE). So with Kilroy, for about ten months I was Carter Brown, just taking this protagonist and throwing him into the mix of people who want to do him in – and women who just want to do him – and see where it goes. I ended up really having a ball, and really being happy with the result.

It’s a really good time to be me right now, because I’m getting to write what I want. I’m having a lot fun with the Kilroy books, and I’m really hoping they do quite well. We’ll see how it goes, but if any of the writers or characters we’ve been talking about resonate with anyone reading this interview, I suggest they go and check out Kilroy.

ME = Me too!


Max Allan Collins said...

Great interview with a great guy and wonderful writer.

But I'm sure Steve didn't refer to my "Matt Heller" series, which I hope you will correct to "Nate Heller," a fairly well know fictional PI in the field by now (he debuted in TRUE DETECTIVE in 1983).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was a great interview, one of the best I've read lately. Steve's clear motivations and inspirations shine out.
"It was sort of like the difference between Bill Haley & the Comets and The Moody Blues." has sharp resonance for anybody raised on rock n' roll. Thanks.

John Hocking

Evan Lewis said...

Sorry, Max. I fixed it. As you see, Steve had a LOT to say on the subject. I nearly went blind and deaf transcribing it all, and was too feeble to proofread.

Max Allan Collins said...

Steve is an incredible guy, incredible writer. Not shy and retiring, however (you know, like me).

RJR said...

Great interview. Nice to see Steve returning to the P.I. genre, which is what I'm doing, as well. I've got one series with Wolfpack and one with Down & Out Books. Steve and I will have to exchange books!

Glen Davis said...

Gotta say, I'm enjoying the Kilroy series.

wayne d. dundee said...

Great interview. I can relate sooo much to the tug of private fiction -- as the seed that spawned the writing bug in Steve, myself, and many others (including Max and Bob as per the above comments) and the genre that continues to call us back even if our writing endeavors take us occasionally elsewhere ... Good to hear that Steve is contemplating more Kilroys, that Bob has a couple PI series going, and that Max not only has the acclaimed Heller but is also doing a great job of keeping Mike Hammer in action ... Thanks for the post, Evan. Great job. Your blog is continually entertaining and informative.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating interview. And I now have a new PI series to check out!