It's a Family Affair
By Bill Duncan
In 1998 the world was a different place.
Ice storms battered North America. The US president was denying an extra-marital affair. The Dow Jones dropped significantly. An Asian country hosted the Winter Olympics. And American teenagers were being shot and killed in the schools. (Okay, maybe not so different, after all).
But as the millennium edged toward a close, change was afoot.
The Thrilling Detective Website was about to be birthed.
In a far-flung corner of the world, way down under, a trad-published crime writer was feeling good about the decision to stop writing his P.I. series and concentrate on just enjoying his leisure time. That writer was, and remains, W. Glenn Duncan. My father.
And, while none of us paid attention, wheels had been set in motion that would lead to a three-way collision between Rafferty, my father's fictional P.I., The Thrilling Detective Website, and me. And, while none of us paid attention, wheels had been set in motion that would lead to a three-way collision between my father, his fictional P.I., a web site, and me.
* * * * *
Ten years or soearlier, somewhere around 1987, my father received the news he'd been waiting for.
His New York agent had called to say that Fawcett Gold Medal wanted to publish his manuscript, Rafferty's Rules. After careers in journalism and the airline industry, Duncan had turned his hand to writing fiction and, like all writers, had dreamed of this day.
He was going to be a published author.
It would make the long hours in front of the typewriter, the false starts and dead ends, and all the previous rejections worthwhile. He knew that it wouldn't catapult him into Stephen King's league but, dammit, his book would be published. Saying that out loud felt good. And, if his luck held, there could be a possibility of more books to come. A movie? Maybe, but he wasn't going to get ahead of himself.
As it happened, there were more books to come. After the release of Rafferty's Rules, FGM signed Duncan to a two-book deal, with Last Seen Alive and Poor Dead Cricket pitched into the churning cauldron of mass-market paperbacks the following year.
Rafferty's Rules had been released in the US and Canada and, by all assumptions, was selling well. The publishers wouldn't ask for more otherwise, right? And the internet was boffins only, so any connection between a fledgling author and fans was more to be interpreted by the flow of royalty checks than personal contact.
My dad wasn't perturbed by the publisher's lack of requests for his involvement in the publicity machine. He'd rather stay in Australia and write than travel overseas and shake hands and sign books, anyway. Besides, early discussions were taking place by international air-mail letter about possible movie deals.
FGM turned the dial to eleven and contracted Duncan to deliver three more books. Wrong Place, Wrong Time; Cannon's Mouth and Fatal Sisters were all on sale within four years of the launch of Rafferty's Rules.
Sales must have been strong -- the royalty checks were still coming -- and my dad's work was gaining peer recognition. Fatal Sisters won the 1991 Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. It looked like his character was on the rise. Discussions for the movie adaptation of Rafferty's Rules grew serious.
And then, out of the blue, FGM informed Dad's agent they were no longer interested in more Rafferty books. A blow certainly, but nothing that thousands of other authors hadn't dealt with before. Besides, there was the movie -- now in production -- to come. The possibility of renewed interest in the characters, and maybe a new book follow-up, lingered on the horizon.
The movie launched. Direct to video. And it sucked. Big time.
But, before jumping to conclusions, one really should carefully consider the long and detailed list of the movie's high points:
In sunny Queensland, Australia, my dad thought to himself, "If no-one likes this stuff anymore, then what's the fucking point?" He'd rather be sailing.
And that seemed to be the rather ignominious end to the short-lived career of a fictional Dallas P.I. named Rafferty.
* * * * *
I don't know exactly why Kevin started the Thrilling Detective Website. I hope we can share a beer one day and chat about those early times, but until then, I choose to believe there was a large dose of "it seemed like a good idea at the time" behind the decision. That would certainly fit the raison d'étre of the gumshoes we love to read about, and just like their exploits, it's proven over the last twenty years to be go-to-hell enough to work.
Serious fans of anything are always looking for more, more, more. We lovers of crime and detective fiction are no different, and since its inception, the Thrilling Detective Website has worked to expand its list of P.I.s and "Schmucks with Underwoods." Somewhere, as he journeyed down the dark streets of discovery, Kevin stumbled on an out-of-print series involving a Dallas P.I. named Rafferty and he found enough in those pages to warrant an entry on his site.
That post, and the fans that it spoke for, changed my life.
And brought Rafferty back from the dead.
* * * * *
It was February 2015. I had a thought.
Maybe I should write a book.
I need to do something with my time. I can feel the clouds of depression lifting and, after six months of time off work, therapy, and medication, I'm almost ready to try again. I've always had the urge to write, was not too bad at it back in my school days (if I do say so myself), so maybe there's something there to explore.
What to write? Where to start? And why? I mean, for all Dad's effort, it didn't end well for him. Yeah, he had some fun while he was writing, and he made some money, but it all spiralled to an insignificant and frustrating end. Such a waste, all that hard work and creativity lost.
I wondered what had happened to the Rafferty books? My copies are well thumbed and I go back to them year after year. The stories hold up well and they're still a fun read. Yeah, the movie was shit, but somewhere, someone else must have liked the books, too. It couldn't have been just me.
The Thrilling Detective website. Never heard of it.
What the fuck?
Someone comparing Dad's writing to one of his heroes, Robert B. Parker? And there's a list of "Rafferty's Rules" compiled from the books, too?
At the risk of repeating myself. What... The... Fuck!
More poking around cyberspace and I find other people who'd spent their time to comment on Dad's books. Paul Bishop. Cliff Faussett. Bill Crider. And, of course, Kevin Burton Smith. Not random, these guys loved Dad's work. One entry elevates Rafferty into the top 5 P.I.s. Of all time.
And -- in the way that coincidences do -- I find a post from the Australian Crime Writer's Association: an announcement that someone's trying to locate Dad to discuss re-publishing the Rafferty books.
There's a fan base out there. I don't think Dad has any clue.
* * * * *
I hang up the phone and stare out the window.
Dad had no idea about the life that the Rafferty books took on once the web lurched from the early dial-up days to its current form of giant, instant, sharing community.
Heard the surprise in his voice as I recounted the positive feedback from genre lovers for him. A bunch of pride in there, too, and rightly so. His parting comment about "needing to buy a bigger hat" almost brought me to tears. Him too, I think.
Before our throats had started to constrict, we'd discussed my interest in writing a new Rafferty story. "Hell," he said. "I had my fun with him and if you can make some money out of him too, go for it."
Wow. I'd asked his thoughts on writing more than a few times and his response had always been the same. "It's a tough and, most times, shitty business, mate. No-one makes any money so write for your own enjoyment, but don't think of achieving anything more than that."
But, now it's different. Thanks to my web-sleuthing, I know that there are Rafferty fans out there. And, I bet that for every fan I've found, there are others less vocal.
Time to catch up on some reading.
* * * * *
Skip ahead to June 2015.
The cursor blinks at me and the blank Scrivener file looms out of the screen.
I finished reading all six Rafferty books again last week, studying them harder than any school assignment. They lay on the desk alongside the laptop looking like they've sprouted orange and purple Post-it-Note feathers.
I take a deep breath, flex my fingers and place them on the keyboard.
If you're in there, Rafferty, now's as good a time as any to let me know.
C'mon. C'mon. I don't know where, or how to start this.
You've got to be in there somewhere.
My fingers twitch, then start to tap.
Well, hello there.
* * * * *
November 2016. I typed THE END on the new Rafferty story (False Gods) a few weeks ago, still finding it hard to comprehend what I've accomplished. Turn my thoughts to that other side of being a writer: getting the story into the hands of someone who might want to read it.
I figure to begin by querying Dad's old agent, but I first want to be sure I'm not stepping on any legal toes. I email on Dad's behalf to confirm the current state of the contractual rights and mentioning my new story in passing. I wait, harboring a tiny hope that the agent might be interested in a new manuscript that comes with a six-book backlist, but the agent's response is curt and cool.
Don't they know there are fans out there? Don't these people keep up to date with the web-platforms of their genre? A plan starts to form.
I roll out the same strategy to the publisher holding the rights for the original Rafferty books (no longer FGM after industry takeovers and reshuffles), telling them exactly what I'm planning. They don't even blink and, two weeks later, all the rights to his creations are back with Dad.
Time to get to work.
* * * * *
August 2017. I've pressed the button marked "Publish" and I'm freaking out. Will this thing called indie-publishing actually work? My gut tells me the fans will be there, and I re-read their comments and reviews trying to stay calm.
They're out there. They have to be.
Rafferty's Rules, in ebook format for the first time, goes live on August 8th. Downloads start slowly, but they're there. A couple of hundred in the first week, a few more the second. Three weeks in, downloads are in the thousands, the book is ranking in Amazon's Top Ten and Dad is finding the whole thing hard to believe. So am I.
I was right.
The fans are there. I read comments from people ecstatic at re-discovering the series, and first-timers wishing the book had been released in their country the first time around. Dad is blown away by the response, for the first time in his author career getting the chance to hear from his fans.
And he's right, too. The money isn't flowing like a fire hydrant. But I realise now that's not the point. It's never been the point.
Because the shared love of a book and the feeling of connection that goes with it can't be quantified by a monetary figure. I wouldn't trade this buzz for any amount of money.
The fans have resurrected Rafferty. But, why?
* * * * *
Why? Why crime fiction?
It's a question I ask myself most days. I discount my first and second responses:
They roll off the tongue too easily, without heft.
It's a question worthy of our time and focus, ever more so when I open up my phone to the latest news of horrendous violence in our world. Is crime writing just one more outlet for our macabre fascination with the unspeakable horror that we humans can inflict on each other?
Maybe... But it feels like more than that.
We read, and write, not because of the crime or the violence or the gore but in spite of it. The bloodletting is incidental. What we really want is to squint through the curtains, to peer in on situations and people and the ways in which they cope, and sometimes don't.
It's why the genre stands the test of time. Whether our choice of fictional P.I. uses a phone booth or a mobile phone, the internet or a street snitch, the issues they tackle still resonate. And their personal, and often flawed, responses represent the best and the worst of us all.
Crime fiction is where we get to ask the hard questions. Questions that can't be posed in polite company.
We get to explore all the persons we are without a visit to a psychiatrist's couch, a recruiting office, or doing something that would have us seeing the wheels of justice from point-blank range.
More so than visual versions of the genre -- TV, video games, movies -- reading allows for deeper character exploration. It transcends passive entertainment, requires focus, commitment, effort. It provides the chance to walk around in a character's skin, live their life and learn things about ourselves.
Deep down wondering if we can admit to who we really are and whether we choose to let others see the real us.
That's why crime fiction.
And though my falling into this particular world is late and smacks of pre-determinism, I've only started to explore. I know Rafferty's got a lot more to say, so I'll keep asking questions, working hard, and hoping I can hear him whispering to me for long enough to one day celebrate my own 20th birthday in the genre.
So, congratulations to Kevin, and everyone involved, on all you've achieved over the last twenty years, and undying thanks for what you've done for crime writing in general, and this author and his father in particular.
* * * * *
THE RAFFERTY NOVELS
* * * * *
Born an hour north of Raffertyís stomping ground, W. Glenn "Bill" Duncan Jr. joined his family when they moved to Australia in the mid-1970's. He didn't have a lot of say in the matter, only being a seven-year-old at the time. He studied Architecture at university and spent 20 odd years working in the design and construction industry before following his father's path into writing.
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