By far my favorite short story private eye of the last few decades is Rob Kantner's Ben Perkins. Yeah, the nine Perkins novels, all paperback originals, are great, one of the great lost P.I. series of the eighties, if you ask me, but the two dozen or so (and counting) short stories are even better.
Back in the eighties, when everyone and her albino lesbian cousin from Newark was applying for a P.I. ticket, working class pale male Ben may have seemed something of a throwback at first. But defiantly blue collar Ben wasn't just some off-the-line Detroit production model gumshoe. Nope, thanks to Kantner's deft talent for lifting up the hood and tinkering with the works, Ben was a true original, a souped-up, customized dream machine of a shamus that may have looked pretty standard issue on the surface, but could - and often did -- leave most of the competition choking on his dust. With his blue collar paperback original roots, his compassion for the people in his life, his rock'n'roll soul and his hot-rod heart, and his rolled-up-sleeves approach to problem-solving, Ben came across as nothing less at the time than the Bob Seger of detective fiction, a working class hero working on his night moves.
There were a few other things that have always appealed to me about Perkins, perhaps the most obvious being location, location, location. While most male P.I.s of the time seemed to make a point out of prowling the mean streets and back alleys of some big city, reveling in the grittiness of it all, fish-out-of-water square peg Ben did much of his private eyeing among the well-tended lawns and well-kept avenues of the Detroit suburb of Belleville. You see, Ben's real job was running maintenance and security at the rather tony Norwegian Woods apartment complex. Not a bad gig for a former union goon to luck into, and it sure beat bolting on fenders on the Ford line, which is what most of the men in his family, including his father and his brother settled for. He only did detective work to supplement his income, and to pay for some of the finer things in life -- the finer things being his classic 1971 Mustang ragtop, his ultralight aircraft, Stroh's beer, cork-tipped cigars and good ol' boy, shit-kicking rock'n'roll.
That's was something else about Ben - he wasn't afraid to actually enjoy life. No late night existential brooding and angst for him, while some fruity jazz sax warbled away in the background - Ben was more a shot-and-a-beer kinda guy, more likely to crank Thorogood up to eleven than go through chapter-long bursts of self-pity or soul-searching.
But what really separated Ben from the rest of his fellow eyes when he first appeared in the early eighties was that, unlike most of them, he had a real life, with real people in it. Not monosyllabic psychopathic sidekicks or perfect little senior citizens who provide a seemingly endless supply of cinnamon rolls or other self-consciously wacky little bit players, but a slew of people about as far-fetched as your mailman. In other words, real people with real lives - and real problems -- of their own. Ben had more friends, acquaintances, buddies and assorted relatives weaving in and out of his life than anyone in his right mind could ever keep track of (including occasionally his own creator). Hell, Ben even admitted to having parents! Not since Jim Rockford had a private eye had such a large, unruly supporting cast.
Ben's extended family included, perhaps most notably, his long-suffering, on-again, off-again companion, criminal attorney and sometime-client Carole Summers and her young son, Will; Lieutenant Elvin Dance, a sharp-dressed black Detroit homicide dick; Inspector Dick Dennehy, Office of Special Investigations, Michigan State Police; Ben's brother, Bill; his sister Libby and a large assortment of lady friends, poker pals, the maintenance crew and various tenants at Norwegian Woods, and a whole collection of drinking buddies and barflies who hung out at his favourite watering hole, Under New Management.
It was this casting of solid private eye action cast against such an easily recognizable background of real life that gave the stories such emotional ooomph.
So it's great news that at last someone is releasing all the Perkins stories in a single volume. The August 2005 release of Trouble Is What I Do by Point Blank Press, complete with an intro by J.A. Konrath, is just rock solid good news (or should be) for anyone who gives a damn about private eye short fiction.
For a while in the mid-eighties, Kantner seemed to be just cranking short stories and novels out, moving from strength to strength, much to the delight of his scattered fans, with Ben eventually appearing in over two dozen short stories and nine novels, all paperback originals. Along the way, Kantner also became one of the most honoured members of the Private Eye Writers of America, nabbing an impressive number of Shamus nominations (only fellow Detroit-area scribe Loren Estleman came close to matching him at the time).
Unfortunately, it all ground to a halt somewhere around 1994, with the publication of the ninth and final novel, Concrete Hero. What we were left with was a very impressive body of work that, in my opinion anyway, ranks right up there as one of the very best P.I. series of its time, a series that was criminally overlooked for the most part by both critics and the reading public, and never got the attention and respect it truly deserved.
And then, long after I'd given up hope of ever seeing Ben in print again, he returned in a 1999 short story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, a realhomecoming since it was AHMM which had originally published the very first Perkins short story some seventeen years earlier. Since 1999, a few more short stories have surfaced, but what's even more encouraging is that Kantner has recently announced that he's planning to bring back Ben.
I spoke recently with Kantner about writing, the writing life and the return of Ben.
THRILLING DETECTIVE: So, what happened in 1994? Where'd you go? Why'd you stop writing?
ROB KANTNER: Actually, I didn't stop writing, really, but I did stop writing detective novels. By 1994 or so my contract with Harper had ended and there just didn't seem much chance that they'd renew it -- the male protagonist private detective was going into the swoon from which, even now, it hasn't fully recovered.
At the same time, my children (Meaghan, John and Robert) were approaching college age, and I had an opportunity to start my own business. It was pretty obvious to me that the only chance of funding my kids' college educations, affording them the chance to get through without starting their careers underwater in debt, was to seriously increase my income, and that simply wasn't going to happen with the books and the job I had then.
So I started a consulting business, with the hopes of increasing my income enough to fund college. But it meant giving something else up -- running your own business is an 80-120 hour per week job, especially when you factor in me being on the road 120+ days a year. So the novels had to go. Mind you, I did start writing non-fiction books in my field of expertise, and have published three of them so far.
But even with all that, I must confess that I did mess around with fiction a little during those years. I wrote The Long Way Home during that time, a suspense novel I later serialized on my web site. And by the late 1990s I was publishing short stories again -- three Perkins novellas with Alfred Hitchcock plus a couple of non-Perkins stories, so far..
So what prompted you to start writing detective fiction again?
I guess you could say that I had material that just wouldn't let me not write it, whether it got published or not. And I had also become very infatuated with the idea of a web site and the whole notion of communicating with current and future readers via that venue. That's something that obviously didn't exist back when I started in this racket. The whole book businesshas changed drastically, and permanently -- maybe there's a niche for me in it and maybe there isn't, but right now, I'm getting a kick out of it..
Well, your web site is certainly worth a visit.
Thanks. I'm am enjoying it, though it really is a time hog. There are a million things I want to do with it that I haven't had time for. I get lots of fun interaction with readers.
So, how did Ben Perkins come about?
I've written fiction of various flavors of "unreadable" since the age of 9, and I've always leaned toward thrillers, crime stories, detective stories, etc. That's what I read a lot of, too, plus lots and lots of adventure stories. I read the original Tom Swift books (my grandfather still had the hardcovers from when he was a kid), all the James Bond books by the time I was in the 7th grade, Donald Hamilton, Jack D. Hunter, a lot of spy novels. As for TV, for me it was always detective stuff, cops and robbers, war stories. Raymond Burr in Ironside; Highway Patrol; M Squad; all that good old crime and detective stuff. But it never occurred to me to attempt a private detective novel myself until, somewhere in my early 20s, I saw an old Philip Marlowe movie and someone suggested the genre might work for me.
So I created Ben for a novel called The Killing Path.
Was it ever published?
No,thank goodness. I have to admit that it was pretty hideous. But I did work up Ben's character in it. I assembled his name from that of my best friend, and a professor I admired. I placed him in metro Detroit, where I had lived for a number of years at that time. I gave him a prototypical Detroit background as well as a bit of a dark past (union head-buster). But even then, I had determined that I would try to avoid at least some of the private detective cliches. At that time he was not licensed. (Nor was his .45.) He had no office (and so far, he's never had one). Or a secretary. He's always had his "full time" job as maintenance and security manager for the apartment complex. But that novel, which I completed, has long since disappeared, which is probably a blessing, all things considered.
Ben was in over a dozen short stories before the first novel, The Back Door Man (1986), ever appeared. Was that part of some masterplan, to slowly build up an audience, or just the way it happened?
I've never really had a master plan. The work has always been driven by inspiration more than anything else. And I've written a lot of short stories, simply because it's a form with which I'm comfortable. The decision to write a short story vs. a novel is driven purely by the material. Of course when I had the book contracts, the work was also driven by deadlines.
So what was your first fiction sale? How did that come about?
Ben's first short was "The Long Slow Dive," which ended up (after a rework) being the third of my stories that Hitchcock bought. I liked it pretty well, so I started shopping it around. Got the usual Greek chorus of "no" and "no" and "hell no," until I sent it to Cathleen Jordan at Alfred Hitchcock. She sent a "no," too, but it was a personally written "no."
That must have been encouraging?
Yes it was. And so was she -- she asked me to send her more work. At the time I had just finished "C is for Cookie" so I sent that off to her, and she bought it right out of the box. That came out in September 1982.
And now I hear you're planning on collecting these Perkins stories in a collection?
Yes, it's going to be called Trouble Is What I Do.It doesn't quite include all of the shorts, but it includes stories from all phases, from "C is for Cookie" to several published in the late 90s and early 00's. The book will end with "Sex and Violins," an unpublished Perkins novella I wrote recently. I wrote an introduction, plus each story includes an "afterword" in which I make some brief comments about the story. And Joe Konrath was kind enough to contribute a guest introduction. It's a pretty nice package, I think.
One of the things I've always loved about the Perkins series is the huge cast of characters in the Perkins stories and novels. Where'd that come from?
Well, I have always been a fan of big sprawling saga types of stories with lots of characters - multigenerational, all that sort of thing. I've always liked continuing characters and, even, continuing stories. There is some continuity among the Perkins stories and books, and repeating characters, and somehow or another I've managed to keep it all fairly straight, though I'm sure there are hiccups and disconnects to be found. As each story or book came along I drew upon existing characters where it made sense, and created new ones to fit into the cast as dictated by the material. Some supporting characters kind of ran hot for a streak -- had their day -- and then faded. Others, including some I thought were one-shots, surprised me and ended up appearing over and over again. The most obvious of these is Carole Somers, Ben's on-again off-again (now off), who was a sort of walk-on in the first published Perkins story and, uh, is still hanging around.
And now you're bringing Ben back in a novel? How's that going?
It's fun. I don't think of him as having really been away, though. Okay, he hasn't appeared in a book since 1994, but he's been in three or four shorts in the interim. The book -- the tentative title is My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble -- picks up right where Concrete Hero, the last one, leaves off, except that Ben's daughter Rachel has had her first birthday. I'm shopping it around right now.
Any chance of the old books being reprinted?
A very good chance, actually, if My Eyes gets picked up or Trouble does really well. I'm hopeful.
How would you describe Ben?
In a side project I'm working on now, unrelated to what we're talking about, I describe Ben as: about six feet tall, a big-boned gent with coarse black hair and dark blue eyes and a battered, been-around face with a lot of smile lines. He gave off an air of physical certitude and quiet, calm purpose, along with a sense that there was nothing in life worth taking completely seriously.
What do you think drives him?
His deep-seated anger. This influences Ben far more than he suspects, and is a by-product partly of his raising, and partly simply his heredity. In the past he has channeled it in negative directions. After getting hammered for that, he began to channel it in positive directions. Becoming a father has mellowed him somewhat, but it's still there and will always be there. He vents his anger now by putting his traits and abilities to work to help others.
How much of Ben is you?
Very little, actually. Okay, we share a taste for the same kind of music (gut-bucket blues), and of course we both live in Michigan and are both fathers. Now, I say "very little," but then I'm sure -- at some very deep level, probably -- there are commonalties that are no doubt beyond my ability to perceive. I know that getting his voice takes me a little bit of time; it's like he's away, and it takes me time to bring him back, but once he's back, I see and hear him loud and clear.
What do you think Ben's best qualities are?
Persistent stubbornness. He cannot be deterred from a course once he's decided it's right. He is physically courageous; goes anywhere, confronts anybody, puts it all on the table for his clients. I love his abilities with tools. I'd kill for anything even close to that. And he's utterly and almost mindlessly devoted to his daughter. She completely owns him, and he's not even aware of it.
Fellow Detroit eye Amos Walker shows up in one of the Perkins stories, Dynamite Park. How did that come about?
Loren and I belonged to some of the same local writer groups. In situations like that there's a certain rib-nudging camaraderie. I threw Amos into a story, and I believe he reciprocated by mentioning Perkins in one of his. Just for fun.
Have you ever wanted to write a non-Ben book?
Well, as I mentioned beforte, I've written a non-Perkins suspense novel called The Long Way Home. I'm also working on another non-Perkins called Malicious Obedience -- and I'm in LOVE with it.
At your peak, from roughly 1984-1992, you were the most Shamus-nominated member of the PWA -- and actually won several of the little darlings. How/why'd you become a member?
I won four, I think. Anyway: I became a member because I got acquainted with a few members, like Loren and Bob Randisi, and I succumbed to peer pressure. Met a lot of cool people during those times, including John Lutz, Linda Barnes, Joan Hess, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, etc. But I was never nominated for any other awards by anyone else.
Let's put Ben aside for a moment. Where'd you come from?
Born in Toledo, Ohio. Spent my teenage years in Georgia; moved to the metro Detroit area in my early 20s. Spurred by a draft lottery number of 36, I served a Vietnam-era hitch in the Navy as a journalist, and was honorably discharged from the Naval Reserve in 1977. In 1978 I graduated from Eastern Michigan University, having blown two previous attempts at college. Aside from a couple of years in Cincinnati, I've lived in Michigan ever since.
What did you major in?
English lit. That's where I read Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Novelist. Still do.
And what did you do when you grew up?
Went into business. First part of my career was in business general management. I worked for an advertising agency for a while. Then went into quality management, worked for a consulting firm, was general manager of another consulting firm, and then started my own outfit in 1995. Been at it ever since, dragging my briefcase from one town to the next, like a mouse darting among elephants' feet.
Did you grow up? (Sometimes, with all his toys, Ben seems like a big kid.)
Well, I think to a great extent I have. I'm not as toy crazy as Ben is, that's for sure. I will admit to being in love with my old farm tractor but otherwise, Ben's toy fixation is a kind of wish fulfillment for me.
A farm? So you don't still live in the Detroit area?
No. After nearly thirty years there, in the fall of 2000 I bought an old farm in central Michigan, about 150 miles northwest of Detroit. We have 40 acres here - meadows, woods, a pond. Peaceful!
So, did the plan work? Did the kids get to go to college? Did they turn out okay?
Yes. Meaghan, she's married now with two children; John is a student; and Robert's started graduate school in DC.
And, mission accomplished, Ben's back?
Any parting words of wisdom?
Words of wisdom? From ME? There's a stretch!
Well, what's been the highlight of your writing career?
That's easy. Publishing the first story. Close second was publishing the first novel. That's all I ever really wanted -- to publish a novel. I thought of that as validation. Of course I had it all backwards.
Because for me, in terms of plans, dreams, etc., today, more than ever, what it's about is the work. 100% the work. Pushing back from the keyboard every day feeling like I did the best I could; reading yesterday's pages and feeling a sense of relief that it doesn't suck as bad as I was afraid it did. As long as I'm in that place, I'm all right.