The Shrink-Wrapped P.I.
The Richard Helms Interview
Conducted by Jack Bludis
It is impossible to summarize the crime writing career of Richard Helms ('Rick' to his friends) in a reasonable length of a single paragraph. He has had multiple nominations for the Private-Eye Writers of America's Shamus, been nominated for the Derringer Award for best short story four times, winning twice in the same year, and won the ITW's Thriller award for best short story.
Beyond his accomplishments as a writer, Rick has been a forensic psychologist and currently teaches psychology at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. He also makes furniture, builds guitars, and speaks at many writer's conferences.
Most of his writing is crime fiction. He is probably known best for his private eyes Pat Gallegher and Eamon Gold. He has written in just about every crime sub-genre including his small-town police procedural and thriller. Next year, his The Mojito Coast, a private eye novel set in the last days of the Batista regime in Cuba will be published by Five-Star.
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JACK BLUDIS: Why do you write fiction?
RICHARD HELMS: I tend to write fiction for the same reason I build guitars and furniture, or cook (my two other passions). I've been driven to create all my life.
I wrote my first published short story when I was only eight years old. It was a blatant ripoff of a book I'd checked out of the library, but hey, I was eight. I'm not particularly good at drawing or painting, and I don't have a lot of musical talent, so I channeled my creative urges into a skill set I did know, which was words.
My mother taught me to read when I was only four years old. By the time I got to first grade, I was already reading short stories by people like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon and Clifford D. Simak. I read all of the Hardy Boys books (I think there were thirty or forty of them at the time) by my tenth birthday. When they were gone I started in on the Three Investigators and Power Boys series, and graduated to the various Brett Hallidays (whose Mike Shayne books were always on my mother's bedside table) around age twelve.
If there was a book around, I was all over it, including some my mother probably would have preferred I'd skipped, such as Harold Robbins' The Adventurers (Boy, did I learn a lot from that one!). Christmas morning, I was likely to find more books under the tree than toys, which was fine with me. I was the kid who always had his nose buried in a book. My mother would find me reading and make me go outside, so I went outside -- to read. As I read, I began to realize that these books didn't just happen. People wrote them. Some of them got paid enough that they didn't have to do anything but write. That idea was very exciting to me. Imagine -- getting paid to make stuff up!
So, eventually, I started to write, and since I'd read almost entirely fiction, it seemed most comfortable to write fiction. I was incredibly fortunate to run into a teacher who saw something improbably promising in what I wrote.
Her name was Dare Steele, and she took me on as a special project. She gave me writing assignments over and above those required for the writing class I took from her, and instead of grading them she wrote critiques on dialogue and style and grammar, and then she had me rewrite them. That was when I realized that writing is rewriting, and to this day I really hate writing first drafts, but I love to rewrite and polish. That was forty years ago, and I've written fiction ever since. Dare Steele died a year after I took her class, but the lessons she taught me have endured over the last forty years. Sometimes I think that if I stop writing fiction she'll haunt me until I find a keyboard somewhere and start pounding out words again.
Mostly, though, I write fiction because I get all these "What if... " thoughts in my head, and they won't leave until I pursue them to their logical end. I'm not a disciplined enough thinker to do that mentally, so I have to write the stories to see how they turn out.
JACK: Rick, it appears that the private-eye novel is your first love in crime fiction. I know that you have written in the other crime genre, such as police procedural. What are your plans for future PI novels?
RICK: As you mentioned, my novel The Mojito Coast comes out next July, from Five Star/Cengage Mysteries. I'll talk a bit more about it later.
I plan to do two more Pat Gallegher novels. The last one, Wet Debt, was written nearly ten years ago, and ended with Gallegher jetting off to San Francisco to join his squeeze Merle Comineau on vacation after surviving a gangland shootout in an alley behind the New Orleans nightclub where he lives. The next book, Paid In Spades, which I'm working on now, takes up the story two weeks later, when Gallegher and Merlie return. I did this on purpose, in order to avoid having to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
All of the Pat Gallegher stories are pre-Katrina tales. In the new one, the man who got Gallegher into Gambler's Anonymous exacts a promise from Gallegher to find him, and later disappears. Honor-bound to keep his promise, Gallegher begins the search for his buddy only to find himself hip-deep in Brazilian smugglers.
The sixth (and probably last) Pat Gallegher title will be Hell's Bells. This one will lead up to Katrina, and the climax takes place during the hurricane itself. Not a lot of spoilers here, but Gallegher has to comb the city for a killer in order to save his friend, the priest Dag D'Agostino, who is being held hostage in his own church by two men claiming to be wrongfully accused of a murder. Of course, a Pat Gallegher novel wouldn't be the same without an appearance by Scat Boudreaux, so you can expect to see The Cannibal Commando in both of these. I also anticipate bringing the Pat Gallegher story arc full circle with Hell's Bells, and end the series in a way I hope will satisfy readers.
I'm also working on the third San Francisco-based Eamon Gold title, Brittle Karma. In this one, Gold is approached by an ex-con, just released from prison, who was part of a huge armored car heist gone bad two decades earlier. One of the robbers, Eddie Rice, was not apprehended, and disappeared with the money. The ex-con wants Gold to find Rice. Gold turns the case down, but the ex-con is murdered days later. Gold decides to take the case on spec when he discovers that there is a recovery bounty on the stolen armored car money. His search for Eddie Rice leads him to some surprising discoveries.
That's about it for private eye novels in the pipeline. I do have some PI short stories planned, but no other novels at this time.
JACK: Among your PIs -- and there are several -- which is your favorite?
RICK: No contest. Pat Gallegher has been very good to me. He's gotten me two Shamus Award nominations, a Derringer Award nomination, a Macavity Award nomination, and a Thriller Award win. Of all my protagonists, he's probably the best-developed character. It's going to be hard to end that series, but I have other things I want to write. There may be a Pat Gallegher short story from time to time after Hell's Bells, though. Most of my Gallegher shorts take place between the first and second novels (Joker Poker and Voodoo That You Do), at least in my head. That way, I don't have to take time explaining his relationship with Merlie, or cover Scat Boudreaux's back story.
JACK: I know that one of your favorite PI's is/was Robert B. Parker's Spenser. What is it about Spenser that you most like and have you brought any of that to your own work?
I write PI stories largely because of Parker and the Spenser series. I was writing Robert Ludlum/David Morrell-style thrillers (The Valentine Profile; The Amadeus Legacy) when I read my first Spenser novel, back in 1984. I had read a lot of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Brett Halliday stuff years earlier, and when I read Looking for Rachel Wallace (my first Spenser), it triggered memories of those earlier books.
Like a lot of readers, I got hooked on Spenser, and went back to read his earlier work in order, starting with The Godwulf Manuscript. This led me to some other authors, the kind of guys Pelecanos refers to as the 'sons of Spenser' (guys like Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane), and I went back and read a lot of the Ross Macdonald novels.
I went through a seven year hiatus from writing between 1986 and 1993, at a time when I was working a very stressful job, and wasn't personally centered enough to write frequently or well. When I started writing again in 1993, my first book was a sort of cathartic attempt to blow off the pressure I'd accumulated during that seven year break, and resulted in what I consider my best book to date (Bobby J.), which is also my least-read title.
When I finished Bobby J., I had gotten back into the writing rhythm, so my natural next project was in the genre I'd read almost without exception for ten years, PI novels. Also, besides reading a lot of Parker, Macdonald, Crais, and Lehane, I'd also just finished reading the entire Travis McGee series, so it isn't surprising that my first attempt at the PI genre was a strange synthesis between Spenser and McGee -- Pat Gallegher, a wise-cracking guy who finds things others can't.
I also endowed Gallegher with a certain degree of fatalism, which is probably reflected in a lot of my writing anyway. He's world-weary, and often doesn't give a damn whether he lives or dies, which can make him a very dangerous opponent. In that sense, he's very different from Parker's Spenser. I wrote the first Gallegher book (Joker Poker) in the middle 1990s when every PI (it seemed) had a dangerous unstable sidekick like Parker's Hawk, so I had to give Gallegher one also in Scat Boudreaux.
In Voodoo That You Do, I also gave him a steady, smart, incisive Susan Silverman-type girlfriend, Merlie Comineau. I owe those two conventions to Parker.
I started writing the Eamon Gold series sometime between the second and third Pat Gallegher books, largely because of a review Thrilling Detective Web Site publisher Kevin Burton Smith wrote about Joker Poker in January Magazine (thanks, Kevin!), where he mentioned the huge backstory Gallegher brought to the book.
I wondered whether I could write a PI story that had no -- or at least minimal -- backstory. Starting from scratch, I created a character who could easily fall into the 'Sons of Spenser' club, with Eamon Gold. He's a San Francisco PI who used to be a street cop. Instead of cooking (which he does on occasion), he builds musical instruments. He has a steady girlfriend, art gallery owner Heidi Fluhr. He has his Captain Quirk/Captain Healy-style police detective foil in Crymes (no first name), a gold shield with the Pacifica PD. The only Spenser meme he lacks is the sidekick. I considered one, but I ultimately rejected the idea, since by the time I started writing it the whole sidekick trend was winding down. Gold does his own dirty work, though he does occasionally feel bad about it later. Occasionally.
JACK: How do you think Parker compares to Hammett and Chandler?
RICK: I have what may be the only autographed copy of Parker's doctoral dissertation from Boston University. Like most dissertations, it has a very long title: The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage, and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.
It makes for fascinating reading, if you're a fan of the genre. Parker clearly did his homework. Of his three main subjects, I tend to think he resembled Chandler more than the others. You can see this most clearly in his first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript. I've often said that you can take Godwulf, replace every 'Spenser' with a 'Marlowe', and you would not be able to tell it from a Chandler novel. Take for instance the opening paragraph of Godwulf:
- "The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows. There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs. The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie."
Compare that to the second paragraph of Chandler's The Big Sleep, which many readers here may have memorized:
- "The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying."
Spenser doesn't have the brusqueness of one of Hammett's more noir protagonists such as Spade or the Op; and he doesn't display the same devil-may-care joie de vivre of -- say -- Nick Charles.
Nor does Spenser seem to possess the sometimes exasperating aloofness of Macdonald's Lew Archer. Archer observes the tragedies that surround him with an almost academic fatalism -- "Oh, look at that. Another family secret came back to bite that poor guy on the ass. Sucks for him."
Spenser becomes more involved with the lives of his clients, and in that sense is much more a Chandler-style knight errant than the heroes in either Hammett's or Macdonald's works. I could see Spenser becoming Roger Wade's reluctant companion in The Long Goodbye just as easily as Marlowe did, because Marlowe and Spenser share so many common personality traits (beyond simply the names of famous poets).
I don't think it was a coincidence that Parker ended his dissertation with the following paragraph:
- "There never was a man like Shane, or Marlowe, or Archer, or, for that matter, Natty Bumppo. The still enduring nostalgia for the 'Camelot' of John Kennedy's New Frontier suggests how much we as a people regret that. Or perhaps, as Lt. Randall tells Marlowe at the end of Farewell My Lovely: "That's just sentimental." To which, like Marlowe, I must reply, "Sure. It sounded like that when I said it."
I think, in the end, Parker was a sentimentalist. He liked the idea of heroes who weren't self-serving. He liked knights-errant who felt obliged to rescue damsels in distress when others seemed incapable. Because of that, when it came time to craft his own private eye series (and, if you read the dissertation, you can sense him ramping up to do so), he did as Chandler had recommended decades earlier, to 'analyze and imitate'. He analyzed Chandler's Marlowe, and wrote a perfectly acceptable Marlowe clone.
Of course, with time he found his own voice and created a style that we'd now refer to as Parker-esque (for better or worse), and I believe, in doing so, he became the fourth pillar in the story of twentieth century private eye fiction. Why else would there be so many 'sons of Spenser'?
I haven't read Ace Atkins' take on Spenser yet. I've heard from others that it is very faithful to Parker's style. I suspect that this is because that style resonated with Parker's fans, and Ace wanted to be true to the 'brand'.
Time will tell whether -- like Parker did -- Ace will veer from that voice and seek to endow the Spenser series with his own. I also suspect that one of the reasons the new Jesse Stone novels by Michael Brandman have been less well-received, at least by Parker fans, is that the writing doesn't seem to have Parker's voice. If anything, the Brandman books sound more like the Selleck/Brandman TV version of Jesse Stone. Readers find that jarring, and I have to wonder how many more of the Jesse Stone books will be penned by Michael Brandman.
JACK: Tell me more about next year's The Mojito Coast. As a fan of retro noir, it sounds like an interesting project.
RICK: It features a new character named Cormac Loame, a Miami PI who is sent to Havana in December 1958 to retrieve the daughter of a mob money launderer, at the same point in history when Castro's and Che's revolutionaries are descending on the Cuban capital. I had a lot of fun writing this one. It was incredibly interesting to research what was happening in Havana just prior to the revolution -- who was playing in which nightclubs and casinos, which gangsters were most active, and how the rebels progressed from the southwest coast of the island across to the capital. Ernest Hemingway plays a major role in the story, as does Lucho Braga, a character from my Pat Gallegher books. Like most good noir stories, this book features double-crosses, reluctant partnerships, shifting loyalties, and even a shady lady, as a simple missing person case blows up in the protagonist's face.
There's an interesting backstory to this book. For years I dreamed that I had written a manuscript of a PI story set in Cuba, and then had lost it. In my dreams, I'd search bookcases and blanket chests and boxes in the attic looking for this lost manuscript. I suspect that most writers have had this dream at least once -- one of the most terrifying things we can experience is losing a piece of work we've slaved over for months or years. Anyway, one night I had the dream again, and in this one I finally found the manuscript. I started reading it -- and you know how hard it is to read in your dreams -- but then the dream changed and I was the private eye in Havana. I woke up and wrote down what I could remember, and that became the backbone for The Mojito Coast.
So, not to sound corny, but this book really is 'the stuff that dreams are made of'. (Ouch)
JACK: There are many opinions about how to build a lead character, what are yours?
RICK: Several years ago, I was interviewing for a job, and the interviewer tossed me a curveball, asking "How do you define integrity?" I immediately jumped to the private eye ethos -- you know, that whole 'down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean' thing. As I was explaining, I realized that I was talking about myself.
I grew up under the influence of my mother, who was a real-life 'steel magnolia'. She actually used to say things like, "That just isn't done." She drummed right and wrong into my head from the time I was an infant. I also had a few male mentors over the years who also taught me that life is much more enjoyable if you choose to do the right thing, and by 'the right thing' they meant all that stuff we associate with heroic figures -- protecting the weak and defenseless, providing for those in want, etc, etc. It's probably no coincidence that I went into a life of public service -- first as a psychologist and later as a teacher -- with the goal of somehow making the world a better place. "I was going to buy the world a fucking Coke and teach it how to fucking sing," as the PI character in my book The Daedalus Deception says.
Of course, life isn't like that. Over time you discover that sometimes you have to compromise. Lofty goals are great, but they aren't shared by everyone, and sometimes, to get by, you find yourself in the unpleasant position of having to "get on to get on."
My protagonists aren't forced into those positions. They share my values, but not my occasional reluctant choice to violate them in the interest of expediency. In a way, by making them stronger than I am, they are able to vicariously express my inner desire to live my life entirely, every second, by my own standards.
Did I mention I'm a psychologist? Sometimes we get a little too introspective for our own good.
Anyway, like most PI writers, I start with a set of values I wish my protagonists to embody. I provide them with a little backstory, some experience to use for motivation, and then I place them into a situation to which they need to react. From that point on, I find things out more or less the same time my protags do. Like Parker, I usually have no idea in the first chapter where the story is going, at least any more than my protagonist does. I set the scene, provide the conflict, give my PI a goal, and then see where it leads. Wherever it does lead, I usually can rely on my characters to act based on the value set I've given them -- which, not surprisingly, are pretty close to my own.
JACK: In a recent piece for the Killer Nashville Conference, you mentioned that you were now interested in writing so-called literary fiction. How do you define literary fiction?
RICK: I like the term "so-called" literary fiction. In a recent New Yorker article, Lee Child said something to the effect that all fiction is founded on the thriller. Our earliest legends were thrillers, designed to entertain as we sat around the fire waiting for the night to end. To some extent, the PI novel is an extension of the western, which itself has its roots in the chivalric hero stories of the medieval times, which themselves have roots in the earliest classical literature.
I've been reading a lot of non-crime fiction lately, especially a fair number of novels that have been nominated for or won awards typically reserved for 'serious' fiction, whatever that means. I read Joseph O'Neill's Penn Faulkner Prize-winning Netherland, about a man searching for meaning in a post-9-11 New York through playing cricket and trying to get a driver's license. I read Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, about a clockmaker who reviews his life on his deathbed. I read a number of Paul Auster's books.
Since, as Chandler suggested, I tend to 'analyze and imitate', I've noted some common threads running through a number of these books. They are very long on introspection, stream-of-consciousness, and internal journaling. Many of the books tend to relate a 'slice of life' that is founded in past experience, but does not necessarily let the reader in on the resolution in the future. Description tends to take precedence over plotting or -- in some cases -- even conflict. There is a lot of beautiful writing in these books. Now, that's not peculiar to 'literary' novels. James Lee Burke has done some incredibly lyrical work in his Dave Robicheaux novels, for instance, wrapping it inside a traditional crime genre format. Reed Farrel Coleman, whom NPR's reviewer (and Pulitzer Prize judge) Maureen Corrigan has called "the hard-boiled poet" certainly includes some lovely use of language in his Moe Prager books. There are obviously others who do the same.
I think that one of the things that sets the "so-called" literary novels apart is the disregard for the rules we as genre authors have had beaten into us from the beginning. Elmore Leonard, in his famous rules for writing, says, "if it sounds like writing, get rid of it."
For mysteries and thrillers, that makes sense, because we are supposed to shed our disbelief and ride along with the protagonist on his hero's journey, as Joseph Campbell referred to it. If the writing gets in the way, it jolts us out of the story the same way a really cool camera shot in a movie pulls us out and makes us spend the next ten minutes wondering "How'd they do that?" I love reading James Lee Burke, but I do find myself stopping a lot along the way to digest a particularly brilliant simile or a vivid description that paints a picture of something in a way I'd never imagined it.
The 'literary' genre (and I tend to think of it as a genre like any other, with its own set of rules and conventions) are all about the writing. In some cases, there is nothing there but the writing. Books win Pulitzer and Man Booker prizes because the writing in them is so opaque that it sometimes hides the fact that nothing really happens between the covers. The protagonist doesn't learn or change as a result of experience. Nothing is resolved. A problem has been identified and examined in the minutest detail, but no solution is offered. In many cases, the main character is as clueless at the book's end as he was when it started. But the words are beautiful. Sometimes they are breathtaking.
I sound like I'm criticizing, but in reality I am as in awe of -- say -- Joseph O'Neill's Netherland as I have been with many of Burke's books. And, in fact, we need to remember that Burke was a Pulitzer Prize nominated literary writer (The Lost Get-Back Boogie) long before he dreamed of Dave Robicheaux. His novel Lay Down My Sword and Shield, a 'literary' work examining the fall of a populist political candidate named Hackberry Holland, provides the backstory for two of his most recent crime novels which feature a considerably older and perhaps wiser Holland. He didn't change his writing. He just changed the stories.
My plan at this point is to write two more Pat Gallegher books, one more Eamon Gold novel, and two more Judd Wheeler titles, and do them all before I retire from teaching in three years. Then, I have a list of some ten novels I want to write that are in a much more mainstream or literary vein. They include stories about a psychiatrist with a fatal illness; a re-imagining of George Sumner Albee's The Next Voice You Hear; a story about a fourth century bishop traveling to the Council of Laodicea; a tale about a man left for dead in a desert; a parable about a man apprenticing to learn to build archtop guitars from a master craftsman/mentor; a romance set in Venice between a widow and a restaurateur, and some others. I can't write these books I look forward to reading if I keep churning out detective stories, so the PI/rural noir stuff will have to go on the back burner for a few years.
With any luck, when I get back to doing the PI/mystery stuff in my seventies, I'll be much more adept at telling my stories. I don't see myself ever stopping writing or reading. Like Bob Parker, I'll probably die at my desk -- or better yet, in my office reading chair with a good book in my lap.
Interview respectfully submitted by Jack Bludis, July 2012. Jack, by the way, is a Hunt Valley, Maryland writer who has sold over 450 short stories and thirty novels under a slew of pen names. He writes about forties Baltimore eye Ken Sligo, forties LA gumshoe Rick Page and fifties Hollywood dick Brian Kane. His works include the Shamus-nominated Shadow of the Dahlia, as well as the upcoming The Last Sellout and Munchies and Other Tales.
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