Not only is Charles Salzberg an engaging Thanksgiving dinner partner, but he writes darn good mysteries, too! I am pleased he agreed to guest post here so you can get the behind-the-scenes scoop on his books. Welcome, Charles!
They say all good things (and bad ones, too, we hope) will come to an end. But it’s not always easy to know when the end is. Sometimes even the beginning comes as a surprise.
That was the case with the first detective novel I wrote, Swann’s Last Song. The truth is, it wasn’t even supposed to be a detective novel or a novel about crime. The original idea was to take a well-worn genre and turn it upside down and inside out. I began with a down-and-out skip tracer, Henry Swann, who on the surface at least fit the description of the typical American detective: an outsider, a man living on the margins of society, a man who will do almost anything for money. A beautiful babe comes into his office and convinces him to find her missing husband. The convincing comes in the form of offering him a lot of money. He takes the dough, a daily stipend, and begins the search only to find out that the missing spouse is really a corpse. Case over. But wait, not so fast. The cops think the murder was simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but wifey doesn’t think so and she hires Swann to find the killer.
That’s the set-up. But from there things don’t quite fit the typical detective novel because in following the clues to find the killer Swann finds out something even more interesting, namely that the dead spouse, Harry Janus, might not be Harry Janus at all, that in fact he was several other people during his breathing days.
Thus the novel became being about who we are and who we might be and Swann, who believes the world is an orderly place, where everything ultimately makes perfect sense, which is what every detective must believe, i.e., that he or she is there to put the messy world back into place, winds up spent and disillusioned. This is especially so when he finds that following all the clues essentially leads him nowhere, because the crime was, in fact, totally random and all the clues he’s followed, which take him half-way around the world, are for naught.
Trouble was, no one would publish that version, so I after more than two decades I had to rethink the ending and, giving into the same incentive that got Swann on the case in the first place, I changed the ending and took the cash (don’t get the wrong idea, it wasn’t much cash and it was a check, but it was enough).
Case closed. Or so I thought.
As luck would have it the damn novel was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. I lost, but dammit I’m the competitive type and so I decided to keep writing the damn things until I did win something.
And so a one-time project, trying to write a detective novel, turned into a lifetime calling. Next, came Swann Dives In, and after it, Swann’s Lake of Despair.
But as it turned out writing them was fun. I began my writing career thinking of myself as a literary writer. I liked all the right authors: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer. Now I was a crime writer. But wait! Who said you can’t use literary techniques and be a crime writer at the same time? No one. And so these Swann novels became about something and that something wasn’t necessarily murder. In fact, I decided to shun such violent crimes and instead focus on other crimes, crimes nearer and dearer to us. Fraud, treachery, theft, broken hearts. Weren’t these crimes and couldn’t they be just as lethal, especially if they happened to you?
I thought so and maybe did a few others, since my last Swann novel, Swann’s Lake of Despair, did manage to make it to the finals of a couple other literary award contests.
And so I embarked on a fourth Henry Swann, Swann’s Way Out, in part because people seemed to like the character, as did I. But about halfway through this tome a thought came to me. At first it was just a feeling, I guess. Did I really have to write this character and his amusing cronies and allies for the rest of my life? I mean Swann has grown through the three novels. He’s gotten older and, I hope, wiser. His world has expanded. I began to wonder, have I taken this character as far as he can go? But even more important, what about me? Maybe I was getting a little tired of Henry Swann and his world. Maybe I had said all I had to say about him. Maybe we were a little tired of each other.
Maybe I was the one looking for a way out.
In the interim, I had written another novel, a stand-alone, Devil in the Hole, based on a true crime. Much to my surprise, it was named one of the Best Crime Novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine. Maybe I should write another stand-alone. Or maybe even make it the beginning of another series, where I could examine other worlds, other people.
By the time I finished Swann’s Way Out I had convinced myself that this one might really be Swann’s last song. Don’t worry I didn’t do anything drastic, like kill him off. Maybe I’m just going to put him out to pasture for a bit while I plow other fields. Or maybe he’s just gone. After all, think about real life. We know someone pretty well and then they move on and we move on and we don’t know what they’re doing with their lives and they don’t know what we’re doing with our lives. I mean, we’re both still alive, but we might as well be dead and gone because we don’t keep in touch anymore.
But one day, who knows, I might get a call and that call might be from Henry Swann. He says he’s in town and he’d like to see me and catch up. And he might have another story or two to tell me.
And you know something, I’m a curious guy and I’d probably make that date, you know, just to find out what’s happening.
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