Showing posts with label Michael Gruber. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Gruber. Show all posts

25 January 2019

The Earl Javorsky Interview / Stop Meddling in My Genre Part 2


by Lawrence Maddox

Let's get clear on my condition. I don't know what it is, but I know what it is not.  I am not a vampire, or a zombie, or a ghost. I'm not a thousand years old, I have no superpowers, and I've never been a hero. What I do have is a broken life, a broken family, and, so far, an inexplicable inoculation against dying.  

Author Earl Javorsky
That's Los Angeles PI Charlie Miner explaining the inexplicable in Earl Javorsky's Down to No Good (2017), the second and latest installment in Earl's multi-faceted genre-bending series about an un-killable sleuth who can't kick his addiction to heroin–or life. It also reads like a Who's Who of cross-over character-types who have been ripped from the fantasy and horror genres and placed in the nuts-and-bolts world of crime fiction. In Part 1 (from Jan 3rd) I preached that mixing genres got its start in Pulp magazines, where brilliant, genre-defining authors like Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick cut their teeth, and culminated with popular Pulp characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage. These Pulp heroes combined elements of crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, and you-name-it in a cross-pollination of Promethean Pulp parentage. The above passage from Down to No Good stakes out  Charlie Miner's rightful place among the best of these hybrids. It's also telling the other cross genre characters to step aside (I'm talking to you, Joe Pitt. You got something to say, Harry Dresden? You looking at me, Batman?), because there's a brand new character on the scene who's kicking it up a notch.

Before Charlie Miner became indestructible, he was a PI who worked mundane fraud cases for insurance companies. He was also a hopelessly addicted junkie. Desperate to kick his heroin habit, Charlie tries out the Second Chance at Life clinic, illegal in the US and located "somewhere south of Juarez." Their cure, a ritualistic use of ibogaine and other psychotropic drugs, gives Charlie an out-of-body experience but unfortunately leaves his addiction intact.  Back home and working a case, Charlie is shot in the head, stone-cold murdered, while riding his bike home.

Charlie wakes up on a gurney in the morgue, disembodied like he was during his Mexican drug cure.  "I roamed around the room," Charlie explains at the start of Down Solo (2014), "light as a whisper, fast as a thought."  Charlie discovers he's not only impervious to death, but he can astral project at will. This comes in handy when he wants to spy on people. Charlie also has a mysterious spirit guide named Daniel who helps Charlie skate the thin edge between life and death.

With a bullet in his brain, Charlie is understandably foggy on the details of his death. In Down Solo, Charlie seeks out his killer. A kidnapped daughter, lethal con men, and a frightening vision of death itself await in a hard boiled detective yarn that effortlessly doubles as a supernatural thriller.  Charlie wakes up dead once more in Down to No Good. This time Charlie, along with Homicide Detective  Dave Putnam, must stop the apocalyptic vision of a murderous psychic from coming true.

The metaphysical is another ingredient in the Charlie Miner stew, and I see visionary fiction as an influence. It's a gutsy amalgam,  clearly the work of an author who has read widely, and Earl Javorsky makes it look easy.  Earl generously agreed to discuss how he did it.

Lawrence Maddox: Can you talk about your reading life?

Some of Earl's favorite comic books.
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
Earl Javorsky: I fell in love with kids' classics around seven: Doctor Doolittle, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, then Treasure Island and Kidnapped. After that I discovered my dad's stash of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction and I was hooked. I was also addicted to comic books. My friend had a basement full of boxes of old DC and Marvel comics. My favorites were Dr. StrangeHouse of Mystery, ROM Spaceknight, and The Silver Surfer.

In high school and college I went through my elitist phase and read stuff like Antonin Artaud and Sartre, followed by an about-face with Robert Ludlum and Stephen King. Randomly, Chandler, Graham Greene, Elmore Leonard, Iain Pears, Walter Mosely, and Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind, but that leaves out so many writers whose work I love. Somehow I digested all of this strange brew and came up with Charlie Miner.

LM: What are the beginnings of Charlie Miner?

EJ:  The premise, which just spilled out of my brain on its own, was so foreign to me that I didn't know how to proceed after the first paragraph, which went like this:

They say once a junkie, always a junkie, but this is ridiculous. I haven't been dead more than a few hours and I already need a fix. It doesn't make sense; my blood isn't even circulating, but it's the process I crave–copping, cooking, tying off, finding a vein, the slow, steady pressure of thumb on plunger, and now it's my first order of business. 

Okay, clearly a throwaway idea. Who cares about dead junkies? And if he's dead, how do we account for him narrating? At best, I had a sketch for a story that would appeal to a very narrow slice of the general readership. But then the character's predicament stuck with me. How did he get that way? Maybe he had been murdered. Hmmm...Maybe he was a private eye. On a case. A case that got him killed. A detective story! A noir gumshoe tale, where the gumshoe has to solve his own murder. Noir, as in dark, and what could be darker than death?

LM:  Did you have reservations about mixing genres?

EJ: Genre bending can be risky and exciting–for the reader as well as the writer. The questions for both, I suppose, are: Does it work? Does it pay off? When my first book came out, I wrote to my editor, saying "I'm aware that my combination of hard-boiled plus supernatural is a possible turnoff to both camps, thus a potential marketing problem. I'm thinking that 'drug noir with a metaphysical twist' might be a way to spin it–unless you have thoughts to the contrary."

Lou wrote back succinctly with "I'm not convinced that 'drug noir' is a way to sell anything, at least to a mainstream audience. I actually think the hard-boiled/supernatural angle makes Down Solo distinctive. We're not planning to shirk from it."

LM: Are you reading any genre-mixing fiction right now?

EJ: One of my favorite books in the last few years is Michael Gruber's Tropic of Night.  This detective thriller involves Siberian shamanism. Yoruba sorcery, powerful psychotropic agents, and ritual murder. It takes us from Miami to Africa and back, delving anthropology, ethnography and madness as we try to unravel, along with Detective Jimmy Paz, the mystery of a serial killer of pregnant women.  There are passages that test the limits of the psychological and take us into the spooky realm of darker possibilities than we admit to in normal life. Is this a transgression, a violation of a genre boundary? If so, it is done so compellingly that I welcome it at every juncture.

Alternatively, all the strangeness might simply be a matter of altered perception: smoke and mirrors and a few hallucinogenic powders sprinkled into the atmosphere, skewing reality for our protagonist.  Tropic of Night teases the edge between the world as we know it and the supernatural and keeps a tight grip  on the reader's attention without requiring a leap of faith or even suspension of disbelief.


Here are some other great genre mash-ups: Gabino Iglesias' Zero Saints; T.E. Grau's I Am the River; and, of course, Lawrence Maddox's Fast Bang Booze.





Earl Javorsky is also the author of the suspense novel Trust Me.  To learn more about Earl Javorsky,  stop by EarlJavorsky.Com.





Come enjoy libations and watch the Superbowl! The Superbowl of Crime Fiction, that is. Join me this February 3rd as I, along with Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman, Tom Pitts, and Wendall Thomas read from our works at the Los Angeles Noir at the Bar. No refs, no replays, no over/under regrets.
7 PM Mandrake 2692 South La Cienega

01 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Michael Gruber


by Elizabeth Zelvin

SleuthSayers Monthly Giveaway: It's my turn to play elf and conduct a drawing for a copy of Death Will Get You Sober, first in my series of mysteries featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends OR a copy of my brand new e-novella, DEATH WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. To enter: leave a comment on today's post any time this week and check back next Saturday (above John Floyd's post) to see if you're the winner.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even within the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical or fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) This is the first of what may turn into several posts about authors on my personal list.

Michael Gruber is usually referred to as a thriller writer, but he isn’t highly visible in the crime fiction world, although his last book, The Good Son, was short-listed for the 2011 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in the UK. His best work has in abundance what I consider the three essential elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization. My favorite is The Book of Air and Shadows (2007). I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit.

The McGuffin is a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable; it puts a big grin on my face page after page. He treats the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’ll drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.

Here’s an example. Jake, one of the protagonists, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.

“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”

The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.

Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.

“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”

The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.

I’m not a big fan of explicit sex scenes, but I don’t mind Gruber’s, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.

“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”

Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.

This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. I don’t know anybody who does multiple points of view with such panache. In The Book of Air and Shadows, his fictional 17th-century character (the protagonist of the manuscript within a manuscript) describes the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters. The character telling us about it thinks this is a bad thing, while the author knows that the 21st century reader will think it’s a good thing. In short, it’s the sneakiness of a master storyteller.

I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book.” And read the rest of Gruber’s work, especially The Good Son, which engages our sympathies with a terrorist, no mean feat, and the Jimmy Paz trilogy, hardboiled detective stories with a little magic, and all in that gorgeous and hilarious prose.