We’re big on Moe. That’s Moe Prager, the Brooklyn private investigator in Reed Farrel Coleman’s private eye series for which he’s won the Shamus Award three times for Best Detective Novel of the Year, as well as the Macavity, Barry and Anthony Awards. A few days ago, Publisher’s Weekly named Hurt Machine one of the top 10 mysteries of the year. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Hurt Machine a winner (compete review posted below interview). To us, it’s not only a winner, it sprints way ahead of the competition.
Moe has always been philosophical, intelligent, sometimes downright funny. In Hurt Machine, Coleman digs deeper into Moe, taking us on a journey into the darker truths and wants and regrets of a man facing his mortality.
Thank you to Reed Farrel Coleman for being our guest interview today at Gums, Gams, and Gumshoes where he’ll be answering a couple of real-life PIs’ questions about their favorite fictional PI.
Question: Tim Hallinan called the Moe Prager series the “great undiscovered American private eye series.” Jack Bludis put it more bluntly (“How do you feel about being as good as you are and…the world at large, not even those who read mysteries, not knowing much about you and your writing?”). To paraphrase, you answered that it was frustrating but not so frustrating as to stand in the way of your writing. Since that interview, what’s hovering on your career horizon?
Coleman: Where to begin … Let’s cover Moe first. There’s a new Moe in the pipeline for next year. It’s entitled Onion Street—a title lifted from one of my poems—and I guess you’d call the book a prequel. In the previous seven Moe books I have only vaguely alluded to how Moe became a cop in the first place. Onion Street is that story. After Onion Street I think I’m planning one more book in the series.
On November 8, 2011, my stand-alone novel Gun Church debuted from Audible.com as an exclusive audio download—it will eventually be traditionally published and be available as an e-book. It’s the story of a former literary wunderkind, Kip Weiler, fallen on hard times. He’s teaching creative writing at a rural community college and prevents his class from meeting a violent end. Not only does he get a second fifteen minutes of fame, but the urge to write again. As a result of his heroics, he falls in with a cult-like group that worships the intrinsic nature of handguns. Things really get weird when the lines between Kip’s life and his art blur. Think Fight Club meets Wonder Boys with guns.
I have also signed a deal with a Canadian publisher to do at least two novellas featuring a PI named Gulliver Dowd. Gulliver is a pretty bitter fellow, a dwarf (his description, not mine) who becomes a PI after his adopted sister, a cop, is murdered. It’s an interesting thing to write a new PI series and Gulliver is such a different character than Moe. I’m having great fun with it.
I’m working on a sci fi YA novel as well. Otto Penzler is publishing a short story of mine called “The Book of Ghosts” and an essay on Robert B. Parker. I also have short stories coming out in Long Island Noir, in a Bob Randisi anthology called Crime Square, and one edited by Gary Phillips called Scoundrels. Other than that, I’ve got nothing going on.
Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: In that same interview with Bludis, you said, “The very basis of the hard-boiled tradition is the reckoning of inequities.” That rings true for the real-world of private investigations, too. Which brings us to this question: how do you nail the real world of a contemporary private eye? Trust us, we’ve read plenty of PI genre novels that don’t.
Coleman: I take that as high praise coming from real PIs. Thank you. It’s in the nature of my connection to character, I think. To me, it’s never so much about the mechanics of being a PI, but about expressing the feelings and thoughts a genuine PI might have in any given circumstance. If you get the feelings right, you get the character right. If you get the character right, you’ll hook the reader.
Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: You made the comment that you don’t outline. So after you nail the first 50 or so pages, you let Moe lead you into the mist?
Coleman: I let Moe lead from page 1. It’s just that I edit the first 50 pages like mad to make sure I have a solid base on which to build the structure of the novel. If you don’t have a good book by page 50, you don’t have a good book. But generally, I follow the story where it takes me in the same way I listen to what the characters have to tell me.
Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: What do you think are three critical elements for a great private eye story?
Coleman: A fascinating protagonist, a world that conspires against him or her, and a meaningful crime to solve. Also keep Joseph Wambaugh’s brilliant advice in mind at all times. “It’s not how the detective works on the case. It’s how the case works on the detective.”
Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: You’re one of the instructors for MWA University, as well as being an adjunct professor for Hofstra University. For young writers itching to write a private eye novel, what advice would you give them?
Coleman: Write a vampire romance instead. Just kidding … sort of. My advice to someone who is determined to take on the a PI novel is simple: Character, character, character. As long as your protagonist is someone the reader can inhabit, you’ve got a chance. Also, don’t avoid cliches, but use them to your advantage. Play with them, tweak them, turn them on their ear.
Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: As you know, the L.A. (one time Brooklyn) Dodgers are up for sale. Should the Dodgers return to Brooklyn, would your life be complete?
Coleman: You know, that’s a fascinating question because I was born the year before the Dodgers moved to LA. For me, their loss was never something I felt directly. It was more about how their loss hurt my family and all of Brooklyn and how that hurt became background noise in my life. The Brooklyn I was born into was a place of once was and what used to be. I never knew Brooklyn in its glory, only its decay and I think that comes through in my writing. So no, LA can keep the Dodgers. I have too much fun being a miserable Mets fan. PS Screw the Yankees.
Bio: Reed Farrel Coleman
Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman has published fourteen novels. He is the three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He was the co-editor of the poetry journals Poetry Bone and The Lineup. Reed was the editor of the short story anthology Hard Boiled Brooklyn. His short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications. He is an instructor for MWA U and an adjunct professor at Hofstra University. He lives with his wife and family on Long Island.
Praise for Hurt Machine
“Razor-edged contemporary whodunits don’t get much better than Shamus-winner Coleman’s seventh Moe Prager mystery (after 2010’s Innocent Monster). Shortly after the Brooklyn PI learns that he has stomach cancer, Carmella Melendez, his ex-wife, asks him to look into the stabbing murder of her estranged sister, Alta Conseco. Two months before her demise, Conseco and a fellow EMT, Maya Watson, became the subject of international outrage after failing while off-duty to help Robert Tillman, a cook who suffered a fatal stroke at a Manhattan bistro. Prager pursues the obvious course of seeking a link between Conseco’s and Tillman’s deaths. Watson has become an uncommunicative recluse, who provides little help, but the owner of the restaurant near where Conseco died is an old friend and an ex-cop, happy to help in any way he can. Logical and surprising plot twists combine with Prager’s world-weary narrative voice to produce another winner.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)