With its working class misfits with dark pasts fighting darker corruption, Benjamin Whitmer’s new mystery Pike is quite possibly the purist definition of modern hard boiled fiction. His title hero has a hard past, mainly of his own doing, and besides that the only things he has are his young friend, amateur boxer Rory, and a personal code.
When the hero’s daughter dies from a supposed overdose and he inherits his granddaughter, he suspects something isn’t right. He and Rory go to Cincinnati and run up against one dirty cop.
Whitmer files his prose style to a razor sharpness that makes Hammett look flowery. His action scenes are fierce and his terse dialogue can be both funny and chilling. It’s no suprise the book, published by independent publisher PM Press’ hardboiled imprint Switchblade, has been steadily getting attention from crime fiction fans, booksellers, and writers of crime fiction.
Ben is kind enough to agree to call in to The Hard Word Book Club’s discussion of Pike on March 30th. I thought I’d warm him up with some questions via e-mail.
1. Was Pike the first book you wrote or the first one published?
I actually wrote one other novel first. I called it a practice novel, and I knew I was never gonna get it published. I figured I’d go ahead and put all that first novel bullshit into that one so I wouldn’t have to worry about defending it in ten years. Still, it keeps me up at night sweating blood that it might surface somehow.
Pike was actually meant to be a practice novel, too, but I thought I’d send it out some to agents, in case somebody liked it. I was just about to give up when my agent, Gary Heidt, took a fancy to it. I have a “real” first novel that I’m about halfway done with, and I’m pretty happy with it. (It’s not the next one, though. That one will be an accidental novel that I wrote while still working on the “real” novel. I really hope most other novelists are smarter about this stuff than I am.)
2. What compelled you to have a character as hard as Pike?
I was thinking a lot about the really violent people I’ve known when I wrote the book, and about people who’ve really screwed up their lives for one reason or another. I’m not a violent person at all, and I’ve been lucky enough to never make any mistakes that screwed my life up irredeemably. But the people I’ve known who are violent, who really have destroyed themselves, they got turned real weird, even if they came back from it.
It’s never like those books where you’ve got a guy or a gal who can just turn on their hard side whenever they need to, and be a sweetheart the rest of the time. People get damaged in ways that don’t heal entirely, and I wanted a character who reflected that. Who saw the world in ways that he wouldn’t have if he was, say, a dentist. And who was always a hair’s breadth from making the same old mistakes over again.
3. How did you create one of the few kids in crime fiction that aren’t annoying?
Ha! I was actually really scared of that. I kept hearing this voice calling “Shaaaaaaaane” through my head while I was writing Wendy. I tried to keep Philip Pullman in mind, and some of his attacks on C.S. Lewis for writing false children, without the kind of sexual and dramatic tension that is far more a part of their life than us adults like to admit. I don’t know if it worked for anybody else, but Wendy was definitely one of my favorite characters by the end of the book.
4. Who are some of the writers that inspire you?
Man, it changes big time, moment to moment. But the two works I was most consciously mulling over when I was writing Pike were Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and William T. Vollmann’s treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. My daughter and wife bought it for me back when you could get all seven volumes for a hundred dollars. Of course I sold it to buy some gun parts after I finished it, but now I hear it’s going for a bunch of money on ebay.
5. There’s a lot of references to outlaw country artists and Pike seems to have a Steve Earle vibe to it to me. Do you consider musicians to have as much influence on your writing as authors?
Yeah, absolutely, and very consciously. Country music is one of those things that I find endlessly interesting. My opinion is that Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver songs will be around in five hundred years when all the John Grisham novels have turned to dust. Actually, my next project is to co-write Charlie Louvin’s autobiography. We finished it up right before he passed away. Sitting around with him and getting to hear stories about George Jones and Johnny Cash was as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had.
And that’s funny that you thought of Steve Earle. I actually had him in mind, circa Transcendental Blues, as my visual stand-in for Pike. And I probably listened to that album three or four thousand times while I was writing it. That song, “Lonelier than This,” will always give me chills, I think.
To hear more from Ben and ask your own questions, join us Wednseday, March 30TH, 7PM, on the third floor for The Hard Word Book Club’s discussion of Pike.
– Scott Montgomery, heart and brains of MysteryPeople, BookPeople’s mystery-bookstore-within-a-bookstore