August 28th, 2011

Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus nominee Wayne Dundee is heartland all the way.

Born on the state line between northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, Dundee spent much of his childhood exploring the area as his father, a wanderer at heart, moved from job to job in hops of 20-30 miles. Ultimately, Dundee settled in southern Nebraska — “On the hinge,” as he puts it. “of the [Texas] panhandle.

And that’s the span of territory his private eye, Joe Hannibal, has prowled over the almost 25 years  Wayne has been writing him, since his 1988 appearance in The Burning Season.  Joe was born out of Wayne’s heartland sensibility and the influence of three seminal writers: Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, and Donald (“Matt Helm”) Hamilton — plus a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As you can probably tell from a glance at Wayne’s influences, his books are red-meat writing, short on fern bars and crochet patterns.  The second Joe Hannibal mystery, The Skintight Shroud (is that a great title, or what?) is up as an e-book right now, and I recommend it heartily.  Here’s Wayne himself:

TH:  The private eye is probably the most endurable archetype in crime fiction. We’ve had reporters, crusading lawyers, cops, and (probably) two-fisted florists, but the private eye always endures. Why do you think this is? What is it about the private eye that so appeals to readers?

WD:  In spite of the current trend of whine-assiness that seems disturbingly too prevalent in much of our society today, I think at the core of the true American spirit there is a mile-wide independent streak that touches a nerve in everyone. Private eyes are the embodiment of this — and one really need look no further for evidence than the straight-line link you can make between the early PIs of the 1900s (Race Williams, the Continental Op, etc.) and the rugged frontier heroes from the Dime Novels of the late 1800s. All cut from very similar cloth, the PI merely being an urbanized version of what came before.

The PI is not (or at least does not feel) bound by all the rules and regulations and legal mumbo-jumbo that hamper more “civilized” law enforcement officials. The PI is seldom without personal faults, certainly not squeaky clean. The PI’s time can be rented but he (or she) cannot be bought off with corrupt money and cannot be scared off by menacing thugs. The PI is determined to do right and mete out justice—at least as he (or she) perceives right and just—no matter what. Doing the right thing, the PI realizes, may often be seen as “wrong” by others. But once committed, the PI will stay the course, persevere, until the job is done …

I think it is this kind of individualism and determination and toughness that appeals to readers. I think it comforts them with a sense of hoping/believing that there really are people like that in the world. Makes them think: “If I was in serious trouble with no place else to turn, here is who I would want to have in my corner.”

As a writer, what’s the appeal of the private eye to you? How did you decide that Joe Hannibal would be a PI? What “gifts” does writing about a PI offer an author?

The appeal is pretty much the same to me as what I’ve outlined above. It’s the kind of stuff I like to read, I decided early on it was also the kind of stuff I wanted to write. In my writing I can address current social/criminal issues if I want to go for some depth; I can do humor; I can do a straight kick-ass action piece … or I can mix it all together.

Making Hannibal a PI was, in the end, due largely to where I was living when I got busy and finally completed a piece of work that was worthy to submit. My travel experiences at the time were very limited — to the small communities along the northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin state line where I had lived and worked all my life. In my imagination, Hannibal (under various names) had at different times been a globe-trotting spy, a hit man, a larger-city PI or cop, a guy on the run from the mob, a trouble-shooting drifter setting things right for victimized people he happened to encounter … None of which worked because I never felt comfortable trying to capture locales and settings where I’d never even set foot … Finally, thanks to the writing of Dan J. Marlowe and Max Allan Collins, who set some of their tales practically in my back yard, I had one of those smack-yourself-in-the-forehead moments where I realized I could do the same thing with my work … So the small city (barely a quarter million in population) of Rockford, Illinois — where I was living at the time — became my backdrop and Joe Hannibal became a private eye operating out of there.

As far as “gifts” from my PI writing … one continues to hope for the giant best-seller/major movie deal mega bucks to start rolling in. But, alas, since I’ve been at this for almost thirty years and none of that appears even remotely close to happening, I ain’t exactly holding my breath. So I will take refuge in the simple gift of feeling very fortunate for having been able to participate in this genre that I love for as long as I’ve been able to. I believe Hannibal and I have made our mark at a respectable point on the fictional PI scale.

There’s a remarkably wide moral spectrum among fictional private eyes, touching on everything from their truthfulness, their willingness to use violence, their addictions, on and on. What can you tell us about where Joe falls along this spectrum?

Very early on, Joe was dubbed “blue collar” and called “more humane” than some of the more hard-bitten PIs at the time. Boil down those two terms and it equals, in my opinion, “decent”. I think that sums up Joe as well as anything. Due to his blue collar roots and upbringing he is, at the end of the day, a decent man. He’s not perfect by any means, he’s not always right, he has seen and done some very nasty things … but at his core he continues striving for decency.

He used to smoke, doesn’t any more. He drinks beer and alcohol, sometimes too much. He went through a bitter divorce after walking in on his wife in bed with his one-time partner on the police force; his immediate response was to draw his service revolver (he was a cop himself at the time) and come close to killing both of them where they lay; but he held himself in check at the last minute. After that he walked away from his marriage, his police career, pretty much everything. He roamed and brooded and went through a very dark personal period for a few years, until eventually settling in Rockford and putting together a new life as a PI.

In mythology there are two very different versions of Hercules. The Roman version paints him as being very heroic and noble. In the Greek version he is called Heracles and is a much darker, moodier demigod — capable still of very heroic feats but also capable of mistakes and errors on an equally grand scale. My favorite tale has him arriving at a friend’s house late one night with the household in mourning because the wife had just died. But Heracles, in a boisterous, drunken state, fails to recognize this and urges his old friend to join him in drink and merriment. The friend is too meek and polite to speak the truth and put a damper on Heracles’s upbeat mood. But when Heracles finally does recognize the truth of the situation he wails and curses his wretchedly rude behavior and, to compensate, swears that when Death comes to claim the fallen wife he will fight Death and prevent him from taking the woman … which he proceeds to do.

I see Hannibal as being in the Heracles mold. He is physically strong and tough, somewhat impulsive and a little rough around the edges, competent most of the time but every now and then capable of making a sizable blunder … and then being all the more hell-bent on setting things right.

In every series I’ve ever written I realized in book two and/or three that there were some things I got wrong in book one – either about the central character or his world. Have you had that experience in the Joe Hannibal books, and if so, what was it?

I got most of my “wrongness” out of the way in the six or seven short stories I wrote before I ever did my first novel. In the beginning, as I’ve often said, Hannibal was just another sock-and-shoot “Mike Hammer wanna-be”. Ratty old upstairs office, bottle in the bottom desk drawer, lovely dames hanging all over him while he coolly dispatches bad guys with a wisecrack or a .45 slug … Pretty stereotypical stuff.

In the first novel, THE BURNING SEASON, I had to keep all the stereotypical stuff that was already in place but what I did was build on it — give Joe a more complete background, add layers to his characterization (along with other characters, old ones and new ones introduced in the book), and create a much more complex plot within which the actions and interactions could play out.

You’ve said that Joe has “evolved” over the almost 30 years you’ve written him. How would you describe that evolution? And to what extent (if any) do you think it reflects changes in yourself?

Some of the evolution is described above. In the beginning, Joe was just a character I was writing about. Looking back, a number of my personal traits and biases crept into his character regardless. I suspect that happens to most writers doing a series character. The more I wrote about Joe, however, the better I got to know him and the closer I felt to him. And the more I began, to some extent, purposely inject a bit more of myself into him.

At the start, I was in my thirties and I pictured Joe as being in his forties. Now, as I have passed the sixty mark by a few years, I’ve sort of “frozen” Joe somewhere—without saying specifically—in his late fifties.

As “we” age, both of us are a little slower, a little thicker through the gut.

I graduated high school during the Vietnam War but was never called to serve. When it came time to flesh out Joe’s background, layer in some more depth, I was tempted to give him a military background, make him a ‘Nam vet. But when it came down to it, since I write Hannibal in the first person, I decided against that. Yeah, I know I’m writing fiction but somehow I couldn’t feel comfortable trying to put voice to someone who’d gone through that Hell when I hadn’t myself. Okay, okay — Hannibal shoots people, gets shot himself, gets knifed and beat to hell, etc., etc … all stuff I haven’t done either. But the ‘Nam thing, for whatever reason, was different. So — in AND FLESH AND BLOOD SO CHEAP, a title in the series with the Viet Nam War figuring prominently in the plot — I had Joe reflect on his own “curious guilt” that he felt for not having been part of that conflict. Ultimately, I guess it was a way of purging myself and my own feelings.

At the current point in the series, after I relocated to west central Nebraska a number of years back, I also eventually moved Joe out here. It is a new phase — a final phase, I suspect — in his career. He’s got a bum hip these days, from getting caught too near an explosion; I have a bum knee from … well, getting older (the things Joe goes through are always a bit more dramatic and exciting than what happens to me).

If I were the head of development for, I don’t know, Stephen Spielberg, and we were in an elevator with ten floors to go, what would you tell me about THE SKINTIGHT SHROUD?

Those Hollywood types like bullet points — tag lines they call ’em, right?

How about “Blue movies turn blood red when a killer starts x-ing out x-rated stars and only one man has the guts and determination to slug his way to the naked truth!”

Would you please recommend your four favorite fictional private eyes and give us a few words on why you suggest them?

Mike Hammer > Nobody combines strong mystery elements with vengeance, violence, and sex better than Spillane. When Hammer is in top form, nobody is tougher or nastier. For better or worse (the former, in my humble opinion), Spillane inspired and influenced generations of writers to come and almost single-handedly kicked off the paperback boom.

Travis McGee > (I know he’s not a card-carrying PI, but he operates almost exactly like one.) The complexity of plot and characterization, the social commentary, the psychology of what drives both good guys and bad guys and the unexpectedness of what can result … plus all those “broken birds” McGee had to mend before, during, and after the nastiness … John D. had a special magic that made me — both as a reader and writer — want to go deeper than just the action and violent encounters.

Matt Helm > (Okay, I’m really stretching it here because Helm was a government agent, not a private eye at all – but when he was off in some god-forsaken place with only his wits and toughness to rely on, he often fell back on a to-hell-with-the-rules, PI-like attitude to save the day.) Author [Donald] Hamilton wrote about violence with an almost clinical practicality and total lack of sentiment. If Helm had to kill somebody — man or woman — in the line of duty, then he did. He might not like it, but he did it without brooding or remorse or much thought at all because that’s what the job called for.

Spenser > Robert Parker revitalized the whole genre with this guy and opened the door for countless other PI writers (me among them) to walk through. Spenser was tough, witty, insightful, highly educated, and he could cook to beat the band. Parker always said he introduced romance to the PI novel … trouble was, it came in the form of Susan Silverman who (speaking strictly for myself) became such an annoying bimbo that I delved into each new book with a severe hope that the storyline would include her getting killed in the most gruesome manner. Parker also introduced the “dark half” sidekick in the form of Hawk — who would be imitated with slight variations in numerous other PI series to follow.

Finally, if you could pick one crime novel—PI or not—as being close to “perfect,” what would it be?

Hard to differentiate between “perfect” and “favorite” here … I guess I’ll go with my all-time favorite on the assumption that if it made such a lasting impression then it must pretty good.

That would be THE GIRL HUNTERS/THE SNAKE by Mickey Spillane.

Here I go stretching things again, inasmuch as these were released as two separate books — but I maintain that they really amount to one book in two parts. The storyline from HUNTERS flows directly into SNAKE. This was the point at which I discovered Spillane, so I guess my “first impression” bias probably figures into this selection.

At any rate, Mike Hammer here — coming off a seven-year drunk at the prospect of rescuing his former secretary/girlfriend Velda, who he thought was dead — is at his best. A little cooler and more calculating, yet savage when he has to be. There are dames, thugs, plot twists galore, and the shattering climax of THE SNAKE is the damnedest twist ending I’ve ever read.

Spillane/Hammer at their best … and that’s saying a whole lot.

Great stuff, Wayne — thanks so much for the interview.

10 Responses to “”

  1. Usman Says:

    Thanks for the great interview.
    Why does there appear a lack of interest these days in the reading public for PI novels. I’m sure they’re being read, but it appears that thrillers and big blockbusters is what publishers want–because that is what the readers want. Right?
    If so, why is that?
    One more thing, can the PI be soft, non violent? Or is that too unorthodox for the genre?

  2. EverettK Says:

    Great interview Wayne and Tim! I’ve picked up the first two books and slapped them on my reading pile. At this rate, I’ll never get to Queen… (Okay, Tim, in truth, I plan to read it before the Dentist awards, just to change your luck.)

    Usman: yes, the PI can be soft or non-violent, but then it’s not a PI story. That’s kind of like asking if a ‘western’ has to be set in the American west: well, no, but 99.9% of them are. The rest are set in outer space. By the way, would you like to use the bucket?

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I really enjoyed the interview,and I found it very illuminating about the American character, and what we admire. I agree about Spenser. Parker reawakened the interest in the modern PI, and led to all kinds of permutations. I will check out your books; yet another to add to my digital pile.
    Could someone refresh my memory-what is this bucket for?

  4. wayne d. dundee Says:

    Thank you for the comments, gentlemen.
    Thanks for adding the Hannibals to your reading pile, Everett.
    Yes, Userman, PIs can be soft- or medium-boiled and there are some good books and series out there utilizing that approach. But the original fiction that coined the term “private eye” also coined “hardboiled” so the most enduring image of a fictional PI has been of that nature. The term “hardboiled”, as I alluded to above, can also be applied to other genres. Hardboiled Westerns, for example (which I also write) as opposed to more pastoral, family-oriented types (think Clint Eastwood vs. Little House on the Prairie); even fantasy (think Conan the Barbarian vs. Tolkein). And as far as the reading public not “wanting” PI novels, I don’t necessarily agree with that. Authors like Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker (whose Spenser will continue even after his death), not to mention our own Mr. Hallinan do a pretty good job of disproving that. I think it’s more like the publishers — which you touched on — “pushing” the thrillers and (what they’re expecting to be and thereby putting their money behind) blockbusters.
    You can “make” a blockbuster (or what the public will perceive to be one) by putting enough publicity behind it … but you can’t necessarily make good writers that way.
    Persevere — WD

  5. Suzanna Says:

    Hello Wayne,

    Enjoyed your detailed responses to Tim’s great questions. You were very generous with your answers, and if I were a writer I would pay very close attention to what you have to say about the PI genre.

    I was interested to learn that you write “Hardboiled Westerns.” What are the titles of your stories in this genre? Anyone else writing hardboiled Westerns that you admire?

    Thanks again for the great interview, and looking forward to checking out your books.

    “Whine-assiness,” GREAT phrase!

  6. wayne d. dundee Says:

    First of all, my apologies to Lil, for excluding her by addressing only “gentlemen” in my earlier response — even though her comment appears to have been posted prior to mine I somehow hadn’t noticed it until after I hit the send. Thank you for the comments and I hope you do check out & enjoy some of my Joe Hannibal books. I, too, am in the dark about the “bucket” commentary.
    Suzanna, thank you for inquiring about my Westerns … My first Western novel, DISMAL RIVER, came out last June from Oak Tree Press. It is available in print format now, will be in eBook format shortly. My next, HARD TRAIL TO SOCORRO, will be out in September in both print and eBook format from Western Trail Blazer. I also have a novella or “Dime Novel” available now as an eBook from WTB, it is called THE GRAVE OF MARCUS PAULY. And, finally, my 2010 short story called “This Old Star” from a print anthology called Bad Cop – No Donut, won the Peacemaker Award in the short story from Western Fictioneers. All are good old-fashioned Westerns with a harder edge to them. Thanks again for asking.
    Persevere — WD

  7. Usman Says:

    Thanks Wayne for a great reply.
    Everett–now you ask. Yes I want the bucket. Thanks for showing solidarity with your dungeon cellmate.
    Lil…the bucket is for the small people who live in Tim’s dungeons. We are trapped…you can join us tho.

  8. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Does this have anything to do with a bucket list?
    Or something more-never mind. I think I am already enrapt in Tim’s dungeons; nice people there though.

  9. EverettK Says:

    Lil said: Could someone refresh my memory-what is this bucket for?

    Dungeon Master Tim has been keeping Usman and I imprisoned in his dungeon for many months now, trying to force us to behave. You’ve heard the phrase, “…so poor he doesn’t have a pot to piss in”? Well, Tim’s been trying to break our spirits by only giving one of us a bucket, and then takes it away and gives it to the other. He thinks he can divide and conquer, but we shall not be ground down. We shall survive, we shall thrive, we shall rise up and overthrow our oppressor, we shall…

    Okay, where the hell did the bucket go???

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, gang. I know what — Let’s put on a show!!!

    Okay, enough enthusiasm. I want to thank Wayne for a fascinating interview — I write six PI books for Simeon, and both Poke and Junior function at times as PIs — but Wayne’s perspective broadened mine. And it’s been at least 20 years since anyone even mentioned Donald Hamilton to me — time to dust off one of the old Matt Helms up in our shipping container, although they’ve probably been eaten by silverfish by now.

    Usman, I kind of like Userman for you, especially given the way you’ve hogged that bucket.

    Lil, since you haven’t been in the dungeon and since I have the power to censor contradictory reports, they’re wall-to-wall carpeted in cashmere, painted a restful Wedgewood blue, air conditioned to a climate-perfect 76 degrees, and continually filled with a rotating selection of Bach, Beethoven, Boccherini, Corelli, Vivaldi, and other musical pastas, which almost drown out the screams — scratch that — the sound of nineteen guests fighting over a single bucket.

    And Wayne, now that you’re up to speed on the buckets, I have a question that should have been in the interview. How the hell do you think up those titles? You have some of the best titles I’ve ever seen. Turns me green with envy.

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