For award-winning author Terrence McCauley, noir’s the thing. From his fast-paced University series of techno-thrillers to the prohibition gangster tales of books like “Prohibition” and “Slow Burn” – all via some of the best short crime fiction you will ever read – noir is the backbone of everything McCauley writes. I sat down with him recently to talk about this new book, “The Fairfax Incident,” the fine art of the noir novel and the power of binge reading.
Open Mic: First, tell me a bit about the new book.
McCauley: The new book is called “The Fairfax Incident.” It’s set in the same basic universe as my techno thrillers that are set in modern day, only this time it is in 1933 New York City. It is about when a suicide is not a suicide, and that’s of course because it’s murder. My protagonist is a character who appears in a lot of my books, a corrupt NYPD detective named Charlie Doherty. He’s the go-between for the police and the gangsters who run New York City, a man who lives in two worlds. He is a cop, but also beholden to the political powers that be. I introduced him in my book “Prohibition,” and then featured him in another book called “Slow Burn” that is told from entirely from his perspective. That one is set in 1932 in New York City and it is about the aftermath of what happens in “Prohibition.” So you see it from where he’s drawn in to a murder/kidnapping he thinks is going to be an easy assignment for him but winds up involving one of the most powerful families in New York City. After that, you come to the events in “The Fairfax Incident.” The same family that Charlie works with as a cop in “Slow Burn,” he is now employed by as a private detective. He is asked to look into the apparent suicide of Mr. Fairfax, a wealthy insurance company owner who comes from a long line of insurance people. His widow doesn’t believe he has committed suicide and she’s asked Charlie Doherty, who is known for his discretion by the wealthy people in New York City, to find out exactly what happened to her husband. She doesn’t think he was decent enough to kill himself and she knows there must be something going on there. So that’s where his investigation begins and of course, as in any good book, it’s never just that simple. It winds up involving a lot more people and a labyrinthine of plot twists. It goes from being about one person who killed himself in an office to involving some of the most evil people in the world.
Open Mic: What fascinates you about that time of prohibition in our history? Does it just fit the kinds of stories you want to tell or is there something more to it than that?
McCauley: It’s a little bit of both. I love the way that stories were told before we could rely on technology and smart phones and cable television and YouTube videos right there in the palm of our hand. It was a time where people had to be more personable, where they had to interact with each other and go through all of the hardships of regular life without technology. When you add that they were also going through the beginning of the Great Depression and prohibition was the law of the land, it adds another layer of drama that I think is appealing to a writer and certainly seems to be appealing to the readers. I was also lucky enough to have a grandmother who grew up in that era. She regaled me as a young child with stories of growing up in the same neighborhood as Jimmy Cagney. It struck me that she always pointed out that they were never friends, just that she knew who he was. That kind of honesty stuck with me, because she could have told me they were best pals, and I was young enough that I would have bought it. She could have built herself up to be a hero, but that generation just didn’t do that. Another love of mine is politics and government and the Tammany Hall era. I had known about it some, but when I started doing research I said ‘God this is rich for development.’ People who tell stories or make movies set back then usually focus on the “hats and gats” element of it. You know, the tough talking guy with the fedora and the Tommy gun and the fast cars and the blowing up a speakeasy. But there was a heck of a lot more going on than just that stuff. Even though I admittedly write about gangsters, it’s not just about the action scenes and the guy in the alley with the cigarette. It’s about why that guy is in the alley. What was the journey that brought him there, and what is he looking to accomplish? In “Prohibition” you see that one of the biggest gangsters in New York, Terry Quinn, has to use his brains more than his brawn to find out who was trying to pull down his boss’s empire. In “Slow Burn” and “The Fairfax Incident” you see the corrupt cop and now somewhat-reformed private detective Charlie Doherty have to become more than he used to be in order to get the job done. He’s not really a very good detective, but he has to become one in order to pay back the person he owes his livelihood to, and along the way he finds something of a code like the traditional detectives of the Noir era.
Open Mic: That said, your James Hicks series is as modern as it comes in terms of technology and setting. What was the inspiration behind moving from something set in prohibition to something set in this ultra-modern world with all the ultra-modern gadgetry that comes with it?
McCauley: It’s funny because I wrote “Prohibition” several years ago as a labor of love when I was trying to break into publishing. I looked for what was being published and I didn’t see anything that had been set in the 1930’s for a while. I wanted to do something that married all of my loves: history and government and ultra-gangster films, so I started writing “Prohibition.” I didn’t have a lot of success trying to sell it, but then I won the 2008 Search for the Next Great Crime Writer contest sponsored by TruTV. It was supposed to be published by Borders, who said they were going to give it front-of-store marketing. HBO, which owned TruTV, loved it and said they were thinking about possibly making it into a series. And then Borders went out of business and the whole deal went with it. Like any good Irishman I said, ‘well, the first idea failed, so of course I’m going to write a sequel to it.’ I was stubborn enough that I wrote “Slow Burn” and then “The Fairfax Incident.” I didn’t have any marketing for this but after I published a couple of short stories in this genre that did get some attention, friends of mine kept challenging me by saying maybe the industry was telling me that I needed to look for something else. My wife is the one who said to try writing something modern. That’s when I came up with a kind of spy story, because I have always loved spy stories. But I’m tired of spy stories that rely only on gadgets, and I’m tired of the ensemble pieces that are reliant on the computer nerd who can do anything on the computer but can’t relate to people. That has been done to death, so I started working backwards and saying, ‘if I don’t want to do that, then what kind of story I want to tell?’ That’s where the idea for “Sympathy for the Devil” came up. I wanted a tough character who worked for an organization that you don’t necessarily know much about, one where you get the sense of who he is but avoiding that prototypical scene where people are sitting around a table and they tell you everything about the guy’s background. I didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to have a computer nerd in it, so I took the computer nerd and made it a program called OMNI. Ironically enough, when I first did the first draft the computer was called ISIS and it was supposed to stand for Integrated System. But then of course ISIS came to the fore and I had to change it. So that’s why I decided to tell the kinds of stories I set in the 1930’s with my previously unsuccessful work and sold my agent, Jason Pinter, on the idea of doing “Sympathy for the Devil.” He liked the idea that it was modern, he liked the idea that it was edgy and that even though it was cutting edge technology, many of the characters still had noir elements. I come from the Noir background and I’m proud that work carried forward in my modern spy thrillers.
Open Mic: I love the noir genre. It has had tremendous lasting power with the pubic. What do you think makes that such a special category for both writers and readers?
McCauley: I think that it’s a lack of pretense, Very few successful noirs are successful if they are pretentious. For example, the movie “Black Dahlia” that came out a couple of years ago with Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett. It was written by James Ellroy but it didn’t have the same audience or the same jargon as “LA Confidential.” Its failure had very little to do, in my opinion, with the fact that people were tired of noir. It was the way it was presented. In “LA Confidential,” the cars and the guns and the hats are secondary. You could say the same thing for “Chinatown.” But in Black Dahlia it was front and center. It was very stylized. And since it wasn’t from that era, people turned off on it like it was a cheap remake of what it should have been. I think the reason why the classic pieces hold up is because they were fairly well done in terms of direction and writing and acting, but also because noir in its finest form tends to strip away a lot of the pretense. It shows bad things happening to regular people and how they respond to that. I think that’s going to be a message that resonates hopefully 50 years from now, whether it’s on the screen or on the page.
Open Mic: In that way, it’s like any other genre, be it Victorian romance or space aliens. If the costumes or setting are more interesting than your characters, you’re in trouble.
McCauley: Exactly right. It’s just like the success of “Alien [and Aliens].” The reason why that took off so well and others didn’t was because it wasn’t just about being in space. We actually forget about them being in space because it’s about evading this horrible creature. That’s what makes at least those first two movies, and in my opinion the third, work so well. It’s about getting a good story no matter what genre it is.
Open Mic: Your work really does offer the best of both worlds: the dark underpinnings of noir but the blazing fast pace of the modern thriller. How did you come to that voice? Did you have to think a lot about pacing and that sort of thing or was it already a natural outcropping of your style?
McCauley: It’s more my natural style. The books that hold my interest always have a hook that keeps you interested in what happens in the next chapter. Not necessarily cliff hangers because that can get tired and boring after a while. For me, it came from reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and not only their good stuff but also the stuff that started to suffer at the end of each of their careers. And James M. Cain, who was excellent throughout his life. It’s funny, a lot of people that write crime fiction idolize Hammett and Chandler and Ernest Hemingway, but the problem with idolizing them is that their careers didn’t end too well. At the end of their careers they were besotted with booze and their craft suffered. Chandler’s early works and short stories were great, and then later his health and his talents began to fail. Same thing with Hammett. His early stuff is fantastic, especially his Continental Op character, which doesn’t get enough credit these days. And then when you get to the point of “The Thin Man,” he could barely write a story. It was all dialogue driven, practically a screenplay. So it’s being able to find the sweet spot between having too much action and not enough plot. It’s difficult to strike that balance. I did it by studying lots of what the masters did well and what they didn’t do very well and practicing a lot to create my own voice.
Open Mic: You’ve also been very successful and prolific with short stories. What makes a great short story for you?
McCauley: For me it’s about filling in a lot of information in a very short amount of time. It’s a very challenging format for me, and that’s why I enjoy writing them. You have to tell the audience quite a bit and get their buy-in fairly, whether you are talking about a story about a young girl or if you’re talking about a spy or whomever. So for me what makes a good short story is the conveyance of humanity and a persuasive plot that will keep people glued to the page
Open Mic: Do you approach short fiction differently than you do novels?
McCauley: I always know the word limit I’m submitting for, and I tend to get the general sense of what the anthology or the magazine is all about, and when I agree to do something I’ll have it in my head. Do I have a kernel of an idea that might not have fit in a previous novel but that could stand alone quite well in a short story? I know that certainly happened with “El Cambalache,” which was nominated for the International Thriller Writers Best Short Story award a couple of years ago. There was a bit of backstory I wanted to tell about a main character that I wasn’t able to fit in my style of fiction because I usually don’t have flashbacks. So I took that idea and I was able to cultivate it into what was a pretty well-regarded short story. So with both novels and short stories it all comes from an idea, but when I know I’m writing a short story it is usually for a purpose and I’m able to call out the key parts of that story when I start writing it.
Open Mic: I like to focus on process, so let me ask you a bit about craft. Do you generally start with a plotline in your head and build characters from there? Vice versa? Or maybe a combination of both?
McCauley: I always have an idea of what I want to write about. The perfect example: I had already written about three books, I would say two and half books by the time I approached my agent about republishing “Prohibition” and “Slow Burn” for Polis, and he asked if had anything in the modern era that I might be able to pull together? I told him about a spy story in my head that I’d been noodling around with for a while called “Sympathy for the Devil.” I said it’s about an operative who works for a mysterious spy agency who is betrayed and has to go down the rabbit hole to find out who betrayed him. He said great, that’s the book I want to read and I’ll take on the other two as well. He asked me to show what I had. I said I could give him something in six weeks. Well, I only had that one sentence ready to go. I hadn’t really bothered putting anything else down because I didn’t know if anyone would like that either. So in six weeks from inception to final draft I did “Sympathy for the Devil.” And the reason why I was able to do it in six weeks was because the more I wrote, the more I understood how deep this world could be. People who’ve read it said their initial reaction was they wanted to learn more about Hick. They wanted to learn more about The University. I didn’t think they would, but they were expecting the whole section where you have a flashback and you see how the university starts and you see how Hicks became who he was. That feedback did influence me greatly in “A Murder of Crows,” where you see more of Hicks’s human side and more of his weaknesses. And then you definitely see more of it in “A Conspiracy of Ravens,” where you also get a lot of his backstory and how he got involved in all of this.
Open Mic: The trick of noir is that even the main characters are often more anti-hero than traditional hero. Even so, they have to be someone a reader can relate to. Your characters fit that bill. How was that development for you?
McCauley: I come from the school where I believe the protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean the good guy or the good girl, depending on the kind of genre you’re writing. When I wrote “Prohibition,” I knew I wanted to tell the story from the hit man’s perspective. But I didn’t want to tell the traditional one where there has been a falling out between the crime boss over a girl or over earnings or a family betrayal or something along those lines, because then it becomes a vengeance trail between the crime boss and the hit man turning on the father figure. I didn’t want to tell that one. I also didn’t want to write about their typical noir character who walks into a room, gets hit over the head, wakes up and he’s tied to a chair being interrogated by the bad guys. I wrote Terry Quinn as a hit man. He kills someone in the first chapter. He’s too big and too good with a gun, so you’re never going to knock him over the head and have him wake up in a chair. What I did was make sure I took away certain tired tropes from myself so that I could focus on making this character compelling in some way. You wouldn’t want to sit next to Quinn on a subway. You wouldn’t want to get stuck in an elevator with the guy, but I make his journey to try and protect the guy he admires and who has been a father figure to him compelling enough that the reader wants to keep reading. With Charlie Doherty, we know he’s corrupt and we know he’s in it for himself, but you see the evolution of the character. You see him enough to want to see if he gets away with it. But I also slowly make something admirable about him. Not the whore with the heart of gold, but a natural evolution that’s believable and not sudden. And by the time you get to meet him in “The Fairfax Incident,” he’s a little cocky. He’s not like most PI’s you’re going to read about. He living in a nice place he doesn’t have to pay for, every bit of money he gets he puts in his pocket and he’s got an endless supply of well-heeled clients beating down his door thanks to his friend and supporter Mr. Van Dorn. So he’s not your typical PI. I don’t have that to relate to, but I do have his quest to try to prove this forgone conclusion that Walter Fairfax committed suicide. We all know he wasn’t murdered, but then the question hangs out there that maybe he could have been murdered. I hook you in that way and get you to keep reading and in that way you’re compelled not only by the character but by the story.
Open Mic: Is it difficult for you to keep the elements of your characters distinct? Do you ever find yourself writing something and then realizing you are too close to the bone with another storyline or character?
McCauley: I’m fortunate enough that I have a fairly good idea of each of the characters I write about, whether they are protagonists or supporting characters because I have them rattling around in my head for a long time before I ever start to write about them. For example, you’ve got a guy like James Hicks who’s irreverent and set in the modern day, and you also have a guy like Charlie Doherty who’s irreverent and set in 1930’s New York City. What I try to do is use their life experiences to differentiate how I write about them. First of all, Doherty is told in the first person whereas the Hicks story is told in third person. That helps. But I never want the two of them to sound alike so I’ll always do something like humanize Hicks a little bit more and harden Charlie a little bit more so they don’t ever sound alike. And none of my characters ever sound like Quinn because Quinn is just this black and white kind of guy, and neither Hicks nor Doherty are that way. They both live in the grey area, especially now because they are both moving into different phases in their respective story arcs.
Open Mic: What is your greatest aspiration as an author?
McCauley: My greatest aspiration would be to be able to do it full time. I think that’s the aspiration of most authors. I’m fortunate enough that at this point in my career I haven’t suffered writer’s block. One book has fed off the other, which has spawned another and a short story and I’ve always got tons of ideas, tons of stories and tons of books I want to write. It’s just a matter of having the time. When you hold down a 9-5 job, where writing during the day simply isn’t possible, I have do it where I can. I do it on my way to work, and I do it on my way home and at the end of the week I spend the weekends pulling all of it together. And then continuing the writing that has to mostly wait until the following week. So my greatest aspiration would be to be able to do it full time. Another goal is reaching more people. The people who have read my stuff have pretty good feedback on it, and I would like to see that audience grow because I love getting that feedback from people. That’s the reward for all of this. Whether they like the book or they don’t, every bit of feedback I’ve gotten has influenced the next thing I wrote in one way or the other and in that way it’s a communal process that I really enjoy.
Open Mic: Publishing has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Where do you see the industry going in the next 5-10 years?
McCauley: Technology is changing every part of our lives every single day, and the publishing industry is no exception. It’s tough to look five years down the road anymore and make a prediction. Five years before the Nook came around, no one saw that coming and then it caught everyone by surprise. I think Borders actually turned it down first before Barnes & Noble took Nook as part of their business model. I think you’re going to continue to see people enjoy reading series and novels because, as you’ve seen with the advent of Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, people love to binge watch. As we first saw with the Harry Potter series of books, people like to binge read too. I think that there is going to be a greater call for series characters. I also think you are still going to have the publishing industry follow trends, even though they claim that they don’t. I mean, don’t we wish we had a hundred bucks for every novel that came out in the last five years with the word “girl” in it in the title? And they are the keepers of the gate so they can keep that trend going for as long as they like. “Gone Girl” was fantastic, but I do think you are going to see a greater concern and concentration on series characters. At least that’s what I’m hearing from people both in the publishing world and the people that are working on my stuff and representing it in Hollywood. They like the idea of series characters.
Open Mic: I like to end on a fun question. If I had the power to put you together for a drink and a conversation with any one of the following people, who would you choose and why? You options are the infamous Chicago mob boss Al Capone, the World War II baseball catcher turned spy Moe Berg and the notorious WWI double agent Mata Hari.
McCauley: I would probably go with Mo Berg. There’s so much about Al Capone you can read about, and none of the stuff you see in most of the movies is true. Especially the Ben Gazzara one. God almighty. I like Ben Gazzara, but would you want to work for a person who just snarls and screams and intimidates all the time? Capone was successful because he was charming. That was the reason people wanted to work for him in the first place. But Mo Berg would probably be the person I would like to talk to most because he was more central in the background to a lot of things, and I think those people are usually the people who are more interesting than the ones that grab all the headlines.