Chad Eagleton is a crime writer and editor. He recently published a 1950s themed anthology, Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. He is also writing a biography of Shane Stevens. Stevens is a highly underrated and widely unknown author, whose works demonstrate a fluency and realism that make them stand out. By Reason Of Insanity, a gruelling study of madness and criminality, is Stevens’s most famous work, while Dead City is a classic piece of gritty fiction, and they’re arguably Noir, equally unorthodox, and convey a real sense of the criminal underworld. Stevens’s versatility coupled with his secrecy as an author has made him the subject of various inaccurate speculations over the years, and there is hardly any information about him. Chad Eagleton is conducting meticulous research into Stevens, and he was able to give answers I had been unable to find anywhere else in my search for Stevens. Chad met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about Stevens’s place in crime fiction and the theme of identity in his works.
Much crime fiction presents a sanitised portrait of crime, the fictions of Shane Stevens do not. What is it that fascinates you about his writing and how do you think he sits in the ongoing legacy that is called crime fiction?
I believe it’s our duty as human beings to confront our world directly and honestly. That duty is double if you are an artist. Hell, it’s not only a duty, it’s a purpose. And from his work, it’s one that Shane Stevens understands implicitly.
In his review of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice for The Progressive, he writes, “For those of us who believe that the writer must grapple with the moral issues of his day, that he must view himself in the context of events and not just from his own personal needs, these are dangerous times. The urge to be a full-time revolutionary in a country so desperately ill is overwhelming.”
Crime fiction is supposed to be social fiction—I think even more so than “literary fiction”—confronting the issues we currently face as human beings in our society. The problem is that, ultimately, we’re scared and lazy monkeys. It’s much more comforting for us to reduce criminal actions to the purely aberrant: the criminal becomes mutant, his behavior occurring for the same reasons that a baby might be born with six fingers or webbed toes. These actions are then countered through: the might of pure logic/reason; the law-breaking force which exists only to reaffirm the status quo; or because the mutation (the criminal) is faulty, it simply “fails to thrive”. Too often as well, the crime itself becomes the only important thing without any acknowledgment of motivation and circumstance. The heist, the murder for hire, and the million dollar drug-deal are played simply for thrills and to showcase the writer’s ingenuity or capacity to craft empty brutality.
That’s not Stevens’s work. You said it yourself, “Much crime fiction presents a sanitized portrait of crime, the fictions of Shane Stevens do not.” Shane unabashedly confronts his world. Whether that world is the rundown streets of Harlem or the cobblestone streets of Paris, it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re dealing with crooked developers along the Jersey Shore or crooked politicians in Europe’s houses of parliament, it doesn’t matter. Armed with the truth, Stevens confronts.
For that alone, I think he deserves a much bigger place in the legacy that is called crime fiction. Regrettably, I think Shane’s still something of a footnote though—the guy Stephen King talks about in his afterword to The Dark Half. While part of that is probably just luck, I think a good portion of it has to do with us being scared and lazy monkeys. I mean Thomas Harris usually gets credit for creating the serial killer subgenre, but By Reason of Insanity predates Red Dragon by two full years. Harris gets the credit because Lecter is a comic book supervillain without the cape—an ultimately comforting trope. Stevens, on the other hand, gave us Thomas Bishop, a very real and very human monster born from man’s inhumanity to man.
It wasn’t just on the matter of serial killers that Shane Stevens was a seminal writer. By Reason Of Insanity contains one of the earliest examples of identity theft used by a killer. The novel also explores social conditioning and nature. How integral do you think the theme of identity is to the way Stevens portrays criminality?
Identity is essential to Stevens and not just to his portrayal of criminality. I mean, I don’t think you can discuss him or his work without talking about identity. In his writing, the struggle is always about identity, it’s the source for conflicts internal and external. It doesn’t matter which of his novels you’re talking about. It’s always the individual in action against the identity imposed upon them, the identity they’ve taken for themselves (usually to survive), and/or the identity of the other characters. Take The Anvil Chorus, for example. It’s the only book Stevens wrote under his own name in which the sole main character is not a criminal. Now, the novel begins as a police procedural and a murder mystery before you realize it’s actually an international political thriller, but the real conflict comes solely from identity. The main character is a Parisian police inspector investigating the murder of a Nazi war criminal. But the inspector is also a Jew, from Alsace, whose parents died in the Holocaust, and he’s also a distant relative of Alfred Dreyfus on the outs politically after arresting a military office who committed brutal crimes in Algiers. And, in fact, the final twist, the big reveal explaining the web of international deceit, rests solely on the issue of identity.
The drama of identity fuels Stevens’s work for two very big reasons. The first is purely personal. Identity is an issue for Shane. I mean, he’s probably the most secretive man in all of crime fiction. Even accounting for differences in time period, today the average person generates a ridiculous amount of info that’s readily available for anyone looking, Shane was a man who obviously valued his privacy. In his Contemporary Authors’ entry he wrote, “I never give interviews, stay in shadow, travel by night. I don’t associate with writers, don’t do book reviews, don’t play politics or give advice. I try not to hurt anyone. I go where I want and write what I want.” But Stevens was also a man keenly aware of identity as it related to race. His having written three extraordinary novels set in Harlem: Go Down Dead, Way Uptown In Another World, and Rat Pack, lead a lot of people to assume Stevens was a black man. He’s not, he’s white and never claimed otherwise. However, this didn’t stop Shane from catching hell—the pages of Black World from the 1970s are full of Stevens bashing—in spite of the praise given to him by African-American writers like Chester Himes who called Rat Pack, “Truly a classic of the lower depths.” What’s really interesting about this issue of race and identity is that, in spite of all the furor over whether or not a white man can or even should write about the black experience, there was little discussion of Stevens’s own background. Shane was white but he grew up in Harlem. In an interview with Damon Suave, Harry Crews recalled their time together at Bread Loaf. “Yeah,” Crews said of Stevens, “He was raised in Harlem. And he’s white, but—he’s white, but in every possible sense, he’s black.”
This brings us to reason number two. Stevens recognizes identity as a trap and he wants to save us from it. I mean, identity is just a product, right? It’s not real. It’s our attempt to answer the questions of who am I and what does that mean. We construct our own identity and impose identity on others by combining things like race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, economic status, and even morals, then attaching behaviors and judgments to each. Human beings are tribal animals desperate to feel like we belong. We want to think “identity” is helpful but it’s not. On the large scale, identity and its attachments are usually how we justify horrible things. Take the Criminal Tribes Act, the Jim Crow laws of the Southern States, and even the policing policies following 9/11. That’s all bullshit we’ve attached to identity. Then too, on the individual level, identity is often our source of anxiety, frustration, and conflict, especially when that identity is imposed.
Way Uptown In Another World is the perfect example, and not just because I think it’s his masterwork. The novel is essentially without a plot, but that’s because it’s the study of identity through a single man’s life. Marcus Garvey Black and family flee the South to escape lynching and Jim Crowe only to end up in Harlem. Being black in the North is supposed to be better than being black in the South. But it’s not. It’s just different, with its own set of problems, and that’s the set-up Stevens uses to explore identity. Everywhere Marcus turns in the novel, he’s trapped by all these conflicting identities that bring him no relief from his suffering, that offer him no solace and no connection, “Soon the sun will shoot itself full of holes and lay down dead in the west, while Zulu night comes to suck out my eyeballs, leaving me only the soft slurp of black blood to tell me I’m alive. I stand up, trying to see myself in the windowpane but there’s no reflection. I’m invisible. I’ve got shape and mass but I don’t cast a reflection. People see me but they don’t really see me.” But over the course of the novel, Marcus comes to realize, “if everybody’s the same and you ain’t better’n nobody, how can you feel like a man? That’s the game everybody plays, but without them all you got is love and beauty everywhere.”
Given the friction that exists between Stevens’s ability to unmask characters and his own secretiveness, to what extent do you think he challenges both social and literary assumptions as a writer?
Challenging assumptions is Stevens’s whole milieu. It’s understandable (assumptions are part and parcel with “identity”) and even admirable. I mean, just in terms of writing: who doesn’t wish you could 100% write what you wanted to write, and, especially now, who wouldn’t want their work to speak for itself without having to do interviews, blog posts, and Twitter updates. The problem though is that I think that’s a big reason why he struggled so long to find success, why his work isn’t better known today, and why trying to construct a biographical portrait is so difficult.
I mean, let’s start with his work. Today, really, besides the fact that he never liked to talk about himself, Stevens would be hard to “brand.” As a book reviewer, he didn’t review only crime novels and popular mega-sellers. You know, there’s not a review out there by Stevens of Jaws, instead he reviewed novels like D. Keith Mano’s Horn. Examining his unproduced screenplay work, it’s not surprising that he did a pass on adapting Sol Yurick’s The Warriors before Walter Hill, but the screenplay for a film version of The Me Nobody Knows? Not so much. Sure, the subject matter is appropriate enough but it’s a musical and, if you’ve read Stevens, his name isn’t the first that comes to mind for that kind of work. Also, as far as I’ve been able to tell, he only wrote two short stories. “The Final Adventure” was his only appearance in Ellery Queen, and it’s a Sherlock Holmes story that was savaged by The Baker Street Irregulars for being “vulgar.” “Way Uptown In Another World,” confusingly enough, ended up as a chapter in his first novel, Go Down Dead. The articles and essays he wrote were the same. For every “A Day Like Any Other Day in Junk City” Stevens wrote something like the fluff piece he did for PEN about the East Village. Then you have the novels themselves. His first two are both set in Harlem, but really different kinds of books. While written in thick street slang, Go Down Dead is a fairly straightforward gang story reminiscent of Warren Miller’s The Cool World. Way Uptown In Another World is much easier read, but, unlike GDD, it’s a plot-less sprawl. Dead City, his third book, is about the Jersey Mob. Coming a year after The Godfather movie, if you picked up Dead City thinking you were going to get the Puzo/Coppola vibe, you were wrong—there’s no glitz. His fourth, honestly more of a novella, is a brutal tale about a single night of violence. Then we finally come to his big money book, By Reason of Insanity. It’s a serial killer story that predates the term itself. You’d think he’d follow that up with something similar or maybe even make reporter Adam Kenton a series character. He doesn’t. Instead he writes The Anvil Chorus, a sort of anti-police procedural set in Europe, before going on to quickly write two PI novels under a pseudonym.
Then you have Stevens the man. Even the most basic facts challenge your assumptions. Looking at him from the present, the most obvious challenge is simply: who is Shane Stevens? I mean, I don’t think there’s a writer working now who you couldn’t Google search and easily compile a quick list of personal details. Not true for Shane. He’s a mystery. I can see how on one hand, that’s good for letting your work speak for itself, but it also leads to you overshadowing your work. I mean, the biggest mystery Shane Stevens ever created is Shane Stevens. Once you begin digging, it doesn’t get any easier. Everything you find challenges assumptions and asks more questions, most of which you’re not going to answer. Shane grew up in Harlem but he’s white. Shane writes about the black experience in an honest way when he could easily have been Ernest Tidyman giving us John Shaft—probably made more money too. Shane obviously wanted to be a writer–you don’t struggle through poverty and violence while trying to write your novel if that’s not something you want to do deep down in your soul, but he never made a secret of disliking the whole literary crowd and the book scene. Yet, for all his intense dislike of their bullshit and the bullshit around “being a writer,” he was still a member of organizations like PEN and WGA who regularly attended, taught, and spoke at writers’ conferences.
As you write the biography, what sense do you get, behind the secrecy, of what makes Shane Stevens tick as a man and a writer?
I think what makes Shane Stevens tick as a man and as a writer are the same things. I mean, I’ve been trying to construct a biographical portrait of him for a long time now. And the funny thing is, in spite of everything I’ve learned and still have to learn, his statement that his work speaks for itself really does go a long way in answering your question. Despite all the adjectives that get thrown around to describe his novels, to me, I think Shane Stevens’ work is about love and hope, even if the book is bleak as fuck (there’s a reason Rat Pack got described as “The American Clockwork Orange”). No matter what he writes, whether it’s that chapter of Way Uptown In Another World riffing on Fred Hampton Jr.’s “Power Anywhere There’s People” speech, his essay in Black Review#1 about the political turmoil of his time, or even his New York Times review of H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die!, Stevens’s writing always serves as an active and informed confrontation against a world that DOES NOT have to be as shitty as it often is.
You know, after the release of Go Down Dead, in response to some critics who questioned his heavy use of Harlem street slang, Shane Stevens wrote and published “An Open Letter To The Reader.” Addressing the critics, Shane writes, “The novel is written in the language of the people who live it. So that the reader may become a participant and not just a spectator. It is a language of pain, or despair and neglect—yes, and hope as well. A language that is vital because it is being lived each day.” Shane concludes his letter, mentioning that a lot of people who read his book ask him if it’s really that bad up in Harlem. His response is to tell them that actually it’s much worse. It’s that sense of confrontation and engagement with the world that’s always appealed to me about his writing.
Here’s where I make one of those statements that keep me for earning a lot of friends: I often get the sense that there are a lot of crime writers who don’t really care for people very much or have much interest in their wellbeing or the world in general. Though, to be fair, I think that tends to be a part of the American mindset too. It’s sad to live in a country where so many people constantly and proudly say they don’t care. Too many writers try too hard to not write or talk about things that might lose them readers. That’s no way to be, man. Not just as a writer but as a human being. Are you really that lazy mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? And by choice? Because all your apathy means is that you’re part of the problem. Mostly, though, it just stuns me. Art serves two purposes. It’s how we try to cheat death, and it’s how we shake things up. I mean, informed, active, and engaged confrontation with your world is how you write fucking books that Stephen King calls, “three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American Dream.”
Do you think, conversely, that popular crime fiction places a buffer zone between reader and characters, and equally do you think that people only awake from the dream when it becomes a nightmare, as Blake dramatised in his writing?
Depends on what you mean by buffer zone. A great deal of crime fiction is written in the first person. Hell, is there a genre that uses that point of view more? Maybe YA or possibly Romance, but still. So, in that sense no. If you mean, do we soften the character or protect the reader from the character, then, I would say, in a way, yes. Popular crime fiction is really one big buffer zone that reinforces the status quo. It’s how we want to believe the world functions—I’d argue even the gutter stuff reinforces the status quo. And too, I mean, in the broadest sense crime fiction is in love with our self-deceptive notions of “justice” and “vengeance”. If justice were actually served in the real world as often as it is in crime fiction, we would live in a different world. And, good grief, revenge? Are you kidding? Revenge doesn’t reset any cosmic scale. It can’t because revenge is all about us. It’s about our myopic, emotional reaction to something that’s been done to us. It’s our lashing out at pain and the realization that we are groundless and ultimately insecure. I think that’s why we have such strong reactions to any work that strips all that way. I suspect that’s part of the reason Stevens’s books never sold better than they did. It’s why hardly anyone has heard of Thomas Bishop but you could stop a random stranger on the street and they can quote Hannibal Lecter.
As far as the second half of your question? Yes. I’d even venture to say that a lot of crime fiction is the struggle to go back to sleep after the nightmare begins.
Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats is a collection of crime fiction set in the American 1950s. As you can guess by the title, this ain’t the 1950s portrayed on Leave It To Beaver. This is the 1950s of the rebel and the outsider, the men who came home from World War II or Korea and weren’t content to fall in the good-consumer lockstep, so they took to the highways with dangerous women, listening to the devil’s music and driving straight on into trouble. I’m proud to say the anthology opens with an introduction from another personal hero of mine, the late Mick Farren who was a journalist, author, and singer associated with the UK underground and counterculture; and features brand new fiction from me, Eric Beetner, Matthew Funk, Christopher Grant, David James Keaton, Nik Korpon, Heath Lowrance, and Thomas Pluck.
What influences do you think the publishing industry has brought to bear, both politically and artistically, on crime fiction?
What influences hasn’t it brought to bear? We live in a capitalistic society. Crime fiction, like all art under capitalism, is simply another consumer commodity. That means the crime fiction writer is a cultural producer laboring under the strain of market forces. So the crime fiction writer is rewarded only when he produces according to the demands of the crime fiction market, demands which are shaped by the ruling class. While technology has to some extent allowed the writer to have more say over the means of production, the writer is still ultimately dependent on large corporations (yes, not only is Amazon a large corporation, but Lulu too–just Google Bob Young’s net worth) and must compete against large corporations, so the crime fiction writer ever remains at the mercy of the market. This leaves the crime fiction writer with no choice other than to compromise their work in some ways or be content selling 5 copies of their latest book out of the trunk of their car. Sure, you can technically write and publish whatever you want to, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to read it. Worst still, the publishing industry is now controlled by 5 corporations. This gives those 5 corporations a larger sway over the market and means their chief concern is always going to be profit. The largest profit will be had by appealing to the most people. A book with the broadest possible appeal does not make for bold, innovation crime fiction that addresses societal ills.
In terms of politics? Are you kidding me? First of all, politics in the real world is a joke, at least in the United States. Here, the Left betrayed itself a long time ago while the Right let itself be eviscerated by a handful of religious fanatics. Meanwhile, both sides’ policies are shaped by moneyed corporate interests, leaving us with two different brands—Republican and Democrat—that are essential the same, they just come in different packaging. I mean, is there a dirtier word in crime fiction than “politics”? I don’t think so. I think that’s exactly why, in spite of it never being clearer that the US is locked in a vicious and brutal class struggle, the closest acknowledgment we get is Dennis Lehane’s very carefully phrased, “Noir is working-class tragedy.”
Considering the history of necessary infraction in literature, as it challenges prevailing authority structures, do you think it is possible to create a revolution within fiction today?
That’s a tough question. I think so. I mean, I hope so. Look, the problem is it comes down to two things. Well, baring a real revolution, which is the only way to bring a lasting change, it comes down to two things. And that’s technology and luck.
Technology is what gives the artist power over his labor when the corporations control the means of production. It’s what changed the music industry and it’s what will eventually radically alter publishing even more. It’s also the force that’s made real world revolutions possible. There never would have been an Arab Spring without technology and social media—exactly why more people should be concerned about net neutrality.
Luck is simply, well, luck. I mean, in terms of popular examples of crime fiction, the thing still on everyone’s lips is probably, what, Breaking Bad? That show didn’t get made because it was good or questioned anything about living in a country where you can’t even afford to die. No, Breaking Bad got made because AMC was a network trying to rebrand itself as something other than the chump cable channel you watched old movies on, so they took a chance on a show every other network had passed on, hoping beyond hope that people would tune in when they were tired of yet another CSI permutation.
But even then when something revolutionary does comes along, it’s only briefly. Under the current system it’s going to be quickly co-opted, repackaged, and sold. That’s a lesson the power structure learned a long time. You can see it time and time again, whether you’re talking about how they shut down 60s radicals or how they defanged punk rock. At the same time, you have the individual artist praying lightning can strike twice and delivers a pot of gold faster than a rainbow. I mean, after True Detective, I’d imagine the standard men avenging murdered girls story with amateur existential philosophizing and comic book quotes is finally overtaking stories of meth dealers in the crime fiction slush piles.
If we consider the component of social engineering involved in dictating taste and what is read, and the fact that a writer needs to explore and challenge, do you think the industry side of publishing has created a fundamental conflict for the writer, and that may be the source of Shane Stevens’s disillusionment with the industry?
I do think that’s a fundamental conflict for the writer. I mean, how do you successful explore and challenge in your work when the success of your work is mostly, I mean other than luck, shaped by market forces? But I don’t think that was the impetus for his disillusionment, if by disillusionment you mean his disappearance. Stevens was paid a lot of money for By Reason of Insanity, and the book sold very well; it’s still his only novel in print in the US. Even though he released Jersey Tomatoes under a pseudonym, between the book and the movie rights, he made a lot of money there too. Now, you have to remember this is all before the industry decided one poor selling book meant your writing career was dead. If Shane had wanted to, he could have continued to write books and with the success he found late in his career, I think he had a lot of freedom in his work.
I think what it really comes down to is a more personal disillusionment. First, I’ve heard from several people that Stevens always hated the bullshit, the ego, and the posturing. When you’re trying to make it, you learn to eat shit sandwiches even if they make you gag. When you’ve made it, you can stop eating shit sandwiches. But more than any of that, you have to remember going from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem that Stevens started out really poor and stayed pretty damn poor for a long time. Coming from that kind of poverty, suddenly having money bestows its own particular type of freedom. It’s a different kind of freedom than someone coming from the middle class and getting money. I mean, you know, there’s a section in his New York Times article “The Rat Packs of New York” where Shane writes, “I look uptown, thinking of the years I lived in Harlem, white sheep in wolf’s clothing but lean and hungry. Just about a mile from here at 128th Street and Park Avenue. But from where I started a little while ago, at 86th and Fifth, my old block’s way uptown in another world.”
What really happened, I think, is Shane finally got the chance to leave his old block way uptown in another world and he took it.
How do you think Shane Stevens would have fared in the age of the E Book?
I don’t think he’d necessarily go full Konrath, but if Shane were coming up now I believe he’d take to ebooks. Despite having published only 8 novels, he switched agents three times and publishers twice as much. Since this was well before publishers started dropping you when you didn’t produce an instant mega-seller, I think that comes down to Shane. I suspect back then that was something a writer did when they were unsatisfied with the deal they were getting and how much say they had over their work. Coupled with the fact that he toiled on Go Down Dead for nearly 6 years before it was published, I think Shane would relish having that sort of say over his work and how it is delivered. Besides that, he understood how to hustle like no one else.
Thank you Chad for an informative and great interview.