Mystery and crime writer Gary Phillips is a widely published novelist and author of numerous graphic novels. In his brilliant ‘Cowboys’, illustrated by Brian Hurtt, a nightclub shooting changes the lives of two undercover officers. He has a new book out, Scoundrels.
Gary met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about financial crime and balancing the scales.
Tell us about your new book Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes.
Since forever, crime stories and the pursuit of money have been inextricably intertwined. The old pulp character the Shadow says the weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Yet here we are post the greatest series of heists in world history. Wall Street made off like plutocrats having not only made money off of Main Street, U.S.A., but main streets in numerous countries in the wake of the economic collapse in 2008. Justice and retribution are fleeting in the real world, but a balancing of the scales can be achieved in fiction – some times.
In Scoundrels I’m happy then writers like SJ Rozan, David Corbett and Tyler Dilts among others agreed with this idea and came onboard. I know I’m biased being the editor, but each writer has delivered the goods in the all-new stories collected in this book. Backwoods conmen, highrise brokers on the make, crooked lawyers, stick up kids…crimes with guns and pens, ski masks and contracts, and fleecers wearing three thousand dollar suits…we got them all in this collection out from downandoutbooks.com in e-book and print-on-demand.
How do you achieve a balancing of the scales in your fiction?
Balancing can mean different things in a story. Structure-wise, it might mean how far is too far, too over-the-top in certain situations or behaviour of characters. For instance it could be reasonably argued that in a noir tale, you can have more off-kilter, odd, weird people and the odd, weird shit they do than in, let’s say, a cozy. I mean you could have one or two odd folks in a cozy but their activities would be more off stage. Then there’s the big balance, the balancing of the karmic scales. Vicariously we love it when the evil capitalist or mad
scientist gets their comeuppance – they fall into a vat of the very poison they’ve polluted our rivers with; stung to death by the irradiated bees they were going to unleash on the citizenry; or are blown up in the private jet they’re seeking to escape in at the climax.
But we also know in the real world, the bad guys get away with it over and over again. They are the status quo. In a private eye story, he or she usually doesn’t bring down the entire power structure or by leaking the critical documents to their pal on the newspaper, the whole shebang is uncovered. What the PI can do is balance the scales in a small way. The missing sister was murdered by the powerful politician she interned for at his office. He’s the untouchable, so the PI has to figure out how to ensnare him using their own ego and greed to trap the pol. The PI or similar protagonist in a mystery works to restore justice incrementally, on the personal level. Hopefully the writer has provided a satisfying and cathartic journey.
And how do you balance in a crime story where the criminal is the main character?
Certainly in today’s hardboiled fiction, the charming gentleman thief like Raffles or Arsène Lupin has given way to individuals such as Parker and the no name driver in Jim Sallis’ books. Men who operate in amoral worlds, and are cold-blooded ruthless survivors in their respective arenas. I suppose we root for them because they are contrasted against even more heinous characters. But these cats are out for themselves, they’re not kind-hearted lugs trying to get the money together for mom’s operation or bailing baby sis out of jail. If they do some altruistic act, it might be that as the writer wants to give them that one aspect of their personality that humanizes them, or often it’s a collusion of interests and they take out the bastard beating his wife because the anti-hero lusts after the wife and she him or she has a role in the score he wants to set up.
But seems we’ve always had these types around even going back to Raffles day.
I think a few years after Raffles came Fantômas, who murdered and betrayed at the drop of a hat and, apparently, was quite popular springing from books to film to comic books. Now if Fantômas went around knocking pensioners in the head for their bread money, I’m sure readers would’ve found him so damn fascinating. Is the professional thief, even if they are not a Robin Hood, then really our way of striking back at the fat cats, the haves who don’t give to us have nots, the self-important swells?
What are you working on now?
Aside from pimping, er that is, promoting Scoundrels, the 20th anniversary of the riots or civil unrest depending on your political orientation, happens here in Los Angeles (this was post the not guilty verdicts of the four policeman on trial for excessive force in the Rodney King matter – the infamous video-taped beating seen around the world) on April 29. The fine folks at mysteriouspress.com have re-issued my first novel, Violent Spring, which is set in the heated aftermath of that conflagration in e-book form featuring my private eye Ivan Monk. So getting the word out on that.
At the writing desk, have a novel in the can for the fall, pitching an animated TV show — yes, I am so Hollywood! — writing a crime short story set during the earthquake in San Francisco minutes before the opening pitch of the third baseball game of the World Series, October of ’89. Also co-editing and contributing the opening and ending story to one of those linked anthologies of short stories, where the character and over-arching plot is the same, about a spy character from the 1930s.
He was Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5, and before Bauer and Bond, he was the man. Popular Publication’s Operator 5 title ran as a monthly then bi-monthly for 48 issues from April 1934 to November 1939. So this comics and prose outfit called Moonstone has the rights to the character and I’m having big fun shaping this effort. Our stories are set in 1935 and the big plot is about some right wing businessmen and military types, fed up with the New Deal and that socialist in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, instigating a coup – hmmm, has a ring for today in the States, eh? Anyway, we’ve got gadgets, fantastic villains, real figures from the past mixed in, all wrapped in some historical revisionism.
Thank you Gary for a great interview, which is an informative introduction to your work for new readers.
Gary Phillips’ website is here.
Have a look at the ‘Scoundrels’ trailer here.