Harley Mazuk’s first published work of fiction appeared in EQMM’s January 2011 issue. Normally a “first” is assigned to our Department of First Stories, but the tale was so thoroughly rooted in the old-style hardboiled tradition that we decided to publish it in the Black Mask section. That first story introduced series character Frank Swiver, and Frank returned in two more stories for EQMM. Before turning to fiction writing, Harley worked as a copy editor, writer, and managing editor in corporate communications for the federal government. He has recently signed a contract for the publication of his first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, starring Frank Swiver. He will also soon be reappearing in EQMM with the launch of a new series; watch for it in the September/October double issue. —Janet Hutchings
When I graduated college, I needed a draft deferment; I needed a job; I needed a ticket to Canada. What I had was a low lottery number, 1-A status for Vietnam, and a B.A. in English.
I did manage to get that deferment, and found an entry-level job in D.C. with the Treasury Department, my Salem Custom House. By the mid ‘90s, I was pulling the strings that made a large three-letter agency dance like Juliet Prowse in Can-Can, like Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees. Then one afternoon, I stopped at a Walter Mosley book signing. A line of fans waiting for Mosley’s autograph wound through the store, practically out the front door. About three-quarters of them were young women. I thought it might not be so bad to write detective fiction and sign my name for the gals. I might even find it more rewarding than just pulling strings.
Some ten years later, retired, with a government pension, I finally tried my hand at private-eye fiction. I’m neither a “cool-headed constructionist” nor a “grim logician,” capable of turning out intricate puzzle plots, as Chandler puts it in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I figured my best bet to attract readers would be with lively, likable characters they might care about.
Many of the best-loved characters in detective literature are recurring or “series” characters. Nancy Drew and Maisie Dobbs, Inspector Ghote and Inspector Maigret, Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lecter all have their fans. I wanted to create my own recurring character, a series P.I. The protagonist in my half-dozen stories and two novels is Frank Swiver.
Frank grew out of my interests and beliefs, and out of what I liked about Hammett’s and Chandler’s P.I. characters—hard work, courage, dedication to the client, and a tendency to take the job, but not themselves, seriously. I started writing about Frank in 2005, in a novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder. By the time I’d finished I had a detailed character sketch for a private eye. Of course, I did write a two-page character sketch for Frank in the process, as I did for many of my characters. The sketch covered things like date and place of birth, height and weight, current home address, the location of his office, and make of his car. These are little things, but handy references for me so that the proverbial jezail bullet wouldn’t migrate someday from Frank’s shoulder to his leg. It was the novel itself, though, not those two pages of “driver’s license” info, that was the valuable character sketch. The novel told me how Frank talked, what sorts of women he liked, what he drank and how much. I knew from that book how loyal he could be, and what he might do if someone took a shot at him.
Frank and I spend many a pleasant hour sitting in the Black Lizard Lounge, sharing a bottle of wine. Carignan, Garnacha, or Zinfandel, it doesn’t matter much, so long as it’s red and from California or Spain. Sometimes when we’ve had a few, Swiver talks about Cicilia Ricci, a waitress he met at John’s Grill in 1933.
“Cici, now there was a dame. 5’2”, 95 pounds. My first true love. I’d just stopped in John’s for a nickel beer, but I paid with a piece of my heart. We were together the better part of a year, then she threw me over for that ex-bootlegger, O’Callaghan. He had dough, good looks, and a ready story.”
When Cici left him in ‘34, Frank went into a tailspin of heavy drinking. His old college pal, Max Rabinowitz, a lifelong Red, saw Frank slipping into darkness. Max cleaned him up and took him to a political meeting at Berkeley in 1937.
“I’d drink anything then. I sank so low. Max helped me pull out of it. Sometimes we both think it would have been better if he’d just let me sink.”
Before the night was out, they had joined the Abe Lincoln Brigade, and were off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Max lost an eye to a shrapnel wound. Frank saved his life but fell victim to what we’d now call PTSD. He’d killed several men, fascists, at close quarters and the violence traumatized him.
“When we made it back to the States, I suffered terrible nightmares. Dark images I can’t think about. The drinking started again. Now it was wine. I’d picked up the grape bug in Spain. The nightmares persisted. I was on the streets. I began going to a Dorothy Day hospitality house. I went for the free meals, but I read, too. I listened. One day I realized I was a pacifist. Then the nightmares started to go away.”
Yes, Frank’s a pacifist. Maybe a story takes a violent turn, maybe it doesn’t. But if the going gets gashouse, Frank faces it with courage, . . . and non-violence. People ask why a pacifist got into shamus work. It’s one trade that takes little capital to start up.
“All I needed was a coat, a hat, and a gun. And I didn’t even use the gun.”
In White with Fish, I brought Frank and a newly-widowed Cici back together in 1948, fourteen years after she’d dumped him. Frank’s girl Friday, Vera Peregrino, didn’t like the way he was playing house with Cici. Vera walked out as his secretary, and wanted no more to do with him. That gave me a new story arc. Frank wants to salvage his relationship with Vera, win her trust back. As the writer, I give him every opportunity.
“Yeah? You’re not making it easy for me,” he says. “You’re always writing these parts for femmes fatales—”
“Don’t complain,” I tell him. “You know you love it. But you’re not going to get Vera back if you chase every new skirt that comes along.”
Frank Swiver is still suffering from the loss of his girl; he drinks too much. He’s traumatized from his war experience in Spain, and he’s a pacifist, trying to make it as a private dick. (Good luck to the poor client who walks in.) All this is background for every story, but I don’t need to re-write the background each time. I just portray Frank as a man who acts like a fellow with all that baggage would act.
It’s challenging to know what to leave in, what to leave out, but it helps to think of the stories as episodic, standalones. Those of you who enjoyed Art Taylor’s scholarly essay, “The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories,” should note, my series is not so closely linked as to be a novel. Still, I’m often surprised at how much explanation I can omit, and usually the story’s better for it. The action zings along when you skip that expository stuff and get down to business. The plot and the characters are manifest for the readers in action, not in exposition.
Writing a series featuring Frank is not just about Frank. John Huston could call on Warner Bros. featured players like Elisha Cook, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre. I don’t have such a cast of ace performers, but I do call on characters from books and stories I’ve written: Joe Damas, ex-forger for the Maquis; Max Rabinowitz, eye-patch-wearing, card-carrying attorney; Marcus Aurelius Wolff, sinister fat man and wine collector, and, of course, Vera and Cici. Sure, the fat man and the femme fatale are types, but Damas, Wolff, and Cici are intense and uncompromising. They’re not afraid to come in and get their hands dirty. When Wolff hauls out his sap, or Cici flashes her smaragdine eyes, they pull it off with authority.
These have been some of the advantages for me of working in a series–a fully fleshed-out private eye, an underlying character arc for continual development, and a stable of secondary characters ready to walk on and perform when I need them.
What are the limitations?
Well, to pick up on a theme Raymond Chandler entertained in a 1949 letter, a private-eye story may not be about the private eye. The P.I. is only a catalyst to stir up the other characters and the plot, but he leaves the tale as he was when he entered, unchanged by events. My protagonist can’t live happily ever after. He never gets the girl, never marries. (And this is not a bad thing for the noir writer.) The P.I.’s wants and desires carry over from story to story, book to book. For, as Chandler wrote in a review of Diamonds Are Forever: “beautiful girls have no future [with James Bond], because it is the curse of the ‘series character’ that he always has to go back to where he began.”
Sorry, Frank. But let me buy you another glass of the Louis Martini Monte Rosso Zin.