“How I Got Hooked” (by John Lantigua)

John Lantigua is a journalist whose work has received two Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prizes, a share of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, and other awards.  His first novel, Heat Lightning, appeared in 1987 and was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel.  His well-known series starring P.I. Willie Cuesta began in 1999 with the novel Player’s Vendetta, and he continues to write about the Little Havana detective today. In fact, John’s recent stories for EQMM are all in the Cuesta series. Readers won’t want to miss “The Jaguar at Sunset,” in the March/April 2016 double issue, or “In the Time of the Voodoo,” which will appear later in 2016. In this post the author talks about his journey to the mystery field. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! —Janet Hutchings 

I’m sure devotees of the mysteries come to the genre in all sorts of different ways. Through schools, Edgar Allan Poe is an early experience for many of us, although that doesn’t always take. Some probably inherit a lasting taste for suspense from a parent or older sibling. At a relatively early age they discover stray Agatha Christies or Raymond Chandlers around the house. Maybe a person fractured a leg, was laid up and looking for a way not to die of boredom. Some kind soul brought round some Hillermans, Paretskys, J.D. Robbs or Daniel Silvas. I’ve noticed that Lawrence Sanders tends to hang out for years in the slush piles at country inns just waiting to trap the unsuspecting.

I got hooked in an unusual way and in an unusual place.

In the early 1980s, I was a correspondent for United Press International in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. The United States opposed the government there at the time and was soon supporting a rebel force that was attempting to at least weaken if not overthrow the existing order. Journalists from all over the world poured into Nicaragua, until at times it seemed there was one reporter for every Nicaraguan citizen.

Government leaders frequently called press conferences to denounce the rebels—and the U.S.—or to make other announcements. Because of the war, security at those events had to be very tight. Every piece of equipment carried by journalists—cameras, common tape recorders, large sound boxes used by television “sound men”—had be screened for bombs. That all took a lot of time, so that reporters had to be on the premises at least two hours before the conference was to begin.

I employed only a pen and notebook, had no equipment to inspect, and I was waved right into the conference space. A few other colleagues were also low tech and would join me there. We would chat a bit, but since we saw each other fairly often, the gossip lasted only so long. I soon decided to bring reading material with me in order to not waste hours of my life.

Since I was covering a nation in conflict, I was reading famous authors who had written about war: Tolstoy, Crane, Hemingway, James Jones, early Tim O’Brien. I tried to bring those works with me to read preconference, but it simply didn’t work. As the room filled up, it grew noisier and what I was trying to read was just too dense, too demanding to hold my attention in the rising din. I needed a book that was faster, plot-driven, more compulsively readable.

I cannot remember how it is that the first Ross Macdonald fell into my hands. And I can’t recall if it was The Goodbye Look, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Galton Case, or The Wycherly Woman. But the moment I opened Macdonald I was hooked. They could have held the press conference right around me and I wouldn’t have known it was going on. Well, almost.

I read a bunch of them. I sampled other authors as well, but it was Macdonald’s tightly-woven plots that really grabbed me. A couple of years later, still reporting in Nicaragua and other nearby countries, I decided that I knew enough about the Central American conflicts and also enough about mystery novels to write one of my own. My first novel was Heat Lightning, set in San Francisco, where I had once lived. It dealt with a murder in the Salvadoran community there, a killing with connections to the civil war back in El Salvador. It was published by Putnam in 1987, edited by Neil Nyren, who is now editor-in-chief at Putnam. It was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America and optioned by Columbia Pictures.

I’ve bounced back and forth between journalism and fiction writing ever since. I’m at work on my eighth book.

I recently reread The Galton Case. Macdonald is still magic.

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