Monday, January 9, 2012

MURDER WAS MY ALIBI: The Story Behind the Book

Every novel I’ve written has been a unique experience and has come into the world in its own particular way. Every now and then, a book will drop into my head out of nowhere in one whole piece, but that’s rare. Wonderful, but rare. The most common origin is a “what if” question inspired by something I’ve seen, heard or read. For example, someone might tell me a joke and I’ll laugh ... and then I might think, Hey, what if that really happened? After considering it a while, I might discover that what’s funny when told as a joke would be quite horrifying if it really happened to someone, and that might lead to a novel. Some novels are difficult to trace back to a specific origin. The seed of an idea will plant itself in my head at some point, then grow slowly over time until it’s ready to write. Sometimes I might be inspired by something — an overheard conversation, perhaps, or a story in the news — that doesn’t really take the form of an idea ... just inspiration and the desire to write. I’ll sit down and start writing with nothing in particular in mind, and it will turn into a novel right in front of my eyes — that’s how Sex and Violence in Hollywood happened.

Murder Was My Alibi began with a man’s name: Myron Foote.

I don’t know where it came from or why it lodged itself so firmly in my head and refused to go away. I liked the sound of it. It was an unusual name and had a nice ring to it. What kind of person would have that name? It sounded cynical to me, the name Myron Foote. I could not imagine him as a happy-go-lucky guy, a good-natured type who tended to look on the bright side of things. Myron Foote, I decided, was a man who noticed things others didn’t and was bothered by many of them. That led to him becoming a private investigator, which took me directly to my keyboard, where I started writing.

For the last decade or so, I’ve probably read more crime fiction than anything else, and a good deal of the crime fiction I’ve read was written in the first half of the twentieth century. The work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler opened up a world I’d only glimpsed in great old black-and-white movies about tough-talking gumshoes and dangerous dames. Don’t get me wrong — those movies were iconic and I became a fan of them when I was very young. But the books of Hammett, who invented the tough-talking private eye subgenre of crime fiction, Chandler and many others of that time did not have the benefit of glossy cinematography or a swelling score to blunt their sharp edges. They were snapshots of a bleak world in which no one could be trusted and good things like love and friendship were twisted into hostile acts.

Those books led me into the grim world of noir. Most people in the know about this sort of thing seem to agree that noir pretty much began with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's a cynical genre, with protagonists who are not detectives investigating crimes but people trapped in the consequences of crimes. Sometimes they are wrongly accused of a crime and sometimes they’re guilty as hell, but they are always losers. They’re driven by lust, greed, and quite often by some twisted, unhealthy desires, and they’re self-destructive in all kinds of ways, as if they know what lies ahead is bad and they’d rather hasten their own demise to avoid it.

The world of noir makes the world of the street-tough private eye seem optimistic by comparison. And it is! Those private eyes might talk tough, drink too much and hang out with lowlifes, but they have their own ethics, to which they adhere rigidly, even though everyone around them is rotten to the core. The protagonists of noir fiction have no such ethics; they’re as rotten as everyone else in that world and they know it, just as they know they are doomed. In noir, everybody gets what’s coming to them, and it’s never good.

The land of noir has been inhabited by some astonishingly talented writers like Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Gil Brewer, David Goodis, W.R. Burnett, Charles Williams and so many others, some of whom lived pretty bleak lives themselves. And talented writers continue to keep the genre alive. The noir universe is a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It allows us to strip away all the decorations we hang on our lives in order to avoid the fact that we’re all infinitesimal specks in the universe hurtling directly to our deaths, an entertaining existential panic from which we, the readers, can walk away unscathed and return to our undamaged lives.

When Myron Foote, the name that had been stuck in my head for a while, became a private investigator, I knew I was entering some configuration of these two universes, and when I came through on the other side, I had Murder Was My Alibi.

Myron Foote is a private eye on the wrong side of the tracks who doesn’t like to be on the receiving end of violence but is sometimes a little too quick to hand it out to others. From his dumpy little office on the edge of the red light district, he works bottom-of-the-barrel divorce cases ... until a gorgeous redhead walks into his life and offers him $105,000 to pose as her uncle Percy. It sounds simple. Too simple. But who could turn down that kind of money? Or that kind of redhead?

More than one hundred thousand dollars soon becomes more than one million dollars and the job takes him down a dark path littered with lies and secrets, blackmail and murder. It’s a path that leads straight into Cynthia Thacketer’s arms ... and into a deadly trap. Soon, all that stands between Foote and life in prison is an alibi he cannot use.

Murder Was My Alibi is set in the northern California town of Redding, where I was born and raised. But it’s not really Redding. It’s an alternate Redding, a darker Redding — a Redding that has a red light district, for one thing. Actual locations coexist with fictional places that never existed.

Purists, of course, will tell you that noir is not about private eyes, and stories about private eyes are not noir. I’m not going to dispute that. But you’ll find elements of both in Murder Was My Alibi. It’s available in paperback, for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook from Audible Audio. You can read an excerpt of Murder Was My Alibi here. If you read and enjoy the book, I hope you'll post a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your blog or website — or anywhere else you like!

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