I’m always surprised when I hear longtime followers of crime and mystery fiction say they’ve never read anything by Ed Gorman. I mean, really, what does Gorman have to do to capture their attention? He’s churned out novels—around 100 of them so far—over the last three decades. He has also penned myriad works of short fiction, edited anthologies of crime, horror and western tales, supplied introductions to collections of stories he didn’t also edit, and along the way lent his enthusiasm and support to younger writers who still believe they have something unique to contribute to the groaning shelves of contemporary literature. And in recognition of his prolificacy, this 71-year-old resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has picked up the Shamus Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Spur Award and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, The Eye.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that Gorman has been working for the last dozen years under the sentence of an incurable cancer, multiple myeloma—which has only brought his production of prose down to a slightly more human scale. “Before cancer I tried for 1,500 to 2,000 words a day,” he says. “With cancer it’s 500 to 1,000.”
For his latest feat, Gorman offers up Flashpoint, the fifth entry in his series about Dev Conrad, a political consultant/troubleshooter who debuted in Sleeping Dogs (2008). This new yarn focuses on veteran U.S. Senator Robert Logan of Illinois, implicated in the slaying of a bewitching woman who’d been trailing him to recent public functions, and with whom some of his campaign staffers (as well as Logan’s distrustful wife) fear he’s been having an affair. Flashpoint is also, though, about the feeding frenzy the modern American media engage in whenever they smell the chum of political scandal. Abandoned by former supporters, and under assault by a right-wing TV network bent on convicting him in the court of public opinion, Logan turns to Conrad for rescue. But with the senator’s future dependent on information from a spooked political saboteur, it may be too late even for Conrad’s industrial-strength brand of damage control.
I recently talked with Gorman about his own political experience, his health and his troubled boyhood.
Is it true that you were something of a petty thief and shoplifter in your youth?
I grew up in rough neighborhoods and hung out with some tough guys, a number of whom went to reform school before age 15 and prison before age 20. I was invited to join in crimes such as breaking and entering, stealing cars, and once or twice arson. Not for me. But for a few years I was a major shoplifter. I’d even steal things to order. If you wanted something and I thought it was something I could steal, you got it at half price.After leaving college early, you went to work for advertising agencies, including one of your own. Then, in 1989, you became a full-time writer. At what point in all of this did you serve as a political speechwriter?
When I finally went full-time freelance I had to take on jobs other than fiction to help support our family. [My wife] Carol went back to teaching, which early on made my full-time status possible.
For whom did you write speeches, and how long did you engage in that enterprise?
I wrote for a Republican governor and two Democratic congressmen. I even got involved in doing commercials for them. The governor was my favorite. A serious, honorable man. I worked for close to five years at it. I met a lot of operatives from both sides and still contact some of them when I’m writing one of my Dev Conrad political consultant series. David Axelrod was kind enough to let me pick his brain for awhile on the phone just as Senator [Barack] Obama was on the verge of announcing his decision to run for president. I’m cynical about our political system, and both sides go after the Conrad novels because I keep repeating that with only a handful of exceptions both sides are bought and paid for. I want term limits and have for decades.
You’ve described protagonist Dev Conrad as being “cynical without being nihilistic.” How do you strike that balance in your storytelling?
Dev isn’t calling for the destruction of our system—he would certainly be against a third party. He’s a compromiser up against the fanatics in the opposite party and the cowards in his own.
What sparked your interest in writing this latest Conrad book, Flashpoint?
There are political scandals where politicians deserve to be deserted by members of their party. But there are scandals where at least some empathy and help should be extended. I wanted to depict how men and women are often brought down by their friends as well as their enemies. I also wanted to comment on the mainstream media which, to me, are lazy and vicious, while missing so many important stories. They seem to be at their best (worst) when scandal appears. Then they’re creatures from The Walking Dead.
Why do the media obsess over scandals and pseudo-scandals these days? Is it because such stories are easier to cover than, say, economic policy or health care?
You said it: Because it’s easy. It’s also great for ratings. Egypt is going through a seminal moment in Middle East history. It will influence every country in the region and it will weigh on us for decades to come. It’s old news, though; we got great footage of the riots, but now we’re on to something else. Look at how badly our country was served by the mainstream press in the run-up to the [2007-2008] Wall Street crash. It dealt with boring old numbers rather than riots and wars, so the press wasn’t interested.
How do you view the current state of U.S. politics? And how are things different now than they were when you were writing political speeches?
This political era is an abomination. There’s never been anything like it in my years on the planet. When I was writing speeches, pols were at least civil and we all worked within certain confines of expression and behavior.
Are you currently laboring over another Dev Conrad book?
There may not be another Dev. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
Finally, in 2001 you were diagnosed with cancer. How has that affected your outlook on life?
When you have incurable cancer you certainly have to face death. You have monthly meetings with your oncologist and those are a roll of the dice. Once in awhile you sit down and get some pretty grim news. As my oncologist told me, I had a choice—to go home and just wait to die or go in with my life. I’ve probably met 200 cancer patients by now, and I’ve never met a single one who didn’t fight like hell to stay alive. And none of them just sat around waiting for the final breath, either. I’ve certainly despaired when I got very sick, but Carol has gotten me through it. I wouldn’t be here today without her.