In a novel that we called “an even more thrilling, densely packed novel that makes most Chicago crime thrillers seem tame,” Charlie Newton returns to the mean streets with Start Shooting.
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This densely plotted police procedural pits two local cops against a conspiracy of violence and corruption that dates back to World War II, with a soulful spoonful of Chicago blues to boot. Just returned from Austin, Texas, where Kirkus Reviews and the Texas Book Festival presented Charlie’s talk about his new novel, the novelist sat down to talk about cops, criminals and the long hard road to the crime novel.
You’re known for the heightened realism in your novels—if you write about a street corner in Chicago, you’ve stood on that corner to take a good look around. Is this a creative process, or just your character?
Both. The part of this life that makes up for the endless rejection and no money is you get a backstage pass to whatever interests you, provided you’re willing to go to the heart of it. Your “reason” for being where you are, asking what you’re asking, is comparatively benign. A corner in Belfast or Beirut doesn’t require you to be a combatant, just a voyeur or groupie, and generally speaking, they don’t die in the larger argument.
You’ve talked about distilling a book down to its essence. What’s the fundamental nature of Start Shooting?
Hopes and dreams. Some propel you through the fire, some burn you to death.
The book is based on a real case out of Chicago. How did that case find its way to you, and then into the novel?
Denny Banahan. Lt. Dennis is a street legend in the city and one of my best friends. He worked the case and provided me the green card. Unless a connection I need is facing prison, Denny vouching for me will get me anywhere I want to go in Chicago’s police/criminal world. Denny is the protagonist in my next novel, Canaryville.
What does crime writing do to the world that other kinds of fiction can’t?
Generally speaking, crime writing allows you to place a politically incorrect 900-pound gorilla at the center of the story and give it a microphone instead of a ball-gag. Do that with a standard Thriller or Romance and your sales would drop by half after the first review. The unfortunate news, though, is your sales would still be double that of most crime writers.
The guys you get lumped in with—Richard Price, James Ellroy, etc.—have some of the same strengths: stripped-down dialogue and complex, ambitious plots. How did you come to develop those strengths in your writing?
I always liked puzzles. Puzzles and “issues with authority” led me to the racetrack and handicapping, which indirectly led me to a bit of conditions forecasting and strategic planning. I bore easily, not because I’m brilliant, but because my attention span is directly related to my curiosity. If I can figure the situation quickly, I’m done with it quickly. Regarding dialogue, I don’t “strip it down” as many critics contend. I say it out loud, then type it. That style doesn’t always make for maximum clarity— and I work on that—but it feels right given what I know firsthand about the story.
You also share something with other strong literary writers in using crime to say things about society. When you start something like Start Shooting, how defined is your effort to paint a bigger picture?
Actually, I see it as narrower. Start Shooting has a backdrop of corruption—corporate, municipal, personal—and society’s acceptance thereof. The Al Davis culture of “just win, baby.” The villains who drive my kind of stories are given the reins to your “bigger picture,” and that forces the issue into the story without it becoming the absolute focus. In this case, “hopes and dreams” collide with corruption on a number of levels.
Most writers go to cops and criminals for inspiration, but you’ve gone the other way and started mentoring police officers in writing. What did you hear at the Police Writer Series in Chicago?
About half of them want to write about non-police stuff. They didn’t define their entire “self” as men and women with badges and guns, but rather men and women with families, histories, dreams, etc. Jon Eig and I LOVE the Chicago Police Department and Lt. Maureen Biggane for making this series happen, the first one in the U.S.A. We’ve seen so much interest from the media and publishing, it’s really remarkable.
What brings you back to Chicago for your second novel, and what attracts you there as a novelist?
I’ve completed 11, all connected to Chicago. Calumet City was No. 6 but the first published. Start Shooting is No. 9 and the second published. Twelve years, 25,000 hours of typing to publish two books—why do people say I have personal issues?
Why Chicago? It’s how I define myself, more so than Africa. Chicago is pride and prejudice, success and failure, confrontation, corruption, hope, neighborhoods, family—I’ve lived a lot of places, often near the social order’s edges—and have never found a more vibrant, interconnected milieu than Chicago. She can just as easily kiss you as kill you.
Music seems important to your creative process. Bobby has some connections to Chicago blues that are vital to him as a character. What does this book sound like to you?
Howlin’ Wolf/ Buddy Guy’s “Two sixteen year olds and an eight ball.”
As mentioned, you’re compared to a lot of your peers in the crime-fiction world. Anybody among your contemporaries ring your bell as a reader or writer?
Pete Dexter. Hunter Thompson from Hells Angels though Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thomas Harris for his first three, P.J. O’Rourke till the early 1990s, Elmore Leonard’s westerns, Chandler for his sentences; the noir kings: Cornell Woolrich, James Cain, Jim Thompson and David Goodis; and nonfiction “novelists” Mark Bowden and Michael Lewis.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.