Richard Hoyt was 39 years old and in his fourth year of teaching journalism at a small liberal-arts college in Portland, Oregon, when his first novel hit stores in 1980. Titled Decoys, it introduced readers to John Denson, a Seattle-based private investigator who was inordinately fond of screw-top red wine and cauliflower, played darts with a passion and was described by folks who knew him as a curious person, if also something of a “flake.” Arriving on the scene at a time when detective fiction was undergoing a renaissance—thanks to the success of authors such as Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Arthur Lyons and Roger L. Simon—Hoyt found his own literary labors being lauded for their distinctive contributions to the genre. The Los Angeles Times Book Review, for instance, said that PI Denson “qualifies as one of the lustiest, nastiest, least philosophical, and maybe brightest—eventually—in the trade.”
After that, Hoyt (who became a full-time writer in the early ’80s) behaved like a man who’d struck gold, his satirical, well-received works tumbling forth in quick succession. While expanding his Denson series, he created a second durable protagonist in CIA operative James Burlane (Trotsky’s Run, 1982). Meanwhile, he traveled to far-flung locales (Jamaica, Brazil, Siberia, the Netherlands) to conduct research pursuant to penning far-fetched thrillers on the order of The Manna Enzyme (1982), in which Cuban president Fidel Castro slips his security detail to chase down a scientist who may hold the secret to ending world hunger, and Head of State (1985), about a plot to filch former Soviet premier Vladimir Lenin’s noggin from his Red Square tomb. Hoyt was on such a roll, he couldn’t resist reaching around to pat himself on the back now and then. Talking with People magazine in 1987 about his then freshest release, Siege (which found Burlane trying to save the Rock of Gibraltar from Palestinian terrorists), the author said it “turned out so sweet that I shocked even myself.”
As happens to so many mid-list authors in this genre, however, Hoyt’s run of good fortune didn’t last. After peddling 21 novels in 20 years, since 2001 he’s found publishers for only five more. Two of those starred John Denson, but his latest, Crow’s Mind, welcomes a new shamus into the club: Jake Hipp.
The son of “certified on-the-lam-in-Canada hippies” (which might explain his ponytail, handlebar mustache and Goodwill jeans), Hipp lives in a simple lake cabin west of Portland, knows quality pot when he smokes it and, more so than Denson, waxes philosophical. In his debut outing, he probes the murder of a young exotic dancer whose corpse he discovered—partly consumed by crows—while searching the woods for morel mushrooms. Clues lead him to question the deceased’s chilly patrician boss, her wealthy Japanese boyfriend and a right-wing talk-show host with an excess of conspiracy theories rattling around under his tinfoil hat. Hipp also finds himself working with a stunning Native American computer whiz, Willow Blackwing, whose flirtations raise doubts about her engagement to another man. Corporate espionage, gun-toting mechanical birds (ornithopters) and an exhibition of ultralight aircraft all eventually figure into the plot.
Cheeky and creative as it is, Crow’s Mind is also overly wacky at times. The voices of its characters (including a 12-year-old geek) sound too much alike, and the novel’s South Carolina–based independent publisher did Hoyt no favors with sloppy editing. Yet the author—who currently resides in Vancouver, Washington, after many years in the Philippines—says, “I’m lucky I got it published at all. Nobody else would have me.”
I took the opportunity recently to ask the now 73-year-old Hoyt about his career’s trajectory and where it might lead him in the future.
Your original protagonist was Seattle PI John Denson, who starred in nine novels. Critics often referred to him as a “soft-boiled sleuth.” How did you see him?
Denson is my alter ego. I just saw him as a guy who is indifferent to fashion and pretense. He also reflects my general dislike of authoritarian figures including cops, soldiers and assorted assholes and “bad boys” who enjoy having power over others. The funniest sight on the planet is a young man walking down the street in a full power suit.
During your early fiction-writing years, you kept up an almost manic pace, working seven days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, while you beat out tales on a word processor and collected critical plaudits. What do you remember most fondly about those days?
I think I got good reviews because critics got tired of the same old serious, pretend reality. The real world is a pretty damned zany place. Who would believe that Sarah Palin would be on anybody’s ticket as a vice-presidential nominee? I wanted to write clever, entertaining stories. I enjoyed the travel, even getting violently sick riding down the Amazon in a riverboat. I enjoyed my late-night bottles of Heineken with the women who lived on my block in Amsterdam. I enjoyed living with hippies in the now famous Chungking Mansions on Nathan Street in Hong Kong. I ate supper every night at Nepalese eatery with gurka soldiers. Fun guys. I liked sitting in my apartment on Everett Street [in Portland], doing bong hits and writing books that made me laugh out loud.
But as the 20th century flipped to the 21st, you seemed to disappear. What was going on in your life? Did you have trouble finding a publisher?
Well, see, despite all my hot-damn reviews, I never sold a whole bunch. The people behind the Tor and Forge imprints published me because I was considered a quality writer. I didn’t embarrass them. It was OK to have Richard Hoyt on their list. When my editor retired, though, that pretty much sealed my doom. It was hard to find a new publisher, because they’re looking for young and pretty faces who might pop big for them. Maybe someone else in my spot might turn out to be Robert B. Parker or Sue Grafton or somebody. I understand their logic. I didn’t like it, but there you have it. Life’s like that.
Now, though, you’re back with Crow’s Mind and Jake Hipp, a new gumshoe who seems very much your old one, Denson. They’re both stoners and enjoy plenty of sex, they both drive Volkswagen microbuses, and they both claim Native American sidekicks (Cowlitz Indian Willie Prettybird for Denson; Nehalem Indian Willow Blackwing for Hipp). Have you simply re-created Denson under a different moniker, or do you see these two characters as being quite different?
Jake Hipp is a jazzed-up and I think more fun version of John Denson.
You do especially well with your books’ opening scenes. The Siskiyou Two-Step  begins with Denson riding a beautiful woman’s corpse through a treacherous set of river rapids. The Weatherman’s Daughters  starts amid a bizarre downpour of live salmon. And Crow’s Mind opens with birds making lunch out of a dead brunette. How important is it that the first scenes of your novels be grabbers, and how long do you spend getting those openings just right?
I like crazy openings. The ones you mention are my three best. Surfing a corpse down whitewater? Yes! Salmon falling out of the sky! Zowie! Getting attacked by a mechanical crow? Go, Jake! [For Crow’s Mind] I had an idea for an opener with the mechanical crow and the dead girl and so on. I just started writing and kept going, dealing in ideas as I went. I always do it that way. I never write outlines or anything. I figure that if I’m surprised and amused, my readers will also be surprised and amused.
Native Americans figure into many of your PI yarns. Is this just to give your books a stronger Pacific Northwest flavor, or something more?
I grew up not far from the Umatilla Indian Reservation [in northeastern Oregon] and played baseball with American Indians. I had an American Indian foster sister when I was young. My doctoral dissertation had to do with myth and Pacific Northwest history.
The cover of Crow’s Mind calls it “A Jake Hipp-Willow Blackwing Mystery,” implying that you’ll carry on with a series. Is that your intent?
If I can find a publisher, sure. If I write [a sequel], the opener will be about finding a huge fat guy in the gut of a whale beached on the coast. Most of the story will take place in an isolated retreat of fat-cat Wall Street bankers in western Oregon. It will be about the murder of the fat banker, but it will also be about out-of-control greed and the bullshit scams that tanked the economy in 2008. I like to have a subtext in my books. Crow’s Mind is about the murder of a young woman, yes, but it is also about microchips murdering paper books. That is a tragedy for people who, like me, like to read paper books. That is why I set the finale in Powell’s Books [in Portland].
You’ve now spent decades concocting crime and thriller fiction. What have you learned over that time that you wish you’d known from the start?
I wrote books because it was fun. I chased whatever idea happened to pop up. I wish I had been calculating and written specifically what I thought would sell. I was self-indulgent. I’ve spent 25 years living like a graduate student, but hey, it’s been a whole lot of fun.