Friday, 12 August 2016

On the Trail with David Edgerley Gates

As the World Crime & Mystery Convention. Bouchercon fast approaches; I was making my preparations which include reading some of the work nominated for the various awards [which I hadn’t sampled as yet] that the event showcases; especially the Barry, the Macavity, Anthony and the Shamus Awards. I mentioned to our Editor Mike Stotter, about a remarkable story I just read - THE SLEEP OF DEATH a Placido Geist story from the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which was nominated for the PWA Shamus Awards, [to be presented at the Private Eye Writers of America PWA Shamus Banquet] during Bouchercon New Orleans 2016. It was written by David Edgerley Gates, a familiar name, but a writer who I hadn’t sampled before.

Mike Stotter knew of his work, as our Editor is a big follower of Westerns, a genre that David E. Gates writes in [as well as Crime, Thriller and PI fiction]. Apart from Editor-in-Chief of Shots, and his duties at The Crime Writers Association, Mike Stotter is also co-publisher with David Whitehead & Ben Bridges at Piccadilly Publishing. It is interesting that this niche British publisher has become a key outlet for Westerns; publishing many big names of the genre, including the PWA Founder’s Gunsmith series.

I will be attending The 2016 PWA Shamus awards with my colleagues Jeff Peirce [The Rap Sheet]; Peter Rozovsky [Detectives Beyond Borders] and Mike Stotter. I have enjoyed being a long standing [and a non-American] Associate Member of The Private Eye Writers of America; so we will see how David’s story The Sleep of Death gets on, as one of the nominated short stories for the 2016 PWA Shamus Short Fiction Category.  

So after checking out David’s website, which I found piqued my interest; I downloaded a couple of his works including the remarkable The Bone Harvest, and I tracked him down to New Mexico, and sent him a list of questions.

David kindly humored me, and answered my questions; in fact he produced a fascinating essay, which Shots are delighted to feature here, so over to the very interesting writer I discovered Mr David Edgerley Gates -

Thanks for inviting me to Shots Ezine and in answer to your questions, here goes -

My dad used to read aloud to me, at bedtime, before I could read for myself, so story-telling hooked me early on.  Kipling first, PUCK OF POOK’S HILL, and the Howard Pyle ROBIN HOOD, and then Stevenson, TREASURE ISLAND.  (Of course, those fabulous Wyeth illustrations, too.)  I’ve mentioned Carl Barks before, because I had a subscription to Walt Disney comics, and the Donald Duck stories were an enormous influence on me.  I think the economy of them.  Barks didn’t drag his feet.  He was off and running in the first four panels.

Reading dark fiction is maybe about relative safety.  This is counter-intuitive, I know, but you’re statistically more likely to be hurt by somebody you know than by a Ted Bundy.  I had a friend who once told me she didn’t want to think about domestic violence – her husband was a sweetheart, as it happens, but he was physically a really big guy – so she took a certain comfort in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and the odds of being struck by lightning factor.  Agatha Christie has a trick, even though her stuff is thought of as cozy, of scaring the living bejeezus out of you about ten pages from the end of any one of her books, the vicarious shiver.  SLEEPING MURDER (which I always remember as “Cover Her Face,” a title P.D. James used, probably in homage) is a good example.

BookShots is a great idea, Patterson a demon marketer, and a strong voice for the reader community.  (I’ve met Mark Sullivan, who does the PRIVATE books, and Brendan DuBois, who himself has a BookShots coming out.)  I personally love the novella as a form, although conventional wisdom has it that it’s not marketable – or at least not in the magazine or print publishing world.  It’d be nice to see that change, and I hope writers are lining up for the opportunity.  I plan to.

The first of the bounty hunter stories, “Undiscovered Country,” began simply as a wavering image in long shot, ‘figures in a landscape’ was the phrase I used, and the old guy himself didn’t show up until Page 16.  I hadn’t expected him, but when he made his entrance, he was already fully-formed.  He was necessary, if that makes sense, a character you could hang your hat on.  THE WILD BUNCH is a big presence in these stories, although I’d shy away from calling them elegiac, a word Peckinpah disliked.  I don’t think I realized in the beginning that I’d happened on a theme, but people in the middle of historic change probably don’t recognize it at the time.  Then again, the Great War was so damaging, materially and psychologically, that it left nobody untouched, and that’s the shadow that falls across the Placido Geist stories, the coming darkness, the acceleration of technology, not with the promise of a better future, but more efficient death mechanisms.  The obvious historical irony. 

I wouldn’t say Dutch Leonard was a big influence, or at least not a conscious one in the way Mary Renault or John le Carré have been.  I came to Leonard later on, and I enjoy him a lot, but I think I’d established my own style at that point.  As for Western writers per se, Jack Schaefer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, A.B. Guthrie, Alan LeMay.  I don’t know that they influenced me, though.  I’d have to say John Ford, more than anybody, his horizon line.  I find it interesting that both Jim Harrison and Larry McMurtry, and James Lee Burke, can’t help falling into the epic voice in their stuff.  It conjures up that sense of Manifest Destiny, like it or not.

This answer follows on the last.  One of the things you experience in New Mexico is a feel for the landscape, the sky and the earth.  And the blood soaked into the ground, enough of it before the coming of the Europeans, but a larger share afterwards.  True of the West, generally, the Indian Wars.  History in the Southwest is about Indians, then Spaniards, then Anglos, and contemporary New Mexico mirrors this, sometimes a hostile dynamic, certainly a wary one.  It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.  The landscape informs character, in life and in fiction.  Tony Hillerman, for one, the guy himself, and his books.  You can’t imagine Leaphorn or Chee outside of the terrain they inhabit.  So landscape is character, but the people there reflect the environment, not the other way around.  Call it erosion, either way.

The question about Alistair MacLean could be about any writer, and why they fall out of fashion.  Sir Walter Scott was hugely successful in his lifetime, and then lost his grip on the popular imagination.  The only book of Scott’s anybody reads these days is IVANHOE, which is a shame - OLD MORTALITY is a much livelier book.  My point about THE GUNS OF NAVARONE was actually how well it stands up.  I don’t know why MacLean’s gone past his sell-by date.  It’s probably because of the kind of books he wrote, which are essentially ripping yarns.  Not too many people re-read John Buchan nowadays, either (which is also a shame).  There’s always a kind of surface tension in the writers we go back to, that gives their writing a weightless grace, but you sense a deeper purpose, a moral gravity.  I don’t mean that MacLean is frivolous; I mean his facility works against him.  He goes down too smooth. 

Where did “The Devil to Pay” come from?  I agree with my pal John Crowley that ideas are easy, and execution is hard.  In this case, though, I know exactly how I came by it.  I was in New York for the Edgars a couple of years ago, and I went to visit a friend’s grandma up in an assisted living place north of the city, as described.  Then, back in the Oyster Bar, there was an overheard conversation I later turned to my own devious ends.  The thing about “Devil to Pay” is that when Tommy goes back upriver to the old folks’ home, the story he tells his grandma is of course the story that you’ve just been told.  This was an accidental foray into meta-fiction.  I felt very sly about it.

I think of myself as undisciplined, because I’m completely all or nothing.  I’ve either got the lid screwed down tight and I’m working to the exclusion of everything else, or I’m fretting and kicking myself because I’m not working.  OCD, in other words.  The difference between stories and a novel is that a story gives you something closer to instant gratification – in that it might take a couple of days or a couple of weeks (or even a couple of months) to write – but with a book you’re in it for the long haul, and it’s all about stamina.  The satisfactions are very separate, and it’s not just degree.  There’s the prejudice that a novel shows more seriousness, on the writer’s part.  In a way, it’s true, because there’s no easy way out.  You’re stuck with it.  On the other hand, a novel never has the shapeliness of a short story.  It takes too long, and it’s too ungainly.  You imagine its finished shape, and can only approximate it. 

Award nominations are incredibly cool.  I don’t see them as pressure points.  More ratification.  (Maybe a marketing hook, too.)  And awards ceremonies are a lot of fun.  You get to meet great people.  Ali Karim, perchance, at this year’s Shamus dinner.
I’ve liked being a Hillerman judge, although I never picked a winner, and the Sleuth Sayers crew reliably conjures up the unexpected – I’m pleased to be included.  As for which present-day writers hold my attention, I have a stable of favorites.  Lee Child, Alan Furst, Steve Hunter.  No surprises there.  My sister recently turned me on to Stuart Neville.  Laura Lippman got me started on Mark Billingham.  My pal Jane Kepp recommended David Downing.  I found Chris Morgan Jones and Charles Cumming on my own.  I dig Debra Coonts and Chuck Greaves, although I’m probably not supposed to promote my friends.  But why not?

Somebody once remarked that reading Alan Furst’s KINGDOM OF SHADOWS was like seeing CASABLANCA for the first time.  I think the ‘trick’ of his books - if you want to call it that - and this goes for Philip Kerr as well, is that we know how the war against Hitler turned out, but people at the time had no such certainty.  If you were in Occupied France, or Eastern Europe, or anywhere under the Nazis, your daily life (and whether you lived or died) was completely arbitrary, and subject to the whim of sociopaths.  For the characters in these stories, the smallest act of  disrespect can be a death sentence.  That’s what makes the stakes so high. 

Chris Morgan Jones spent 11 years in the corporate espionage world, and it shows in his books.  One of the things I particularly like in the Ikertu novels is that both Ben and Ike are principled guys in a slippery and ambiguous world, and that accords with my own experience of the intelligence community.  I’ve remarked before that the people I knew in the trade were dedicated professionals, mission-oriented, and that ‘honorable’ isn’t too treacly a word to describe them.  I don’t want to inflate my résumé, however – I served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a Russian linguist, stationed in West Berlin during the Cold War, with the Warsaw Pact and Soviet forces in the Forward Area as our immediate targets.  It was a great duty.  The town lived up to its reputation, the job itself was fascinating.  I’ve kept up with most of the literature since, and some of the guys who were there.  I don’t think you get over it.  There’s a definite sense of having been among the elect, all that Capt. Midnight secret decoder ring crap.  The dealer always gives you the first taste for free.

BLACK TRAFFIC and THE BONE HARVEST are the first two books in a story arc of five novels, if not six.  They’re not going to be chronological, and they don’t all have the same central series characters, but everybody gets at least a cameo: in other words, Andy Wye holds down the first and fourth books, Vlasov headlines the fifth, and so on.  Other cast members take their bows along the way.  Sort of a tribute album, the Cold War’s greatest hits.  And with THE BONE HARVEST in particular, I had a very definite aim in mind.  I wanted to show the nuts and bolts of how an intelligence or eavesdropping operation is actually set up, in a hostile environment.  More than that, I didn’t want to people my story with world-weary cynics, I wanted a team that was invested in the outcome, animated by resolve.  Dix Apodaca, the main guy in the book, is in fact an avatar, an alternate reality to my own – if I’d stayed in the service and gone career military, Dix is more or less how I would have turned out.  (I mean in terms of his pay grade and job description, not his heroics.)

What’s on deck would be more stories – a Mickey Counihan (STEP ON A CRACK) called “Stone Soup” is coming out in the November issue of HITCHCOCK.  I’m working on a sequel to EXIT WOUNDS called ABSOLUTE ZERO, about the cartels, and the Mexican gang presence in the American prison system, and then I’ll tackle the next chapter in the spy novel sequence, YANKEE ZULU, which takes place in Viet Nam during the Tet Offensive.  I’d also like to do a couple of more novellas, a sequel or sequels to VIPER, and I’ve got a story in mind about the Ardennes in ‘44.   So both some contemporary and some historicals.  Ideas are easy, execution is hard.

Raise a glass at Bouchercon in my absence. 

© 2016 David Edgerley Gates

More information about the work of David Edgerley Gates and links to his work is available here and his contributions at Sleuthsayers Blog here and sample his story Step on a Crack as a free download as a .pdf from this link [right click and “save as” to download].

And if this article has also piqued your interest in the Western Genre, click here for Piccadilly Publishing’s August Schedule of Publications.

More information about The Private Eye Writers of America is available here with details on attending the 2016 PWA Shamus Awards from this link  

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