Interview with John Triptych, author of The Boy in the Gutter
It gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview John Triptych, whose new release The Boy in the Gutter we feature on November 15.
You write both crime and Science Fiction. How does that work for you?
I get bored easily! My interests run the gamut of just about every subject, and for some reason my mind gets tired of one genre, so I need to switch back and forth and try new things all the time, otherwise writing becomes a slog.
The Boy in the Gutter, which debuts on November 15, is a crime novel. Do novels with a real-world setting require more research?
Absolutely! In this day and age there is no excuse not to do any research. I’ve always found historical novels to be the most daunting, because you need to get the little details right, or else the audience will know they’re being had. This book happens to be my first foray into history, and I hope it will be successful enough to warrant a sequel.
My newest novel takes place in an era that I wasn’t even born in. Fortunately there’s a wealth of material on the internet, as well as books and documentaries that enables an indie author like myself to do research on our own without having to hire someone.
Your Amazon bio begins: “John has varied interests, and his love of everything is reflected in genre-busting novels” What does genre-busting mean to you?
I have a problem with genres in that they have certain tropes and conventions that one must adhere to in order to fit into that category, so to speak. Since my interests are varied, I sort of add other tropes found in other genres into the mix, and that sometimes creates a problem with readers, because they expect a number of things to follow the paradigm.
For example, I have written a science fiction series called The Dying World, which is set millions of years in the future. Although it should be science-fiction, it has fantasy tropes in it, like characters using swords instead of lasers or spaceships. Readers might get a jolt since that isn’t what they’re normally used to, so it sorts of sets my work apart.
Tell us about The Boy in the Gutter. Set in Los Angeles in 1947, it starts with the murder of an Asian boy in Chinatown. What prompted you to choose this era and that place?
Hoo boy, do you have a few minutes? First off, I’ve always wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel—to me this is a sort of rite of passage, because it’s both a genre that’s a true American original, and there’s a bit of a romantic connotation to it.
Secondly, I believe that the golden age of hard-boiled detective fiction takes place between the 1920’s to the late 1960’s. The three greatest writers of this genre (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald) all wrote their masterpieces during those time periods, and I sort of feel that I’m carrying on that tradition—even though I’m not anywhere near their level of talent. During that time you had no mobile phones, no internet, the police were corrupt, society was very racist, and that sets the perfect stage for this kind of genre.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I know a lot about the location and some of its nuances. L.A. is a city of contrasts—the glitz of Hollywood and the grime of the inner city, the sunny beach culture of the coast and the tough neighbourhoods of Downtown, it provides the perfect backdrop when telling lurid stories of murder, sex and corruption. Heck, it’s even the home to one of the most celebrated fictional detectives of all time, Philip Marlowe!
The city of L.A. is always at the forefront of popular culture, and it underwent a massive series of changes in 1947: the return to a peacetime economy, the huge population growth both during and after the war, and about America in general. L.A. had the most number of single women who came over in order to find stardom in Hollywood, and if you combine this with huge numbers of returning war veterans, many of whom never got over the horrors they experienced, all this creates a pretty volatile mix.
You mention the Black Dahlia murder in your book blurb, what did your research tell you about it?
The Black Dahlia mystery is probably one of the great unsolved crimes of Los Angeles, if not post-war America. While it isn’t as well-known as Jack the Ripper, any serious true crime aficionado and fans of the genre would certainly know about it, and it serves as a great starting off point.
What many people are unaware is that sensational murder cases like the Black Dahlia were a mere tip of the iceberg. At one point there was a significant monthly murder rate in Los Angeles during those post-war years, and most of these went unsolved, and remain open cases to this day.
I watched a BBC documentary with the celebrated crime writer James Ellroy (whose own mother had been a murder victim in L.A. when he was a boy and that case was never solved either), and he toured a warehouse that was filled from top to bottom with unsolved murder cases that stretched for more than half a century. I was stunned when I saw that.
In my novel, the Black Dahlia case serves as minor plot point but factors heavily into the overall story. L.A. back then was an openly racist town, the police were hostile against minorities and would treat them as second class citizens. The initial murder that my novel’s protagonist encounters propels him to seek justice because the authorities don’t really want to bother with it. The hard-boiled genre is about high-stakes, so it’s gotta be personal.
And speaking of personal reasons, I also happen to be distantly related to one of the prime suspects of the Black Dahlia murder—my uncle told me about it many years ago, so I had to include that case into my fictional work!
What about the research? How do you go about it?
I feel I am fortunate to live and work as a writer in this day and age, because the internet gives us all so much data on anything, and it’s a mere push of a button away.
The whole genesis of this novel actually took place when I was watching one of my favourite noir movies, Chinatown, for the umpteenth time. Even though the title of that Jack Nicholson film is more about a state of mind than an actual place, the ending really does take place in Chinatown. When I was watching the final scene, an idea popped into my head: what if I wrote about a private detective who is Chinese instead? What would he be like if I placed him in that era?
That was when I started researching the Chinese experience in America, and I was completely blown away by what I read and watched. It seems that the Chinatowns came about due to necessity: Chinese weren’t allowed to live anywhere else. The reason why the Chinese Americans ended up doing laundry services and restaurants is because they weren’t allowed to work outside of those industries.
Another mind blowing fact is that Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law created specifically to prevent an ethnic group from immigrating into America: a nation of immigrants. Labour leaders felt that the Chinese were simply too hardworking and willing to accept such low wages that they shouldn’t be allowed in at all, even though the transcontinental railroad was mostly done via Chinese workers. And you know what’s even more surprising? This law wasn’t even repealed until 1965!
Why is research so important to you?
I owe it to my readers. If I want to write a historical hard-boiled mystery novel, then I have to get it right. To that end, I read a lot of non-fiction books on the Chinese experience, watched lots of documentaries, and even re-read classic novels like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon to make sure I got the tone right.
As I’ve said, there’s lots of material out there. Plenty of true crime books were written about the Black Dahlia, so that was a big help. There’s quite a bit of film noir classics that have excellent plots and dialogue, such as Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. Even better was a videogame called L.A. Noire, which is a police procedural set in 1947 Los Angeles; the game allowed you to drive a car along the virtual streets of a lost city from another time, and I played the heck out of that game in between the writing!
I would research every word and keep a list of 1940s slang whenever I began putting in any dialogue. There were times I had to cut out words and phrases, simply because they didn’t belong in that time period.
Heck, I would even listen to music during that era, and I actually fell in love with some of them, even though I’m a modern rock fan at heart. Cab Calloway’s rendition of Blues in the Night is pretty addictive!
The protagonist is Tommy Luoo, a Chinese American college student who goes by the name of Dapper. Tell us about him.
Ah, good question! The reason why I decided to make my protagonist a Chinese American was because I feel that it hasn’t been done before. Sure, fictional detectives like Charlie Chan have existed for a long time, but the Asian American community is deeply divided as to that character’s legacy; some of them view him as a positive role model, while others think he’s a caricature.
Dapper is a clotheshorse - hence his name. He is very meticulous with regards to fashion, and I was able to add in a lot of period details into the narrative because he has this quirk. Compared to the classic private eye characters, Dapper isn’t a one man army like Sam Spade or an ex-cop like Philip Marlowe, or even a war veteran like Easy Rawlins. Dapper is more of a young, dreamy kid who wants to be a private eye instead of actually being one. In order to solve this case he will need help, and that’s where his friends come in.
The other reason why I created this character was to show the social aspects of living in this world as a minority. The Chinese endured a lot of prejudice and hardship during this time, and I felt it would create an added sense of realism to the character. I tried my best to blend the sociological commentary seamlessly into the plot, because I don’t want to hammer the message onto the readers. I guess it will be up to the reviewers to tell whether I succeeded or not.
The blurb on Amazon mentions “real-life devils” in the City of Angels. Is there a supernatural element?
Oh no, not at all! This is purely a hard edged, ultra-realistic detective story. The description of “real-life” devils is more about the dark side of humanity, since the story delves deep into the horrors of living in a life of darkness. I believe I have included enough sordid details on crime and the ones who perpetrate it, so I wouldn’t have to include a supernatural element in order to shock people who read it.
I feel this is the main difference between the two major genres of detective fiction, which is the cozy mystery school versus the hard-boiled stories. Unlike the genteel English mysteries of Agatha Christie for example, the world of the hard-boiled detective is one that is shrouded in darkness and decay. The monsters that inhabit the hard-boiled world aren’t literal ones, but are rather cloaked in human form.
What do you look for in a good crime novel?
In my view, detective fiction is the search for the truth. Readers love crime novels because there is a morbid fascination with death and the dark side of humanity, and they want to be entertained all the way up to the end.
Now the ending may not necessarily involve the antagonist getting their comeuppance, and I believe readers don’t even care about justice as long as their curiosity is satisfied with regards to how the crime was committed, who did it, and why.
So to answer your question, I think that the journey to the end of the novel has to be a good one, filled with enough thrills and tension to keep the reader interested all the way to the end. And then, the coda has to make sense, so the internal logic must be consistent. That means no plot holes.
The blurb mentions “hardboiled detective fiction with equal helpings of James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Dashiell Hammett”. What do those names mean to you?
These are the writers I try to emulate, but with my own style added to it. I love their works, and if I can write something that comes to within 1% of their greatness, then I feel I’ve succeeded.
Hammett is of course the father of hard-boiled detective fiction. He didn’t invent it, but he put up the blueprints for everybody else to follow.
Chandler is next in line. A much better writer than Hammett in terms of prose, and he really set the atmosphere as to how it ought to be done.
Macdonald is very underrated in my opinion. What he did was to add to what Hammett and Chandler had already done, and propel the genre into literary excellence. He even inserted the aspects of Greek tragedy into the mix.
Mosley showed the way in regards to creating protagonists who were minorities. His fiction broke the mould, so to speak, and I feel it has opened up new avenues as to introducing social realism into the genre.
Ellroy just writes pure, unadulterated darkness, and has a grand old time doing it.
How important is a sense of place - in this case Chinatown in Los Angeles - to your writing?
In this novel, Chinatown serves not just as the protagonist’s home base, it’s also his loyalty to the community that drives the whole story. You see, the Chinese always taught their children back then that Chinatown was a place of refuge, an area where they would feel and be safe, but when a murder happens there and the police are unwilling to do anything, it puts that whole concept in jeopardy.
With hard-boiled detective fiction, the locations are as much a character as the protagonist is. Hammett wrote San Francisco as a seedy, dangerous place. Chandler wrote L.A. as brimming with corruption and decadence. Macdonald created a fictional yet still familiar version of Santa Barbara, complete with haunted family secrets and sins of the past.
The sense of atmosphere is important in this genre, and the writer has to get that bit right. This is why I mentioned that the genre works best in a historical setting—when you write hard-boiled fiction in the present day, much of that old allure is missing.
How does a novel, as opposed to a film, evoke a place and time?
Details, details, details. Novels have the advantage of increased depth because one isn’t limited by length, but rather how the story unfolds. You can take your time and go over these details in order fully immerse the reader into the world you have created. A good writer can add twists and turns to the narrative, as well as side plots and red herrings to make it all more realistic, with a natural flow from one event to the next.
In movies, you have no more than two or even three hours (but that would be pushing it) to tell a complete story. This means that you have to establish the characters, plot, and place within that timeframe, so a lot of details would be left out, despite the visual advantages it offers. Take Ellroy’s book L.A. Confidential for example- although the movie adaptation was excellent (it’s one of my favourites), it left out a lot of the subplots and characters that were in the book, and it consequently became a completely different story.
Have you plans for more crime novels soon?
As a full-time indie writer, my output is dictated by how much money the books make. I write a lot of science fiction because it’s what sells for me. Right now, I am hoping that readers will like this particular book because I would love to write more stories about Dapper—I think he’s an excellent character, and there’s plenty of tales yet to be told about him.
But in the end, it will be the market who decides. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
What crime authors are you reading now, and are there any TV series that you like to watch?
With regards to books, I like to read the classics. I’m in the process of acquiring the complete short stories of Hammett’s Continental Op, and there’s quite a number of Lew Archer books I have yet to read—Macdonald wrote 18 of them, I believe, so I’ve got a lot to catch up on.
For TV shows, I think HBO’s Perry Mason revamp has got a lot of good hard-boiled elements that have been included in it. It’s very different from the books and the previous TV incarnations- it’s a whole lot darker and more gruesome. The production values are great, and it’s worth watching on that bit alone. If you want to see what life was like in 1930’s Los Angeles, then watch that show.
What are some of your varied interests?
Oh gosh, where do I start? I love traveling (though one can’t do it right now), scuba, museums, used bookstores (browsing for hours is fun for me), trying out new restaurants (this is a bit of a problem right now too), watching anything and everything from silent movies to foreign films, political debates, TV/ film discussion and criticism, cooking, running, photography, and… well, that’s all I could think of right now.
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