I make no secret of the fact I like good detective stories. As a kid I read Mickey Spillane, much to my mother's horror, I loved Mike Hammer, PI. I also loved Philip Marlowe, PI. I graduated to Robert B Parker's books and Spencer.
It's funny how certain characters draw a reader more than another. While I enjoyed Spencer as a hero, I had a crush on Hawk. Why? He was a dark hero. That edge of danger, the knowledge he had lived and seen the really bad side of life, yet he had a goodness about him. Hawk had standards, a code, which as a reader I respected. You knew if Hawk was there, you'd be safe. I like characters like that.
I haven't read Michael's books yet, but I am waiting impatiently for The Last Striptease for the same reason. Characters that are good, bad, and ugly; in other words, interesting and real.
Michael talks with us about moral ambiguity and what draws him to writing characters where the lines between good and bad are a bit hazy.
In the mid-1970s, when I was fifteen, I wasn’t sure which song was more romantic, “Everything I Own” by the bubblegum band Bread or “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. If Bread’s soft melody and promises to give up “my life, my heart, my home” just to “have you back again” clearly set the right mood for making out with my girlfriend in my parents’ basement, I suspected that Lou Reed’s hookers and hustlers knew things about life and love that the members of Bread would never know. Even at my most uncertain teen aged moments, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to live like Lou Reed’s characters, but the characters fascinated me. I knew that they wouldn’t be caught dead with a Bread record and if they were spending time in a basement it wasn’t in their parents’ house and they were doing more than making out.
I grew up but I didn’t grow much wiser. I live a pretty Bread-ish life. I’m happily married to a woman with whom I gladly share “my life, my heart, my home.” Our friends are varied but over the years even the biggest misfits among them either have drifted away or have settled into middle-aged complacency. Many of them are in relationships in which they also share life, heart, and home with spouses or partners. But I still like Lou Reed’s – still like the danger, the edge, and the sex that Lou Reed conjures in it – still listen to it from time to time, while my Bread records disappeared sometime around 1980.
Moral ambiguity interests me. When I write, I try to catch the ambiguity that I’ve experienced and that, if my readers speak truthfully, seems to be a common human characteristic. In my books, I take this ambiguity further than I live it myself. I write about men and women who know the pleasures, safe as they may be, of committed lives, hearts, and homes, but are drawn by forces inside or outside of them to danger and crime. They enjoy being home with their families but find themselves in rooms with murderers and deviant lovers. Worse, they find themselves enjoying the company. “Whoops!” they think later, as they shower off at home, “how did that happen?” And the next day it happens again.
So, in my new novel, THE BAD KITTY LOUNGE, my hero, a private detective who looks like Lech Walesa from the Solidarity days but with abs and no moustache, struggles as hard to reconnect with his ex-wife as he does to find the killer of a nun. But he messes up. Time after time. And others in the book mess up too: the nun, the detective’s ex-wife, his new partner. These characters put themselves on roads of goodness but the roads take them to various kinds of hell. But my hero eventually does catch the murderer and he does find his way to life, heart, and home (even if they don’t look like what he initially has imagined).
Moral ambiguity excuses nothing, of course. But it explains a lot. I believe that most people, even people who do very bad things, are essentially good or would like to be. That’s not to deny that some people are truly evil. I know a few of them. But purely evil characters are tiresome – less interesting in works of fiction than characters who, like the rest of us, possess both good and bad. So, the characters in my books take walks on the wild side. They get hurt. Some recover. Some die. And for reasons that I can’t fully explain, that pleases and satisfies me as both a reader and a writer.
Bad Kitty Lounge
Greg Samuelson, an unassuming bookkeeper, has hired Joe Kozmarski to dig up dirt on his wife and her lover Eric Stone. But now Samuelson has taken matters into his own hands. It looks like he's torched Stone’s Mercedes, killed his boss, and then shot himself, all in the space of an hour.
The police think they know how to put together this ugly puzzle. But as Kozmarski discovers, nothing’s ever simple. Eric Stone wants to hire Kozmarski to clear Samuelson. Samuelson’s dead boss, known as the Virginity Nun, has a saintly reputation but a red-hot past. And a gang led by an aging 1960s radical shows up in Kozmarski’s office with a backpack full of payoff money, warning him to turn a blind eye to murder.
At the same time, Kozmarski is working things out with his ex-wife, Corrine, his new partner, Lucinda Juarez, and his live-in nephew, Jason. If the bad guys don't do Kozmarski in, his family might.
- What kind of characters do you find satisfying as a reader or a writer? Good? Bad? Somewhere in between? Why?
Michael Wiley is the author of The Bad Kitty Lounge (St. Martin’s Press, March 2010) as well as The Last Striptease (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press prize for best first private eye novel in 2006 and was nominated for a Shamus award in 2008. He is writing a third novel in the series, which features Chicago Detective Joe Kozmarski, as well as a stand alone mystery, which is set in the wetlands of northern Florida.
- Michael grew up in Chicago and has lived and worked in the neighborhoods and on the streets where he sets his Kozmarski mysteries. He now teaches literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. As part of this other life, he has published books on Romantic Geography (Macmillan-St. Martin’s Press) and Romantic Migrations (Palgrave Macmillan). No one shot at him when he was writing either of them.