In my first (and so far only) traditionally-published novel, Grind Joint, Chicago PI Nick Forte visits his home town of Penns River, PA. While there he beats unconscious a man who annoyed him, saves his cousin the cop from being kidnapped by Russian mobsters, almost provokes a brawl in a restaurant, and kills a couple of guys. (Hey, he was only there for a week.) Forte doesn’t have a death wish; he does have serious case of Don’t Give a Shit.
Readers liked the character—he’s only a guest star in the book, which is part of the Penns River series—which got me to take John McFetridge’s advice and bring out the Nick Forte novels I’d written over the past several years, to show how he came to be that way. (Forte, not McFetridge. John was born smart. I should listen to him more often.) Nick’s a small town boy who failed as a musician and got a real job teaching in the Chicago public schools. He got tired of being the only unarmed person in the building and the cops were hiring. A good cop, the musician in him didn’t take to the regimentation, so he went out on his own.
In the first Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice—which I may have mentioned once or twice was nominated for a Shamus Award last year—Forte grapples with the violence he faces, and frankly, doesn’t come off well. Left to his own devices, Forte would have allowed A Small Sacrifice to tie the record for shortest series in history. (One book, in which the hero dies.) In the second Forte tale—The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of—he handles himself a little better, but his reluctance to be more proactive continues to haunt him.
On (or about) June 11, the third Forte novel will drop. (Available at all finer Amazon and CreateSpace outlets near you.) The Man in the Window is a story that orbits Forte’s past as a musician, and his best friend from that life. The principal violist of the Chicago Symphony asks Forte to find out if his wife is cheating on him, but the violist is killed before the report clearing her can be delivered, an apparently innocent victim of a drive-by. The next day Forte is asked to investigate further by a close friend of the dead violist. This leads him to finding people in places they don’t belong, with dubious reasons to be there. When his old trumpet-playing buddy becomes dragged into the worsening situation, Forte finds himself untethered from his natural instincts, and discovers other, less natural inclinations that he’s better at than expected, and comfortable.
I didn’t plan for this character arc. I meant for Forte to be an everyman with some skills who finds himself in situations where he’d have just enough guile and guts to get by. As the series went on, I understood at some subconscious level there was no way for him to experience all he’d been through and not be changed somehow. He could be repulsed by the violence, but continuing a series down that road didn’t appeal to me, in part because that’s not how I thought Forte would respond. Quite the opposite, Forte finds himself drawn in by how violence can accomplish good ends, at least in his eyes. As time goes on, he is not only less willing to walk away, he’s happy to be the initiator.
There are at least two more Forte books on the way. Volume Four, A Dangerous Lesson, will come out in late 2015. That concludes Forte’s development prior to the fateful visit home in Grind Joint. The current work-in-progress (working title Bad Samaritan) shows his continued evolution. Or descent, depending on your point of view. What happens to him after that, I really don’t know.
James Ellroy, talking about the two early giants of the PI genre, said Chandler wrote about the kind of man he wanted to be; Hammett wrote about the kind of man he was afraid he was. That’s a little how I feel about my two primary protagonists. Penns River cop Ben Dougherty is the kind of man I’d like to think I am. Nick Forte is the kind of man I’m afraid I could be, under different circumstances and stimuli. I’m sure I’ll keep him around, one way or another.