Today I hand the blog over to Scott Adlerberg, which is something I should know better than to do, as after reading Scott’s description of the primary influences on his new novel (Jack Waters) I’ll now be compelled to up my game. I always enjoy reading Scott’s posts on the Do Some Damage blog, so it’s a treat to have him with us today.
Crime, Revenge, and History
A murder takes place within the first few pages of my new novel, Jack Waters. The killer, who is the title character, goes on the run from his home in New Orleans. This crime determines the entire course his life will take from there, so it's fair to say that crime is a central component of the book. Still, when people ask, I don't describe Jack Waters as a crime novel per se. It's set in 1904, on a Caribbean island where Jack Waters goes after fleeing the United States as a fugitive, and on this island where he starts a new life, he becomes embroiled in a rebellion against a nasty dictator. He takes up with the rebels and has many dangerous adventures with them, all the while pursuing his own secret agenda. What is this agenda? I don't want to give everything away. But the point is that Waters wants to overthrow the dictator for reasons that have little to do with politics and much more to do with personal vengeance.
So Jack Waters, no question about it, is more of a historical adventure tale than a crime novel. Of course, that doesn't mean it isn't soaked in blood. It also doesn't mean that the books that served as an inspiration for it, though not specifically crime fiction, don't have a lot of tension and violence. They do. And I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of these works, sources I drew upon for my deep dive (if 114 years is deep) into the past.
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (1810)
Heinrich von Kleist's novella is one of my favorite stories of any length of all time. If Jack Waters has a primary model, Michael Kohlhaas is it. Set in the 16th century, in Saxony, the novella is about a horse dealer, Kohlhaas, who suffers a clear but relatively minor wrong at the hands of a nobleman. All Kohlhaas' attempts to get legal redress for the wrong fail, and through a series of escalating events almost surreal in their strangeness, he becomes public enemy number one and winds up leading a full-scale uprising against the region's powers that be. He's feared by some (a terrorist to them) admired by others (a revolutionary to them), and the 80 or so pages of the narrative are remarkably dense with incident. The story is dark and thrilling, and qualifies as a revenge story for the ages, and perhaps most striking of all is Heinrich von Kleist's tone. Kleist never moralizes, and no matter how odd the events unfolding, no matter how frenzied the action, he maintains an uncannily flat voice. Sentences are long and complicated, motivations tangled, brutalities extreme, but for the duration, the Kleist narrator remains controlled and dispassionate. It's hard to get a sense of where the author stands in regard to what he's depicting. Years later, another master of the outlandish, Franz Kafka, was a huge admirer of Kleist's stories, and one can understand why. Kafka learned a lot about "deadpan style" from Herr von Kleist.
Michael Kohlhaas is also an example of a certain kind of story you don't encounter often - a moral tale without an evident moral. It's obvious from what goes on in the novella that it's preoccupied with morals and ethics and the quest for justice, the idea of justice as it relates to the idea of vengeance, but the author never lets you come down easily on any one side. The story reads as if it should have a moral or a point you can put your finger on, and yet, in the end, it conveys a sense of ambivalence. The story's telling is linear and its style crystal clear, but as a reader, you're not quite sure what you're supposed to take away. A couple of readers have described Jack Waters as "a dreamy fable" and "a fractured fairy tale", and I have to admit I was happy to see they had this reaction. It's an effect, from the time I started the book, I was consciously shooting for, and to whatever extent I achieved it, I have no qualms about declaring that it's something I learned in large measure from reading Michael Kohlhaas.
Little Apple by Leo Perutz (1928)
Little Apple is another story about revenge and a man obsessed. It was written by Leo Perutz, a Czech-born Austrian writer who lived from 1882 to 1957. Perutz is an author who wrote in German and sold well during his lifetime - he wrote 11 novels in all - but who now has become almost unknown here. It's a pity because a number of his books remain in print, and he's a master of fast-moving, suspenseful novels that often are set in the past and involve adventure and mystery. Jorge Borges, Grahame Greene, Ian Fleming, and Karl Edward Wagner are among his stated admirers, and an Austrian writer contemporary of his once described his work as "the possible result of a little infidelity of Franz Kafka [him again] and Agatha Christie". That gives you a pretty good idea of what he's like.
Little Apple starts as World War I ends. An Austrian soldier named Vittorin has just been released from captivity in a Russian POW camp. Though he returns to his family and a fiancé in Vienna, he vows to return quickly to Russia to inflict revenge on the sadistic camp commandant who brutalized him and his fellow prisoners during their captivity. Nothing can deter him from this quest, nobody can talk him out of it, and he makes his way back to 1919 Russia, now undergoing a massive civil war after the Bolshevik Revolution. In effect, Vittorin undertakes a manhunt in a Russia in chaos, and he gets buffeted around by all sorts of perils. Despite the dangers and many setbacks, he persists. Not unlike Michael Kohlhass - and Jack Waters - he's a monomaniac, and he has a remarkable ability to maintain his focus despite the threats and shifting political conditions around him.
Perutz is a model for me in how to tell a historical tale in a compressed fashion. His prose is spare and uncluttered. By showing you just the details you need to see, he creates a vivid world at the same time as he keeps his narrative moving forward. He's good at dipping into the dark recesses of his characters' minds while maintaining pace and momentum, and he's able to keep in balance quite well the contrast between the individual pursuing his goal and the larger events going on around that individual. The reader never loses perspective on either. These are all things I tried to accomplish in Jack Waters, and again, as with Kleist's novella, I had a great source to study.
Needless to say, these two works are not the only literary influences on Jack Waters, but they are two prime ones, and if you haven’t read one or the other, I couldn’t recommend them more. In my own mind, at least, single-minded, justice-obsessed, revengeful Jack Waters, a man who knows how to survive in a turbulent world and exploit political conditions for his own ends, is a character Kleist’s Kohlhaas and Perutz’s Vittorin would respect and admire.
(Broken River Books released Scott’s new novel, Jack Waters, on January 12.)