Thursday, March 18, 2021

James D. F. Hannah, Shamus Award-Winning Author of Behind the Wall of Sleep


James D.F. Hannah and his protagonist , Henry Malone, knocked on the door of the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Awards last year when She Talks to Angels earned a nomination. This year Jimmy kicked it down and won the best Paperback Original category with Behind the Wall of Sleep, placing him at the front of the line of PI writers redefining the genre for the 21st Century.


Jimmy is in Amsterdam with the PWA-sponsored “Sexapalooza” tour, but he wanted to honor his acceptance of my interview request, so he sent his right-hand man, Chad Williamson, to handle the interview. Don’t feel slighted. I have it on good authority that Jimmy doesn’t do anything without Chad knows about it.


One Bite At A Time: Chad, thanks for making time for us today. The Henry Malone books cover some unusual ground for PIs, namely Appalachia. The books read as a bit of a cross between Robert B. Parker and Daniel Woodrell. Tell us a little about Jimmy’s background and how it played into Henry’s character and the series setting.


Chad Williamson: Well, Jimmy’s obviously an extremely troubled soul, and a childhood spent running his old man’s stills affected him deeply. But he managed to pull together a bit of a life in newspapers—mostly in delivery—and was a big fan of Banacek in his youth, so he thought writing PI novels seemed fun. He also occasionally plays in traffic, though, so he’s easily amused, one can tell, and perhaps doesn’t always think everything through. 

The Author.
(Image courtesy of U.S. Marshal's
Service, WITSEC Division


But in all seriousness, the Appalachian setting came about because it was just too damn hard to write about anywhere else. You grow up next to a one-lane holler road your entire life, and your first time in the big city all you want to do is ride an escalator, you come to realize you are not destined to write the next Bonfire of the Vanities. Crime novels, PI stories, felt like a natural fit, but to do them right, they needed a voice that felt comfortable, so setting them in West Virginia just happened.


OBAAT: The Malone books contain all the PI tropes people look for and love, but set on their sides a little due to the location, as Henry spends less time going down mean streets than mean two-lane roads. His clients live in doublewides rather than mansions. Is this freeing, limiting, or a little of both?


CW: Both. Entire communities in Appalachia would be considered “the bad part of town” anywhere else, but it would also imply there’s enough there to justify an entire town. Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia are made up of blink-and-you-miss-it communities that still offer plenty of work for an enterprising PI, except it’s hard to find anyone with enough money to pay the bills. That said, we’re talking about an area where, in two years, drug companies shipped nine million doses of opioid painkillers to a pharmacy in a town of less than 400 people, where unemployment rates are some of the highest in the nation and test scores are among the lowest. There’s a hunger and desperation prevalent within Appalachia that opens up opportunities for storytelling.


OBAAT: One of my takeaways from the series is something the TV show Justified hinted at but didn’t do a lot with: the hills have their share of criminals, but the same proportions of good people can be found there as anywhere else. What’s different from suburbia is the number of people forced into the gray areas of legality due to pressures they have no real control over. Did I come up with that on my own, or is that part of the intent?


CW: You’re spot on. I grew up in a holler in eastern Kentucky where gunfire was as common as sunrises, but you never saw a police car; things got settled in their own way, not in a way that could be confused with being legal, but may have resembled justice. The police were the providence of “town folk,” those who had such exotic providences as sidewalks and streetlights.


But much of this particular chunk of Appalachia is a land of absentee landlords, where for generations the money all left the area via coal trucks and barges, and your fortunes were based entirely on what coal was selling per ton. Coal has been dying a painful death for more than a generation, and fracking took its place but offers a fraction of the jobs, but you still have all these people who’ve been told there was no need for them to go anywhere else, or to push harder than they needed to, because coal would always be there for them. They went all-in on the bet and they’ve lost, and now the struggle becomes how to stand by the Appalachian principle of remaining headstrong and steadfast and not budging an inch when everything under your feet is crumbling. The options aren’t always pretty, but they’re people who’ll do what they think they have to do.


OBAAT: I’ve heard that Jimmy is functionally illiterate and that you actually read everything he “reads” to him. Who does he enjoy listening to most?


CW: Like everyone, Jimmy loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts. I also heard he’s looking forward to new Laura McHugh (What’s Done in Darkness) and Heather L. Levy (Walking Through Needles).


OBAAT: Illiterate as he is, I understand Jimmy also dictates the books to you for typing and editing. Given your intimate knowledge of his process, who would you say are his strongest influences?


CW: Robert B. Parker is the most obvious; he named the setting for the Malone books “Parker County,” after all, so he’s rather blatant. But he’s fond of folks like Loren Estleman and the Amos Walker novels, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless series, Dennis Lehane, Sara Paretsky, and of course the late Sue Grafton, who was from Louisville. But his biggest influence in a decision to tell stories is probably Ed McBain, who wrote the 87th Precinct novels so well for so long.


OBAAT: You and I met at Bouchercon in Dallas. I never did catch up with Jimmy, though I have it on good authority the hotel bartender had strict orders not to serve him. What’s it like playing Remington Steele for James D.F. Hannah?


CW: It’s like an especially awkward marriage where you become comfortable answering to another man’s name.


OBAAT: What are you and Jimmy working on now?


CW: We’re hoping to have the sixth Henry Malone book out early next year, and we’re also working on a stand-alone 70s crime novel set in Kentucky, because it’s always good to write what you know.


Austin S. Camacho said...

So THIS is where P.I novels are going. Good article with a great writer. And now that I know this much, James you have GOT to join us at the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con. :-)

Dana King said...

I'm working on him.