Thursday, April 11, 2024

A Conversation with James D.F. Hannah, Author of the Shamus-Winning Henry Malone Novels

 I’ve known Shamus Award winning author James D.F. Hannah since before I knew he was James D.F. Hannah. We’ve had many long-form conversations at conferences, sometimes alcohol-fueled, sometimes not. When I heard a comment of his on a podcast a while back I knew I needed to get into it with him. Since we weren’t going to see each other for a while, I started an e-mail thread that became more wide-ranging than I expected, much as our in-person conversations typically do. This week’s blog begins the conversation, which will conclude next week.

One Bite at a Time: Jimmy, thanks for stopping by. A few weeks ago you appeared on Terrence McCauley’s podcast Spies, Lies, & Private Eyes. The entire event is well worth our readers’ time, but you made a comment that particularly resonated with me when you compared the current thriller concept of constantly raising the stakes to the relatively lower stakes in your Henry Malone novels. I don’t have the exact quote, so forgive me if I don’t phrase it well, but the gist was that the average person rarely has to break government codes to defuse a bomb that will ignite a nuclear holocaust, so you don’t deal with things like that. Your stories may have what seem to be lower stakes, but they’re still life and death for those involved. Do I have that essentially right, and would you care to elaborate?

James D.F. Hannah: That's basically spot on. The books that interest me are never that near-operatic storytelling where the whole world is at risk, where there are biological weapons or computer codes or a billion dollars at stake—because how do you relate to that? My ideal stakes are finding out what a character will do for a few thousand dollars and a used car. What pressures can you put someone under that they'll do the worst for the least? 

Plus, I grew up in eastern Kentucky, reading Lawrence Block and Ed McBain and Robert Parker and Sue Grafton, and just the idea of a city felt exotic. But those writers really wrote about comparatively small stakes: Saving Paul Giacomin (Early Autumn), find a missing daughter (B Is for Burglar), or just maintaining a semblance of civilized order (basically all of the 87th Precinct novels). Plus, the main characters were relatable and human and (at least for a while for Parker and Spenser) fallible. As an early reader that felt like something I could attach to more than whatever was going on in most Ludlum novels.

But I know in your own work, you lean toward the relatable protagonist and the smaller stories that nonetheless are huge and vital to the characters. Your Penns River novels combine the scope of McBain's 87th Precinct books or Joseph Wambaugh's various California cop novels with the rhythms of a small town, so something about those smaller stakes draws you also, doesn't it?

OBAAT: Absolutely. I don’t think of my books – your books, all the books we’re talking about here – as having “smaller” stakes; I think of the stakes not being as broad in scope. Ludlum or Brad Thor may place thousands/millions/billions of lives at stake, but none of that matters to Mitch Fisher if Henry can’t find Mitch’s sister Bobbi.

And the motives of the grand stakes novels are typically…what? Millions or billions of dollars? Megalomaniacal impulses? Eeee-vil? (Bwahaha.) Bad things typically are done for relatively small or personal reasons, what Hannah Arendt called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

You and I agree, but we are clearly outliers; the big bucks are in potentially apocalyptic thrillers. That’s what people prefer to read, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. Do you have any ideas?

JDFH: The easy answer is escape. Consider Reacher, for example. He's this outsized piece of fantasy fulfillment, for both men and women. He's intelligent, he's the size of a semi, he's attached to nothing and yet also fiercely loyal, he doesn't talk much, and wherever he goes, there's trouble, and he's there to fix it. He makes someone like Spenser—once the high-water mark for an infallible protagonist—look like Kramer from Seinfeld. Plus, you can read a Reacher novel and enjoy it and almost immediately forget it and move on to something else. Nothing lingers from a Reacher novel, nor it is intended to.

And if it sounds like I'm picking on the Child brothers and Jack Reacher, I'm not, and even if I was, I'm sure they've made more than enough money to salve those particular wounds. I've enjoyed several Reacher books, and other writers working in that genre. These are termed "airport reads" for a reason. They're the books you gift your dad at Christmas. The stakes are big, and they're entertainment, and not meant to be much more than that. I never feel a need or desire to return to these books, to relive passages I enjoyed, or to savor the closing pages.

I can't say the same for books where the stakes are merely life or death for a handful of characters I've come to love over a few hundred pages. Think about Scudder's final confrontation with James Leo Motley in A Ticket To the Boneyard, or the revelations at the end of Ross Macdonald's The Chill. For something more recent, consider the gorgeous poignancy of the last chapters of S. A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears, or the utter heartbreak at the end of Ivy Pochoda's Sing Her Down. These are endings which hang with you because you feel the immediacy of their lives, where you understand big-ticket heroism is easy; it's tougher in the smaller strokes.

But I think a larger answer is also the Marvel problem—where every Marvel movie seemed to be about saving the world, or saving the universe, and after a while, once you can't raise the stakes any further, do the stakes even matter? You know they're saving the world in the end, so then what? 

Whereas for me, some of the most successful Marvel properties were the series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage. Here you had those street-level stakes. Okay, sure, eventually there were ninjas, but you had flawed and vulnerable characters who were broken and made mistakes. No, they weren't your next-door neighbor, but they were more relatable than a six-five slab of muscle with a buzz cut.

Or what about the Nolan Batman movies, and The Dark Knight? That movie works for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the point toward the end where the two boats are rigged with explosives and you see these characters wrestling with a decision. Sure, there's plenty of points where Batman has to save the city—he's always saving the city—but for me, the best storytelling wrestles with these ethical quandaries, and that's tougher to do on the larger scale.

Now, storytelling seems to be expected to always be those bigger stakes, and it doesn't leave much room for the smaller questions to be asked, but oftentimes, those are the things which make the story worth telling to begin with.

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Come back next Friday for the second half of my conversation with James D.F. Hannah.

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