Although it’s not widely known (and why should it be?), my first foray into establishing myself as a “serious” writer was with a hard-boiled detective novel.
Through the spring and summer of 1978, I was laid up with a broken leg. I lived in Central Florida at the time, so having my left leg encased in about 20 pounds of plaster-of-Paris from ankle to upper thigh in 95 degree heat (with about that much in humidity) didn’t make me want to exert myself overmuch. Not to mention, I was zonked out on pain-killers.
So…to pass the time I read, and what I read primarily were detective novels. It was kind of a switch of genres for me. Although I was pretty much an omnivore as reader, I preferred SF and heroic fantasy, although I loved Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series and Edward S. Aaron’s Sam Durrell secret agent books when I was younger.
I was no stranger to detective and mystery fiction, since both of my parents read everything from Erle Stanley Gardner to Rex Stout to Richard Prather (when I was a kid, I was forbidden to touch my dad’s collection of Shell Scott and Mike Shayne novels, so I had to sneak-skim them).
Of course, detective TV series were a staple of my household while growing up: Perry Mason, Mannix and later, my particular favorite, The Outsider, starring Darren McGavin. I’d also seen all of the hardboiled noir classics: Murder My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and a lot of lesser known films too, like Pitfall and Dead Reckoning.
Since I was convalescing at my parent’s home, I picked up a couple of books at random, just to pass the time. The first was a Raymond Chandler anthology, Trouble Is My Business. After reading Chandler’s very entertaining foreword, I was hooked.
Once I completed the entirety of Chandler’s novels, there was Hammett, then MacDonald…both Ross and John…as many of their books as I could find. I did more than read them–I studied them…the different techniques, the pacing, the balance between plot and character development. After a couple of months of reading a book a day and intense study, I decided to try my writin’ hand at the detective genre.
I knew I didn’t want to go the standard route of the tough guy PI in a seedy office in LA…even though that trope had been handled in a fresh way by Timothy Harris in his excellent Kyd For Hire, which came out as a paperback that same summer.
Being an avid fan of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, I decided to make Florida my milieu…but not the tourist Mecca Florida of beach-bunnies and lavish hotels.
No, my setting was the “real” Florida…I went far inland from West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale into the central section of the state…cattle and citrus country. It was a Dark Continent of blazing heat, phosphate mines, swamps, and nigh-endless tracts of rattlesnake-infested palmetto scrub—also known as Cracker Country.
As the old axiom goes, “write what you know” and I knew central Florida…as much as I wished I didn’t.
There’s a bit of dialogue spoken by Pat Hingle’s Judge Fenton character in Hang ‘Em High that adequately sums up the character of Cracker Country: “A happy hunting ground filled with bushwhackers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, counterfeiters, hide peelers, marauders – they’d kill you for a hat band.”
He was talking about the Indian Nations of Oklahoma in the 1889, but by substituting drug smugglers, cattle rustlers, pot growers, Klansmen and outlaw bikers, the judge’s description fit the central Florida of my own experience pretty much to a T.
It was–and still is–a place of cultural extremes—just a few miles inland from a major metropolitan area like Tampa Bay, you’ll be rolling through little towns that haven’t changed since the surrender at Appomattox…for that matter, a lot of people in those little towns refused to acknowledge the surrender.
(For years, I thought this license plate was issued by the state since so many vehicles sported ’em)
For my detective hero, I went in another direction, too—not a professional PI, but a man who knew the dark heart of the region and struggled to keep it from corrupting him. He became involved in cases because of his reputation as a man who could hold his own and deal with scum on their own terms if necessary.
To teach myself the craft, I wrote five short stories, one of them of novella length. I had no intention of placing them since I viewed them as learning exercises.
Once I felt I had mastered the form sufficiently, I wrote a novel featuring my detective hero and his milieu—in fact, it was my first full-length work. With this manuscript, I managed to secure an agent with the prestigious Connie Clausen literary agency in NYC and I thought my future as a detective novelist was assured.
It was my first—but unfortunately not my last—lesson about literary agents. Just because a writer is repped by a well known agent, a sale to a publisher doesn’t necessarily follow.
So, while my agent shopped that manuscript around, she urged me to write a second book about the same character, thinking it might help to sell the whole thing as a series.
To make a long story short, although we came close, it never happened. Ironically enough, Raven House, Harlequin’s then-fledgling mystery imprint made an offer but my agent turned it down because it was too low (shoulda looked at that as a sign of things to come). A couple of years later, she quit the literary agency to practice law.
By that time, I had already moved on to the more immediate concerns of simply making a living. My two detective novels and five short stories were consigned to a box.
Fast-forward a lotta years and a whole lotta published work, including over 50 books, most of them SF/action-adventure novels.
I became a fan of the TV series Justified. It’s a tough, adult and intelligent show with its own unique vision. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the closest thing to a television version of the old Fawcett/Gold Medal paperback originals to have been produced in decades. The last, in my opinion, was The Rockford Files.
One reason I like Justified so much is that there’s an air of authenticity to it, particularly with the hillbilly crime syndicates that US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens is often forced to deal with in his stomping grounds of eastern Kentucky.
I easily recognized that type, but by the same token, the cackling, sociopathic criminal cretins I knew in Central Florida made the Crowders, the Bennetts and the Dewey Crowes seem like the senior faculty of Cambridge University.
Anyway, watching Justified reminded me of my own hard-boiled detective hero contending with his own po’ white trash villainy. So, I pulled out the box of manuscripts and went through the short stories…and to my surprise, with all of these years of hindsight, I concluded the novella didn’t suck.
Obviously, the story required revision, particularly adding technology like cell phones and so forth and also fixing up some plotting flaws that my 20-something year old self didn’t catch. Fortunately, I was able to rely on a great editor this time around.
I also changed the detective hero’s name to Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell, inspired by a real Cracker cowboy whose exploits in the early 20th century Florida cattle trade had become local folklore.
In fact, the famed Frederic Remington was so impressed by the tall tales of Bone, he painted his portrait, calling it “A Cracker Cowboy”.
Rag Baby, the first Bone Mizell Mystery is an 18,000 thousand word ebook available for Kindle for the exceptionally reasonable price of .99 cents. The cover is designed by Melissa Martin Ellis, who is not only a best-selling author in her own right, but she’s also a professional graphic designer…not to mention she’s the great editor I referenced earlier.
Here’s the Rag Baby description and the link:
SEX, BLACKMAIL AND MURDER IN THE DARK HEART OF THE SUNSHINE STATE!
Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell, formerly of the DEA, has a problem on his hands; Dale Bristline, his 400 lb. client with a beautiful ex-stripper wife needs help dealing with a blackmailer — Brandy’s first husband has returned from the dead and is making outrageous demands…and she mustn’t be told about it.
When drug-dealer turned sex club owner Bristline needs some help dealing with the blackmailer, cash-strapped Bone accepts the case…and he quickly learns that behind the sunshine and laid-back lifestyle is a dangerous jungle, where sex is big business and jealousy can lead to murder. Bone deals with bikers turned bodyguards, scorned strippers and a lovely Latina sheriff, all out to get him – in one way or another.
As a DEA agent, Bone was used to hitting all the wrong places at just the wrong time. Now a cast of bizarre characters and a storm of violence traps him in a mystery that will take all of his resourcefulness to solve – and survive!
:You can also read a sample for free at the same link.
Depending on various factors—not the least of which is time—I’m planning on more Bone Mizell Mysteries.
Let me know what you think!