Hi All–Regular readers know that once a month the Wickeds branch out from our usual cozy-traditional-historical niche to recommend authors and books from a broad range of genres, crime and otherwise. This month my guest is author Richard J. Cass, aka my Maine friend, Dick Cass. Dick is here celebrating the September 21, release of his newest book, The Last Altruist.
Q & A with Dick Cass
Dick: First of all, thanks a million to Barbara Ross and the Wickeds for the invitation. It’s always a treat to talk to new audiences. If you’ve had a chance to read any of the Elder Darrow mysteries, I’d love to hear what you think. You can reach me on Twitter (@DickCass) or through my web site rjcassbooks.com.
Barb: Your six Elder Darrow Mysteries, I’ve always thought of as noir. Is that how you think of them? How do you classify the books? Tell us a little about Elder Darrow.
Dick: The Elder Darrow books definitely come out of the noir tradition: bars and booze, dark emotions, unhappy male characters, and violence on the page. Elder Darrow has eschewed his place in the family business for an adulthood of drinking and hanging about, only to reach the point where he realizes he needs to stop drinking or he’s going to die. He never really reaches complete rock-bottom, though. He is trying to convince himself that owning a bar, because he’ll be faced with temptation all day every day, will help him learn to control his drinking. Definitely not an approved sobriety program. His establishment, the Esposito, is a dive bar he wants to turn into a more sophisticated jazz joint, with good live music and a less seedy clientele than he starts out with. So the series bounces off any number of the noir tropes.
What I was also after in the books, in addition to the noir feel, is the interplay between the different economic backgrounds in the city of Boston. I grew up there and some of the tensions between socioeconomic groups in the city are as fierce as the ethnic ones.
Elder is a scion of an investment banking family that’s been in business since the American Revolution. He grew up in Louisburg Square, a private enclave on Beacon Hill, and attended prep schools and Harvard before getting kicked out.
Dan Burton, the homicide cop and Elder’s friend, grew up in the blue-collar neighborhood of Charlestown, also known as the bank-robbing capital of New England. Though he went to college, his background is working class, which gives some interesting back and forth to how he and Elder get along. Many of the people Burton grew up with ended up on the wrong side of the legal system, including Mickey Barksdale, who runs the gangster side of things in this version of Boston.
Barb: Your new release, The Last Altruist, isn’t part of the Elder Darrow series. What’s different about this book?
Dick: The Last Altruist is part of my ongoing interest in the challenges and realities of people in the military. I have three nephews in various branches of the service and I found myself talking to them about the strictures and unwritten rules they’re subject to that civilians are not. Most notable, I think, is chain of command, the rigid understanding that you do what you’re told by your superiors, that you don’t think for yourself too much.
The germ of the book sprang from the story of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was ultimately acquitted of the fatal stabbing of an ISIS prisoner (and pardoned by Donald Trump for other crimes he was found guilty of). The loyalties of members of his SEAL team were split between bringing him to justice and maintaining the cohesiveness of a combat team that requires full trust in your fellows.
I started thinking about what might happen to someone who reacted to a crime like Gallagher’s while actually in the war zone. The protagonist of The Last Altruist, Armand Theberge, returns to his home state of Maine after being tried and incarcerated for striking a superior officer. He meets a former Foreign Service officer with an intellectually-challenged son and a secret that could affect national politics. The book is a combination of murder mystery and thriller and comes out on September 21.
Barb: What motivated you to change it up? Are you moving away from or taking a break from your established series?
Dick: The Elder Darrow series has six entries so far. As anyone who writes a series (or more than one, goddess love you!) knows, the challenge is to balance between keeping the characters fresh and developing and maintaining the tone and attitudes that attracted readers to the series in the first place. I had a hitch after the fourth one, Last Call at the Esposito, that made me think I was running out of stories to tell about the characters. But, as happens, inspiration wandered in from an unexpected source and gave me motivation for two more. I honestly don’t know if I’m done with the series, though I have a tickle of an idea for another. We’ll see.
As far as The Last Altruist, the opportunity to take on a new locale and invent new characters and stories was a real refreshment. It could be the beginning of a news series, but I also love the notion of doing an occasional standalone.
Barb: One thing you and I have in common—amateur sleuths. What attracts you to the everyman detective?
Dick: I’m a huge fan of the amateur detective. It gives me much more latitude for how a character, a protagonist especially, acts and reacts. Most readers have expectations, true or not, about how police detectives work, how private detectives work, and so the few times I’ve tried to write those kinds of characters, I’ve felt constrained to have them act in those recognizable ways. Even a rogue detective’s reactions feel to me as if there’s no element of surprise—they’re working against the norms, which is as predictable as working with them. Amateur sleuths may bumble, but they bumble in interesting ways. And I think readers may relate more to an amateur sleuth, maybe because it’s easier to imagine themselves into the story.
Barb: Music has always been a big part of the Elder Darrow series. You’ve even released your playlists. I’m fascinated. I get too distracted by music to write with it. Tell us about the role music plays in your writing process.
Dick: Jazz is a large part of Elder’s trying to make the Esposito more respectable and I do a considerable amount of name-checking of artists and tunes in the books. It’s also a kind of music I enjoy, so it’s fun to incorporate that sort of thing. There’s probably more music in the first two books, In Solo Time and Solo Act, as I was building the characters and the bar, than in later books, but I also use the music to set the tone for the action. For example, I’ve used Wes Montgomery’s Road Song to accompany a trip by Elder up the Massachusetts coast.
I do not listen to music while I’m writing, though—I too find myself too distracted by it. I did try for a while to listen to music without words, Gregorian chants and instrumentals, but even that kept pulling my attention away from what I was doing.
Barb: What are you reading right now?
Dick: Today, I’m reading the ARC of The Last Altruist for final edits, but once I’m done with that, I will go back to a hugely interesting book I’m reading called Cloudmoney, about how the drive to turn us into a cashless society is being driven by a combination of big tech and big finance. These corporations care less about your convenience and mine and more about the commercial (and political) benefits of knowing where people buy, what they buy, where their money is, and so forth. It’s a chilling read if you’re interested in privacy issues.
For fiction, the next book in my TBR pile is Gabino Iglesias’s The Devil Takes You Home, a combination of hitman and horror that I’m really looking forward to.
Barb: What do you see when you look up from writing?
Dick: For a while, I had my desk pointed out the back window of my office toward Trout Brook, the woods, my gardens, until I realized how easily I was getting distracted by the antics of our resident fox, the squirrels, the hummingbirds, and so on. Now, when I look up from my desk, I see the driveway into my garage underneath the office and the asphalt circle of the cul de sac we live in. Trees, though. Plenty of trees.
Barb: What are you working on now?
Dick: Right now, I’m working on a standalone novel about three Vietnam nurses, one of whom was raped and bore a son from it in 1970. Dying of cancer, she charges one of her fellow nurses, now a sixty-four year old PI, with finding the man who raped her, so her son will have some kind of family after she dies. Then she is murdered. So far, it’s only the hardest thing I’ve written.
The PI is something like a mouthier V. I. Warshawski and, because several of the characters are over sixty, I’m also trying to incorporate some of the smartass vibe of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club.
Barb: Thank you so much, Dick!
Readers: How do you feel about every-person vs. professional sleuths? Do you have preset expectations about how professional sleuths must conduct themselves? Do they add to/detract from your enjoyment a crime novel? Tell us in the comments or just say “hi,” to have a chance to win a copy of The Last Altruist.
Richard Cass is the author of the Elder Darrow jazz mystery series, which he originally pitched as “an alcoholic walks into a dive bar and decides to buy it.” The first book, Solo Act, was a finalist for the 2017 Maine Literary Awards; the prequel, In Solo Time, won the award in 2018. Dick has also published a thriller called The Last Altruist and a book of short stories entitled Gleam of Bone. He holds a graduate degree in writing from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied with Thomas Williams, Jr. and Joseph Monninger. He’s also studied with Ernest Hebert, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Molly Gloss. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Playboy, Gray’s Sporting Journal, ZZYZVA, Tough, and Best Short Stories of the American West. He lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine with his wife Anne and a semi-feral coon cat named Tinker.