I’ve been asked to write a guest piece about my new crime novella collection Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties. So here goes… The anthology contains three very different kinds of crime tales written with three very different writing styles.
The genesis of the first story, Easy-Peezy, came from my considering penning a Western story. Once I realized that many of the bank robbing outlaws from the Old West were still alive, albeit quite elderly, at the time guys like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly were robbing banks in the 1930s, the idea for the story became instantly apparent to me. I thought, what if a band of aged Western outlaws got together and started robbing banks during this same time period? That could be fun. And away I went…
There isn’t much beyond that to share about Easy-Peezy. It’s the most straightforward story in this collection. I had fun writing it and imagining these scenarios in which decrepit old men wielded pistols and robbed banks. It was also fun writing in iconic figures like Dillinger and Melvin Purvis. Hopefully readers will enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed writing it.
The second story, Riding Shotgun, was a riff on John Cassavetes’ 1976 film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Like that film (and later Nick of Time, 1995), the idea was that criminal figures would coerce a common man to commit an assassination for them. But I sought to improve upon that old chestnut by upping the ante and also taking the tale to what I had always seen as its inevitable conclusion, thus making it a tale of revenge. In this way it’s sort of like two stories rolled into one. It’s sort of a mash-up (in terms of attitude and theme) of Chinese Bookie and the 1977 AIP film Rolling Thunder, which I consider the greatest revenge film ever made. So imagine my shock and awe when Rolling Thunder co-writer Heywood Gould ultimately praised the novella as being “relentless… Addictive… The kind of nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.” Pretty cool, huh? I’ve still got goosebumps from that.
Another bit of trivia readers might find interesting about Riding Shotgun is that it was written as a bit of an experiment; I sought to write something truly pulpy that basically pared everything down and cuts out anything that absolutely did not need to be present to make the story work. It’s a gritty, bare-bones story that gets right to the heart of things with as little exposition as possible. In the end, I think the experiment worked. Riding Shotgun is one of the things I am the most proud of at this point in my career.
The third story, $crilla, was an absolute blast to write. It was another experiment of sorts. I wondered what you might get if you combined the sharp dialogue of Elmore Leonard, the racial objectivity and inclusiveness of Quentin Tarantino, and the world of hip-hop music. I don’t claim to be as talented as those two writers, but they are my biggest influences (and in its way, the same can be said of hip-hop music). They are quite simply the reasons I write the kinds of stories I write.
I toyed with the idea of this story for a long time before actually putting pen to paper. The idea was that a fledgling rap group would lose their recording deal and end up turning to crime in order to finance their extravagant lifestyle. I suppose the idea occurred to me after the hip-hop act C.E.B. got arrested for bank robbery and murder in 1996. But I tweaked that idea a bit, thinking it might be interesting if the rap group kidnapped a record company mogul and held him for ransom instead.
I was pleasantly surprised when Elmore Leonard’s son, novelist Peter Leonard, praised the novella and actually compared my work to that of his father. Of course that was by design—the writing style I utilized here was a direct homage to Leonard. (And for the record, I do not write anywhere near as well as Leonard did. Nobody does.) $crilla was most directly influenced by Leonard’s Road Dogs, which opened my eyes to just how much emphasis can be placed on dialogue. Although most Leonard novels feature very little exposition in contrast to most other authors this side of George V. Higgins, Road Dogs seemed to have the least. And it was still very effective. This is how Road Dogs ultimately became the spiritual father of $crilla.
Each of these novellas was written at a different time in my life, and each represents something completely different to me. I was overjoyed when Crime Wave Press decided to publish this collection. I was going through a rough patch during this period, having just gone through a painful divorce and then spending a month in a coma. The publication of this anthology was one of the first (of hopefully many) steps towards rediscovering my place in both my life and writing career.
So that, my friends, is the story behind Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties.