It’s my great pleasure to welcome Timothy Hallinan to Murderati for today’s Wildcard. Tim is an Edgar and Macavity nominee and writes some of the most elegant prose I’ve come across. I was honoured when he swapped e-book excerpts with me last year.
The advent of e-publishing has allowed Tim to relaunch his original Los Angeles PI Simeon Grist series, including this, the sixth and final title, THE BONE POLISHER. Booklist urged readers to “Do yourself a favor and read it!” while Mostly Murder called it “Creepy and screamingly funny.”
The book takes place in the West Hollywood of 1995, where the community is shaken by the brutal killing of an older man who was widely loved for his generosity and kindness. In a time when the police were largely indifferent to crimes against gay people, Simeon is hired to catch the murderer—and finds himself up against the most dangerous adversary of his career.
As always with Tim’s writing, I savoured his descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and turns of phrase in this book. If you haven’t discovered Timothy Hallinan yet, you’re missing a real treat.
Zoë Sharp: You wrote the Simeon Grist series in the early 1990s, and I know the order of publication was not the order in which you actually wrote the books, so tell us what happened there? And what complications arose from this, in terms of ongoing character development?
Timothy Hallinan: Dutton bought the first book to be written, SKIN DEEP, and offered me a three-book contract about a week after I finished writing it. The sale sort of lit me on fire and I knocked out the second, THE FOUR LAST THINGS, in about three months [Erm, he means ‘carefully and agonisingly handcrafted it’, ZS] and sent it in, having no idea how slowly publishers worked. They preferred THE FOUR LAST THINGS and changed the order. Then, before FOUR LAST came out, I sent them EVERTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and they decided they liked that better than SKIN DEEP, too, so SQUEAL came out second and SKIN DEEP third. Funny thing is, when I read these books all this time later, SKIN DEEP is one of the best.
Zoë Sharp: And what complications arose from that, in terms of ongoing character development?
Timothy Hallinan: I intentionally entangled Simeon in a somewhat static relationship, a long-term estrangement, because I didn't want too much development in that area, and I didn't know enough to make my other characters change from book to book. (These books were written through imitation and sheer chutzpah.) The only real oddity in sequence is that, in the order in which the books were published, Simeon meets in the third book a woman he's sleeping with in the first.
Zoë Sharp: Your series characters go by the highly memorable names of Simeon Grist, Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty. Where did you find such wonderful names for them?
Timothy Hallinan: I always think they're just regular names and later ask myself what I'd been smoking. Actually, that's only partially true; I was reading a ton of stuff on early Christianity when I started the Simeon books and named him after a favourite saint, Simeon Stylites, who spent the last 37 years of his life standing on an ancient pillar in the Syrian desert. As if that weren't enough, he wouldn't allow any woman anywhere near his pillar. When he got sores on his legs and the sores developed maggots, he would encourage the maggots, saying “Eat, little ones, what God has provided you,” or words to that effect. I thought that was a little stiff, and he came to embody for me Santayana's famous definition of a fanatic as someone who redoubles his efforts when he's forgotten his aims.
So I was being pretentious when I named Simeon and later found that most readers pronounced it “Simon” anyway.
Zoë Sharp: I particularly loved the title for this book, THE BONE POLISHER. How did that come about?
Timothy Hallinan: When members of the Chinese diaspora, in the early days, had the misfortune to die in whatever country they had emigrated to, they were buried where they died. A generation or two later, the now-prosperous family would pay to have the bones disinterred, cleaned, polished, and sent to China for permanent burial in The Middle Kingdom. The specialist who did this was called a bone polisher. In the book, the killer puts a malign twist on this, He kills men who came to West Hollywood from small towns where they lived closeted lives, and each time he murders one, he sends evidence of his victim's “deviancy” back to the town from which he came. (This was in 1995, when, arguably, a much higher percentage of gay people were in the closet.) So in this case, it's the dead person's reputation that's returned—with the goal of destroying it.
Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the underlying theme of a book. What theme was in your mind when you wrote THE BONE POLISHER?
[Tim with Brett Battles, working hard …]
Timothy Hallinan: I'd been writing about a character—Simeon—for five years at that point, and he was a sort of idealized version of me: braver, more resourceful, wittier, better-looking, and much more interesting. And I decided to see what would happen if he were actually like me, which was to say weary of the way his life was going, uncertain about his skills and abilities, and suddenly very sensibly afraid of the people he was going after. How would those things affect his picture of who he was? How would they affect his chosen career? And I decided, if I was going to write about that, to put him up against someone who was really, genuinely, bone-marrow evil. The kid—the Farm Boy—who's going after the gay men in this book is one of the worst people my imagination has ever offered up to me. And I thought the idea of killing a victim twice—first the body and then the reputation—was worthy of someone so dreadful.
Zoë Sharp: You mention in your preface to THE BONE POLISHER that it was written at a different time – a time when AIDS was usually a death sentence. If you were writing this book from scratch today, what differences would that make to the way you tell the story?
Timothy Hallinan: The AIDS aspect of the book was inescapable then; it would have been impossible to write with any accuracy about that community without AIDS being a major concern. It's still a concern, obviously, but one that millions of people are quite literally living with. Christopher Nordine, who hires Simeon at the beginning of the book, knows he has only a short time to live, and this consciousness informs some of what he does. These days, it's unlikely the disease would have been allowed to progress so far unchecked.
Zoë Sharp: I thoroughly enjoyed THE BONE POLISHER—the descriptions are just wonderful, like this:
‘Drive-time disk jockeys, preternaturally alert guys who couldn’t have passed for wits in a gathering of battery-powered appliances, made smutty jokes and played twenty-year-old music to ease the world into the gray disappointment of another day.’
But how hard was it to republish a novel you’d written in 1995? Inevitably you must feel that you and your writing have come a long way since then, so how much fiddling and rewriting did you do to it?
Timothy Hallinan: I actually hated the book in retrospect. It had failed to win me an extension on my contract, and I remembered it with no fondness at all. In fact, I hesitated to put it up, primarily because I didn't want to have to read it. I finally did it because I kept getting emails from Simeon's few but fanatic followers, asking where the hell it was. And when I read it, it sort of knocked my socks off—it was much better than I'd feared it would be.
I pretty much left it alone. I had a couple of mistakes of fact in it, and I fixed those, but otherwise, with the exception of clarifying a few pronouns, I did virtually nothing to it. One of my favourite descriptive passages in the book is right after the one you quoted, something about dawn coming up hard and wet, two fingers of vodka in the eastern sky. (I haven't looked, so if that's from a different book, I'm sorry.)
I hope my writing has come a long way. There are few things more complicated than the smile on the face of a writer who's just heard, “But you know what? I really like your first book best.”
Zoë Sharp: I was fascinated by the Finish Your Novel page on your website. What inspired you to produce such a comprehensive guide for would-be writers?
Timothy Hallinan: As I said, I wrote the first ones with no idea what I was doing, and as I figured out what worked for me I began to make notes. I knew I wanted my website to be more than “Here's me. Buy my books,” so the first thing I wrote was the Finish Your Novel section. It's been used by literally hundreds of writers and some of them have gone on to be published and have thanked me in their books—I get a nice thank-you in Helen Simonson's MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND, for example.
Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the form a writer uses to tell their story. You classify the Simeon Grist and Junior Bender novels as mysteries. Both are written in first-person, past tense. But the Poke Raffety books you describe as thrillers. These are in third-person, present tense. The choice for third-person in a thriller is entirely understandable, because you so often need to show that race against time by letting the reader know what else is going on, but why the change to present tense? And which do you enjoy more?
Timothy Hallinan: I think of both the Simeon and Poke books as private-eye novels, and the great thing about first-person is that you encounter the mystery exactly as the detective does, whereas I think third-person works better for thrillers so you can hop on over and see what the bad guys are up to or check out how the screws are being tightened.
I went to present-tense in my first draft of the first Poke, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, as an experiment and found that I really liked it. Past-tense implies that someone –the narrator, if no one else—lived to tell the story, whereas present tense sort of rolls by in real time. I also think that action scenes can be written with great immediacy in present tense.
I like them both, but switching back and forth from book to book is a major pain in the ass. Whole pages slip by in the wrong tense.
Zoë Sharp: You’re working on another Simeon Grist novel at the moment. What’s made you decide to return to that character after a break – will you age him or start where you left off? And what’s it about?
Timothy Hallinan: People have written to me for years to ask whether I was ever going to bring him back. I decided, now that he's out of print and remaindered, that it might be fun to ask myself where fictional detectives go when the last copy of the last printing of their last book gets pulped—when they are, effectively, out of print. So I figured it out, and Simeon now resides in a sort of limbo, along with a lot of other out-of-print detectives. It's a relatively shabby, genre limbo; the Literary Fiction Limbo is much more upscale and has better weather. Simeon is paralytic with boredom; his only connection to the “real” world is when someone opens one of the old, used copies of one of his books. When that happens, Simeon can see them through the window of his Topanga house. And one day, he's watching someone read him—looking up at the person, as it were, from the page—when his reader is murdered. He doesn't have enough readers to spare any, and he resolves to solve the crime. Problem is, it happened down here. So, anyway, it's called PULPED, and I think a lot of hard-core mystery writers will just hate it, although I laughed myself stupid writing it.
Thanks for all these great questions, Zoë. Hope I didn't rattle on too long.
Zoë Sharp: Tim, it’s always a pleasure talking to you. As well as Tim’s series books, it’s also worth mentioning that he’s also been involved in two special project. One is his contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, edted by Christopher G Moore, a collection of stories with part of the proceeds going to a charity for Bangkok’s poorest children.
The other is SHAKEN, a collection by twenty mystery writers, edited by and including Tim, who donated their work to benefit the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. Every penny of the purchase price goes to the fund.
So, 'Rati, let's hear your questions for Timothy Hallinan ...