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Thursday, May 18, 2017

WET WORK—THE SOAK

WET WORK—THE SOAK 
I’ve long been a fan of heist and caper novels. Is there a difference? For me the dividing line is all about tone. Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels are clever and often amusing capers. Dortmunder and his crew are not caricatures played for laughs, but they are ordinary guys working hard to make a buck—albeit on the wrong side of the law—while faced with the same battle against Murphy’s law as the rest of us. However, when Westlake is writing the Parker novels under his Richard Stark pseudonym, it’s all about the heist—hardcore, nasty, and with betrayal at every turn. Dortmunder and Parker might recognize the larceny in each other, but they are completely different animals—a teddy bear versus a feral, fanged, predator of the night.
 
 
There is a recognized unholy quartet of hardcore heist artists—and make no mistake, every heist is a work of art—Parker (Richard Stark/Donald Westlake), Wyatt (Gary Disher), Nolan (Max Allan Collins), and arguably the toughest of them all, Earl Drake (Dan J. Marlowe). All of them survive on their wits and their sociopathic unsentimentality. There is no give in any of them, and woe be to you if you cross them.
 
Patrick McLean enters the world of the heist in his new novel, The Soak. Lean, harsh, and cynical, The Soak is a worthy attempt to steal some glory from the established unholy quartet, and is a must read for hardcore crime fans. The Soak is proof the harsh adage—the heist always goes wrong—still functions as an immutable fact of the universe. Nobody knows this better than McLean’s protagonist, Hobbs, a professional heavy-heister past his sell by date, but going for one last score. When the biggest armored car heist in U.S. history goes tits up, Hobbs emerges from the debacle, broken, angry, and with mortality chasing him as hard as the rouge FBI agent on his trail. Hobbs may be on his last legs, but he is hell-bent on revenge. What his enemies don’t know is Hobbs isn’t just a master of the big score—he’s also a stone killer.
 
 
With his character Hobbs facing some tough life decisions at the end of The Soak, Patrick McLean faces the heat by stepping into the bright lights of the interrogation room himself.

******
What background information about you would a law enforcement All Points Bulletin (APB) contain?
 
“Suspect is hatless, repeat, hatless.” Chief Wiggum. Which is another way of saying, I dunno. Father of two, husband of one. Prone to collecting books.
 
There is a line in your bio which needs clarification. You stated in 1999, you went to Los Angeles, got shot and then got a really good job working on Red Bull Energy Drink Account at an Agency called Lunch. Tell us about the getting shot part.
 
I’m sure there’s a report still in the LA system. Rampart division. Happened May 20th 1999, at about 8:00. Intersection of  Vermont and Venice. I was headed north on Vermont. The detectives thought it was a gang initiation thing. Eight months later, the same suspects shot and killed the mayor’s daughter. The mayor’s daughter made the news—my shooting did not make the news. 
 
You’ve been involved in martial arts for many years. What can you tell us what role martial arts has played in your life, the discipline you follow, and what, if any, effect martial arts has had on your writing?

Wow, this could take a while. I did Japanese martial arts for 10+ years. When I discovered Systema, I abandoned them very quickly without much thought. Systema is the smartest, most intelligent, most practical, most creative thing I’ve ever done. All this training has made me approach action, fight scenes, and violence very differently than other writers. I think most writers are lazy. I don’t mean you have to be an expert marksman to write about a sniper, but you do need to fire a rifle and talk to someone who is a really good shot. A conflict, any conflict is its own story. I don’t feel it can be thrown in like a car chase in a 70’s cop movie. Especially in books like The Soak, danger should be as real as possible.
 
Martial arts has also moved me waaay out of my bubble. I’ve travelled extensively and met all kinds of wonderful people who aren’t like me at all. Right now, I have a number of law enforcement personnel who train with me. But training in the martial arts, beyond a rugged first six months, is more about learning to learn and learning to discipline yourself. I continue to train and learn, after all this time, not because it makes me tougher—my wit is still my sharpest instrument—but because it makes me a better dad and a better husband.
 
A good tribe—which is what any good dojo or training group is—is a source of deep resilience for its members. In my training—and now teaching—I’ve help vets come back from conflict, cops deal with the pressures of the job, and people who have been assaulted rediscover a physical ease and confidence. Ultimately, that’s far, far more important than being able to nutshot somebody in a dark alley, or take a knife away from somebody after getting cut a few times instead of twenty times?
 
‘Cause, honestly, I was training long before I got shot, and I’ve trained long after. Statistically, what happened to me was less likely than getting hit by lightning. One of the doctors I saw said, “I drive through that intersection all the time.” To which I replied, “Not last Saturday night you didn’t!”
 
The most practical self-defense I can teach somebody is  first, learn to fall—because statistically, that’s what’s going to get you. Especially when you get older, if you fall wrong, you’re going to break a hip. Second, if you don’t feel safe where you are, move! Either with your feet, your car, or by calling a moving company.
 
Were you a fan of heist novels before starting The Soak?
 
I’ve always liked heist stories, but as far as novels, it took the Parker books to hook me. I wanted more. I wanted to know how Parker met his end. That’s really what I set out to write. I failed at writing a Parker—which is okay, because I wound up writing something else good. And it’s turning out not to be the end—but when a person has tried to suppress his humanity his whole life, it’s bound to take its toll and eventually catch up to him. That and, of course, stealing things. But doing justice to that internal story is what makes the heist mean something, and the book not suck. 
 
I’m a fan of the Parker novels for so many reasons. They’re a master class in plotting. I love twists and turns. But I like the uncompromisingly tough characters. I feel like fiction has gotten a bit wishy-washy. As some stories are ruined when you think, “Why doesn’t she just pick up her cellphone and call the guy?” a lot of things are ruined for me when I think, “Why doesn’t he just hit ‘em?”
 
What came first, the idea for the heist or the decision to write a crime novel?
 
What came first was the feeling. A feeling of grit and real places. Of trying to loosen a bolt on a cold day, having the wrench slip and barking your knuckles on the engine block. The cold hurt of it sinking deep into the bone and aching. And knowing you have to fix the engine, or you’re not going be able to drive to work tomorrow. 
 
So much of what we get fed now are fantasy stories. Superhuman characters averting the end of the world against absurd backdrops. What I wanted was to have the stakes be as real and personal and grounded as possible. Simenon and Maigret. Arthur Conan Doyle and Holmes. As weird and fun as the Sherlock Holmes stories can be, they are grounded in that particular London. Hyper-detailed.
 
I kept writing stories about crime and heists and Hobbs and lots of other characters—and a lot of it was great—but I could never find the right heist, the full story. I could never get a firm hold on the book, you know? When I finally had the idea for the armored car heist in The Soak, it was in the context of something Hobbs had done. And instantly it was, yeah, that’s the story—right there. The creative process, man, it’s a lot more like wrestling than anybody on the outside suspects.
 
Do you see a difference between heist novels and caper novels and, if so, where do you draw the line?
 
For me, a caper is fun. Both versions of Oceans 11 (which I love equally) are fun— even madcap in places. A heist has grit to it. It goes wrong, somebody is getting hurt. Somebody is going to jail. And it always goes wrong. 
 
Do you have a favorite heist or caper film?
 
For capers, I love the second Ocean’s 11. I think it’s a tremendous caper film and Soderberg is one of my favorite directors. And it’s all pulled off without anyone pointing a gun at another character. 
 
As far as heist films, I can cite the usual suspects, but what I really like right now is that mid-70’s grit. Like The Limey (which wasn’t made in the 70’s but is very New Wave). The tension and the violence in The Limey is incredible, completely minimal, and completely terrifying. Most people can eat dinner while watching a movie where a room full of people get mowed down with a machine gun, and not think twice about it. But in real life, you watch a guy accidentally slice his hand with a box cutter and you want to throw up. 
 
Why do you think there is a fascination with heist and caper stories?
 
I think all fiction grants a kind of release. A kind of antidote for the anxieties of the time, or a wish/fantasy fulfillment. Reading The Odyssey the first time, I didn’t understand why so much time and effort was spend explaining what they ate and drank. Then I realized, the story was for people who really didn’t have food security. Maybe dinner was uncertain for them and a feast and riches were unthinkable. 
 
As for the appeal,  H.L. Mencken said, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Look, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t sometime feel powerless against the complexity and speed of the modern world. One antidote is the thriller—it’s the genre of our time. But another antidote is the heist and the caper. They are fundamentally anti-authoritarian. The system is broken, but I can make my own crack in it and protect the one’s I love/get what I need. 
 
I wrote the book, and I consume stories like it, so I can be happy. It’s interesting. When I was unhappy, I wrote funny books. Now, I’m much happier, and I write darker, more violent books. Maybe it’s all a matter of venting the spleen J.
 
How much research did you do into armored cars and robberies for The Soak?
 
A lot of googling and a lot more thinking. I picked the idea up from an account of an armored car accident that actually happened in South Florida—Miami, I think. The bit about the fire is an actual story as well. I totally made up the term flipped armadillo.
 
The theme of professionalism runs through The Soak. Why do you feel this is important in today’s world?
 
Wow, in today’s world? That’s deep. Initially, it was because sloppy work pisses me off. But, upon reflection, it has more to do with a world devoid of religious faith and deep traditions (nobody’s grandfather was a project manager or a compliance professional). I believe the idea you do your job and do it well—as a professional—is one of the only things holding people together. This theme of professionalism makes up at least a third of all Westerns—the Lawman does his job because it’s his job. 
 
Alan, a  pivotal character in The Soak, is a newbie entering the world of hardcore heists. Alan reaches a turning point in this sequence: ...After a while Alan broke the silence. "It’s the waiting, isn’t it? The waiting is what makes or breaks you.” And that’s when Hobbs knew he [Alan] finally understood…What do you see as the mindset change when a character like Alan morphs from straight to criminal?
 
It’s really the change from amateur to pro in anything. You get the secret knowledge that comes from experience. All the things you were originally worried about or excited about don’t really matter anymore. In that moment, Alan realizes, it’s not how you deal with the excitement of it, but how you deal with the boredom that makes the different. 
 
Stephen King said every interviewer asked him about where he got his ideas, but he’d never had an interviewer ask him about where he lived. How he used the language itself and what it meant to him. Nobody wants to know about the boring part of writing and rewriting, but honestly, you spend a lot of time fixing sentences and paragraphs. A dilettante is excited to have written something they think is great. The pro, on the other hand, says, “Okay, what’s for dinner,” and maybe, “Well, that felt good. I hope I don’t hate it when I read it again.”
 
In creating Alan did you feel the character had the seeds of criminality dormant in his DNA, or is the step into hardcore crime any straight could take?
 
Nah, Alan was searching for a rite of passage. And because the modern world didn’t provide one for him, and there was no strong father figure in his life, he broke bad. 
 
As far as the question in general, most of the people I know with criminal tendencies find ways to exercise them without getting in trouble. I have a friend who’s a police officer—super nice guy, but a really tough guy. He flat out told me he took the job in the worst part of town because part of him really likes roughing people up and this was a constructive way to do it.
 
It’s one of the things that makes good writing tough, nobody thinks of themselves as a villain. So you can’t write characters that way with any dimension to them. For example, the kid who shot me? He wasn’t a villain. Getting into a gang was the best thing he knew how to do. It might have been stupid, or a failure of imagination, or many other things—and he might have known it was wrong—but he didn’t see himself as evil. 
 
Hobbs, the main protagonist of The Soak, is never going to be a CPA or a Walmart greeter. He has chosen large scale heists as a way of life, which he equates with freedom in this sequence: Hobbs hadn’t been born with wealth, but he didn’t want to live his life knuckling under for anyone. If it took courage and discipline and violence to tear a life for himself out of society, well, fine. He’d paid the cost, and he’d go on paying— as long and as much as it took to stay free...Can you tell us how you developed Hobbs’ character and thought process? 
 
That’s me coming through. I’m pretty fiercely independent. I’ve worked for myself since 2002. Sometimes, I’ve felt like an idiot doing so. And it can be scary providing for a family that way, but there’s no way I could be the drone in Sector 7G.
 
In another sequence, Hobbs lays out the difficulties of committing crime in the modern world...Over the years Hobbs had seen a lot of guys leave the straight world behind. It wasn’t an easy transition. With most of them, you could tell right away they wouldn’t make it . The heavy heist was a rough trade, and perhaps a dying game as well. It was harder and harder to get away with anything...cameras and...computers dragging the world closer and closer together. Cops dressed like storm troopers now and were armed to the teeth. Hobbs was a bad man, sure, but even he saw something wrong with this. The balance had tipped too far in favor of authority, and it was harder and harder for a red-blooded man to make any move on his own...How does this reality make it difficult for you as a writer and how does it affect Hobbs’ future?
 
It’s hard to write an original heist novel. But I’ve gotten to the point where it makes it easier. New challenges to overcome. I’ve got a few outlined anyway. 
 
The Lucky Dime is a short-story prequel to The Soak. Did you write it before or after you finished The Soak and what was your goal in having it published?
 
After. It was a flashback in a larger novel that didn’t quite work. We gave it away to everybody on a few email lists to make them more likely to try The Soak. At ninety-nine cents, it’s also a good gateway drug. Having said that, I love the story. Plus, it frees me up to write period prequels, I guess. 
 
Do you prefer to write/read series books or standalones?
 
I’ve had a really hard time figuring out how to write series, but I think I’ve got it now. Lee and Joel at Brash Books really helped me. They were almost gentle about it, too.
 
Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
 
Recommending a book is like giving someone a prescription. I recommend the Richard Stark novels a lot, of course, or those written under the author’s real name, Donald Westlake. Otherwise, it depends on who I’m giving the recommendation. For a friend who is struggling, I recommend The War of Art  and Epictetus. That kind of thing. I spend a lot of time coming up with ways to get people to read the classics, or to read outside their favorite genres. 
 
Is there a book you’ve returned to again and again?
 
Mostly the classics. In the genre and outside of it. I love Red Harvest by Hammett.
 
What fictional characters would you like to have a beer with?
 
Falstaff. Fletch. Certainly not Parker. A guy could get dead quick drinking with Parker. However, I’d drink with Grofield any day of the week. Odysseus, but I’m not taking a boat trip with him.
******
Thx to Patrick for sitting down under the bright lights of the interrogation room and getting a feel for his characters and the dark side of crime and why the heist always goes wrong. 
 
TO VISIT PATRICK’S WEBSITE CLICK HERE
 
THE SOAK
 
A searing crime novel that introduces an exhilarating new voice in noir fiction that’s as sharp, cruel, and relentless as the story’s unforgettable hero. Hobbs is an aging, professional thief who chases one last, big score into the eye of a Florida hurricane. He emerges a broken man, hell-bent on revenge while out-running his own mortality and a ruthless FBI agent gone rogue.
 

"Richard Stark fans will relish heistmeister Hobbs in this well-plotted tale of robbery, murder and revenge." Publishers Weekly
 
"A dark, funny, pitch-perfect take on the heist novel and worthy of comparison to Richard Stark and Garry Disher." Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest
 
"The Soak is tense, fast moving, intricately plotted and layered with the moral ambiguity of the best crime fiction." Garry Disher, multiple Ned Kelly Award winning author of the Wyatt novels
 
"Fast and brutal, gripping and ingenious, this tale of an analogue thief in a digital age had me locked in from page one." Stephen Gallagher, author of The Bedlam Detective
 
"An extraordinarily dark, twisting noir novel with crackling dialogue and action, featuring an aging anti-hero who should be checking out the Early Bird specials at a local restaurant, but instead is on a blood-soaked mission of revenge. Highly recommended… and you’ll never look at an AARP card the same way again." Brendan DuBois, Edgar award-winning author of the Lewis Cole mystery series
 
"A thoroughly engaging anatomy-of-a-heist style crime novel. Hobbs is wonderfully gritty and irascible, an old school pro, and yet charming in his own hard-boiled way." Victor Gischler, Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award-winning author of Gun Monkeys
   

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