Dan O’Shea is the author of PENANCE, an epic thriller of family secrets and Chicago corruption, his long-awaited debut novel hits the streets on April 30th from Exhibit A books. Dan’s story “Done for the Day” appears in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, and “Thin Mints” is a favorite of mine, from Crimefactory, collected in Dan’s collection OLD SCHOOL. I got acquainted with Dan through his story challenge to benefit tornado victims. He’s got a big heart only rivaled by his talent, and when they get together there’s a story worth reading.
Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Dan. What’ll you have?
A proper Manhattan – so two parts bourbon (or better yet, rye whiskey if you have it), one part sweet vermouth, a splash of bitters, a cherry (and a little bit of that sugary juice from the cherry jar please, ‘cause I’m so sweet). Serve that in a rocks glass over ice. When I go to a bar and order a Manhattan and they bring it neat in a Martini glass, then I know the place is too precious for me by half.
I think we bonded over charity and our bent noses. How many times have you busted yours? The first picture I saw of you looked like you went a round with Tyson before turned actor.
Three. And I’m hoping to give up the habit. First time was playing sandlot ball as a kid. Nobody remembered to bring a catcher’s mask, but I figured what the hell, I’d played catcher plenty of times, couldn’t remember ever taking one square on the mask. That ended predictably. Then there was my abortive boxing career, something I messed around with in my callow youth. I was in the Joe Frazier, destroy-the-body-and-the-head-will-fall school, so I ate a lot of jabs with my beak trying to get inside. Made the mistake of eating a hook instead. The picture you saw was from the famous squirrel incident. Out riding my bike and a suicidal squirrel jumped right into my front tire at point-blank range. I broke my fall with my face, which was just as well. No point messing up any of my better features. Actually, the first couple busted noses left my schnoz a tad off center. This last one seems to have straightened it out a bit. So this would be an excellent time to quit.
Ha, that’s my strategy. I got no reach, so I get in the pocket and hook the liver. Tell us a little about PENANCE, your crime thriller set in Chicago. Your tales of the old town make your blog a joy to read. I imagine you’ve spun some of that history into the book.
PENANCE is divided between Chicago in 1971 and Chicago today (well, my version of Chicago). The backstory deals with some fictional events following up on the very real murder of Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panther party, by the Chicago police, with an assist from the FBI. OK, nobody was charged with murder or convicted of murder, but that’s what it was. I was a kid at the time, and I remember how Hampton was demonized in the media. Actually, the whole civil rights era movement made quite an impression on me. I remember the rioting after King was assassinated, watching my grandparents’ old neighborhood go up in flames. PENANCE has a couple of intersecting story lines in which the sins of the fathers come back to haunt the sons a generation later, and the city’s history and its culture of corruption feed into both of those.
You also wrote a book with Shakespeare as sleuth, ROTTEN AT THE HEART. And a short story written in Elizabethan English, in Needle Magazine. What intrigues you about that setting, and writing in that voice? Will we see more of your historical crime tales from this era?
The Shakespeare stuff grew out of a conversation with my daughter when she was taking a Shakespeare class in college. She asked what would happen if Shakespeare wrote noir. The easy answer is Othello, ‘cause it don’t get much more noir than that. But I’ve always been a bit of a Shakespeare fan boy and that gave me an itch, which I scratched with the story for NEEDLE (The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter). Thing is, the scratching just made the itch worse, so the story turned into a whole novel, my first first-person detective tale, except the detective is none other than Billy Shakespeare forced into the unhappy role of Elizabethan gumshoe by his patron.
Now, you give me way too much credit when you say “Elizabethan English.” Pretty much my own low-rent version of faux Elizabethan English. But I love having an excuse to dump the stripped-down, Mies Van Der Rohe less-is-more verbiage that is the lingua franca of crime fiction and get a little Rococo. What I noticed writing it was that the faux Elizabethan language isn’t just an exercise in translation. It’s not like I write a scene in “regular” English and then translate into my fake Elizabethan. I have to actually get into a different mindset. Language is the medium of thought. When you change the way you use language, you end up changing the way you think. Because the language in the Shakespeare book is fuller, more discursive, so is the thinking.
Part of that, too, is writing in first person. Up until now, all my novel writing has been in third person. It’s been dialog driven. I moved the story along using multiple points of view and cutting between regularly and rapidly. My style doing that is almost ADD. First person is far more introspective. Where my style previously had been pretty terse, with a lot of very short sentences and even sentence fragments, this took on a flowing, almost stream of consciousness feel.
I thought the Shakespeare thing would be a quirky experiment, something I’d end up doing for my own gratification just to scratch an itch, but when I ran it past Stacia Decker (who’s one hell of an agent, by the way) she thought it was worth shopping around. Turned out she was right. Not quite ready for a formal announcement on the Shakespeare front yet, but I’ll just say you can count on seeing more from the Bard soon. (I’m such a tease. Here, let me flash a little thigh for you.)
My favorite crime film, THIEF, is set in Chicago, based on crook Frank Hohimer’s self-aggrandizing memoir, THE HOME INVADERS. And Eugene Izzi is one of my big influences. Still think PROWLERS is one of the best reads out there. Who are some of your favorite Chicago writers?
Izzi’s great. Saul Bellow wasn’t born here, but he was a long-time Chicago guy and he’s a personal favorite. Nelson Algren of course. Studs Terkel. Scott Turow and Sara Paretsky are probably the reigning royals so far as crime fiction goes, though Turow’s also done other stuff. There is the irrepressible Joelle Charbonneau of not-quite-cozy fame (she’s got two series, one set around the misadventures of a Chicago woman sucked into running a downstate roller rink and the other mixing the world of Glee with murder and mayhem. And she’s about the take the YA world by storm with her Testing trilogy.) Kent Gowran’s a guy to watch – he’s the one that got Shotgun Honey up and running.
Your story “Done for the Day” was one of my favorites from Protectors. There is a gripping emotional undercurrent in it, and all your work. What’s the well you draw from for your fiction?
Two of my kids have developmental disabilities, so I know the challenges involved with that, know some of the bad shit that can happen. That’s what gave rise to Done for the Day, the idea that you can try to do everything right and still have it all go wrong. I don’t know that I can define any wellspring for my fiction. I know I’ve always preferred stories where the characters matter more than, or at least as much as, the plot. The types of thrillers where the characters are just props that shoot guns and drive cars fast, I hate those. Give me a textured, sometimes tortured, character like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux over a one-note tough guy like Mike Hammer any day. Give me one of Le Carre’s morally confused and confusing operatives whose weapon is his mind over Jason Bourne and his quasi-ninja antics.
Beyond that though, I don’t know how to explain what comes from where. Life isn’t simple, neither are people. Stories shouldn’t be either.
I’m with you. Everything starts with a character, for me. You shared several stories from PENANCE’s tough Chicago world (you can read them here). But what’s next in store for John Lynch?
I’m wrapping up the second book in the Lynch series (though I think of them more as the Chicago series – the books have pretty sizable casts, so it feels a bit off to refer to them as just the Lynch series). Book two is entitled Mammon and centers on what happens when a guy who’d grown up in the Chicago area and the left town for the Marines, then the Foreign Legion and then a long, checkered career in Africa comes home with some stolen blood diamonds, and with Al Qaeda, the Chicago mob and the head of a Mexican drug cartel on his tail. Lynch and much of the cast of Penance are back, trying to make sense of – and clean up – the mess.
Sounds fantastic. Before you go, choose one album, one book, and one meal as if they’d be your last.
So many crime writers I know are into the whole heavy metal thing, but if I’m going with one album, it’s probably Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne. (Catch me on another day when I’m in a louder mood and it would be Quadrophenia by The Who. For the book, I’m gonna give you a high-brow, low-brow combo of Herzog by Saul Bellow and Dirty White Boys by Stephen Hunter. Last meal’s gotta be St. Louis style ribs and really good sweet corn on the cob.
Jackson Browne is a favorite. His songs have the weary sadness of a continually disappointed optimist. And I do believe we shared such a meal at Pappy’s in St. Louis, no? Or was I in a euphoric stupor? Thanks for dropping in, Dan. If you go to Bouchercon, Dan’s the man in the techni-paisley stud-coat. You cannot miss him, nor should you. He’s a fine gent to jaw with.
Dan will be reading from PENANCE on May 3rd at Lake Forest Bookstore in his mellifluous baritone. The Velvet Fog may be gone, but the Thunder-Dome has risen to take his place. You can hear Dan read his story “Done for the Day” here.