When I first started reading mysteries in the early 1980’s, my taste ran to James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler and Rex Burns. I loved reading mysteries with the local (Denver) setting. Strip Search. Avenging Angel. The Killing Zone. There is a certain straight-ahead style to his storytelling that is addictive. The stories are street smart but mostly just smart.
I was thrilled to run into Rex Burns at Left Coast Crime last year and I’ve had a chance to chat with him now at various events and as a fellow member of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. He’s a generous guy who is actively involved in the mystery-writing community (as a book reviewer, anthology editor, television host, and contributor to the Oxford Companion to Mystery).
After many decades as published author, he’s still rolling with the punches in this fast-changing business. Rex was kind enough to answer a few questions (below). My review of his new mystery, Body Slam, follows.
Question: I’m bad at math. How many books is it now?
Rex Burns: Nineteen published titles, including one non-fiction and one anthology. There are also two small volumes of fables (Frog Tales I and II) and assorted short stories and articles.
Question: How do you develop your plot ideas?
Rex Burns: Plotting grows more and more difficult for me as I try to avoid conventional devices. Usually, the story results from a combination of situation and character—I like to place an action in a situation and setting that is fun to research, then let the characters lead me through the story. It’s not a very economical method—it entails much re-writing—but I figure that if it interests me, it could interest other folks as well.
Question: What comes first, the crime or the solution?
Rex Burns: The crime usually comes first, especially in police procedurals when the detective is involved because of a crime. Often, I don’t know who did it until I’m well into the manuscript.
Rex Burns: I habitually write in the morning, though I also work at odd hours when an idea catches fire, and I find that walking county trails in the afternoons can lead to a resolution of narrative problems.
Question: How did you get into writing mysteries? What writers (of any style) did you admire at the time? And now?
Rex Burns: My academic field is—was—American Studies, and I wanted to document the places and times I experienced in the same way that Realist novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries did for Europe and the US. Crime fiction, especially the police procedural, seemed a good vehicle for that type of portrayal. My first novel, Alvarez, was based on transcripts from an actual case which formed the framework for depicting Denver in 1975. The writers whose terse and concrete styles I wanted to approximate were Georges Simenon and Ernest Hemingway. Later, I felt the need for more flexibility in my prose and that led to a softened style.
Question: Did you wear tights and try your hand at pro wrestling for the scenes in Body Slam? And what inspired setting the story against this backdrop?
Rex Burns: I did wrestle in high school and in my freshman year of college. Although I learned about Greco-roman wrestling, the most important thing I learned was that I wasn’t very good at it. However, I still enjoy watching the sport at the college and Olympic levels. The appeal of television’s “pro” wrestling is in the characters involved rather than any remnants of wrestling technique; and, of course, the participants know this and develop their story-lines to heighten that appeal. “Body Slam” was fun to research and write because of the people involved, and I hope that readers share that pleasure.
Question: You’ve been in the business for decades now. What’s changed about how you write and think about putting a story together?
Rex Burns: The major changes in the profession of writing over the last half-century (my first paid writing came out in 1957) stem from developments in technology: e-printing, independent publishing, and seismic changes in the publishing industry. In the past, the writer wrote and relied on agents and publishers to handle the business end—advertising, book design, sales, contracts, distribution, etc. For a small number of fortunate or talented writers that’s still viable. But it seems that most writers now spend less time writing and more time marketing. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. It means that the writer must somehow find a way to attract attention to his or her work in a market increasingly crowded with more and more titles in more and more formats. Publishers now demand that writers provide not only the manuscript but also a “platform” of guaranteed readers to launch that manuscript into profitability. It’s a Darwinian environment in which “fittest” isn’t writing talent but sales talent. Some writers thrive in this environment, others do not. The up-side is the opportunity (of varying degrees) for beginning writers to earn audiences and, perhaps, even to learn their trade. That used to be the function of the short story and the magazines that published them, now it’s the function of the website.
Question: In Body Slam the online databases help the investigators at certain times. Do you miss the pre-Internet days on behalf of your sleuths?
Rex Burns: Gathering information and communicating it world-wide has impacted the investigative world immensely—both that of the fictional detective as well as the writer who may be creating one. I don’t regret such change—it wouldn’t matter if I did—but I do find myself running to keep up with the latest data-gathering sites and devices such as cameras, ears, tracers, laboratory pathologies, etc., etc. The salvation (and perhaps the terror) for a writer adrift in this technological cataract is that human nature hasn’t changed: story is still essentially character.
Question: What’s next?
Rex Burns: My next project, complete enough to talk about, is the second volume of the Touchstone Associates series: Crude Carrier. It takes place primarily in London and aboard an oil tanker in the Indian Ocean, and I hope to see you there.
Straightforward, like a jab to the jaw, Body Slam resonates.
The style is unmistakably Rex Burns—story before flash, action before sentimentality, moment-by-moment grit.
You can see the Raymond Chandler roots, sure, or other classic suspense guys who flex a little muscle with their mystery.
Burns manages scenes with care yet keeps the action chugging hard. The narrative bleeds into the dialogue and the dialogue feeds the narrative like a hungry beast. You know you’re in good hands.
Body Slam introduces us to a father-daughter private detectives who run The Touchstone Agency. The setting is Denver. Julie Campbell is the daughter; Jim Raiford the father. Longtime Burns protagonist Gabe Wager shows up to assist at a few key moments. (By the way, wouldn’t “Rex Burns” make a great name for a fictional private eye?)
The story starts with a Denver wrestling promoter named Otto Lidke. One of his partners just committed suicide and he wants to put a stop to threats arriving via letter and phone. Lidke has his suspicions.
Raiford and Lidke go back. They have history. Raiford might have made a mistake that cost them both—something. Their earlier interaction led them to their respective careers today. Lidke turned to wrestling. Ralford might owe him now that he’s in a pinch.
After a second partner is murdered, the Touchstone Agency loses the job. No surprise—the investigation was fizzing out. But Raiford has his teeth into the investigation and will even go undercover, donning wrestling tights, to get the inside scoop. Sound corny? It’s not. Burns’ unadorned narrative keeps it real. The wrestling scenes are knock-out. You’ll feel privy to the tricks of the trade and the subtle aspects of the sub-culture.
Body Slam includes plenty of smart clue finding, a strong and nuanced father-daughter relationship and a satisfying end that is a perfect product of the plot (in other words, left field is not involved). Organized crime, we learn is “like any other organism” and can grow and adapt to its surroundings when it’s time to move to “new feeding grounds.”
Rex Burns is a master at character driving plot and plot driving character. Body Slam is a fine example of his sturdy, dependable style.