Below, some nifty insights from the writer behind eight novels featuring thoughtful tough guy Ross Duncan.
I’ve only read the first, They Die Alone, and the latest, Naked Shall I Return.
For any fan of the hard-boiled, noir-ish gangster stuff, however, you should know Ross Duncan.
And Christopher Bartley.
You’ll soon realize that the reason these books ring true is that Christopher Bartley has immersed himself in the fiction and non-fiction side of this period for a long, long time.
You also should know that Christopher Bartley brings hefty professional credentials to his work as a crime fiction writer.
Bartley is the pen name for B. Christopher Frueh, a behavioral scientist. He is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii, Hawaii, and also McNair Scholar and Director of Research at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. He conducts clinical trials, epidemiology, and neuroscience research, primarily with psychiatric inpatients, prisoners, combat veterans, and special operations forces.
Frueh has authored over 250 scientific publications including a recent graduate textbook on psychopathology. He has consulted to U.S. Congress, Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the National Board of Medical Examiners. He has also published commentaries in the National Review, Huffington Post, New York Times, and Time. For his scientific work he has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Washington Post, Scientific American, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Frueh lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with his wife and their cats.
By the way, I highly recommend following Christopher Bartley on Twitter (link below). His Twitter feed is a gold mine of stuff from both his professional and creative sides.
A full review of Naked Shall I Return follows the interview.
Q & A:
Question: What was the inspiration for the Ross Duncan character? How did you become interested in the 1930’s and the whole gangster world?
Christopher Bartley: As a young child I read a lot, and for some reason I liked biographies – Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Jackie Robinson, Wyatt Earp, George Washington, Mickey Mantle – and one day at the public library when I was about ten or eleven I found the autobiography of Alvin Karpis. That hooked me. Karpis was a professional criminal and a contemporary of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers. They were all robbing banks in 1933 and 1934, just after prohibition ended and in the depths of a national Great Depression. By January of 1935 Karpis was essentially the last surviving “Public Enemy.” Hoover had built them up into celebrity bank robbers, while ignoring the far worse societal predations of organized crime. As his federal agents shot the bank robbers down in the streets of America, he gained fame and glory – and cemented the status of his small federal agency, which soon became known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation – the FBI. Karpis was smart and edgy, and had a longer run than most and managed not to get killed. After his capture he spent almost three decades on Alcatraz and then got out of prison in the late 1960’s, wrote two fascinating books about his life, and died an old man.
One other thing: as a bank robber and professional criminal, Ross Duncan is not a private investigator and also obviously not your typical “good guy.” However, he is cut from the same cloth as the archetypal hardboiled PI’s of American literature. I chose the name “Ross” in honor of one of my favorite writers in any genre: Ross Macdonald.
Question: I have only read THEY DIE ALONE (Chicago) and NAKED SHALL I RETURN (around San Francisco). Where else has Ross Duncan, shall we say, “worked?” And how do you do the research for the time period and various locations?
Christopher Bartley: I’m fascinated by American cities and their histories. Ross Duncan grew up on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota and he moves fluidly around the mid-western states, with strong connections and ties in Chicago, New York City, and Kansas City. In the course of the current eight published novels he also has visited Hot Springs, Arkansas (a wide open town in it’s heyday) and San Francisco. I’ve been doing some of the research my entire life by visiting these cities and reading about them. More then that, if you visit my office on campus, you will find hundreds of books about the era, the cities, and the people – far more books on those subjects than on psychology. I especially like to work with books that are filled with old photographs of the cities and the people in them – the buildings, the streets, the signs, the automobiles, the clothing styles, and the everyday people caught in candid moments of living their daily lives in that era.
Question: What is ‘noir’ to you? Why has the interest in ‘noir’ lingered in the public imagination for as long as it has?
Christopher Bartley: ‘Noir’ translated literally in French obviously means black, but in the context of literature and film it generally means fiction that is characterized by fatalism, cynicism, moral ambiguity, and the darkness of the human heart. I prefer the term ‘hardboiled’ to noir. I think I write in the genre because it fits my view of the world.
Hardboiled crime novels and movies do not come along very often anymore, at least not the old school, hard as nails types. Modern movies too often succumb to the easy seduction of the focus-group-tested happy-endings and computer generated action scenes devoid of character and charm. There is something uniquely American about the form. Dashiell Hammett pretty much started it with his iconic Sam Spade, played for the ages by Humphrey Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON, who lived in the shadows and the shades of gray of 1930’s San Francisco.
Question: In NAKED SHALL I RETURN, where did the whole plot come from? The cliff house? The missing objects? The ‘blue orb’? The silent movie backdrop?
Christopher Bartley: I think most readers will note a connection to THE MALTESE FALCON, especially since the novel is set in San Francisco and the ‘blue orb’ may appear to bear some thematic resemblance to the “stuff that dreams are made of,” (which Hammett borrowed from Shakespeare). The cliff house was a real historical house overlooking the bay/ocean that burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1907. The history of Chinatown that forms part of the backdrop to the novel comes from several history books, including two by a Chinese Historian colleague of mine. I’m not sure where I got the silent movie backdrop, though I liked it for its theme of a golden age that had come and quickly past – and left behind a group of dreamers who would never be stars again.
Question: How did you develop Ross Duncan’s moral code? He’s got some pretty heavy views on immortality, on prisons, on the nature of being human. Yet he’s certainly not afraid to take matters into his own hands. Has he changed over the course of eight books?
Christopher Bartley: It’s easier for me to analyze Sam Spade than it is my own protagonist. Spade saw the world around him as it was, not as it was idealized to be. He was clear eyed about the corruption, large and small, around him and he saw through the darkness of men’s hearts, observed their wickedness without stepping onto higher ground. He was there raking about in the gutter himself, where the action was, were the little soft nuggets worth finding were to be had. He harbored no illusions about his partner, Miles Archer, knew his greed and lust. And still he felt duty-bound to seek out and punish his murderer. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it,” he explains.
By reputation, Spade (both Hammett’s original creation and as played by Humphrey Bogart on film) is no saint himself. He drinks too much and he’s perceived by others to be corruptible. Only it turns out his avarice is no match for his desire to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end of the day. He’s stubborn, softhearted, even, at the fringes. In THE MALTESE FALCON he wants to save the lady, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; knowing she’s flawed, he wants to believe she’s worth saving, and that redemption can be found for them both.
But, he’ll only be played so far.
He won’t play the patsy, and he won’t play it perhaps for no other reason than because she’s counting on him to. He’ll wait for her to get out jail, but he won’t take the fall for her or let her walk away from her crime. It hurts him, wearies him. If they hang her, he’ll always remember her. He also notes, “a lot more money would have been one more item on your side” (of the ledger), rendering his final risk calculus as something less than full morality. Then again, he’s a hard man, hardboiled all the way through – and we, the readers, have no way of knowing what he might have done for more money. We’re not supposed to. One has the sense, that, while it was a theoretical possibility, practically speaking there would not ever be enough money to corrupt him.
My protagonist, Ross Duncan, has a lot in common with Sam Spade. He values loyalty, keeping his word, not harming innocents, and getting the job done. If he’s betrayed, he will have his vengeance. At the same time, he’s growing weary, seeking redemption and another path – but first, he has a few accounts left to settle.
Question: How does your professional work as a clinical psychologist play a role in writing fiction? What came first? The fiction or the work? How do you fit them together in the daily routine?
Christopher Bartley: I started writing when I was about ten years old, short stories that I showed to my parents, and then attempts at writing novels as early as age twelve. I went to Kenyon College where I was enamored of the literary presence there, but majored in psychology because that seemed more practical. As a clinician and scientist I work during the day, and writing is a crucial aspect of my day job. I write fiction at night. I suppose, though I am not sure how, that my training and experience as a psychologist must influence my writing. Much of my work has been with combat veterans and trauma survivors, so I have spent much of my life learning about the dark things that people do. The first combat veteran I ever interviewed was my great grandfather who served in Cuba during the Spanish-American war and fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill. I’ve since worked extensively with veterans from every war since WWII and more recently I do a lot of work with special operations forces who have been used heavily since September 11, 2001.
Question: What’s the biggest challenge in writing noir? At the same time, what’s the attraction?
Christopher Bartley: Before I started writing my first novel THEY DIE ALONE, I did not commit a word on paper until I had my character, Ross Duncan, firmly in my mind. He was laconic, fearless, world-weary, and filled with regret – and of course that was the easy part. More challenging, I had to know how he spoke, what he did, what his history was (i.e., juvenile delinquency, stints in prison, early crimes) and why, who his friends and enemies were, where his values fell, how he related to females (and vice versa).
Why wasn’t he a private eye? Because that was too obvious, has been done too much already, and a professional criminal would present different challenges and opportunities to take the character. Could Sam Spade rob a bank, make deals with gangsters, or shoot a man in cold blood? Maybe, but Ross Duncan certainly could. With that in mind, I had to think a little more about setting. It could not be modern day. It had to be a mythic past, a time when smart phones, video games, and reality TV series were not yet changing American society. I went back to the last Great Depression, urban Chicago openly ruled by mobsters, and the Midwest. It was a time when men still had the power to forge their own destiny outside the controlling hands of the rapidly growing federal government, at least for a short while yet.
In THEY DIE ALONE, the first novel of my new Ross Duncan series, the exhausted bank robber observes: “The heartless, blinding light of the early morning sun catapulted over the tall city buildings, mocking me for a fool as I reached the street with my hands trembling in my pockets.” He’s humbled and alone in the big concrete city, overcast by the planetary conditions of an indifferent god, still searching.
Question: Ross Duncan references James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett in NAKED SHALL I RETURN, what are some other classic noir writers you read or recommend? Anyone writing contemporary noir whom you’d like to point out?
Christopher Bartley: The classic American hardboiled crime novelists – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, and of course the great Jim Thompson – ruled the hardboiled form with literary eloquence and they remain relevant and revelatory even today, over seventy years after their emergence. I admire some of their British successors too: Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels, Len Deighton, and John Le Carre. Modern day crime writers I admire include Megan Abbott and Sue Grafton.
Question: What’s next for Ross Duncan or any future fiction?
Christopher Bartley: I currently have four books underway. First, I am working on another Ross Duncan novel. Titled, THE DOWRY OF EVELYN BAYS, Duncan returns to Chicago to confront the woman who betrayed him in FOR A SIN OFFERING (book #3) and deal with some old business in Chicago.
A second book, A SEASON PAST, is virtually finished. It is a collection of two novellas and a short story that are all set in American and set in 1900, 1946, and 2009. I wrote the first one over twenty-five years ago, and just finished the most last one recently. Collectively, they are held together by the theme of men who have served in war and are now struggling with life transitions in some way. I intend to send it off to my literary agent, Sonia Land, in London, by the end of August.
Third, I have outlined and written the first and last chapter of a book, THE GATEWAY TO NOTHING, which will be somewhat autobiographical, largely about my work for the government dating back to 1984 and some of the consequences that work has resulted in – for me personally, as well as those close to me.
Finally, I am co-authoring a contemporary thriller novel titled ONLY TWO WAYS TO DIE. My coauthor is a good friend and a highly decorated former Navy SEAL. His name will not mean anything to most readers, but he is very accomplished. We decided not to write his real-life memoirs yet because DOD would not sanction them; so, we are writing an action-thriller series of novels about a tier-one Navy SEAL. The series will have a strong character-driven focus, with a dark, hard edge, gruesome humor, dramatic plots, and an attention to tactical, technical, and scientific detail consistent with the realities of modern special operations warfare and current geopolitical threats.
NAKED SHALL I RETURN on Amazon
Follow Christopher Bartley on Twitter
Previously reviewed: THEY DIE ALONE
Rain. Cigarettes. Smoke. Fog. Gangsters.
Add Chinatown, San Francisco and Thompson machine guns.
We know this world, a noir-gangster-hardboiled mashup and it’s beautifully handled by Christopher Bartley in Naked Shall I Return (the second Ross Duncan novel I’ve read after They Die Alone).
The atmosphere and language channel Chandler, Hammett, and Cain. (The latter-two are name-checked by our protagonist within the story.) Our hero searches for meaning and substance amid the slow-burn mayhem. A dame? Why, yes. We know her well. Or do we?
It’s all familiar.
And fresh at the same time.
Naked Shall I Return starts with a bank robbery, blazing guns and a car chase. It’s 1934. The robbery is in Illinois. And a couple months and a brisk few pages later, Ross Duncan is in San Francisco. He’s arrived with very little in the way of possessions. His girlfriend has less. And he’s being asked for help. Duncan is told by potential new clients that he has “special talents” and the “right heart.”
A package of “great value” has gone missing. The package includes a special Blue Orb. And soon there’s another encounter. This time, a woman. She’s waiting to talk to Duncan about her husband, who has vanished. She won’t share all her suspicions about the “complications” of her husband’s strange life. Her name is Jennifer. It used to be Afsoon.
And down goes Duncan into the fray, dragging his humanity along at every step. On the trip back from Sausalito to San Francisco, his ferry slips past Alcatraz. Duncan thinks: “It was easy for me to imagine the indignities and lack of ordinary freedoms the men in the cell blocks endured. I’d been in a place like that before. Relative to the boundless possibilities that surrounded me in every moment that I wasn’t a federal prisoner, it nearly broke my heart.”
Ross Duncan knows he has choices. He thinks deep thoughts. He sees the big picture—or, at least, contemplates what it might or might not be.
The shoot-em-up bank robbery beginning is a bit misleading. Most of Naked Shall I Return is point-to-point quasi-detective work. There are many thoughtful, moody conversations interrupted by flashes of PG-13 violence. The story weaves in human refugees. It plays off the waning era of silent films. There’s a famous cliff house and what happened in a fire in 1907. There’s a thread about the secret to immortality. There’s a mysterious Chinese mistress and a discussion about Judas. Through it all, Duncan carries the weight of the world. He is ever wary of ambition, hubris and greed. Down in the places where Ross Duncan does his best work, he witnesses extreme manifestations of those traits and isn’t sure he likes what he sees. He ponders an alternative self.
“Standing in the shadows of the clouds that passed over me on Market Street, I thought about my mother and the times she’d expressed hope that I would become a priest. Before her early death, she had been sure the calling would find me. There were times I almost wished it had. I had grown weary of other people’s pain, hurt, deceit, and bad fortune, and I couldn’t help but wonder if a white collar and a black suit might have provided an effective layer of armor against the tribulations of the world.”
Worldly temptations include the girl, of course, and Bartley serves up a classic here. Beguiling, of course. Helpful to Duncan, of course, and encouraging. She is desperate. And appealing. “The scent of her lavender perfume caught my nose and tickled some ancient part of my brain that knew only one way to respond.”
But we know where this is going. Right? She seems so well-intentioned, we are lured into forgetting. She can’t be that woman. Can she?
Duncan rides events down to the gritty, final showdowns. The time period is perfectly evoked and yet, in other ways, the period doesn’t matter. Duncan may have immediate problems to fix and people to figure out, but he’s eternally aware of his place in the big scheme of things and the “ancient force” bearing down. Ross Duncan’s rich interior is as seductive and serene as a cool fog wrapping itself over the City by the Bay.