By Mark Yost
Houston, TX, USA
I was asked to do a Conversation with the hero of my noir mystery series. His name is Rick Crane and he is a mostly down-on-his-luck private investigator in Upstate New York. A man from a different era, Crane is nevertheless someone who maintains a code of ethics even though it is hiding from time-to-time behind a cloud of smoke and whiskey. Of course, this Conversation "never happened," but I think you will come to know who he is and why you should spend a little time with him.
MARK YOST: So who is Rick Crane?
RICK CRANE: He's a drunkard. [laughs] Sorry, that's one of my favorite Bogart lines from Casablanca.
MARK YOST: If the Rick Crane books were made into a movie, would Bogart play you?
RICK CRANE: That's an interesting question, because Rick Crane really is a combination of great characters from throughout noir history. There's a little bit of Orson Welles in him from The Third Man. There's a little bit of Burt Lancaster in him from The Killers, a great movie that was based on a short story by Hemingway. And, yes, there's a lot of Bogart in him.
If I had to narrow it down, I'd say he's sort of a mash up between Sam Spade, Bogart's wise-talking private eye who's always one step ahead of everyone else in the story, and Jim Rockford, the innocent con-turned-private-eye who likes to drive fast, classic muscle cars…although some might quibble with Rockford's Firebird being a "muscle car." But it was what was left of muscle cars in the mid-1970s, when America was just starting to drive Datsuns and Toyotas.
MARK YOST: It's interesting that you pick Spade and Rockford because they're both California private eyes. Spade is in San Francisco of the 1940s, perhaps the greatest noir locale in literary history, and Rockford's what's left of Sam Spade in the 1970s, relocated to Malibu. But you're nowhere near California, are you?
RICK CRANE: No, I'm in Upstate New York, which I would argue is maybe the second-greatest noir locale in literary history, even though Rick is the first character to be based there. At least that I know of.
MARK YOST: Why is it a great noir locale?
RICK CRANE: Think about the noir genre. It's shady characters, operating in the shadows of an already dark and sinister place. Can you think of a darker place in early 21st-century America than the Rust Belt, that swath of unemployment and despair that basically stretches from Buffalo to Detroit? This was once the real industrial heartland of America, where, in the 1950s, most of the cars, locomotives and steel was made. Now, it's a shadow of its former self. And amid those shadows are long-forgotten people, with faded dreams, living in long-forgotten towns, with faded town squares, rough dive bars, and boarded up businesses. It's the perfect place for the mob or bikers to move in and exploit what little cash and hope people have left.
MARK YOST: And for private eyes?
RICK CRANE: And for private eyes, because when people are poor and desperate, they'll do anything to scratch out a living. Sometimes, that living is made outside the law.
MARK YOST: You often operate outside the law?
RICK CRANE: I do. Once, I did it simply to get by, like many of my clients. I worked for a mob boss, collecting debts and "taking care of things" as they say. I also worked for myself on the side. Cheating spouse cases, that sort of thing.
MARK YOST: So you're not such a likable character yourself sometimes?
RICK CRANE: There are times when everyone's not such a likable character. That's life. But that's just one side of me. As you learn over the five books, Rick is a real person, with real demons that he has to wrestle with outside of the alleys and strip clubs of Upstate New York.
MARK YOST: Tell us more about that.
RICK CRANE: Well, like the people he sometimes works with, Rick is a creature of his environment. He's old enough to remember when Upstate New York was a place where you could make a decent living and raise a family. He's seen that slowly decay over time, and it has affected him just like it has impacted a lot of the other characters in the book.
MARK YOST: How so?
RICK CRANE: Well, at times, Rick is desperate. He's desperate to make a living, he's desperate to figure out his life.
MARK YOST: But I'm guessing that you would argue that like all great noir characters, deep down, Rick, despite his environment and the people he rubs elbows with, is a good guy?
RICK CRANE: I think so. Rick operates in a bad world, and sometimes has to deal with bad people. But, often, his motives are good. For instance, in Cooper's Daughter, Rick has nothing whatsoever to gain by helping out this old drunk, Bill Cooper. But Rick sees something in Cooper. Something that's reflective of the life here now, and of Rick's life. He sees a guy who just wants to know "Why?" Why was his daughter murdered? Rick can empathize with that. The wanting to know "Why?" Why did this happen to me?
MARK YOST: And like Cooper, Rick's tormented as well?
RICK CRANE: I wouldn't say "tormented." Like a lot of people, Rick occasionally looks back on the past 20 years and wonders, "How did I get here?"
MARK YOST: But there is a woman in your past?
RICK CRANE: More than a few. But one in particular. Mary. My high school sweetheart.
MARK YOST: What happened with her?
RICK CRANE: Things didn't quite work out, as my mother would say.
MARK YOST: You quote your mother a lot.
RICK CRANE: She's smart. She knows a lot about life.
MARK YOST: Does she go to Church every morning, like you?
RICK CRANE: Not anymore. She lost her faith awhile back. At least most of it.
MARK YOST: And what about Rick?
RICK CRANE: I'm trying to find it.