What: His Penns River series of police procedurals includes WORST ENEMIES and GRIND JOINT, which Woody Haut, writing for the L.A. Review of Books, cited as one of the fifteen best noir reads of 2013. His newest is RESURRECTION MALL, recently released from Down & Out Books.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the upcoming release of RESURRECTION MALL. What can readers expect from the third installment of the Penns River series?
Trouble. Just as a television minister’s religious-themed mall looks like it could provide a counterweight to the casino, the murder of five drug dealers sets the town back during one of the coldest winters on record.
A lot of modern crime fiction is set in urban locations. What’s the appeal of the rural setting in the Penns River series?
As you said, a lot of crime fiction takes place in urban settings. What I want to show is how less but still serious crime can affect a smaller community that lacks the resources and resilience of a larger city.
I don’t look at the setting as a challenge. I’m not comfortable in cities and like that a smaller town allows me to play counter to a lot of current tendencies. For example, Penns River can’t afford state of the art forensics equipment and has no crime lab. The cops have to solve crimes the old-fashioned way. This forces people to interact, which I find inherently more interesting.
RESURRECTION MALL is the third book in the series. Would you ever live there yourself?
Dude, I grew up there. Literally. Penns River is an amalgamation of three small towns in Western Pennsylvania. The hospital I was born in was in one; the apartment my parents took me home to in another; and the house I grew up in from the time I was four is the third. I know this place like the back of my hand, though I’ve been gone for years. Mom and Dad still live in the old house and I visit them several times a year. If things broke right I’d love to live there again.
For new readers, do you recommend they start with the first Penns River book? Do you approach each book as a standalone story?
I don’t think it matters. I wrote each book to stand alone, though I do have small references back to the others, and things change in town as time goes on. I think of those changes and references as Easter eggs for those who have come along for the entire ride. Newcomers won’t miss anything. They just might not feel as much depth. For example, they’ll see how close Doc is to Stush Napierkowski, but if you’ve read the other two books you’ll know that going in.
When I interviewed you back in 2015, we spoke a lot about your Nick Forte mysteries. This time we’re focusing on your Penns River protagonist, Ben Dougherty. How do you approach these different characters? Does it ever get confusing juggling a couple of series at the same time?
Nick is a much darker character. He’s seen things that affect him in hurtful ways and has found that trying to do the right thing doesn’t always work out, so he’s become much of an “end justifies the means” kind of guy. Dougherty’s not like that. He’s happy to be home after nine years in the Army and just wants things to work out for the best with the least amount of drama. He’s a cop in a town with no money and rising crime so that who “work out for the best with the least drama” thing isn’t going all that well for him, but he’s not giving up on Penns River.
I’ve actually done very little series juggling. I wrote all four Forte books before I ever dreamed of Penns River. I then wrote four PR books before returning to Forte for a book that’s in the pipeline for release. My feeling is I’ll spend most of my time in Penns River for the foreseeable future—I keep getting good ideas—but Forte will be back if I get an idea I like for him.
Who would win in a fight—Nick Forte or Ben Dougherty? Who would fight fair and who would fight dirty? Who would you root for?
Nick. He’s come to believe the only thing that matters in a fight is whether you win or lose, so he’d do what he had to. I’d root for Doc. There’s a lot of me in both characters. To paraphrase James Ellroy writing about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Doc is the person I’d like to think I am. Nick is the person I’m afraid I could be under the wrong circumstances.
Down & Out isn’t just the right publisher for Penns River. It’s the right publisher for me. Everyone there is low drama, we’ll all in this together, and genuinely enthusiastic about working together. I always thought it was bullshit when I heard authors talk about their peers at a publishing house as family, but this is. The Beloved Spouse and I sat at the Down & Out table at last year’s Shamus banquet with Eric Campbell and his wife, Cristy, Lance Wright, and Joe Abramo when Joe won the Shamus for Best Paperback original. I didn’t have anything in print with them yet but could not have felt more included.
Thirty years ago I think the Penns River series—and maybe Forte, too—would have had a chance at a decent run as mid-list books. Big publishers are only interested in best sellers now, and too many of them want to push the author in a direction they think will sell more. That’s great, except that if the book doesn’t sell it’s the author who loses his contract. Down & Out accepts Penns River for what it is, and that’s a perfect fit for me.
What other publishing plans do you have for the rest of 2017 and beyond?
This year is quiet after RESURRECTION MALL. I do have handshake agreements for two more Penns River novels—one written, one under construction—and a Nick Forte that’s already written to come out over the next couple of years. That’s a benefit of continuing to write when times are lean: lots of backlist.
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S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and GRIZZLY SEASON (Rare Bird Books). His Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include CROSSWISE and CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.