Sunday, September 14, 2008

Swann Song for the Anti-Detective


Today's guest blogger is Charles Salzberg, a writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York Magazine and the New York Times. He is a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and teaches writing in New York City. Although he is multi-published in non-fiction, his first mystery novel, Swann's Last Song, will be released this week by Five Star.


By Charles Salzberg


Murder is a messy business and it’s a detective’s job to clean it up. Writers, too, are always trying to “clean up,” to make sense of the world around us. But what if the world were messy? Random? Chaotic? What if the pieces didn’t fit?

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, this alternative view of the world, which seemed to be spinning out of control, fascinated me. There was the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the war in Vietnam, Charlie Manson’s killing spree.

In the midst of this chaos, I came across this passage from Ross MacDonald’s, The Instant Enemy: “I had to admit to myself, that I lived for nights like these, moving across the city’s great broken body, making connections among its millions of cells. I had a crazy wish or fantasy that some day before I died, if I made all the right neural connections, the city would come all the way alive, Like the Bride of Frankenstein.”

But what if those neural connections were made and the city didn’t come alive?

So, I set out to write an anti-detective novel.

I chose a skiptracer—a finder of lost things—for my anti-hero, Henry Swann. The plot started out traditionally: Beautiful woman hires detective to look for her missing husband. But I turned that conceit on its head by having Swann, a money-grubbing loser working out of a small office in Spanish Harlem, find that the man had been murdered, thus effectively putting him out of a job. But the wife disagrees with the police theory and rehires Swann to find the real killer. That quest takes the cynical Swann halfway around the world as he follows clues showing the dead man had several different identities and led several different, lives, among them a California rock star, a Mexican rebel, a German spy.

The novel ended with Swann confused, disillusioned, and no closer to the solution of the crime. Meanwhile, the police find the perpetrator who had had nothing to do with all the clues Swann so carefully followed.

Editors liked the book, but hated the ending, so eventually I changed it. Swann does “solve” the crime, but I did manage to slip in a little “wink” to my original idea.

9 comments:

GreatReadDetective said...

Let's see...a money-grubbing cynical loser, a dead man with different identities, and a perpetrator not related to the clues...Okay! I'm sold!
- GreatReadDetective

betty said...

An anti-detective novel, already I'm curious, then the main character, Swann, "a money-grubbing loser," now I'm intrigued. Kinda liked the original idea for the ending but then there's that subversive "wink" to look for in the more traditional ending. Swann sounds intersting. I'm ready to check him out.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks for your guest post, Charles. Having grown up in the Bay Area during the 60s, its countless riots left plenty of opportunity for social observations. I’m sure your detective has lots of reasons to be disgruntled.

Staffingstar said...

Sounds intriguing! Looking forward to reading about this anti-detective.

Holly Krista Poppy Tennant said...

I'm marking in my date book right now: check out Swann Song reading at the Parkside Lounge... Can't wait.

LeslieN said...

I'm headed to the bookstore right now. Just the words "anti-detective novel" make me want to spend the afternoon in my reading chair finding lost things with Swann. And Charles's description of the chaos of the Sixties -- can't help but feeling that we're right back there again. I may pick up The Instant Enemy as well. Then pray for rain so I can lose myself in good writing.

readsalot said...

California rock star - I want to hear about your research for THAT identity...

Judy said...

Charles Salzberg has lured me back into the noir waters of the detective novel after a long dry spell. An anti-detective? Swann sounds like my kind of guy.

Beth Terrell said...

Charles, as a lover of detective novels, I must be sure to pick up a copy of your book.