Monday, June 02, 2008

Crime Writer Doug Cummings on Dark Suburbia, Exhilarating Experiences, and Addicted Felines

Doug, your first mystery, Deader By the Lake, is now available, and your second, Every Secret Crime, comes out in June. Are these books set in Chicago?
Deader is set in the city. Crime is set in the suburbs. At least a suburb, an entire county really, that I found in my imagination. Speaking of imagination, have you watched the video trailer for Every Secret Crime? Even if I don’t sell more than twenty books, that darn trailer is way cool.

I have not, but I will now. :) You have had many careers, but you went from being a news reporter to being a deputy sheriff, and then got back into broadcasting. Are there similarities between those jobs—-sheriffing and broadcasting?

Let me answer that two ways.
A couple of years ago, my media-training partner Mike, a 30-year veteran of the Illinois State Police, did a reverse ride-along with a crew from a local TV station. He said that if he’d closed his eyes and just listened to them talk, he would have thought he was with a bunch of cops. They had the same gripes about working conditions, equipment, their bosses and the business. So in that sense, there are many similarities.

I worked street-level jobs in both professions. For the most part, you see the same stuff, although the blessing of being a reporter and not a cop is you don’t have to look at mutilated corpses (most of the time, anyway). You get the same sort of adrenaline rush. Have to deal with, or suppress, the same emotions. I attended crime scenes, covered or took part in high-stress situations and dealt with bad guys as well as crime victims, their families and their friends. However you approach it, as a cop or reporter, you’re dealing with people on the worst days of their lives. I like to think that, because I had spent time in law enforcement, I had a better sense of how to cover high-profile investigations, specifically what questions to ask and perhaps even what information to leave out of my stories. There are some aspects of a murder case, for example, that the public doesn’t have a right to know. The other side of that issue is that police investigations are news, whether the cops like it or not. Most of my police sources respected me because I knew when to push and when to back off or try a different approach. A lot of reporters don’t ever figure that out.

Very interesting!

Okay, this is an important question: you claim as early reading the books of Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald. These men were never quite on friendly terms, and sometimes readers take sides. Is one MacDonald better than the other?

Not necessarily better, just different. Lew Archer was the quintessential loner who delved into the psychological and sociological mores of post World War II Southern California. Travis McGee was a free-wheeling hedonist in the make-love-not war era of the 60’s. Where Archer was dark and brooding, McGee could brood with the best of them (with The Green Ripper probably the best example) but overall enjoyed a sybaritic lifestyle of wine, women, sex and a really cool boat. Ross McDonald’s stories tended to plod while John D’s snapped along and were more action oriented. As a fan in my early teens of both men, I have to say I much preferred McGee’s approach to Archer’s. And his living arrangements, too.

Would you cite any particular author(s) as an influence on your mystery writing style?
I’ve always tried (and failed) to write description like John D. He could draw us into scene just by telling us how someone looked or wore their clothes. James Lee Burke is another writer who creates an incredible sense of place and character. Burke, Ross MacDonald, (and Chandler and Hammett) all have helped me understand that the hero of a crime novel, while somewhat larger than life, should nevertheless be a real person with flaws and emotional burdens. Asa Baber, the delightful and iconoclastic author and Playboy columnist, was also a significant influence. I took a short-story writing class from him a few years before his death. After reading a piece I’d written where the hero was ever so gallant and the bad guy disgustingly villainous, he made one comment: “Consider the true nature of evil.” It’s something I’ve tried to do in everything I’ve written since.

Wow! Great story, Doug. And a thought-provoking comment.

David Morrell says that you write about “Suburbia’s dark underside.” Just how dark is our underside? :)

Covering crime, you see a lot of darkness in the ‘burbs. Well-to-do families that seem happy and together on the outside until the son kills the father because he doesn’t like the way he plays the piano, or a mom who poisons and then smothers her three kids because her M.D. husband is divorcing her. Even more than that, you see the way communities, mostly wealthy communities, try to cover up the bad things and how they encourage their cops to stonewall the media. Although I have to say, I’m grateful for those experiences because they led me to write Every Secret Crime.

Do you live in Suburbia?
I do. And, before you ask, the only dark underside I deal with regularly is my cat’s shameful addiction to margarine. Oh, and my one neighbor’s insistence that commercial jets dump their extra fuel as they fly over our town. “Smell that gas? Smell that?”

Okay, I won't pursue that. For now. Like many of the writers I’ve interviewed here, your muse and partner is a cat, whose name is Socks-Monster. How has S. Monster influenced your writing?
He encourages me to awaken and write early in the morning by placing his dark underside on my chest and squeaking loudly into my face. Being the Feline Action Hero, he helps me construct fights and shootouts. He also teaches by example the value of eating small meals throughout the day, bathing regularly, and taking naps in warm places.

What do you like to read, aside from the aforementioned MacDonalds?
Lemme see. Looking at my bookshelf, I’ve got John Sandford, Lee Child, Thomas Perry, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and Chicago authors Marcus Sakey, Linda Mickey, Julie Hyzy, Tom Keevers, Michael Black and Sam Reaves. I’ve just finished Black’s Random Victim. He’s a cop, it’s a procedural, and it’s terrific. Reaves’ Dooley’s Back and Homicide 69 remind me of the best of Bill Granger’s Chicago Police series of years ago. Reaves is not a cop but he gets it just right.

What’s one of the most interesting stories you ever covered in Chicago?

One I’ve talked about when I do media training for police departments.
A guy shot his girlfriend to death in front of her kids in the parking lot of a suburban apartment complex and took off. He was in the wind. We got there and the cops initially didn’t want to talk. My TV cameraman buddy and I convinced them that they’d be better off spreading the news rather than hiding it. Good thing they agreed. All the early morning radio and TV newscasts had the piece. As it turned out, the guy went to his friend’s parents’ house and sacked out on the couch. The parents saw the story on TV, heard it on our radio station, called the cops and slipped out of the house before he could wake up and take them hostage. HBT surrounded the place, got a negotiator working and pursuaded the guy to come out. He was a whackadoodle and wound up getting shot, but nobody else was hurt. It was an exciting story to cover and I think it was a great example of the good that can come from the media and police working together.

The best times are either like that, or when you spend hours talking to everybody you can think of to get the facts about a crime and then are the first to put the story on the air. I try to capture that feeling in Every Secret Crime. It’s exhilarating.

Your website says you’ve “been shot at.” Who shot at you?
Beats me. The stories aren’t very exciting. I was a deputy, headed back to the station one night after a truly exhausting shift of call after call after call. I passed an alley, saw a guy pointing at me, heard him yell something, thought he was just a drunk and then saw a flash and heard a bang. Bullet didn’t even come close. Never found the mope. The two extra hours of O.T. looking for him seriously ticked me off, however.

A better one was the night a TV photographer and I were headed to cover an armed robbery with shots fired, turned a corner at just the wrong moment and got into the middle of a chase with more shots being fired by both the cops and the bad guys. I was trying to steer from the passenger seat while the photog hung his camera out the window getting footage. Needless to say we ran off the road but the story of my bravery in the face of certain death gave me a certain fighter-pilot mystique with the ladies for weeks.

Your detective is named Reno McCarthy. Any story behind how you selected that name?
“Selected” is a little too precise. It popped into my head while I was at one of the top five worst stories I ever covered. . . seven people shot dead, piled up in the cooler and freezer of a (again with the dark underside) suburban fast-food restaurant.

Basically, it was a huge “heater” (Chicago term for a case with serious political and/or media implications). I was the first reporter to the scene about 3am and, with the help of two camera buddies, broke the story both locally and on CNN. During the down time, between phone calls and on-scene visits with various sources, somehow “Reno McCarthy” popped into my head. I have no idea why or how, other than the fact I was considering using an Irish name for the protagonist of a novel I was writing and the subconscious is an amazing resource.

You got a starred review in Booklist, which called your mystery “street smart.” Are you street smart, too, or is that just Reno?
I never got shot, seriously beaten up or even received as much as a traffic ticket the entire time I was a reporter. Nor did I get seriously hurt or have to shoot anyone while I was a deputy sheriff. Actually that is a blessing and has nothing to do with street smarts. Okay, put it this way. I arrested bad people, switched jobs, broke dozens of stories (resulting in arrests in some cases), treated victims with respect and managed to maintain good relationships with probably 95 percent of my sources and my bosses. If that’s what you’d call street smarts, yes I have them. As far as actual “street” smarts, no. Ask my freelancer partners about all the times I came up on the two-way radio in a panic, asking for directions and they’ll laugh their butts off.

Are you writing a third book in your series?
Yes. More of the dark underside. From a guy who, as my publicist loves to say, has worked both sides of the crime scene tape.

Since you write about Chicago, I’ll ask you a Chicago-oriented question: what’s your opinion about whether or not Daley’s third airport should become a reality?
Personally, I’d never use Peotone and I suspect most people who live anywhere to the north wouldn’t either. It’s so easy to jump on the tollway (ok, when it’s not under construction that is) and shoot up to Milwaukee that I do that now whenever I can. Especially with cutbacks in flights and the consolidation we’ll see of the airlines over the next few years, my vote on a new airport would be no.

What are your summer plans?

I am excited about the many book signings on my agenda. Just in the first week and a half, we’ll launch July 13th at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park, which should be a grand party. The following weekend I’ll be at Lake Forest Bookstore on the 19th and then in Winnetka at the Book Stall on Weds July 23rd. They’re all fantastic independent book stores that support emerging authors. Take a look at the rest of my schedule here: . . . we’re adding appearances every day it seems. Please come visit if you’re in the area.

Thanks for chatting with me, Doug!


Doug M.Cummings said...

Thanks for having me! But, good grief I took up a lot of space. If I'd known, I would've brought snacks.

©Hotbutton Press said...

Hey, forget the snacks... where's the book trailer link? Can wimps watch it and still survive? I can't handle much beyond a cozy mystery, though I'd love to read the stronger stuff.

Thanks for a fascinating interview!


Julia Buckley said...

Doug, space is relative. Ask Einstein.

Is the link on the website? So Dani and I can view it?

Doug M.Cummings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug M.Cummings said...

It is on the website and also on the top of my blog...

Sorry about that!

Doug M.Cummings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julia Buckley said...

Speaking of taking up space, Doug . . . :)

Mayra Calvani said...

Thanks for the fascinating interview. I've always liked to write a police novel, but this world seems so removed from me. It must be great to have all the knowledge when writing crime fiction.
Good luck with your tour.

Julia Buckley said...

They say write what you know, Mayra, but they also say take chances and do some research. Maybe Doug's book will inspire you to write that novel.

Doug M.Cummings said...

Itchy trigger finger today. Sorry. Glad I'm here and not on the shooting range.

Mayra, there's a great resource online for folks who have questions about crime writing. Check out crimescenewriter on yahoo groups. Thanks for stopping by.

Teagan Oliver said...

Fascinating article. "the true nature of evil", I'll have to remember that...

Julia Buckley said...

Teagan, that's the line that struck me, too!

Dana King said...

Great interview. Thanks to Doug for directing me from Crimespace, and to Julia for a great blog. It's on my NetVibes page now.

Julia Buckley said...

Thank you, Dana, for stopping by. :)

Doug M.Cummings said...

Thanks Teagan and Dana. You guys rock.

Nicole said...


Great interview!

Doug is an excellent writer, excellent person, and has the second best (only to mine of course) kitty in the world :)

Helen Ginger said...

Very interesting interview. Thanks. I enjoyed the Chicago questions, since I'm not from there.

One thing I love about blogs is that you have all the space you want to ask questions and get in-depth answers.


Julia Buckley said...

I agree, Helen! Because with a blog, as the children say, no one is the boss of me. :)

Sandra Kay said...

Great interview! Love the book cover.

Sandra Kay