Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mark Coggins on Raymond Chandler, Hard Boiled Mysteries and Cool Science Projects

Sharing a birthday with the great Alfred Hitchcock is mystery writer Mark Coggins, whose work has been favorably compared to that of Chandler and Hammett, and who has a new August Riordan mystery coming out soon. He recently visited Oxford University to study the original manuscript of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

Thanks for chatting with me, Mark.

Your first book, The Immortal Game, was nominated for several awards and features a detective named August Riordan. How did you come to write the book?

The Immortal Game started out as a short story for a trade paperback quarterly called The New Black Mask. August Riordan’s first appearance in print had been in another story for The New Black Mask called “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes” and I’d written The Immortal Game as a follow-up, but unfortunately the publication folded before the story made it into print. This was in the mid-1980s.

I put the short story in a drawer for about ten years, and when I found the time again to write seriously around 1996 or 1997, I pulled it out and used it as the basis of the novel. Of course, it was much expanded from the story.

Ah, the old put-it-in-the-drawer-for-while-trick. :)

Loren D. Estleman compared you to Dashiell Hammett; NPR says you have given the hard-boiled form “fresh life.” Did you expect all this praise? Be honest. :)

I was completely taken aback. Loren was extremely generous in the blurb he gave me for the book and the NPR review and several others, such as the one that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, came as shockers. I didn’t expect the book to be reviewed, much less favorably reviewed.

A nice surprise, then! How did you choose the name August? Is it your favorite month, or perhaps were you inspired by the adjective august, which would suggest something “baronial, brilliant, exalted, or grandiose?”
Well, I knew I wanted the last name of the character to be Riordan as a sort of homage to a character in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. For the same reason, I also knew that I wanted the first name to start with A. I finally picked August because I thought it was somewhat unusual and I liked the ring of it. And the fact that I was born in August didn’t hurt!

Cool. You’ve written three books and are about to publish a fourth. Are they all August Riordan books?

They are, but the second one—-which is being reprinted by Bleak House Books this month—-is a little different. It’s titled Vulture Capital and, as you might guess, has to do with the venture capital industry. Unlike the other books, Vulture is not told from Riordan’s (first person) point of view. It’s told from the point of view of a venture capitalist named Ted Valmont in an objective third person point of view. This is the same point of view that Dashiell Hammett used in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key.

Do you foresee many books in this series?
I’m in conversation with Bleak House Books for another two book contract, so if that goes through, we would have at least two more. Chandler wrote seven Philip Marlowe novels. It would be fun to do at least that many, but I don’t have aspirations to do a full alphabet full of them like Sue Grafton. I’m just not that prolific.

Your books seem to incorporate a lot of computery-things, lots of references to the new technology. Is this because you have “worked with a number of Silicon Valley computer and venture capital firms?”
Yes, my day job is in computers and software, so I’m leveraging the knowledge I picked up from working in the industry. However, Riordan himself is quite a technophobe. Part of the tension in the books comes from having him deal with technology that he would not use or be comfortable with.

A while back I interviewed Keith Raffel, who also writes about Silicon Valley in Dot.Dead. Do you know Keith? Or is the valley not as small as I think it is?
I do know Keith. Vulture Capital and his book are often compared because they both have plots that have to do with start-ups. I also co-founded a software start-up that was in the same “space” (customer relationship management) as the one that Keith co-founded. His was a lot more successful than mine, however!

All that said, I actually didn’t meet Keith until his book came out. Which means, I guess, that the mystery community is even more tightly knit than the Silicon Valley one.

You wrote an in-depth analysis of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, for which you studied 200 pages of Chandler’s original typescript at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This brings up many questions: (Here's Mark at Oxford).

First, did you go to Oxford specifically to study Chandler, or was that merely a by-product of the trip?
I had heard about the existence of the Chandler archives (and the fact that unused manuscript pages from The Long Goodbye were in them) from Ridley Pearson. So, yes, I did go to Oxford primarily to see the archives and the pages.

Did it intimidate you to hold the work of this great—and greatly loved—writer?
It didn’t so much intimidate me as leave me a awestruck. It was a great thrill.

What prompted you to do such a detailed analysis of the drafts of The Long Goodbye as compared with the final version?
While he hadn’t studied the pages carefully, Ridley had told me that the material in the archives had not been used in the final book. He theorized that the pages had been cut at the request of the publisher to shorten the length of the book. The Long Goodbye is a long PI novel, but from my reading of the Chandler biographies, I didn’t think that could have been the reason for the cuts. My original motivation was to see if I could find out why the material had been cut—-and to see exactly what happened in the “missing” scenes.

You suggest that some people might not choose this as Chandler’s greatest work, but that you would (as would I). Why might some people not choose it? Why would they, in your opinion, be wrong?
I do think it’s Chandler’s best book, but I think it’s fair to say that it is a book that’s shorter on thrills, wise-cracks and plot twists than, say, The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Marlowe is more world-weary and mature in Goodbye. It’s a more somber book because of it and I think that may influence some readers’ opinions of it.

I think it’s the best for exactly the reasons I outlined in the article. I think Chandler succeeded in writing a literary novel, rather than just a genre novel.

Okay, enough on Chandler and back to Coggins: One of the things posted on your website is, surprisingly, a second grade report card, on which it looks as though you got a B. What’s up with that? Where was your initiative?
I wasn’t exactly the best student in grade school, and wasn’t even particularly interested in English or writing until college. I was much more interested in “science,” which to me meant building model airplanes and blowing them up with firecrackers.

That is fun science! You stated that your life “really began with the third grade.” My son starts third grade this fall; can I assume his life will now begin? Is this the age of reason?
Our family moved around quite a bit during the time I spent in kindergarten and grades one and two, and I think that’s why I don’t have very clear memories of those years. I said that simply because I can recall more details about friends and activities from that grade forward.

You’ve been a keynote speaker at computer events; have you also taught writing?
In a small way. I’ve taught at the Book Passage Mystery Writer conference, as well as the Murder in the Grove writers’ conference.

You live in San Francisco; I have heard many things about the legendary beauty of this place (my parents honeymooned there in 1956). What’s the best thing about it from your perspective?
I like the fact that it’s a “real city,” but one that’s not so large and overwhelming that you can never know it all or find it difficult to get around. I also love the rich history and the interesting architecture. That coupled with the natural beauty of the location and the energy and vibrancy in the arts and industry make it an exciting place to live. I never feel like I’m missing out on anything in San Francisco.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia and Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. They are both books about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. I’m doing research on Kerouac for my next book, tentatively titled The Dead Beat Scroll, which is about a new Kerouac manuscript that turns up when a house in San Francisco in which Kerouac lived and worked is demolished.

Sounds great! How can readers find out more about Mark Coggins, who may well be this generation’s Chandler?
You are being far too kind! If I could write half as well as Chandler, I’d be a happy man. But to find out more about me and my work, check out my web site:


my blog:


and my publisher’s site:


Thanks, Mark! I look forward to reading your books, and you've inspired me to read more Chandler, as well.


Camille Minichino said...

As usual, Mark comes off as the modest, scholarly guy he is, treating us to the fruits of his thoughtful research.
Thanks Mark and Julia.
Camille Minichino

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for stopping in, Camille!

Neil Plakcy said...

Another writer turning 50 in August. Makes me feel a little less old-- since my birthday's not till the end of the month.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow! Happy 50th to Mark and Neil. As I told Mark, my brother turns fifty this month, too! There is a convergence of August 50s on this blog!

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