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Author Talk: October 25, 2019

Tim Maleeny is the author of the award-winning Cape Weathers series of mysteries and the bestselling comedic thriller JUMP. His short fiction appears in several major anthologies and has won the prestigious Macavity Award for best story of the year. In this interview, Maleeny explains why he took such a long break (11 years, to be exact) between his last Cape Weathers novel, GREASING THE PINATA, and the latest installment, BOXING THE OCTOPUS. He also talks about his decision to give Cape a sidekick like Sally, a trained assassin who brings a whole other dimension to the detective game; why he thinks the first book in the series, STEALING THE DRAGON, got such a positive response from the mystery community; and the three classic crime writers whose work he would want in his possession if he was ever stranded on a desert island.

Question: It’s been over 10 years between your last Cape Weathers novel, GREASING THE PINATA, and the publication of BOXING THE OCTOPUS. What made you set aside the series for so long? And what brought you back to writing a new entry?

Tim Maleeny: Real life sometimes gets in the way of fiction. After moving my family from San Francisco to New York City, I reluctantly decided to take a break from writing novels until everyone got settled and my schedule was under control. Little did I realize that when you live in New York, your schedule is never under control, but I finally got behind a keyboard long enough to finish my latest novel. Also, BOXING THE OCTOPUS was a fun jigsaw puzzle to put together, and it was easy to get lost in the research into money laundering, piracy, illegal drug testing and exotic sea creatures. The conspiracy in the book, as elaborate as it may seem, is based on real-world events, so as the plot unfolded on my laptop, I kept discovering new facts that made the story feel authentic but even wilder.

What’s funny is that Publishers Weekly wrote a terrific review for BOXING THE OCTOPUS but at the end said, “Readers will hope they won’t have to wait 11 years for the next installment.” The good news is that each book in the series, like any good thriller, can be read as a stand-alone novel, and the next book in the series is already underway and I’m typing as fast as I can.

Q: Your approach to the mystery genre could be described as serio-comic, would you agree? Were you influenced by the work of Carl Hiaasen, who likely is the leading practitioner of this approach in recent years? Is there anyone else who helped influence your writing approach?

TM: My books have been called comedic thrillers, comic noir and even “zany” by reviewers who seem to enjoy the subversive tone and social commentary, and I’ll be the first to admit my elaborate plots tend to go sideways at every turn. My editor, Barbara Peters, refers to them as capers, and I think that’s the best description because they all involve heists perpetrated by quirky characters more than capable of getting in their own way.

I try to make my characters more flawed than fearless, and I think that’s the source of the humanity and the humor in these stories. Writers are always influenced by authors they love to read, and in my case that includes Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Ross Thomas and Loren Estleman, to name a few. And when it comes to unbridled mayhem with a splash of social commentary, you can’t beat Carl Hiaasen.

Films have also been a big influence because I visualize chapters before I write them, sometimes sketching action sequences on a pad as if blocking a scene for a film or a play. Movies that balance action, suspense and humor like Get ShortySnatch and anything by the Coen Brothers are great examples of narratives driven by characters with a shared goal but competing agendas, a dynamic you’ll find in all my novels.

Q: Before the first book in the Cape Weathers series, STEALING THE DRAGON, was published, had you tried writing a different kind of mystery? Or any other type of fiction?

TM: My favorite authors, stories and films were all mysteries, and like anyone writing their first novel, I tried to write a book that I would want to read. STEALING THE DRAGON combined elements of noir, capers and international thrillers into the narrative construct of a PI novel, which might be why it got such a good reception from the mystery community. It had something for everyone, and it was a hell of a lot of fun to write because it blended together everything that I loved about mysteries.

Before STEALING THE DRAGON, I was writing short stories. When my story “Till Death Do Us Part” was selected for an anthology edited by Harlan Coben and went on to win the Macavity Award, my confidence as a writer got just enough of a boost to try finishing a novel. I started STEALING THE DRAGON as a character study, but one chapter led to the next, and when I had a story with a beginning and middle, I just kept writing until I figured out how it was going to end.

Beyond writing mysteries, I’m pretty good at limericks, but sadly nonsensical poems aren’t as much in demand as they once were, so the only place where they appear is one chapter in BOXING THE OCTOPUS carried almost entirely by rhymes.

Q: If you were able to take along the work of just three classic crime writers with you to the proverbial desert island, who would they be? And why?

TM: First, let me say that forcing a mystery fan to choose only three writers is far more sadistic than stranding someone on a desert island in the first place. But since you specified only “classic” crime writers, here you go:

Ross Thomas. His capers are the most stylish and well-crafted long cons ever conceived, and his characters are unlike anyone you’re likely to meet in life or fiction, yet somehow more real than anyone you know.

Elmore Leonard. His dialogue is like music, and his plots are character-driven ballets. Who needs a playlist or a concert hall when you can reread Elmore Leonard?

Ross Macdonald. Serious fans of hard-boiled fiction revere Macdonald, but he often gets overlooked relative to Chandler or Hammett, yet he’s every bit as sharp, which I don’t say lightly. (One of his novels was the basis for the early Paul Newman movie Harper, which gave the legendary screenwriter William Goldman his start in Hollywood.) Macdonald brilliantly captured the lonely cynicism of a private investigator on the outskirts of society, and the deadpan humor and spring-loaded tension of his plots feel as fresh as anything being published today.

Q: The sardonic observations Cape is prone to making evoke pleasant memories of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But Marlowe never had a sidekick like Sally, a trained assassin who brings a whole other dimension to the detective game. How did you come up with the idea to have Cape and Sally be a team?

TM: When you’re writing a mystery, you have to respect certain conventions of plot and character if you want your book to feel authentic to readers who love crime fiction, but you naturally want to bring a fresh take to the genre. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing something new?

Rather than follow the well-worn traditions of a private eye, I wanted my investigator to be more determined than disciplined, and as prone to mistakes as the rest of us. Cape represents that version of ourselves that does the right thing, even when no one is watching, simply because it’s the right thing to do. But he’s also that voice inside our heads that wishes we could say and do things that polite society says we can’t --- call bullsh*t on someone, poke around until you find the truth, or stick a thorn into the giant foot that’s trying to stomp on the little guy. His impulsive nature and relentless curiosity are his greatest assets.

Someone like that is inevitably going to get into trouble, so I needed an ally more disciplined and formidable than Cape. And I liked the idea that the toughest person in the story, the one character you definitely don’t want to mess with, is a five-foot-tall woman, because the sidekick or partner in most mysteries is usually a near-invulnerable badass of epic proportions. In the Cape Weathers books, the most physically daunting character --- the police investigator named Beau --- is actually the most gentle, while diminutive Sally is a living weapon.

I also wanted Sally to be a believable character with a compelling backstory, not a comic-book version of an assassin, so exploring her childhood and constructing a highly plausible basis for her motivations and abilities was critical.

The contrast between Cape and Sally, especially in the way they tackle a problem, introduces a natural tension into their investigations that keeps the action unpredictable. And their unlikely camaraderie makes the dialogue feel like part of the action without sacrificing character development for the sake of pacing. They are both incredibly fun characters to write, and I’m thrilled that readers want to see more of them.

Q: What is your writing regimen? Do you make yourself write for a certain number of hours every day, or do you let your muse guide you to when the time to create is ripe?

TM: Some writers have remarkable discipline, and I wish I was one of them. Several of my friends maintain a strict daily regimen based on hours behind the keyboard, word count or number of pages. I’m more of a binge writer, typing as fast as I can on the good days, but not writing at all on other days. I still make sure to do something writing-related every day, like research, sketches of scenes or reading, but my dedicated writing schedule accelerates only after the first third of the book has been written and I know where the story is headed.

One day, I hope to have a routine that qualifies as a “regimen,” but for now my approach varies every time. Sometimes I write at home, other times in restaurants or bars, on airplanes or even outside at coffee shops when the weather is nice. Every book seems to demand a slightly different venue, maybe to unconsciously reflect the mood of the story. So far it’s worked, but even after five novels, precisely how I’m going to finish the next book remains a mystery.