The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel ‘The Cleanup’
Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.
In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?
“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels Dirt, Burn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.
The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.
“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.
“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”
As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.
“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.
“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”
What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”
Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.
“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”
He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”
Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”
Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”
Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”
He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”
In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”
Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.
Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”
Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.
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