I realize there are bigger name authors in the crime fiction genre, but I find it hard to believe there’s a better writer in the bunch than Omaha’s own Sean Doolittle, who has mastered the form in a string of books that catapult you along without sacrificing depth. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Doolittle’s novel Safer and this blog contains an earlier story I did about his novel The Cleanup. I heartily recommend these and anything by the author. It’s been a couple years since I’ve read anything by or written anything about Doolittle, and so I have a feeling there’s a new Doolittle story I need to catch up to as a reader and a writer, which means you should expect a new Doolittle post sometime this year.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com
Sean Doolittle lives a life of crime. In his head. The Omaha crime novelist (Rain Dogs, The Cleanup) commits imaginary transgressions to the page that explore the consequences of deceit, greed and other deadly sins of omission and commission.
His new work, Safer, is billed by publisher Delacorte Press as “a novel of suspense.” Like the best crime fiction it transcends genre, in this case studying social patterns gone awry and primal emotions under duress.
Paul, the smart alleck English Lit prof protagonist, is suspected of an offense he didn’t commit. While no saint — his judgment’s not always sound — he’s no killer either. The suspense hinges on his desperate attempts to clear his name. The closer he nears the truth, the more leading citizens are implicated in a conspiracy. He may not survive the telling.
After a brief set-up Doolittle starts the book with Paul being jailed. The author then alternates past-present passages with Paul describing what led to the charges being filed and his frantic, against-all-odds search for justice. The approach grabs and holds us but only came to Doolittle much struggle.
“This is a book where the narrative structure is what really ended up opening the book up for me,” he said. “I started writing it as sort of a very linear start-at-point-A and go-to-point-Z narrative and I just could not find any traction that way…I couldn’t see ahead. I’d been stuck at like the same spot for a long time.”
Then it came to him. Finding his way into the story meant plunking Paul into the soup earlier than envisioned. It works, serving as the knot whose unraveling reveals the underlying mystery.
“That’s the first time that’s happened that way,” he said. “Usually the structure is not quite so important to the way the story plays out, but the structure is the essence of that undoing sort of quality.”
Sean Doolittle, ©photograph by Scott Dobry
As Doolittle exposes layer after layer we see the seemingly idyllic setting Paul and wife Sarah occupy in their new Midwest home has a dark side. Despite a break-in, the couple’s suburban cul-de-sac residence appears safe due to the ever vigilant neighborhood patrols and monitoring done by an ex-cop neighbor, Roger.
Only Paul discovers Roger’s benevolent facade and keen interest in keeping the block a closely-watched, hyper-guarded, tight-knit community masks something more than the tragedies that took his son and wife there. Something sinister. As the outsider, nonjoiner Paul questions Roger’s manipulation of his neighbors. Roger sees himself as their protector. He plays on their sympathies and weaknesses to maintain control. Paul sees it as creepy, intrusive.
Doolittle said the structure “underscores” the theme of people distorting information and perceptions to their own ends. As readers we learn, along with Paul, what’s behind Roger’s avuncular front, why he’s so security-conscious and how far he’s prepared to go to prevent anyone from outing him.
Roger’s a microcosm for those who use extreme measures in the name of security. Draw what analogies you will with certain geopolitical events.
“It wasn’t my intention to write an allegory for Iraq or something like that,” said Doolittle. “Whatever parallels are there are there, but it was reducing that giant global complicated issue to a neighborhood that interested me.”
Roger’s warped POV justifies his actions. “That’s what ultimately it always comes down to — it’s within your own mind what you think is appropriate to protect yourself or your family or your neighborhood,” said Doolittle.
The introduction of a wild card like Paul upsets Roger’s carefully arranged order. As Paul notices things are awry, the utopia’s threatened. In Roger’s eyes Paul’s a problem needing removal.
A dark obsession acted out requires elaborate subterfuge to conceal the misdeed. Doolittle said he’s fascinated by how “your actions stay with you the rest of your life. What is Faulkner’s line? — ‘The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.’ Something I’ve sort of inadvertently come back to in more than one book,” said Doolittle, “is the idea of lying and what it takes to maintain a lie. It’s that mounting desperation of Roger trying to keep a grasp on things that eventually undoes it all.
“The thing that’s so fascinating to me is you hear about some outlandish thing somebody’s done, and you think, ‘How do you get to that point?’ That’s always the question. It’s not a new concept but it remains compelling. Each step you take, each time you do something you didn’t think you’d do, it makes it easier to take the next one, and easier to take the next one…”
Safer represents new territory for Doolittle. It’s his first hard-cover book. Delacorte’s pushing it hard. Odds are a novel by Doolittle, who’s earned praise from crime lit superstars, will eventually be a best seller. One’s sure to end up on the big screen, too. A major Hollywood agent who’s a huge fan shops his work around the studios. The author isn’t quitting his day job just yet but with each project, including the revenge novel he’s working on now, he’s closer to cleaning up. For the time being though he plays it safe.
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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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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
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