I recently read James Scott Bell's latest novel, Try Dying, and enjoyed it very much. Here's a little inside scoop from the man himself as to what the book's all about.
Hey, Jim, thanks for coming over to Forensics and Faith. So tell us about this latest book of yours.
Try Dying involves a highflying lawyer--Ty Buchanan--whose fiancée is killed on page one. It looks like an accident, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was murder. When he tries to find out, he gets in bad, bad trouble. He’s befriended by a fallen priest and basketball-playing nun, and other characters who will recur.
You went over to Center Street, part of the Hachette Book Group, to write this one. Try Dying is more for the general market than for inspirational. Why'd you do that?
I haven’t been happy about some of the trends in contemporary, secular suspense. And I think the audience out there is getting tired of the gratuitous elements. I believe you can write page-turning suspense without that, like some of the great crime novels of the 40s and 50s. I wanted to offer that, because I see the need for it.
Tell us about the next Ty Buchanan novel. When will it be released?
Try Darkness is due to be released in July of '08. This one involves the murder of a woman in a transient hotel, and her six-year-old daughter, whom Ty must protect.
The book jacket on Try Dying calls this novel "modern noir." Define that term for us.
Noir is generally about a struggle to survive in the big city, where cons and crime abound. Good and bad meeting on the mean streets. It's a post-WWII genre of film and novel, very American.
The opening of the story sets up that noir feeling immediately--the "news-story" sounding narrative then immediately turned to become personal for the main character.
Yes, I've done this before. It gives a kind of feel of a 50s crime film, with those narrators. Then we see it is the lead character who is narrating.
Where does your love for noir fiction come from?
I was a film major in college, back when film noir was just becoming appreciated. Paul Schrader had written a seminal study of noir for Film Comment magazine and came up to UCSB and I got to interview him. We were all studying these films. I just fell in love with them. Especially the ones that took place in Los Angeles, my hometown.
Noir is really a spiritual journey. The characters have to decide which side -- good or evil, law or crime, truth or lie -- they are going step into, with commitment. You can't be on the fence. If you are, if you try to play both sides, you usually end up dead. Or in jail.
Sometimes, you face down your dark side and come out into the light. Like Glenn Ford does in The Big Heat, one of the all time classic noirs. That's sort of the feel I want for the Ty Buchanan books.
You did a wonderful job of creating the dark, "cement jungle" atmosphere of Los Angeles--to the extent that the city itself almost became a character. What are some techniques you used to do this?
That's part of the noir style. The city does become a character. It adds to the mood, the texture, the plot, the inner life of the characters.
One technique I use is to visit every location I write about. I take pictures and walk around and feel the atmosphere. I talk to people and listen for interesting stories.
One of your trademarks is your crisp, fresh dialogue. How do you create that? Do you hear the characters talking in your head?
I've always loved dialogue. Maybe this goes back to my acting days, when I did a lot of improv. I was always mimicking other actors, too.
I have to be able to "hear" my characters first, so I spend time getting a feel for their voices. I edit my dialogue a lot, cutting out words, tightening. Looking for places where I can replace dialogue with something else -- action, reaction, silence.
The rave review from Booklist says you are "very good at keeping secrets." How do you do that? Do you plan well ahead or make them up as you go along?
Part of the fun, and challenge, of modern suspense is creating surprises. We've had so many movies, books and TV shows that do this.
I'd say that one thing I do is make sure that every main character has a personal secret, one that would give them a motive to lie. Then I try to create webs of relationships between the characters, that I don't reveal until near the end. Surprises seem to happen naturally that way.
Thanks so much, Jim.
Here's the review buzz about Try Dying.
Publishers Weekly: "[an] engaging whodunit ... Readers will enjoy Bell's talent for description and character development."
Booklist: "An appealing and series-worthy protagonist ... Fans of thrillers with lawyers as their central characters—Lescroart and Margolin, especially—will welcome this new addition to their must-read lists."