Moe Prager creator dishes on his latest
Author of more than 20 novels, Reed Farrel Coleman is a former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and the winner of the Macavity and Shamus Awards. His accomplishments have earned him a strong fan base that is likely to grow with his new book of crime fiction, “Where It Hurts,” which depicts an appealingly dark and atmospheric world.
Q. You published your first novel in your mid-to-late 30s. What did you do before then?
A. I grew up in the Coney Island/Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. I started writing poetry at 13 or 14, and I was pretty good at it. I went to Brooklyn College but, as most poets do, I had a day job. My job out of college was working as a freight forwarder at the JFK Airport in Queens, someone who arranges inanimate objects to get from place A to place B. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Goodfellas,” you know the people I worked with.
Q. Brooklyn, or Brooklyn College, also prompted your interest in crime fiction.
A. Yeah, I went back to Brooklyn College, and the only class that fit my schedule was a class in American Detective Fiction. I considered myself more of a literary and poetry kind of a guy, but after a few weeks in the class and reading “Farewell, My Lovely,” “The Continental Op” and “The Maltese Falcon,” I told my wife: “This is what all the poetry training was for. This is what I was meant to do.”
Q. You wrote nine books about Moe Prager, an ex-cop private investigator. Why did you end the series?
A. I don’t do in-depth story outlines, but from the beginning, I planted the poison pill for Moe. I always knew there would be an end to the series. I want my characters to change, and that means growing older, and I didn’t want Moe to turn into a detective who goes around finding people’s missing hearing aids. It’s not easy to be a hard-boiled detective as a 65-year-old cancer survivor.
Q. But as you phased out Prager, you created Gus Murphy, who is featured in your new novel, “Where It Hurts.” Tell me about the story.
A. It’s a book of resurrection, actually.
Q. Speaking to that, Prager is Jewish, but Murphy is a lapsed Catholic of sorts.
A. I was raised Jewish, but I didn’t marry a Lutheran for nothing. Our kids are Jew-therans, but when I was growing up, the only people I knew were either Jewish or Catholic. Both religions are so soaked in symbolism, I absorbed it, and I can write characters associated with either religion. Moe, who is Jewish, has always had a skeptical outlook on life; it’s part of our culture, our tradition. Catholics don’t have that cynical attitude. They believe in the spirit of Jesus and forgiveness, and they don’t have that cynical attitude. Gus, after his experiences that he has been through, is awakened to cynicism, but it was a natural condition for Moe. For Gus, it’s not natural and therefore, it’s uncomfortable, and I think that makes for interesting possibilities in the future.
Q. Your books feature damaged characters and, as is clear from the title, “Where It Hurts” is no exception.
A. We’re all damaged. No one goes through life unscathed. We don’t control our lives fully, and we can’t stop ourselves from being hurt. We carry this stuff around with us. It’s what we bear. If people like my books, I think one reason is that they can see themselves in the characters.
Q. In “Where It Hurts,” you describe the work of a magician as a master distracter, whose job it is to distract viewers from the real action that is taking place. Isn’t that true of a writer of detective fiction?
A. Absolutely. Our job is to convince you not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Reading is artificial, when you think about it. You are reading a world invented by another human’s mind, and the reader knows it’s an invented world! Yet they are transported. I’m amazed by that, and I think it’s partially due to the magician’s trick. It’s one of my favorite analogies, and I’ve used it before in my work.
Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University.