Death’s Little Helpers Q & A

Death's Little Helpers

Q: This is detective John March’s second book—how has he changed since we last saw him in Black Maps?

A: When we first met March in Black Maps he’d made a fragile truce with the grief and guilt he felt over his wife’s death, three years before. But that cease-fire came at a price: March was leading an ascetic, emotionally isolated life, and one that had begun to fray at the edges.

Death’s Little Helpers takes place about six months later, and by this time March has opened up a little. He’s got the beginnings of a relationship going with his upstairs neighbor, Jane Lu—at least to the extent that they sleep together when they’re not both at work—and he’s begun a tentative rapprochement with his demanding family. But it’s not a smooth road for March. The habits of solitude are hard for him to break, and there’s real tension between his desire for emotional connection and his unresolved grief and guilt. March does not find it easy to be happy.

Q: How did you devise the story and crime central to Death’s Little Helpers? Are they based on real events?

A: While the crimes and characters that figure in Death’s Little Helpers are not based on specific events or people, there was plenty of real-life inspiration for them—in all the excesses of the bull market, and in the smoldering wreckage that remained afterward. The stock market analyst conflict-of-interest scandals provide the backdrop for the circumstances that Gregory Danes (the missing man at the center of Death’s Little Helpers) finds himself in, but that was just a starting point for me.

In imagining Danes, I thought about what it must’ve been like to go overnight from being a guru of the new economy, to being a symbol of all its false promises and double-dealing. I thought about the anger and bitterness that might accompany that sort of reversal of fortune, and about the kinds of desperate things a person in that situation might be driven to. I also thought about the role that the business press played in the conflict-of-interest mess—how they had lionized these analysts for so long, amplifying their pronouncements and turning them into media personalities, and then in an instant had turned around and vilified them, and over practices that were no secret to anyone on or around Wall Street.

Wall Street is a never-ending source of inspiration for me, and the truth of what goes on there is always much stranger than fiction.

Q: How is John March’s relationship with his family reflected in his work and the rest of his life?

A: The bonds between March and the rest of his family have always been fragile and problematic. He is after all the black-sheep son, the under-achiever who walked away from the family’s investment banking business and into work as a sheriff’s deputy, and then as a private detective—not at all the expected career path. While March’s siblings are, for the most part, well-intentioned and genuinely concerned about him, they are also mystified by him, and more than a little judgmental. They see him as a “project,” something to be repaired and set to rights.

For his part, March views his family—and the concept of family in general—with some ambivalence. On the one hand he bristles at his siblings’ implicit criticism of, and intrusions into, his life. On the other, he cares about his family and, at some level, longs for closer ties. Indeed, much of what keeps March working for his client, the abrasive Nina Sachs, is the domestic appeal of her unconventional family, and the empathy he feels for her precocious, angry son.

Q: How did your own background in the financial world prepare you to write this book?

A: I worked on and around Wall Street for over twenty years, so it’s a world I know well. It’s a fascinating social crucible, and very noir-ish in its way—full of big money and high-risk, obviously, but also replete with big, dysfunctional egos, greed, cutthroat competition, desperation, class struggle and sweaty paranoia—all in all, a great place for a novelist-in-training.

And I think I had a great fly-on-the-wall vantage point while I was there—designing and developing software. It gave me intimate knowledge of all the goings-on but allowed me to maintain some critical distance. It was a view not unlike March’s own “insider-outsider” perspective.

Q: What were the challenges of writing a book with a central character who never appears in person?

A: There were challenges, though this is the second time I’ve done it, so they couldn’t have been too daunting. The most difficult thing, obviously, is that March can’t interact with the missing man. Everything he learns about the character is second hand—through the eyes and ears and memories of other players, some of whom may not be reliable witnesses themselves. But that can also be an advantage: it enables us to get to know the missing man from the points of view of several characters, while at the same time getting to know those characters too.

Q: You have very strong female characters in your stories—are they a challenge for you to write? How do women respond to John March as a character?

A: As a reader, fully realized, emotionally engaging characters are what I remember best about the books I love most. So as a writer, creating those kinds of characters is very important to me. Doing it well—finding a character’s voice, the rhythms of his speech, his language and vocabulary, and having his personality emerge from those things—is always a challenge, regardless of whether the character is male or female. If I have strong female characters in my stories, it’s because I like strong women. I’ve always found them more interesting than men, probably because they’ve had more to contend with.

From the feedback I’ve gotten, women readers seem to respond strongly to March, and their feelings about him seem to fall into two main camps: those that see him as a brooding bad-boy and think they can bring him out of his shell, and those that think he has issues with communication and commitment, needs some therapy, and that he reminds them of a guy they used to date. But both camps seem to like him.

Q: What does the title of the book mean?

A: The title comes from a poem by Charles Simic—a wonderful poet and one of my favorites. In the context of my book, it refers to March’s speculation that the man he’s searching for, Gregory Danes, may be dead, and his realization that many people in Danes’ life won’t be sad if he is.

Q: March’s stories are like classic detective stories with a heavy dose of noir sensibility. Who are your influences in the genre?

A: My stories are detective stories, though I happen to think that they’re mysteries too—at least to the extent that most people don’t figure out who’s done what to whom before I tell them. Either way, there’s a heavy strain of noir running through them. The recognition that, more often than not, there are no neat resolutions in life, that many (perhaps most) of the choices we face are between lesser evils, that the innocent get punished along with the guilty—and sometimes more severely, that collateral damage is everywhere—these are all fairly noir-ish notions.

The question of influences is tough to answer. I’ve read pretty widely in the genre, and admire so many authors in the field it’s inevitable I’ll leave some out. The writers that come to mind first are the “big three:” Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald, along with three of their most prominent descendents: Parker, Block, and Burke. But there are some less obvious influences as well: P.D. James, John LeCarre, and John D. MacDonald to name three. My reading outside of the genre—of poetry and “straight” literary fiction and science fiction—has been at least as influential, but that would run to a very long list of names indeed.

Q: Black Maps won the Shamus Award for best first novel of 2003. Has this changed your approach to writing?

A: Black Maps got great reviews, and I’ve received wonderful feedback from readers who’ve enjoyed the book, and those are tremendously gratifying things (especially the appreciation from readers). But winning the Shamus was a particular thrill—in large part because the award is given by other crime writers. Getting the nod from one’s colleagues is a real honor. And while I’m not sure it’s changed my approach to writing, it has given me a certain amount of confidence as a writer, and sharpened my desire to keep getting better.

Q: What does the future hold for John March?

A: More murder, mayhem and melancholy, of course. I’m just finishing the third book in the series, titled Liars Club, and I’m very pleased with how it’s turning out. I won’t say much more about it other than that it involves a member of March’s family.