Old Gray Lady Tells Jack Shepherd, Rick Crane and Sam Spade: “You’re Fired”

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain are rolling in their graves. As for Jake Needham and I, well…we’re merely rolling our eyes.

Needham, as many of you know, is the prolific author of the critically acclaimed Jack Shepherd thrillers (and others) set in Asia. To quote the Singapore Straits Times: “Needham’s provocative views about Asian culture jump at you from almost every page. The gritty and taut KILLING PLATO is 100% unadulterated attitude.”

As for me, I’m the author of the almost-as-critically acclaimed (but not quite) Rick Crane Noir series from Stay Thirsty Publishing.

Imagine the looks on our faces this morning – and hundreds of other authors who have made a decent living telling readers about the bars, alleys and cases involving the private eyes they’ve created – when we opened up the New York Times and read “The Death of the Private Eye,” a feature in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

Imagine, for a second, a modern private-detective movie. A weeping wife is seated in the smoky, wood-paneled office of Skip Tracer, private investigator and overwrought cliché. She suspects her husband is having an affair and wants Skip to tail him. He agrees, shakes on it, then cruises hubby’s Facebook profile to find that – quite by accident, being both a rookie adulterer and lousy with is iPhone settings – he has publicly announced his presence at one of those by-the-hour joints, right around the corner. Skip escorts his client to the precise latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, where she catches her soon-to-be-ex in flagrante delicto. Case closed.

The Times couldn’t be more wrong (as if that’s news). Yes, modern-day private eyes use modern-day technology, but only out of necessity, not out of character. As any author worth his digital publishing rights knows, these characters are not your next door neighbor. They’re the guy your mother warned you about, the guy who was always in the principal’s office, now inhabiting an underworld – wholly created by these authors – that few ever see. That’s what keeps them coming back for more.

This netherworld is definitely out there, detailed for all to see in a genre that continues to flourish, fueled by a slew of excellent, noirish private-eye stories and novellas. They tell the stories of guys like Hank Thompson, the protagonist in Charlie Huston’s excellent “Caught Stealing” trilogy set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; Jack Shepherd and Inspector Samuel Tay, unique and compelling characters in Jake Needhams books; and Rick Crane, my rakish private eye who lives in the underbelly of economically depressed Upstate New York, a land that time has almost forgotten that’s filled with mob bosses, fast broads, fast cars, and crimes of passion, and greed and human emotions as old as Cain and Abel.

And, contrary to the false scenario set up by the Times, some of these guys still do it the old-fashioned way, as told at the start of “Cooper’s Daughter,” the first book in my Rick Crane Noir series:

I’ve often wondered what people think when they drive by the Marshall Manor Motel.

It’s the last place you’d see on the cover of one of those slick brochures that try to sell Park Avenue doctors and lawyers on the idea of a summer house in the Finger Lakes. It sits back on a lonely stretch of route 14, between Watkins Glen and Horseheads, with its peeling paint, flickering neon sign, and a dilapidated chain-link fence around a half-filled swimming pool that, even on a dark winter night, you know hasn’t been cleaned since Carter was president.

Marshall Manor is part of the Upstate New York of long-forgotten places like Elmira, Corning and Bath. Exits on a highway where no one gets off because the decay is too palpable, even if you’re just stopping for gas.

Tonight was the third night I was getting a cramp in my thigh from sitting across the road made wet by the melting snowbanks that line the shoulders of the roads up here from November to April. My car, a black 1987 Buick Grand National, was nudged up against a line of bushy pine trees. Small clumps of snow still clung to the lower branches, making them look like Christmas trees that had been only half-decorated with tinsel. The strip mall has a tanning salon, a second-hand consignment shop, and a convenience store that probably makes the worst coffee in Chemung County.

“I’d much rather be getting a cramp on a barstool at the Woodhouse, nursing a beer between shots of Jim Beam,” I thought to myself. Instead, here I was, sitting in my car on a lonely stretch of road on a cold February night. But then I reminded myself that I was being paid to sit here and watch what went on at Marshall Manor. Who came and went with whom and how long they stayed.

Of course, I already knew what went on in places like Marshall Manor, the Wishing Well, and the Starlight. No-tell motels where bored women married to what they imagined to be even more-boring men came to try and find what they’ve lost (or maybe never had) in their marriages. Women like Amy McCarthy, wife of Bob McCarthy, senior vice president of whatever at Corning Inc.

And I suspect few readers, on their daily commute to their workaday job, stopping at Starbucks for their extra-skinny, super whipped, 165-degree mochachino, imagine this taking place at the local precinct, the opening lines to my newest Rick Crane Noir, “Jimmy’s Nephew”:

Working a guy over – especially if you’re a cop – is pretty much a lost art.

You wanna deliver shots that hurt, but don’t leave too many marks. Well-placed punches that get your point across. So far, Lt. Sean Swift of the Ontario County Homicide Squad was doing just fine.

“Come on, Rick,” said Sergeant Mike Crocker. “My partner’s having too much fun with this.”

I tried to catch my breath and forget the pain racking my body. But not far away was Lt. Swift, pacing the 10-by-12 cinderblock room with the two-way mirror, intercom on the wall near the door, and video camera tucked up in the corner. His deliberate steps and sideways glance made it clear to me that he wasn’t done.

Not by a long shot.

“You’ve been around long enough to know how this works, Rick,” Crocker said across the gray-metal interrogation table that separated us. “Tell us what we want to know and we can all go home.”

“Except for you, scumbag,” Swift said with a sneer “You’re gonna go to Attica and be some gorilla’s girlfriend for the rest of your short, miserable life.”

I looked down at the olive-green metal trashcan in the far corner and laughed out of the corner of my mouth. Before I could look up again, Lt. Swift had crossed the six feet separating us and delivered a hard right across my jaw. For a few seconds, I thought I might pass out.

“That one’s gonna leave a mark, Swifty,” I said after shaking off the punch. “Too bad. Up until now, your technique’s been pretty good.”

I didn’t know if his friends called him “Swifty,” but what else would you call a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, freckled Irish cop named Sean Swift?

“I told you guys,” I said, giving Swifty a look back that told him he hadn’t broken me.  “You got this all wrong.”

It was a line they’d heard a thousand times. But they weren’t buying it. Not tonight.

Besides, I wasn’t some run-of-the-mill perp they’d picked up from a bar fight, or a DWI they’d nabbed driving home from the local Kiwanis Club. I was the lead suspect in the biggest case these two would ever see.

The murder of a priest.

And not just any priest.

The bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, one of the biggest Catholic communities in Upstate New York.

And right now, the best suspect they had was me.

Rick Crane.

Local private investigator with shady connections to Jimmy Ricchiati, one of Upstate New York’s biggest mob bosses.

Whether I did it or not, they were gonna make this one stick. 

“Yeah…” Swifty said, leaning over to remind me who was in charge. “How do we have it all wrong?”

I wasn’t going to tell them.

Not now.

Not without my lawyer.

But they did have the wrong man.

Whatever that means these days.

So let the Times proclaim that the golden-age of the private eye is dead. Given its dwindling readership, I doubt Jake Needham is lying awake at night, wondering what the story will do to his readership. I think it’s safe to say, he’ll be just fine.

And so will the rest of us who like a good crime scene, three fingers of Scotch, and women who were built for sin.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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