Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cool Canadian Crime: Jack Batten

Today I welcome Canadian Crime Writer Jack Batten. Thanks to mystery author David Cole for arranging this. In 2009 David Cole interviewed 13  Canadian Crime Writers for Mystery Fanfare. Scroll down to see links to those author interviews.

Jack Batten is an author, journalist, reviewer, and radio personality. He has written over thirty books on subjects that include biography, crime fiction, law and court cases, and sports. Jack Batten’s first career was as a lawyer. After four years, he turned to writing. He has been a staff writer at Maclean’s Magazine and the Star Weekly. Batten has written for many magazines, including Chatelaine, Rolling Stone, and Toronto Life. He has written radio plays for the CBC and a jazz column for The Globe and Mail. Nowadays, Jack Batten writes books and reviews crime novels for The Sunday Star. The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone is Jack’s most recent book, for which he was nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction, the biggest prize in Canadian Children’s literature.

Jack Batten:

For years, I've read crime novels. For almost as many years, I’ve made my living writing magazine articles and nonfiction books. Now and then, back in the late 1980s, I thought idly about putting the two together, the reading and the writing. I would write mystery novels. But I didn’t seriously crank up with this ambition until Eric Wright and Howard Engel began publishing crime novels. I’ve known those two guys for years, and I thought to myself, somewhat arrogantly, if they could write successful crime novels, why couldn’t I?

Of course it turned out to be much harder than I dreamed. But to make it easier, I borrowed freely from my own background when I wrote about my made-up characters. Isn’t that what every novelist does? For my central character, whom I named Crang, I chose as his day job the profession of criminal lawyer. Why criminal lawyer? Because I knew at both first hand and second hand how criminal lawyers go about their business.

I practiced a little criminal law during my four not entirely happy years as a lawyer in Toronto. That was one source for my knowledge about criminal law. Even better, after I left law to become a writer, I wrote a series of nonfiction books about lawyers of all sorts, including the criminal variety. I interviewed dozens of criminal lawyers. These people love to talk about the wild things they get into with their clients. I saved up the stories, and gave many of them to Crang, my own fictional criminal lawyer.

Something else I gave to Crang, to shape him as a character, were my own likes and dislikes. Crang drinks the same beverage as I do (Polish potato vodka) and listens to the same music (jazz covering the period from Lester Young’s emergence in 1935 to Bill Evans’s death in 1980). For almost twenty-five years, I reviewed movies on the CBC’s Toronto morning program, Metro Morning. I didn’t give my movie knowledge to Crang. I gave it to his girlfriend, Annie. She holds down a freelance job in the books as—can you guess?--the movie reviewer for Metro Morning.

That’s another indentifying characteristic in the Crang books: the place is specifically Toronto. I name the names; the names of radio programs, restaurants, neighbourhoods, sports arenas, buildings and just about everything else are the real thing. I didn’t make up any of this stuff (except the plots) because I wanted Toronto to appear in the books as it really is. Novelists often say of the areas where their books are set that the place is intended to be something like a distinct character in the books. That’s how I thought of Toronto in the Crang books.

For plots, I arrived at a kind of pattern that runs through all the books. First comes a more or less minor crime, which I define as not up to the level of murder. In Crang Plays the Ace, the first of the four books in the series, the crime involves a private disposal company that is playing fast and loose with pricing. In the second book, Straight No Chaser, someone swipes a jazz musician’s beloved tenor saxophone. In both instances, Crang is hired to get to the bottom of the trouble. Up to that point in each book, Crang is acting more or less in his capacity as a criminal lawyer. Then someone gets murdered. That’s when Crang begins to perform more like a private eye.

In real life, he would back away from events and allow the cops to solve the murder. But in the books, Crang insists on sticking around until he gets to the bottom of all the crimes he’s encountered, including the killing. His motivation is largely a matter of conscience; he feels it’s part of his job to see the case to its completion. But the other factor that comes into play is Crang’s own bumbling; he’s not always on top of events, and often finds himself roped into dicey circumstances without intending to end up as deep in trouble as he gets. He needs to solve the murder in order to avoid potential grief from either the bad guys or the cops or, worst of all, from both.

Crang’s name comes from my childhood. When I was a kid growing up in the Forest Hill neighbourhood in Toronto, the most mysterious person on the block lived in a big house hidden behind a circular driveway and a large stand of very tall trees. All I knew about this elusive figure was his last name—Crang. I gave the name to my guy, leaving it at just plain Crang because I thought it was distinctive all by itself (in the same mode as the late Robert. B. Parker’s Spenser).

Years after I wrote the Crang books, I met a man who was a friend of the original Mr. Crang in the Forest Hill mansion. He told me that the real Crang’s first name was James, that he made a lot of money as a stockbroker, and that among the books in his library were the four novels in the Crang series. The man who told me all this added that Mr. Crang was a fan of the series. He loved seeing his name attached to a criminal lawyer who acted more like a private eye. He hoped I would write more Crang books.

Cool Canadian Crime Interviews by David Cole on Mystery Fanfare: 
The group of 13 authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel.
Louise Penny
Barbara Fradkin
Mary Jane Maffini
Thomas Rendell Curran
Gail Bowen
Garry Ryan
Anthony Bidulka
R.J. Harlick
Linwood Barclay
Anne Emery
Rick Mofina
Lou Allin
Vicky Delany

Interview with the Interviewer David Cole

1 comment:

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Okay, Jack, enough slacking and goofing around. Bring back Crang -- we need him more than ever.