Saturday, January 30, 2010

Partners in Crime: David Corbett

Today, David Corbett Guest Blogs as part of the continuing series here on Mystery Fanfare: Partners in Crime, Authors who Collaborate. Previous Partners in Crime Guest Bloggers have include: Jeffery Deaver, Charles Todd (Charles & Caroline Todd), Charlotte Elkins, Mark Zubro, Bill Crider, and Reed Farrel Coleman.

David Corbett, in addition to being a contributor to the two serial novels The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet—first released separately in audio form through, then packaged together in hardcover by Vanguard Press— is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?( appearing in March 2010).

David’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” (Las Vegas Noir) was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2009. In another collaboration project, he teamed with Luis Alberto Urrea for a story titled "Who Stole My Monkey?" that will appear in the upcoming (October 2010) Lone Star Noir. He has taught at UCLA Extension, Book Passage, Wordstock, and the East of Eden Writers Conference.

David Corbett:

I was intrigued when Jim Fusilli asked if I wanted to be part of an as yet unnamed serial novel project through International Thriller Writers (ITW). First, it was clear there was going to be a lot of talent involved, with Jeff Deaver and Lee Child, David Hewson and SJ Rozan and a host of others already on board. This would mean everyone would have to bring his A game, and Jim—the best cat herder I know—would make sure the story never tripped off into navel-gazing territory or VanityLand.

We got to pick our places, more or less, and I knew that getting an early chapter meant I'd have less to explain or justify, fewer threads to tie together. Luckily, I was fifth in order—or, at least, I was when I wrote my chapter. Funny how things change in a project like this.

By the time my turn arrived, we'd already been to Poland, Rome, Africa and the Washington, D.C. area, all in a mere four chapters. I figured some follow-up was called for, and decided not to do what some might think I'd do: send everyone to Central America! No, I was a good lad. Besides, Erica Spindler, bless her heart, had already nailed me to the wall with a doozy of a plot twist.

In Erica's chapter, she had our hero's daughter receiving a call from her father's cell phone. Only the caller was not her father, Harry Middleton, our hero, but an imposter. It was a great little shocker, a wonderful twist. Just one problem: The last time we'd seen good old Harry, his cell phone had been firmly in his possession. And as yet we had no inkling of how he might have mislaid the thing.

In short, I couldn't have sailed off for Central America if I'd wanted to. I had to justify that damn phone call.

As it turned out, of course, that worked out just doggone swell. Problems are simply challenges, as they say in the service, so I came up with a justification for not only why Harry no longer had his cell phone, but why he didn't realize it until later. (We were putting him through an ordeal or two, poor guy, and anyone in his spot might well forget his boxers in the john.)

But I also saw an opportunity to introduce an element that until then had been undeveloped. Harry was a music aficionado, and in Jeff Deaver's first chapter he was ruminating over some Chopin manuscripts that had previously been undiscovered. I'd once heard a rumor that, if it isn't true, ought to be, to the effect that Nazi spies had used twelve-tone music performances, which have no discernible tonal center and thus never seem to possess a "wrong note," to pass secret messages to American fifth columnists among the cultural elite here in the States during World War II. I decided to have Harry, after hearing a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire on the radio of the car he's hijacked to get to his daughter, realize that it's not the manuscript the villains are after, it's the coded message within the manuscript—and that will tell him what they're really after.

I felt quite proud of myself for that little turn, but credit eluded me. John Ramsay Miller had the next chapter, but when Jim Fusilli got it, he decided it worked better coming before mine rather than after. However, since John actually wrote it after reading mine, he let it slip that Harry was thinking along the coded manuscript lines, and my surprise got preempted. (Pause for prolonged sigh.)

However, I did get some revenge. I was getting the hang of this leave-the-next-author-in-the-lurch thing, and I ended my chapter with the sudden appearance of an unidentified beauty with a gun. Jim Fusilli was intrigued. He took a stab at guessing who she was. I replied, "I have no clue who she is, that's for somebody else to figure out."

Oh, the fun of the serial thriller.

Apparently I didn't embarrass myself (or antagonize anyone) too badly, for I was invited to join the next barrel of monkeys conscripted into writing the sequel, The Copper Bracelet.

Jeff again kicked things off, and I gathered from the story line he was flirting with—he very cagily and generously hung back a little, so the rest of us could have a free hand—that we were going to end up in Kashmir and water was going to be the big issue. I summoned my trusty researcher, Binky McGoogle, and she very quickly tipped me off to a huge water dispute in Kashmir that had almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war: a dam project in the Indian-controlled areas that Pakistan claimed deprived it of much needed irrigation water. (I met Jeff at the Wordstock conference in Portland later that year, and he slyly admitted that, yes, this had been on his mind the whole time.)

Well, no one else picked up on this before the time came for me to write my chapter, so I decided to run with it. Not that I had much choice. Again, I was fairly boxed in by what had come before, this time because my fellow authors had either taken us to lands we never expected to visit (Joe Finder decided to send our hero to Russia, because . . . well, why not?), or had thrown in a plot twist so out of left field it had us all shaking our heads (Lisa Scottoline, take a bow), that I was asked to settle things down a little, return to our gentle hero, and write the chapter commonly referred to as: Where the hell are we, and why?

Joe had left poor Harry in Russia on the verge of catastrophe, so there I stayed, and what better way to explain a complicated chain of events than an interrogation scene? I know, cheap trick, contrived mano-a-mano drama—so sue me. I went back to all the chapters, outlined them, tracked the various loose ends, abandoned plot threads and red herrings, and figured out a way to make everything cohere, then laid it out in a tense, back-and-forth chess match between our intrepid American hero and his pitiless Slavic inquisitor . . .

Or something like that. I'm told it worked. I've received no hate mail.

The funny thing? I have no clue how either book developed after my chapter. I've been so busy with other projects I've not been able to listen to the audio versions—despite being an almost shameless Alfred Molina fan—nor have I read the print versions in Watchlist. I did my bit and moved on. Is that the sign of a pro or what?

Curiously, another collaboration opportunity fell in my lap this past fall. It all began a year earlier, when Luis Alberto Urrea was in San Francisco being featured, feted and fawned over because The Hummingbird's Daughter had been chosen for the One City-One Book extravaganza. We met through a mutual friend, discovered we had another mutual friend in John Connolly—whom Luis considers a madman—and just basically hit it off.

Then Luis, whose tastes are nothing if not eclectic, talked about maybe collaborating on something in the genre realm, using his exhaustive knowledge of the border and Mexican arcana and my genre instincts for straight-ahead train-wreck plotting. It sounded like fun, but our other obligations kept us from doing anything but talking about it until Bobby Byrd needed a story for the forthcoming Lone Star Noir, and Luis decided to throw me a bone. He had the main character, Chester Richard, a zydeco legend with an eye for the jeunes filles, already in mind, the musical background, the Port Arthur locale, a few other impressionistic details. I added a few of my own, we tossed a few other ideas back and forth, then agreed on a general story idea. I took first whack, Luis batted second, I did some minor cleanup and we sent it in. Bobby liked it so much he decided to bookend the anthology with it, with the other bookend being a story by the late great James Crumley.

We're thinking about a follow-up, a novel this time, based on a gunslinging tour guide in the Guatemalan wilderness, because Luis can't take a vacation without thinking up some way to turn it into a story.

Which, of course, is a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I've been a Corbett fan since he spoke to the Fresno chapter of Sisters in Crime in what seems like another lifetime. He had just published THE DEVIL'S REDHEAD, a book that blew me away -- so different from anything I had ever read and still one of my favorite books.

Wishing David best of luck and continued success.

Pat Browning

David Corbett said...

Thank you, Pat. I remember that visit to the Fresno SinC chapter well. Think about giving Watchlist -- or its audio predecessors -- a try. They're really quite unique.

David C.

vallerose said...

Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, three words I never thought I would see together with thrillers. I have heard about the piece for years, but not being a fan of twelve tone music, haven't rushed out to hear it. Still, the idea of using the music as a code is fascinating. It would definitely be for an elite group. Good piece David. Really enjoyed it.

how to ollie said...

I like your writing style. Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

Yes, mystery lovers around the world decried the sparse mention of Schoenberg in the whodunits they were reading. I felt called to fill the vacuum. Next up: Stockhausen.

Thanks to both of you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

Anonymous said...

Hi David, for tomorrow please, why is the story called '' Who Stole My Monket'' I have an Power Point Presentation please. I like your story is very good.

Thanks :)