William Heffernan Interview

The Dead Detective, published by Akashic Books in September 2010, is William Heffernan’s seventeenth novel. It ranks not only among his best works, but also one of his darkest. The novel’s protagonist is Harry Doyle, a detective for the Pinellas County sheriff’s department known as “The Dead Detective.” As a child, he had been momentarily dead before being resuscitated, and since becoming a detective he’s felt a strange connection with the deceased. His latest case is the murder of a woman who was a convicted child molester. As more bodies begin to appear around town and Doyle gets deeper into the case, he is forced to face the ghosts of his past that he had spent a lifetime suppressing.

A former journalist, three-time Pulitzer nominee and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Heffernan’s novels are steeped in realistic crime on both the micro and macro levels. Whether focusing on the global or local stage, Heffernan has the ability to craft compelling dramas that engage with history and politics while still entertaining readers and without falling into the trappings of didacticism or dilettantism. He does his research, and it shows in the strong details and compelling dramas of his novels. The Corsican (1983), which looks at international drug smuggling in Laos in the mid-20th century, reaches Graham Greene-like heights of political intrigue. Blending cultural anthropology and crime fiction, Beulah Hill (2000) is Heffernan’s masterpiece, an investigation into a racially motivated murder in a small Vermont town during the Great Depression. And The Dinosaur Club (1997), about the corruption of corporate America, is as timely as ever and remains one of the author’s most popular works.

Broderick, his first novel, was published in 1980. It is based on the real-life figure of Johnny Broderick, a tough New York cop as legendary as he is notorious. Nicknamed “The Beater,” Broderick is anything but your conventional heroic policeman; he’s as corrupt, violent, and as crooked as the gangster and hoods he hunts down. Heffernan’s worldview is decidedly realist: his characters are imperfect, their worlds harsh and violent, and justice is rarely achieved on either the individual or judicial level.

Heffernan intertwines the personal and the political in complex dramas in which characters are involved with issues that are larger than they fully comprehend. Heffernan’s background in journalism shows through in his analysis of the roles that individual people play in national and global dramas. In Acts of Contrition (1986), when reporter Jennifer Brady begins to investigate up-and-coming politician Tony Marco and his background with the local waterfront union, she discovers that if finding out the truth is difficult, reporting it is even harder. Corruption isn’t a single cancerous cell than can be excised with one article—it’s a living cancerous organism with an extended family tree.

In Heffernan’s world, individuals may have the power to make or break history—but that power is not always in their control. You can see this at play in the political struggles in The Corsican and Acts of Contrition. Even in Cityside (1999), a journalist finds that writing an expose on medical malpractice in order to help save a child's life is not so morally cut and dry, and that saving a life isn't the top priority for either the doctors or his editors. A more personal version of this desire appears in A Time Gone By (2003), whose narrative is split between a cop in 1975 looking back at one of his first murder cases in 1945, and the long string of tragedies that all began with a decision he made back then. Heffernan is a subtle stylist, and one of his finest touches is using the past tense for the 1975 narration and the present tense for the 1945 section. So haunted is the protagonist that the past is more immediate than the present—a perfect evocation of noir’s lingering and nagging sense of regret.

At NoirCon 2010, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Heffernan and having an on-stage dialogue with the author. Following the convention, Heffernan was kind enough to do a follow-up interview with me regard his long career as a writer.

Pulp Serenade: At NoirCon, you mentioned that The Dead Detective was based on a true story. What was the original story, and what attracted you to it?

William Heffernan: A true story in the sense that the woman who was killed was real or at least based on a real woman. Shortly after I moved to Florida in 2005 the media exploded with the story of an extraordinarily beautiful middle school health teacher who had seduced one of her 13 year old students. What intrigued me was that she seemed to relish the publicity. You could see the little glint in her eyes. She dressed extremely well, was a former swimsuit model and had just married six months earlier. She made love to the student in her own bed while her husband was at work, in her automobile while the boy’s 15-year old cousin drove them along back roads – all the time watching the driver watch her in the rearview mirror. The boy she seduced was ultimately devastated by the publicity that ensued, and as I watched her on television I would look over at my own 13-year old son and wonder what was going on in the mind of a woman who could obviously have any adult male she wanted.

At the same time, there was another story about two young boys whose mother had decided to kill them by drugging them, placing them in her garage and starting the engine of her car. Both boys were clinically dead when police, alerted by a neighbor, found them. The younger, smaller boy, who was six, could not be revived. The older boy was brought back to life. The mother, who belonged to evangelical church, claimed she wanted her sons to “Go to Jesus and wait for her.” The media ate up the story, quoting the older boy extensively, when the state’s attorney claimed he would testify and help put his murderous mother in the gas chamber. The boy told the media he was prepared to testify but all he really wanted was to be sure his mother never got out of prison. He was ten years old.

Of course the “what if” hit me immediately. What if the 10 year old grew up to be a homicide detective, who could (because he had been there himself) feel what murder victims felt at the time of their death, and what if he now had to investigate the murder of a child abusing woman, who had done precisely what this Tampa school teacher had done. Add to that the emotional problem of having his mother coming up for parole. I couldn’t wait to get to the computer.

PS: You’ve been writing novels for three decades now. Do you feel like you have a comfortable routine down, or does each new novel still pose a certain challenge? If so, what challenge did The Dead Detective pose?

WH: My routine is well established but each novel always presents its own challenge. In the case of The Dead Detective the challenges were many. I was new to Florida and had to learn the area, it’s police procedures, etc. I came here from Vermont and New York City, and Florida is a far cry from either, from its flora to its overwhelming abundance of strip clubs and near fanatical Christian churches (often, I suspect, populated by the same people). So it was a long learning experience.

PS: On a similar note, after writing novels for so long, what is the most fun part of the process for you?

WH: I love the writing, of course, feeling the characters develop until they are as real as any person I might meet, perhaps even realer because they live with me 24 hours a day. The research is the most fun because it helps me develop that little world that I will live within for a year or more.

PS: At what age did you start writing, and who were some of the early influences?

WH: I started writing seriously in college and was influenced by Henry Miller at first; then Joyce and Faulkner, Hemmingway, Jim Thompson, Graham Greene, Alain Robbe-Grillet, an eclectic bunch. In truth, almost anyone I read in high school and college influenced me and filled me with the desire to do what they were doing.

PS: As a journalist, you were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes. What were the news stories which won and were nominated?

WH: The Kennedy Award and one of the Pulitzer nominations were for a series of articles I wrote for the Daily News exposing corruption and abuse in the Foster care system in New York City. The series resulted in 11 new federal laws. It also won a Heywood Broun Award. The other Pulitzers were for articles detailing corruption in the New York State prison system and the other for political corruption in Buffalo, New York, which also won another Heywood Broun Award.

PS: What prompted the shift from journalism to writing novels?

WH: Writing novels is what I always wanted to do. Journalism, which I loved, was a way to earn a living as a writer until I found a way to crack into the world of book publishing.

PS: Tarnished Blue, which won the Edgar in 1996 for Best Paperback Original Novel, was the fourth Paul Devlin novel. How do you sustain a character for that long and what keeps a character and his actions fresh?

WH: With great difficulty. That’s why the Devlin books ended with the seventh book. I couldn’t keep the characters fresh any longer.

PS: Beulah Hill is not only one of your darkest books but, in my opinion, one of your best. Can you talk about how you discovered this forgotten piece of American history and what drew you to it as a writer?

WH: I was looking for a house in Vermont in 1988 and the realtor had given me a map so I could follow the rural areas we were traveling through. As we headed for a house she wanted to show me I saw on the map that the road was called “Nigger Hill.” When I questioned this, she told me the name had been changed to “Lincoln Hill” in 1985 (Vermonters were slow with their political correctness in those days). When I reached the house I questioned the owner about it and was told she knew little but there was an abandoned African-American cemetery in the woods behind the house. I went looking and found it and the names of the African-American characters in the book were taken from those gravestones. This little discovery began six years of research to find the story that eventually became Beulah Hill.

PS: Many of the characters in Beulah Hill are filled with hate, bigotry, and ignorance. As a writer, how do you cope with these emotions, particularly when you do not personally side with them?

WH: In my mind I become each character and they show me where the hate and bigotry comes from. Sounds spooky but it’s true and if the characters don’t do that for you, become that real in your mind, the book will fail.

PS: One of the things that struck me about A Time Gone By is its unconventional structure that switches between first and third person narrators. In the 1970s, as an older man, Jake’s story is told through third person. But when he is remembering back to the 1940s, the story is told through first-person perspective. Why the switch?

WH: I wanted to move back and forth without having to alert the reader about what I was doing. I also wanted to write 1940 sections in the style of the great Noir writers of that time, and the 1970 section in my own literary voice. As Marilyn Stassio noted in the New York Times review, it was a clear homage to those great noir writers – Gardner, Thompson, Hammet, etc.

PS: I saw that you reviewed several books for the Washington Post a few years back. What was the experience like for you as a critic?

WH: I started reviewing books at the request of the editor, who was a close friend. I found it very difficult, especially when I had to gently pan Mario Puzo’s last book, which was published after his death. I admired him so much, and I’m still convinced he did not finish that book himself. At least I hope he didn’t. I decided to give up reviews after that.

PS: You are mainly known for your novels, but do you also write short stories?

WH: I started out writing short stories, but have given them up. The novel is where I belong.

PS: For Tarnished Blue you went on tour with Mickey Spillane. At NoirCon you told me a wonderful story that involved both of you answering a question about how long it took to write a book. Could you recount the story again?

WH: Mickey and I were appearing at a bookstore, largely before a crowd of middle aged and older women. One woman asked us how long it took us to write a book. I went into a long (too long) and convoluted answer about it depending on how much research was needed, etc. Mickey, God love him, just looked her in the eye and gave her the truest and most honest answer I have ever heard flow from a writer’s mouth. Mickey who had a number of ex-wives still collecting alimony said: “It depends on how much I need the money.”

PS: Lastly, what is up next for you? Any projects you can let us know about?

WH: I just finished a book set during the civil war, and I’m starting the research for another “Dead Detective” book, this one set within the Scientology community in Clearwater, Florida.

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