Petty thieves, women who take their clothes off for money, small time criminals, big time mobsters, these are the characters I embrace. I write hard-boiled crime fiction. But the why of the matter is a mystery.
Fact: my grandfather sold bootlegged whisky on the Pike in Long Beach California. In the sixth grade his teacher said, “Harold Stallings, you will spend your life behind bars.” He did, he became cop, spent his later life as Chief of Corrections, behind bars. He also spent his first forty years at bars as often as possible. He was long time sober when he passed.
What does this have to do with my writing? Wait. My father stole his first car at 16. It was a Ford coupe. Black. Sexy. He did it to impress a girl who sold lemonade on the boardwalk. As he tells it, the keys were in the ignition. The car was in the driveway. The owner could be seen washing dishes. Pop took off the brake and let it roll down to the street. He then drove to the beach and parked in plain view of the boardwalk. It was important the girl saw him get out. He knew this would cinch the deal with her. He walked down an incline and was almost to her. She was smiling. He swallowed and started to speak, “Hi I saw-”
“Hal, you best come up here.” His father stood between the patrol car and the stolen Ford coupe. Busted.
The second car he took at gunpoint. He was nineteen and serving in the army. He was at a bar, hustling a redhead. She was laughing at his jokes. They drank bourbon. They smoked Lucky Strikes. She could French inhale. He could blow a line of smoke rings. His cash ran out. Party over.
No. Not yet. He wanted the girl, so he did what any drunk Stallings man would do. Went back to the base, to the armory and checked out a .45. Drove to a lonely stretch of Highway 1. Hid his car and stuck out his thumb. The good Samaritan who stopped for him smiled.
“Need a lift soldier?”
“Yes I do.” Hal only slurred a little.
“My son is serving in Korea, Army 5th. You shipping out soon?”
“I’m in the MP’s, stateside.” Sweat seeped out of his hairline. He fumbled for the automatic.
“What’s wrong there son, you ok?”
Instead of answering Hal pulled the gun.
“Oh son you don’t want to do this.” The man was trembling. Hal was trembling. The barrel shook
as he spoke.
“I need your wallet.”
“Don’t kill me, please, I have a wife.”
Hal took $47 and asked the man to step out of the car. He then drove away, leaving the man not more
than a hundred yards from a pay phone.
Highway 1 snakes along the coast of California. There were no cut offs, no intersections for miles. In the dark of the car Hal felt the tension start to leave. He smiled, then let out a drunken whoop. Images of that redhead laying down on a motel bed, her eyes welcoming him, pleading for him to have her, played out in his mind.
He was two miles from the bar, when he rounded a corner and was blinded by white light. Behind the lights, two cop cars stood end to end blocking the highway. Haloed by the light a cop stood aiming his shotgun at Hal. For the briefest moment he thought of running. But the big man with the shouldered shotgun convinced him to hit the brakes.
“Pop, what were you thinking?” I asked him a few weeks ago when I was in Seattle interviewing him for a biography I’m working on.
“I don’t think I was. If I was, I was thinking about that redhead. In court the guy I robbed told the judge I had the eyes of a stone killer, he had no doubt if he hadn’t done what I said I would have killed him.”
“Stone killer, huh?”
“I suspect any man pointing a pistol in your face looks like a killer.”
And still, why I write hard-boiled fiction nags at me. Was it my childhood? Violence swam in our family like a hungry shark. Chaos was the norm. Or was it that I went to High School in East Palo Alto. Ghetto. I was fourteen when I almost stabbed a junky who was coming after me and Tommy Cavasos. I was fifteen when I started carrying a Beretta .25. That same year I was arrested for breaking and entering and grand theft. We had robbed three houses before we got popped. I was a truly shitty criminal. Guilt kept me up at night and tied my stomach in knots. The house I got caught robbing belonged to a childhood friend. I carry that guilt and have it wake me to remind me what a piece of crap I am. At sixteen I cruised East Palo Alto searching for a man who hit my mother. My brother drove his 1967 Firebird. I had a Smith & Wesson .38 on my lap. Had we found the man, you wouldn’t be reading this. My life would have gone very hard-boiled and noir. Which is fun to read and fun to write and a real bitch to live.
None of this is to give me tough guy street cred. I was afraid every moment of every crime I was ever involved in. I got caught because I was too thick to think crimes through. My shrink says it was because I wanted to be caught. I tell her, no one wants to get caught.
Charlie Huston told me he heard once that writing crime fiction is just writing about us, with guns. I can’t argue that. I think I write and read crime fiction because it makes me feel less alone. Or maybe it’s a way to work out my wild heritage without winding up in jail. Or maybe, I just like naked babes, blazing guns and tough guys who never give up no matter how much pain life throws their way.