It's Rebecca, but today I'm pleased to be hosting the very talented Eric Beetner. The novel he co-wrote with JB Kohl, BORROWED TROUBLE, launched this month. It's the follow up to his hard-hitting noir debut, ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD. Both are set in the 1940s in the gritty world of noir. Their meticulous research punches straight off the page and into your heart. In two weeks we'll be lucky enough to have JB Kohl present the perspective of other half of this talented duo.
Eric Beetner is a multi-talented guy. In addition to novels, he's written award-winning short stories and screenplays. He's directed a film and music videos. And he was in a punk rock band. Plus, he actually captured me speechless on video at Left Coast Crime. My brother is still giving me crap about that, Eric, and, if you ever meet him, he says he'll buy the first round.
So, I threw this week's question at him:
Your protagonist is out on the town. Describe the place. The pick up. What does he/she observe? Where does he sit and why?
You guys do the most interesting topics around here, thanks for having me.
My protagonist in this case is Ray Ward, hero (or antihero depending on your particular world view) of the two novels I have co-written with JB Kohl, One Too Many Blows To The Head and the brand new Borrowed Trouble. (look for her in this spot in two weeks)
Ray is an ex-boxer from Kansas City in the late 1930s/early 40s. In chapter one of One Too Many Blows he watches his brother, another boxer whom he now manages, get killed in the ring during a fixed fight. He spends the rest of that book ‘out on the town’ hunting down the men responsible, so he’s used to observing.
In Borrowed Trouble the action moves to Hollywood in 1941 and Ray is out to help out a sister he never knew he had. (I’m leaving out entire halves of the books that deal with JB’s character, Detective Dean Fokoli, but I’ll let her tell you about him)
It was interesting to take Ray from a world he knew in Kansas City to a strange wonderland called Hollywood. When he first gets off the train here’s how he describes it:
“Los Angeles, at first look, was a letdown. I expected what everyone expects: movie stars waving at you from top-down cars, klieg lights and movie cameras on every corner, someone walking Rin Tin Tin down streets paved with gold.”
Later, after some truly bad luck out in Palm Springs, he is driving back into LA where he observes:
“On the highway back to Los Angeles the stars blended with the approaching city lights like we were on the outskirts of a galaxy headed toward its star clustered center.
Los Angeles was growing fast. Hollywood lured countless starlets and working stiffs in search of the bright lights and promise of discovery. From where I sat watching the city crawl up around us along the highway, it was growing faster than it could handle. The edges of the city were like a skeleton still waiting for skin to grow over it.”
And one of my favorites is when he notices an LA icon:
“We passed downtown. I recognized City Hall from the movies. Lit up at night the strong central spike stood like justice itself had claimed the land. To me it seemed like justice had holed up inside and barricaded the door, refusing to come out where the rest of us live.”
Ray is a loner. He’s a man scarred by his past who would rather be left alone. If he’s out on the city streets he’s hugging the shadows, trying not to be noticed. He’ll notice a girl but would never approach one. He’s a man much more comfortable in his hometown and, within that, the squalid comfort of a fight hall.
A Saturday night out for Ray would be something like:
Ray hovered outside the Excelsior fight hall, trying to work up the courage to go inside. He hung near the buildings on the sidewalk by the taxi stand doing his best to blend in with the cabbies all chugging smoke and telling dirty jokes. If you looked at the crowd you could find Ray in a second – just look for the guy not laughing.
The Excelsior stood as a monument to the men inside, punch drunk and tired, smelling of sweat and a little blood. It needed paint, a good carpenter and a few gallons of ammonia to clean just the top layer. Most of the stains on the place are the kind you can never get out. The kind that stain the soul.
If Ray went inside to see his own fighter, a promising Italian boy with a Christmas Ham for a right fist, he would surely be recognized. That night when his brother, Rex, took a dive for the eternal ten count was still the biggest gossip the Excelsior had ever seen. The legend had long replaced the facts and by now to hear the story told Rex was nearly decapitated. Blood soaked the first five rows. The announcer’s microphone shorted out from all the blood. And the man he fought was a seven-footer. Some kind of Comanche Warrior straight off the reservation.
Ray didn’t have time to correct the gossips; grown men working unlit cigars the way a circle of women worked knitting needles and hung out the whole neighborhood’s dirty laundry. Pathetic.
He watched a man in a suit complete with vest and spats walk inside with a gal dressed in furs on his arm. She made no attempt to look like she was enjoying her evening. Dressed for the opera and taking in the blood and sweat show instead. Some date.
Maybe tomorrow night. Maybe the night after. He’d have to remember to get there early so he could grab his seat in the back row near the rafters. No one noticed him there any more than the discarded popcorn and peanut shells under their feet, especially not when the fists started flying.
Ray turned and moved out of the crowd of cab drivers. Two men parted for him, acting surprised like they hadn’t noticed he’d been among them the whole time. It was a good two miles until home so Ray picked up the pace to a light jog. When he got home he’d head straight for the basement and slip on the gloves for a workout. The heavy bag, the speed bag, a little shadow boxing. Sweat out the memories. Beat up his body until he could sleep.
Better than a drinking problem, but still his own little way of torturing himself into forgetting.
So there you go. Ray’s view of the world.
It’s weird doing that since in the books Ray is written in first person. After two books now I definitely know him enough though to merely observe him from afar. He’s also inspired by my own grandfather whose name was Ray and who was a fighter in the 1930s. State Champion of Iowa in 1935, middleweight class. That’s where the similarities end, however.
I loved the chance to bring Ray back for Borrowed Trouble. No plans to continue this series as of now, but you never know. Even just this little exercise whets my appetite for more with Ray, and any chance I get to write with my partner JB Kohl I will take. In addition to our own solo novels we’re working on something else right now so our partnership continues.
Thanks to the Criminal Minds for having us around and for all the inspiring writing you all put out. Hope you liked getting a little glimpse into Ray Ward.