Friday, October 19, 2012

Looking Here and There

It’s not either or with me on this question of what comes first in terms of research.  That is, I can go someplace or meet someone in an interesting walk of life and think, huh, now there’s a story there.  Or an idea for a character or situation occurs to me possibly spurred by some news story. If intrigued enough, I pursue where that idea takes me. 
As an example, several years ago there was the Rampart Scandal here in L.A.  This involved a tough anti-gang cop operating out of the Rampart station getting busted for stealing a bundle of coke from his division’s evidence locker   The cop’s name was Rafael Perez.  As his colleagues sweated him for the lowdown on why he stole the coke, seeking to make a deal, Perez reeled off a raft of eyebrow raising revelations that rocked the city and got national attention.  The New Yorker did what I can only call a East coast biased piece that woefully missed the many aspects of this multi-faceted story.
For on a daily basis more layers of the scandal came to light.  As it happened, given my background as a community activist and at that time heading a nonprofit to better race relations (this being post the ’92 Rodney King verdict riots), I knew a couple of the lawyers representing some of the gang members Perez and his cohorts had vamped on in the heavily Latino populated Pico-Union section here in L.A. 
I had breakfast with one of those lawyers, asking this and asking that and taking notes.  Additionally, as happenstance would again have it, I knew Perez’s defense attorney slightly as our kids played on the same basketball team at a neighborhood park.  He couldn’t talk to me of course, though I did pitch him to ask his client what about me writing Perez’s memoir, but still.  I also knew various community activists, some ex-gang members, who had plenty to say about some of the officers operating out of Rampart.
Up to that point, I hadn’t written a police procedural.  I’d written several books and short stories about my private eye Ivan Monk, two about ex-showgirl and cold cash courier Martha Chainey, and a standalone or two.  But how could I not write this story?  I got delayed for several months after having written an outline and some sample chapters with this editor at a big house who wanted me to redeem one of my main characters and I didn’t.  As we argued about the direction of the narrative over a period of months, the film Training Day got out the gate and the Shield was on the horizon for cable.  So I had my agent withdraw my work from that house and fortunately my editor at Kensington dug the story the way I wanted to tell it and they published Bangers in ’03.
More recently, my novel out now, Warlord of Willow Ridge, began as a news article I read in the L.A. Times last year.  It was about this housing subdivision that had fallen on hard times out in Hemet, what we call the Inland Empire here in the Southland.  How, as the effects of the Great Recession had roiled these homeowners, some of whom had bought their houses when the market was up.  But now, after the developer ran out of money, you had some of these homes next door to skeletal frames or any number of foreclosed homes in the subdivision.  You had squatters and gang members running through, renters versus mortgage holders.  A kind of modern Western. 
Like many of us, I’d read and seen on TV various stories about the money meltdown.  I was already contemplating doing some story of story about this, but as I read more and made more notes, didn’t think I wanted to tell the story from the top, via say a Wall Streeter.  I did toy with what if a professional thief was hired to steal back some money ripped off by a Madoff-type.  But that article stuck with me.  So what, I thought, if my pro, my career criminal is no kid.  He’s in his forties and finds himself, like the aging gunfighter, at a crossroads.
The antihero arrives at this once tony subdivision not on a horse but on a failing motorcycle.  He can’t travel further and decides to take over a foreclosed house.  Turns out an enterprising gang has taken over another empty house and turned it into a high tech meth lab, there a shapely divorcee who inherited an auto-body chain eyeing my bad boy, her grown daughter has a thing for the enterprising gang leader and sells his meth to Hollywood wannabes, the head of the flagging homeowners association very concerned with the Ph balance of his pool and some other odd types.  What might happen with my guy and them are in the same orbit?


Meredith Cole said...

I like your modern Western idea, Gary. Really seems to fit our times. All those foreclosures seem like the perfect starting point for murder and mayhem to me...

Reece said...

Gary -- I really like the premise of the new book. The protagonist sounds like a post-economic-meltdown Jack Reacher.

Gary Phillips said...

Hey, thanks you two. I love that post-economic meltdown Jack Reacher!