Dark Corners of Our Everyday Lives
By Erica WrightApril 24, 2017
In addition to this series, Segura is the author of numerous comic books, including successful contributions to the Archie canon. We corresponded via email about the links between this art form and mystery novels, the flexibility of memory, and the hurdles of fan expectations. Perhaps most revealing, Segura sums up his stance on crime as “inherently about passion and desire.” It’s little wonder that his Miami-based novels explore these twin emotions, showing how a city is darker — and more scandalous — than its postcards.
ERICA WRIGHT: Your latest novel opens in 1959 Cuba with an assistant to the attorney general waiting for one of Che Guevara’s men. It’s a high-stakes scene in every sense — personal for the character, political for the book. What lead you to this starting place?
ALEX SEGURA: It’s partially based on real events. My own grandfather also served in the Batista government and experienced something similar. I’ve added some touches and changed names to make it more intense, but the root of the story is true. I only learned of it recently, while talking to my aunt at a family gathering. At the time, I had the “Pete” story of the book pretty well laid out in my head, but I also knew I wanted to explore the Cuba-Miami relationship and how it affected Pete as well. I was just having trouble finding the right way to do it. When my aunt told me the story, I was floored. Mainly because I’d never heard it before, but also because it sounded so dramatic — it was hard to believe at first. While my grandfather’s escape was not as bloody or pulse-pounding as that of Diego Fernandez, it definitely served as the spark for that scene and for the book as a whole.
You embrace the traditional hard-boiled genre with equal parts control and passion. What initially drew you to classic noir?
I always had a soft spot for true crime and gangster movies as a kid, but I really fell into noir and hard-boiled fiction when I was in my 20s, revisiting and embracing the masters like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, and Ross Macdonald, to name a few. I was drawn to their language and complex characters — the grays over black and white. I liked that Marlowe and later, Lew Archer, were these faded knights who had their own code and secrets. Chandler’s word choice and descriptions were also dizzying — he really transported you to this seamy, poorly lit paradise that was Los Angeles. It was both beautiful and dangerous. I had the chance to spend more time with Millar and Highsmith recently, reading some of the books I’d missed years ago, and was reminded how gifted they were when it came to showing the duality of their characters, not to mention creating the idea of domestic suspense and the dark corners of our everyday lives.
All those books were what opened the door for me to discover other, more modern authors living in that same space and tinkering with the idea of hard-boiled fiction and pushing it into new areas, like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager, and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. Also Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, and George Pelecanos.
I’m certainly not the first reader to notice how your series takes advantage of the Miami setting, offering glimpses into dark corners usually off limits to tourists. How do you see yourself using this city, your home?
I try to be realistic but also use my creative license where possible. You can interpret or showcase Miami a million different ways. It’s a complicated and diverse place. It’s kind of a nexus point and is unlike any other city in the United States, or the world: it’s a tourist attraction, it’s a melting pot, it has a long and bloody history, too. It’s all about how you slice it, I suppose.
When I started writing the Pete books, I wanted to showcase the Miami I knew, as a native. The sprawling, mixed bag that is the metropolis of Miami. Beyond the beach and downtown and into the suburbs and outer areas. I love Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley books, which are set in Miami. Those novels, along with Vicki Hendricks’s work, specifically Miami Purity, really capture the shadier, less glamorous side of the city. I wanted to explore that, but through the lens of my own experience. I grew up in the suburbs and was more at home in malls and tree-lined streets than the hustle and bustle of downtown. But I came to know that, too. I wouldn’t say it’s an outright response to the way Miami is sometimes portrayed, but it definitely tries to push back on that a bit, to show that the city is much more than just tanned bodies, fruity drinks, and neon lights. Though, there’s plenty of that, if that’s what you’re looking for.
In terms of creative license — I wanted to really showcase some places I remember from my college and early 20s. Some of which are closed or have morphed into something else. So, while I try to keep my Miami as up to date as possible, I won’t hesitate to resuscitate a spot that serves the narrative, or fits best. That’s part of the fun of writing the stories, I think.
Do you have a similar approach to writing mysteries, using the expectations but pushing back on them when needed?
I’d like to think so. I want to honor what came before while still keeping it interesting for myself, and, in turn, the readers. The cliché holds true, I think — you should write the books you want to read. If I’m not entertained enough to keep writing, I can’t expect my editor, or beta readers, and so on, to be engaged. For example, I’m not interested in telling evergreen stories with an unchanging, already-established detective. It just leaves me flat, so I don’t think I could write that kind of story very well. I like stories about characters that evolve and sometimes make mistakes. I want to root for people not because they’re great at what they do, but because they’re interesting and conflicted and human. It’s not that those other kind of stories are bad or boring — they can be very good, and I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of them. But they don’t interest me as much as a writer. I guess, in a way, that’s me pushing back on some of the tropes of the genre. Pete isn’t a fighter, per se. He’s more instinctual than polished, and he really needs his supporting cast to make it work. I think, by the time people read Dangerous Ends, they’ll hopefully realize that it’s not a Pete Fernandez novel without characters like Kathy, Harras, or Dave. They really make the whole journey more fun and interesting.
One of the challenges of writing a series is the question of time, how to handle that unwritten period between books. In Dangerous Ends, you write that the “past had a way of hypnotizing you, of whispering in your ear and spreading a feeling of tingling comfort over you like the warm buzz of a smoky, aged scotch.” I’m wondering, how does the real-world phenomena of misremembering, of blurring fact and fiction, factor into your portrayal of characters?
I think about it a lot, mainly because Pete has a big chunk of his life — when he was drinking heavily, to blackout often, as we learn in the opening pages of Silent City — where the record is hazy. There are big chunks he’s forgotten or, if he does remember, chooses to ignore because the memories are so shameful. From my perspective, each book is about six months or a year apart. I like to show that some time has passed and things have changed. This, I think, will intrigue followers of the series — curious to figure out why things are different — and also entice newcomers, who might want it to feel more like a clean starting point, where they don’t have to study a handful of books before enjoying the new one. I don’t know if I’m in the minority when it comes to series writers — you can probably tell me how you do it — but I don’t reread my books before starting a new one. I’m more interested in riding the adrenaline of the idea and what happens to the characters over making sure everything lines up. That said, I’ll go back and look something up if I’m not sure, but most of the times I write through, especially on a first draft. I usually start with an image or scene and then pile on the story around that moment, so it’s less continuity-driven as a process, I guess. In Down the Darkest Street, it was the opening scene, where Pete is beaten up outside the bar and we realize he hasn’t gotten better. In Silent City, it was where we meet him, passed out in his apartment, wondering what he did the night before. In Dangerous Ends, it’s actually a scene that’s in the middle of the book — so I can’t say much about it — but I originally had it opening the entire novel. The visual of peering out of a window at the end of a cul-de-sac and seeing a dark figure approaching just stuck with me for a while.
But to your point — I try to keep the characters’ experiences in mind when I write how they recall certain things. Especially when it comes to a big conflict. Not in the literally explosive way, but personally. By the end of the second book, Pete and his former fiancée Emily have gone silent on each other. In his eyes, she’s somewhat right but a little wrong. In her eyes, Pete has no excuse. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but they each remember what happened differently and experienced it differently, so that informs how I have them react to each other. Memory is such a flexible and personal thing. Even an eyewitness report has to be taken with a huge grain of salt because what we see is very much influenced by what we think and feel.
What overlap do you find between writing comics and writing crime novels?
Comics have taught me to think visually when writing. You have to imagine what the artist is going to create and fit your words around the image, which is the anchor to the page. The last thing you want to do, for example, is to overload a panel with words when the artist is going to be laboring over the art. It’s a visual medium driven by art. Your words complement that engine, which is hopefully driving the story. So, let the image tell the story. I think that compactness of language, for lack of a better term, is important to writing effective comics or novels, at least for me. I like my prose to be lean, with enough detail to let the reader unspool the image in their own mind, as opposed to bogging them down with too much detail, like what kind of jeans Pete is wearing or describing the scene down to the coasters at the bar. I feel like when we start to tell these stories, we enter into some kind of subconscious contract with the reader — they’re letting us guide them through the story. We don’t have to show them everything. Part of the fun is making stuff up as a reader, too. In short, it’s about making words count, which is helpful in comics and novels.
There are major differences, too — comics are much, much more collaborative. That can scare people off. You’re basically handing your work to another person to interpret, except their interpretation is part of The Work, as opposed to a novel where it’s all you — you’re a god. I like alternating between the two because you work different parts of the brain, or see the same things you do in prose writing through a different lens when writing comics.
Since Archie has been in circulation for more than seven decades, do you find that fans are opinionated about the characters? Or, I suppose I’m asking, is there a unique relationship between comic book creators and readers?
I think that’s true of comic book fans overall, especially when it comes to older, company-owned characters like Superman, Spider-Man, et cetera. Archie definitely falls into that, maybe to a slightly lesser degree. Because Archie stories are traditionally more sitcom than serialized drama, it’s more about the characters as archetypes: Archie as everyman, Veronica as the spoiled debutante, Betty as the girl next door, and Jughead as the burger-loving best friend, and less about what happened in issue number whatever. But even with that, there are expectations, so every time I write those characters I try to keep that in mind. It also helps that I grew up reading Archie and, being in the building, have a stronger sense of what the company is looking for. It makes tapping into who the characters are in the moment a bit easier. The thing about writing Archie that I feel many people underestimate is the challenge of writing good comedy. It’s really hard to write funny comics. You have to be lucky and get paired up with an artist who understands how to execute a visual gag and you have to be good at writing them yourself. It’s an art unto itself.
But yes, the relationship between fans and characters is very unique to comics. You see it on TV sometimes, with shows like Buffy or Star Trek, Game of Thrones — things that have a long-running string of episodes or installments and stir up a vibrant fan base. But with comics, it’s a little deeper, I think. Especially when the characters have been around for so long. Fans create a relationship with their version of the character, so any deviation from that needs to pass inspection, basically. In prose, it’s completely the opposite. I don’t expect someone to email me and say, “Pete Fernandez would not do that!” because, well, if I write it — he does do that! It’s refreshing. But the fun of writing established comic book characters is trying to thread the needle — to tell a new story while still appealing to the classic, entrenched fans.
I know this is a bit of a journalistic faux pas, but since family is such a big theme in Dangerous Ends, I feel compelled to ask about how having a baby at home affected your approach to the story. There’s a scene where a character says goodbye to his wife and toddler son from an embassy window. Was that difficult to write?
Totally fine to ask! Yes, it was tough — I wrote that when my wife was pregnant with our son and it was one of those scenes you write and then have to step away from the book for a while. I couldn’t imagine having to say goodbye to my family, with no idea of when I’d see them again. I tried to inject that feeling of fear and uncertainty into the character’s reaction, and when you do that, you try to connect to how you’d feel in that situation. Those feelings were much more raw and unexpected than I think I would have felt before the child was on his way. And I’m glad the theme of family was front and center for you, because it really is a big element of the book. I wanted to show that Pete’s adventures and life didn’t exist in a vacuum, and that there is a weight to the things he does — beyond his father and beyond present-day Miami. The flashbacks and “bigger lens” allowed me to do that, I hope, and it adds some texture and depth to Pete and his story.
Crime and social issues are often closely linked, and mysteries are in a unique position to explore those connections. Do you feel any pressure to write back to our current political reality?
I wouldn’t say I feel pressure, but I do feel as crime writers we have the unique ability to not only tell a good story, but also to reflect the world in which that story is set. That act doesn’t have to push forward an agenda, per se, but I think as writers we have the responsibility to be true to the world. To show that it’s rife with gray areas and suffering. Crime fiction gives us a way to shed light on the problems we face as a society or people in a nice package: an entertaining and thrilling crime story. But crime is inherently about passion and desire, whether sexual or financial or a thirst for power. Someone wants something that someone else has, or wants to keep what they have. I think the best way to get people to see what’s going on, or to think about it, isn’t through putting characters on a soapbox to push forward my politics. It’s about showing that there are different views and giving the reader a closer look at how people are affected by certain things. Taking them into corners of the world they might not explore. Crime fiction lets you talk about deeper issues through the prism of a mystery or caper. It’s almost like sneaking medicine into a treat.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Michael Harvey talks about his new book, “Brighton.”
Alex Segura's "Down the Dark Street" offers a new high point for south Florida crime fiction.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!