The San Diego Dream

Lisa Brackmann interviews Matt Coyle about “Dark Fissures.”

By Lisa BrackmannDecember 16, 2016

The San Diego Dream

WHEN MATT COYLE WAS A CHILD, his father gave him a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. Apparently, Matt was a suggestible kid. His critically acclaimed Rick Cahill series is a modern take on hard-boiled noir told in tough, poetic prose: Cahill, the loner P. I. on a mission to uncover the truth regardless of the cost, facing opposition from corrupt police and wealthy criminals, and complications from women who are in trouble or in some cases, just plain trouble.

Another Chandler point of reference: Much of the action of the Cahill books takes place in La Jolla, the real-life inspiration for Chandler’s fictitious Esmeralda.

Matt and I recently chatted by email about the challenges of writing a series, loyalty and betrayal, and writing in and about San Diego, home to many failed dreamers — yeah, Los Angeles, we get them here, too.


LISA BRACKMANN: I’d like to ask you first about location. Your books are set in and around San Diego, a setting that I think is underutilized in fiction. Even though we have some pretty well-known authors setting books here — T. Jefferson Parker and Don Winslow come to mind — I don’t think San Diego has much of a reputation in the public’s mind beyond, “Pretty city by the ocean, great weather, nice zoo.” Why do you think this is? What is it about San Diego that you find interesting as a setting for your novels?

MATT COYLE: I agree with your premise that San Diego is underrepresented when it comes to fiction, specifically crime fiction. We have some great crime fiction writers in San Diego, yourself included, but not that many who center all their stories here.

San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the country, but a lot of the locals still like to think of it as a small town. It’s not. It’s a big city with the inherent potential for crime and corruption that all big cities have. Plus, like Los Angeles, it’s a city of transplants. People come here to follow their dreams and change their lives. That desire, when unfulfilled and bumping up against others who’ve achieved their own dreams can cause envy, and envy is a treasure trove for crime writers.

Let’s talk a little about La Jolla, specifically. Much of your series’ action takes place there. For those who are unfamiliar, La Jolla is a beautiful, wealthy seaside town that’s a pleasant place to spend a day wandering around looking at the boutiques, galleries, the seals at Children’s Beach, and eating in any number of nice restaurants. Raymond Chandler moved there and famously said, “A nice place — for old people and their parents.”

In your books, however, La Jolla becomes dangerous territory for your private detective hero, Rick Cahill, who risks getting hassled and worse by the corrupt (thankfully fictional) La Jolla Police Department every time he drives down Torrey Pines Road. In a way, Cahill has been dispossessed from a place he used to call home. He no longer owns a share of the restaurant in which he was once a partner, the cops hate him because of his policeman father’s misdeeds when he was with the LJPD, he’s pretty much exiled to lower middle-class Clairemont but constantly finds himself back in La Jolla because that’s where his wealthy clients tend to be.

So, why La Jolla? Why is this beautiful, prosperous place the center of so much corruption and danger? It seems to represent something that Cahill both lost and would like to have back and that is almost repellant to him it’s certainly dangerous.

Like Rick, I grew up in the tract home section of La Jolla. Yes, there is such a place. My late father — who Dark Fissures is dedicated to — moved our family from Santa Ana to La Jolla when I was four so his kids would have the best shot at life they could get. He commuted to Los Angeles for years until the insurance company he worked for finally opened an office in San Diego. In a way, he was following the San Diego dream I mentioned above, but for his kids.

Things have changed quite a bit since Chandler penned his last novel, Playback, set in La Jolla’s mythical twin, Esmeralda. There are still a lot of “old people,” but a lot of younger movers and shakers, too. And when things move and shake, people can get hurt. With wealth comes power and with power a feeling of entitlement can follow. Not always in real life, but this is crime fiction. Rick has a natural distrust of all power structures that borders on unnatural. But the old adage of “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” is true in Rick’s life.

Rick’s clients and the people in their world are used to getting their way. Rick wants to get paid, but the truth is his mistress. Sometimes his clients’ needs and his quest for the truth clash.

What challenges did the ending of your second book create for the writing of this one? What are some of the challenges — and positives — of writing a series in general? And how many books do you want to write about Rick Cahill?

I had the ending for my second book, Night Tremors, even before I had the beginning. I’m proud of it, but I knew that it would make the following book a challenge. Rick makes a decision at the end of the book that, to be fair to series readers, has to be addressed in the next book. It creates wonderful pressure on Rick that was fun to write during the entirety of Dark Fissures. However, I needed to address what happened without being too specific and giving it away for new readers who may want to read Night Tremors. I hope I pulled it off.

One of the challenges of writing a series is what I, ineloquently, just described. Carrying forward some of the protagonist’s baggage without opening it up and spoiling things for a first-time reader who may want to read your earlier work. The other challenge is to keep it fresh. To not tell the same story over and over.

One of the positives is getting to know the protagonist a little better with each book. For you and the reader. Plus, you get to build a little community and see how relationships grow with other characters, for better or worse.

At this point, I plan to keep writing Rick Cahill books for as long as people want to read them. I’m sure I’ll write a standalone or two along the way and, maybe, even start another series. But Rick and I have a long way to go together.

I really enjoyed Miranda, and while I don’t want to say too much about her because of potential spoilers, she’s a really interesting combination of physical toughness and a rather sweet personality. What was the genesis of this character?

Rick’s job and nature cause him to often bump up against powerful people. Powerful people have other people protecting them. I had to write a scene where Rick meets with a big-time lawyer with whom he had a bad history. I knew I needed a tough guy protecting the lawyer and decided to make her a tough gal. Miranda was originally only going to be in that scene. Then after an altercation with Rick she says something to him that made me feel she needed more time on the page. I’d like to say I had a grand scheme, but I didn’t. My writing process doesn’t allow for grand schemes. Things would be so much easier if it did. Once I dug deeper into Miranda, I realized that her nature and attributes were the perfect answer to a problem I needed to solve in a later scene. I had more fun writing her than any other character in the book. Even the evil ones! She may make a return somewhere down the road.

Every hero needs an antagonist, and Rick Cahill has a properly loathsome one in Chief Moretti. The tension in this book, with Moretti doing his best to pin a murder on Cahill and Cahill sweating every minute of it, is really palpable. Can you talk a little about Moretti, where he came from, why he hates Cahill so much? I get the feeling that there’s more to his hatred of Cahill than we know. Am I right?

I have a lot of police and retired police in my extended family who all chose the job because they wanted to make their community a better place for everyone. Moretti cares about his community too, but the emphasis is on the “his” part. He may have had good intentions when he first joined the La Jolla Police Department, but the power of the badge found a crack in his character and chipped away at it. By the time he’s become police chief, that crack, like the title of the book, has become a dark fissure. However, in his mind and in, some ways, truth, his actions are for the protection of his community.

He hates Rick because he thinks Rick, like his father before him, has disgraced the badge. That’s the biggest sin a cop can commit, even if Moretti can’t see it in himself. Plus, he feels Rick has gotten away with something under his watch. That must be rectified.

Which brings me to … Cahill’s father. We don’t know what it was he did that got him booted off the LJPD, but it must have been pretty bad to drive him into a slow, alcoholic suicide and for the police to resent him for years. Will we learn more about him and what he did in a future novel? And how about the still unsolved murder of Cahill’s wife?

The novel I’m writing right now explores and solves the Charlie Cahill mystery. Rick feels that the taint of his father’s blood is in him and has spent much of his life trying to escape it only to, in his mind, prove its existence.

I know at some point I have to tackle Colleen’s murder, but I’m not there yet. That will be a tough one.

Cahill talks about his personal code in Dark Fissures, mostly the part of it that he breaks by getting involved with his client. What is Cahill’s code? Why does he feel he needs to stick to it, and what could potentially lead him astray? It almost feels at times that he thinks he needs this set of rules because he’s afraid of what he might do if he doesn’t stick to them.

Related to that, it strikes me that a theme running through the books is loyalty versus betrayal. Cahill seems to suffer a lot of betrayals. What is there about loyalty and betrayal that interests you as a writer, and how is Cahill affected and changed by this?

Rick doesn’t have a long list of things he structures his life around. He adopted his father’s code: sometimes you have to do what’s right even when the law says it’s wrong. This can be a somewhat arrogant and dangerous path that could be used to justify any action. But Rick sees it as a sacred mission that ties in with his quest to learn the truth in every case he takes, no matter the consequences. That deep-seated need to learn the truth echoes back to his childhood and never knowing the reason why his father went from a man he idolized to a disgraced drunk.

The code of never getting romantically involved with a client is an offshoot of the truth comes first. Romantic entanglements can cloud judgment and shift focus. That might actually be healthy in Rick’s case. He has a long way to go to become healthy, however.

It’s funny, I don’t consciously think thematically because that requires too much thinking, but I think you’re right about loyalty and betrayal. Maybe my subconscious likes to think. Rick is loyal by nature. His father taught him about the honor in loyalty when he was a child before everything went to hell. In fact, his father’s loyalty is one of the causes for his fall.

The only time Rick betrayed his loyalty to his wife, it led to her death. He spends the rest of his life trying to atone for that betrayal in the cases he takes and his quest for the truth.

Under the right circumstances, I think anyone is capable of betrayal. As Rick’s nemesis in Yesterday’s Echo, Peter Stone, says at one point: “Funny how little we know about those we know best.” I think there’s some truth in that.

With the conclusion of Book Three, you get the definite sense that a major chapter (as it were) in Cahill’s life has come to a close and that there are some changes ahead for him. Anything you’d like to share about what we’ll see in future books?

You are correct about that closing chapter and that changes are ahead. Rick remains a loner, but learns to rely on other people a little more. I think he may even become a healthier person. Less paranoid. He may even flirt with occasional happiness. This could be problematic for me. I’m not sure I can write a healthy protagonist. You know the old saying about writing, write what you know …


Lisa Brackmann is the author of five suspense novels, including Rock Paper Tiger and her latest, Go-Between.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Brackmann is the critically acclaimed New York Times best-selling author of the Ellie McEnroe novels set in China. The latest, Dragon Day, was a Seattle Times Top 10 Mystery of 2015 and is short-listed for a Lefty Award. Her most recent novel is Go-Between. Her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, and CNET. She lives in San Diego with a couple of cats, far too many books, and a bass ukulele. You can find her online at


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