GLEN ERIK HAMILTON’S debut novel, Past Crimes, was released last year to widespread acclaim. Nominated for the Edgar Award, Strand Critics Award, and Anthony Award, his book introduced his hero Van Shaw, an Army Ranger avenging the death of his grandfather, a petty thief and the closest thing to a father he’s known. His second book, Hard Cold Winter, came out this spring. I had a chance to discuss it with him over Skype.
M. P. COOLEY: Hard Cold Winter is a full-on thriller, with your hero, Van Shaw, facing off against the Bratva and billionaire businessmen while trying to uncover what happened to his childhood friend Elana. In the middle of this high action, you have Van, a man who seems frozen in time after the murder of his grandfather, Dono. Van’s left the military, and is living in his grandfather’s house, even wearing his clothes. You had a great line about how he’s waiting for the next deployment that never comes.
GLEN ERIK HAMILTON: Van’s a Ranger. They’re minutemen. A guy can be in Georgia at home on vacation, get the call, and he’s overseas, ready to go, in 18 hours. Van’s like a lot of soldiers, or anyone who’s gone through a major experience away from home and returned, asking, “Where’s my place in the world now?” Some of it’s that Van’s never been just a citizen. He’s been a soldier since he was 18, and he had a structured childhood with Dono.
It’s hard to think of a childhood with a safecracker and con artist as structured.
But Dono had very strict rules that Van rebelled against. Then, Van went into the military — again very strict rules — but didn’t rebel. He finds himself with too much freedom.
In this book, Van moves past the boundaries of his Irish, working-class neighborhood and his grandfather’s criminal element, going international and with big money on the line. What made you explore that different world?
In this book, Van runs up against people that are practically aliens to him because they’ve been given every advantage. The goal in this book was to explain that trouble’s going to find you no matter what, and we all have different weapons to deal with it. Van’s learned skills, he could pick the lock to the building, but he wouldn’t be able to schmooze people. He’s the lumberjack crashing the country club. With his injury, his face is recognizable, and that limits what he’s able to do.
Van’s face is scarred from military injuries. In addition, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. What made you explore this topic?
One of the fellows I interviewed, a friend of mine who was in the Rangers, said, “Every guy I know has got PTSD. They just have different levels. But they all deal with those intense experiences somehow.” In Hard Cold Winter, Van’s struggle with PTSD returns. His PTSD is not nearly as severe as his friend Leo, who comes to stay with him. Part of the reason of having two characters is to show it isn’t all the same, and to have these characters help each and work through it together, even if in the end it isn’t over. For some, it’s never over, but many can get through it.
One thing that makes Van interesting is the fact that he was trained to be a criminal from an early age, but made a different choice. The flashbacks explore his teenage life with a fellow con artist, the woman whose disappearance he’s investigating.
Van’s in the middle of a lot of con artists, but there are so many different types. There’s the quick grift to just get what you want or get access to a place you need. Then there’s the longer-term con. Elana’s pulling one of those by setting herself up as a member of high society, marrying into it. It wasn’t necessarily intentional from the start, but the notion of marrying up as the long con is there.
Van’s unique in that he knows both sides of the law. Did you do any research on criminal activities?
I do research on technique and a little bit of science of crime, like safecracking, like hot-wiring a car. How would you cut through Plexiglass? What would be the best way to do that quietly and quickly without it shattering? I find myself looking at a lot of diagrams of buildings going, “How would I get in there?” A firefighter friend who chose not to be named for obvious reasons, told me, “Well, you know, there are Knox-Boxes there for emergency services, and when a building gets old or abandoned, they rarely remember to go and get the keys out of them.” If you get into the Knox-Box, you often have access to the entire building.
In both books, you make a conscious choice to weave together two stories, one past, one present. What do you like about that structure?
The first book, it was really much the education of the young thief. Dono was shot so early in the book that I wanted to know him, but to work that amount of backstory in would have ground the story to halt. I wanted to demonstrate how Van’s thinking changed. Where would he be after 3 years with Dono, after 5 years with Dono? Much more fun to write them as short stories.
In the second book, the short stories focus exclusively on one summer of his life, of when he’s a teenager, because it’s such an important time. If there’s one truism I want to teach our daughter as she gets older it’s you’re going to feel like you’re alone in the world, and understand that everybody’s feeling like that. We can all get through it together along the way.
For Van, he has some very real reasons for feeling like that. He’s being raised by this man who loves him but can only express it so much and in certain ways. There’s a distance between them, which is why I make Dono a grandfather instead of a father. Grandparents are impossibly old when we’re young. We have no idea who they were once.
Is that why Van comes off as a guy out of time, using language like “monkey shines”?
I don’t know how much of that’s conscious and how much of that is because I’m stodgy.
Why crime fiction?
It’s what I grew up reading and what I love. When you’re on a boat, you got a lot of time to read. It started probably with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, as it does for a lot of kids. It went up through there through Encyclopedia Brown and Scooby-Doo.
People underestimate the important influence of Scooby-Doo.
Scooby’s awesome. Take a hologram with a gel and a flashlight shining through, and it’s like, “Oh, ghost pirate ship!” Everyone believes it.
My parents read a lot of mystery fiction, and so I read a lot of mystery fiction. Agatha Christie and Robert B. Parker and Rex Stout and all of them. John D. MacDonald was a major influence. He’s practically required reading if you grew up aboard boats because he wrote about Travis McGee, a guy who lived on a boat, a hero and a scrapper and salvage guy who got into mysteries. The books are very dated now to look at them, but I liked the fact that his hero is pretty battered. And the villains are really frightening, in a psycho-sexual way that was unheard of at the time.
You spent a lot of time on boats?
My parents are unusual and adventurous. When they got into sailing, they went wholeheartedly. For three to four weeks every summer, we’d just kick around the San Juans and go running around the forests on the islands up there and play on the beaches. I knew every bookstore at every harbor.
It was a very unusual way to grow up. I’m really glad that I had it. You have to choose your possessions very carefully because there’s not a lot of room, and even today I always enjoy winnowing down. There’s no privacy at all, and it’s a lot of work. My best advice to anyone thinking of living aboard is to have a child whom you can get to help with the scut work, like, “Boy, sand that today. Just keep sanding until I tell you to stop.” That’s what I did instead of mowing lawns. I sanded.
What was the process to publication like?
Yeah. I always enjoyed writing, and I always thought that I would write someday. I just thought, “Someday, I’ll write, but I’m not going to worry about it if I’m not writing. I’m going to do other creative things,” and I did. I did a lot of theater for many, many years, met my wife that way, was in plays in Seattle. Then, when we moved down to California, I had a chance to take a few months off work, and I went to the Buena Vista Library and just wrote longhand every day just to see if I liked the nuts and bolts of it, of the hard work of it.
Turned out I did. Took a couple classes through UCLA Extension, took a mystery writing workshop, formed a writing group out of one of the classes, got into a master class that was also with people who were taught by the same person who taught the mystery workshop and just built it up over class over time over the course of about five years. Then, the book that was Past Crimes eventually came out of that. For a while, it was just writing to write. Then, it eventually became, “Oh, this is the book I’m going to write.” Then, I centered on that. My goal was to write a book. I wrote a book. Everything after that, the agent, publishing, anything else, is all gravy.
Do you have any additional books planned, and are they going to involve Van, and where do you see him going next?
I’m working on book three now, which will come out in either summer or fall next year. There’s definitely a fourth Van Shaw book in my head that I really, really, really want to write.
M. P. Cooley’s debut, Ice Shear, was named one of Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer. The sequel, Flame Out, was released in 2015. She lives in Campbell, California. You can find her online at mpcooley.com.