Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Keith R. A. DeCandido — Cops, Robbers, Unicorns and Superheroes

Written By: Tracy - Aug• 30•11

If you read comics at all, then you know that this week is a massive week for the comic book industry. DC comics is doing (yet another) major reboot of it’s titles. Everyone who reads comics seems to be talking about how the formerly wheelchair-bound hero Oracle is regaining her ability to walk and taking up the Batgirl identity once again, Wonder Woman may or may not be wearing pants, and Super Man is no longer married to Lois Lane.

In the midst of this comic book hype, it seemed like a good idea to have a visit with fellow writer and fellow comic book fan Keith R. A. DeCandido.  I first became familiar with Keith’s work through his tie-in novels written for the Supernatural TV show.  (Of which I’m a fan.  Keith and I both contributed to the Benbella Books essay anthology In The Hunt: Unauthorized Essays On Supernatural).

Keith’s newest book is called The Case Of The Claw. It’s the first in a series that he calls the Super City Police Department Series.  What interested me about the book is that it’s a police procedural told from the point of view of a police department trying to do their best work in a city filled with super heroes.  In the book, Keith explores the idea of justice in a city where vigilantes have free rein.

It’s an interesting take on superhero deconstruction. Largely because in comics, the villain is presumed guilty. When Batman hangs The Joker by his feet from a lamp post  and swings away, everyone just assumes that justice is served. But in real life, every villain is innocent until proven guilty. And without evidence and witnesses to testify in court, the cops can’t hold a supervillian. (and since Batman is an urban legend, who are prosecutors going to send the subpoena to?)

So what if everyone saw the Green Goblin flying down main street during the Labor Day parade, chucking pumpkin bombs at the floats?  He was wearing a mask.  Just because you later find Norman Osbourne in a Green Goblin costume does not mean that it was him in that particular costume.  It could have been someone else.

If you are a fan of the police procedural, you’ll love this book. Keith cites the television shows Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire as well as the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as his inspirations behind the book. Those inspirations show  in his work. The cops in the book aren’t as interested in solving “why” a person was murdered, because usually that’s the least important aspect of solving a crime.  It’s a tiny, but important distinction that hints at the gritty realism in the book.

I caught up to Keith recently after reading the book so that we could talk about it, as well as some of his other projects.

I was really intrigued by the premise of Super City Police Department. The idea that you can’t really prosecute the bank robber that Superman drops in a jail cell due to lack of evidence. Where did you first get the idea that this would make a book-length story?

From something very much similar to that. I remember reading some Spider-Man comic or other where he beat up a thief and left him webbed to a lamp-post, with the “Courtesy your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” note on it, and thinking: “Well, what are the cops supposed to do with that guy, exactly?”

I even worked that into my first Spider-Man novel, Venom’s Wrath, written with José R. Nieto, where an NYPD lieutenant complains to Spider-Man about that very thing, and how they wasted a day of paperwork and two uniforms’ entire shift on two guys webbed to a lamppost that they had to kick back to the streets due to there being no evidence, no witnesses, nothing.

That, in turn, got me to thinking about what cops would have to deal with more generally in a city filled with super-powered beings, and that led to SCPD.


You’ve got another fantasy police procedural out right now — Unicorn Precinct — that seems to be an inversion of the urban fantasy (would you call that fantasy urban?) in the same way as Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch Series. Please describe the series a little more in detail.

Unicorn Precinct is the second book in the series—the first, Dragon Precinct, was originally published in 2004, and Dark Quest is reissuing it—and it’s more high fantasy than urban fantasy. Cliff’s End, where the series takes place, is a fairly standard port city in a familiar fantasy setting, where there are humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, halflings, etc., and where there are warriors, wizards, and such.

As with SCPD, I was curious as to how law-enforcement would deal with a world where there are different species with different agendas, plus of course the use of magick. There’s even an M.E. who checks crime scenes: a magical examiner, who casts a spell that shows what happened recently at a location.

I’ve also done a bunch of short stories in Cliff’s End, and they, plus some new ones, will be collected next year into a book called Tales from Dragon Precinct, alongside a new novel, Goblin Precinct.

What attracts you to police procedural stories that you return to them as a vehicle to drive the plots in your novels?

I’ve always been interested in police procedure. It probably goes back to childhood, where my favorite TV shows were Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues. I find the day-to-day of what cops have to go through to be endlessly fascinating—and I don’t mean the good-guys-always-win formula of 90% of the cop shows out there, I mean the daily grind, the politics, the frustrations, the annoyances. And yes, I also enjoy the detective aspect of it, the intellectual puzzle of trying to figure out who did it, but I find it more interesting in the context of everything else.

In your podcast Dead Kitchen Radio, you cited David Simon’s Edgar-Award winning book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as well as the two shows that he’s helped to develop, Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire as influences in SCPD: The Case of the Claw. Can you point to parts of your book that were directly influenced by this type of gritty, hyper-realistic police procedural?

Gad, it’d be easier to point to what part of the book didn’t influence me. Honestly, the whole book was fantastic and a huge influence, but probably the two elements that most inform my work are the discussions of interviews and interrogations—which are some of the most fun to write, because there’s an art to it, which Simon’s book beautifully displays—and also the revelation regarding the one thing that dramatic portrayals of detectives always get wrong: motive doesn’t matter. It can sometimes be a useful tool for a prosecuting attorney in a criminal case, but only as a supplement to actual evidence. Cops don’t give a rat’s patoot about motive, and it never plays into it. They need to know who did it and have proof that they did it. Why doesn’t enter into it, and it doesn’t matter. Hell, half the time it just gets in the way, because when you do know why, it’s often very depressing (one kid killing another over sneakers, say, or pretty much any domestic violence case).

Something else I got from the book can be summed up by a line Detective MacAvoy has in SCPD: The Case of the Claw when he reminds his partner that their job isn’t to solve crimes, their job is to close cases. That’s an important difference.

You’ve also done a truckload of work with novel tie ins. How do you work within the constrains of a universe that you don’t own so often and so well?

Yeah, and finding a parking spot for that truck is a pain…

Honestly, writing licensed fiction isn’t that much different from writing in your own universe, because the basics of what makes good fiction doesn’t change: you still need a good story with compelling characters. You still need a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you still need the reader to be engaged.

Sure, there are constraints, but there are constraints on any fictional construct.

Plus, generally when I do a tie-in, it’s for something I’m a fan of in the first place. The best tie-in writers are also fans—I’ve been a Star Trek fan since birth, and I came to such licenses as Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, and Dungeons & Dragons (to name but a few) as a fan as well. So getting to write those characters is a true pleasure.

What has been your favorite story, original or media tie-in?

You realize that’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child, yes?

Still, if I had to narrow it down, it would be either my 2005 novel Star Trek: Articles of the Federation or my recent short story “Letter from Guadalajara” in More Tales of Zorro.

Articles was basically a Trek version of The West Wing, portraying a year in the life of the Federation President. We’d seen several Presidents at various points (the fourth and sixth movies, the Deep Space Nine episodes “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”), and there were many mentions of the Federation Council, but nobody had really told a nuts-and-bolts political story. So this was a chance to tell a tale that was still very much in the Star Trek universe, and making use of that massive tapestry to use the typical Trek tropes from a completely different POV than the usual Starfleet one.

As for “Letters from Guadalajara,” that was a story that just jumped out and wrote itself down, as whole swaths of dialogue just started core-dumping into my brain while on a bus ride, and when I got home, I sat down and wrote the entire 5000-word story in about three hours.

And the result is one I’m exceedingly proud of—it’s the story behind Zorro’s enemy, Captain Monastario. One of my favorite Peanuts strips has Linus talking about a football game where the home team pulled out a victory at the last second with a Hail Mary pass and there was massive celebrating on the field and so on and so forth, and Charlie Brown looks at Linus and asks, “How did the other team feel?” Reading the stories in Tales of Zorro, I found myself wondering about Monastario—the “other team”—and how he got that way. He was a soldier, after all, and his opposition to Zorro was likely mandated more by orders he was given than any personal animus toward the Fox. But still, I wanted to know what made him tick, and so “Letter from Guadalajara” explains where he came from and how he got to where he was. My hope is that people come out of it with a better understanding of the antagonist and realizing that he’s not (necessarily) a villain.

You obviously have to write to meet a deadline. How do you stay on task?

The paycheck. Seriously, this is my job. I always am amused by these questions, because you don’t walk into someone’s office and ask them that question. If they don’t stay on task, they get fired. It’s the same motivation—you don’t work, you don’t get paid.


Do you believe in writer’s block? (That’s sort of like asking if the President of the United states is real. Obviously a lot of people get writer’s block, and I’m not trying to make light of it. But it seems that certain writers push through it and remain productive. What I suppose I’m actually asking is how you keep the work flowing, even if you’re feeling uncreative).

Amusingly, given your caveat, I do not believe in writers block. Some days the words don’t come, but most days it doesn’t matter. You just put one word in front of the other. The work doesn’t need to be perfect the first time, it just needs to be perfect the last time. If you’re “blocked,” just keep putting words down, and plow through. You can always go back and make them better words later.

A lot of professional authors are looking right now at bringing out their backlogs through Kindle. Have you considered self publishing any of your works?

I sort of am with SCPD—I’m doing it through Crossroad Press, but it’s pretty close to self-pub, with the benefit that Crossroad does all the technical stuff I don’t get.

As for “backlist,” I don’t really have any that I control. The only backlist novel that I own the rights to is Dragon Precinct, which I’m doing through Dark Quest Books. Everything else is tie-in work, and that’s owned by other people.


What are you working on at the moment? What’s slated to be out next?

Aaron Rosenberg, Steve Savile, and David Niall Wilson have started up a very nifty science fiction shared-world storyline called The Scattered Earth. The first two books, by Aaron and David, are out—The Birth of the Dread Remora and The Second Veil—and the third book will be mine, called Guilt in Innocence. Each book is standalone, with a long-term plan to converge into a major storyline. I’m really pleased with the book, and it’ll be released by Crossroad Press some time in the early fall.

I’ve also got two urban fantasy short stories coming out over the next few months: “Under the King’s Bridge” in Liar Liar and “Ragnarok and Roll” in Tales from the House Band. Both have main characters whom I hope to be doing more with.

I’m also doing a story for a shared-world dark fantasy anthology that I can’t talk about just yet.

After that, I’ve got Goblin Precinct, SCPD: Avenging Amethyst, and the next Scattered Earth novels to plot out—all of them are set for 2012. And there are several proposals floating around that I’m waiting to hear back on.

Where can people find you online? Where can they find your books?

Best place to find me is www.DeCandido.net, which is the gateway to everything. From there you can order my most recent books, see a list of novels I’m personally selling autographed copies of, go to my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, the podcasts I’m involved with—not just my twice-monthly personal podcast Dead Kitchen Radio, but also The Chronic Rift and HG World—my bibliography, and more.

Most of my tie-in novels are available at finer bookstores everywhere, and even the crappy ones, too, and all of my work is available from the various online dealers: Amazon, BN.com, Indie Bound, and so on. You can get SCPD: The Case of the Claw from any of those, from Smashwords, or directly from store.crossroadpress.com.

 

 

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.