Saturday, February 9, 2008

Background Check on Big City, Bad Blood (Ray Dudgeon) by Sean Chercover

Big City, Bad Blood won a great deal of prizes and was Sons of Spade's favorite debut of 2007. It's being developed for TV as well. Sean Chercover gave us the lowdown on this succesful novel.


1) How long did it take you to write the novel?
About three years. I was working as a writer and video editor on television documentaries at the time. Editors spend ungodly hours sitting in the edit suite, staring at computer screens. After putting in a 15-hour day editing, there was no way I could come home and sit in front of a computer and write. So I'd have to put the book aside for months at a time while working on long editing gigs. Then it would take me a while to get back into it.

2) Where did you come up with the plot, what inspired you?
The genesis of the plot came from just around the time when I was starting as a P.I. There's a widespread con called the Fake Landlord Scam. The short-con version is the most popular, but there's a lesser-known long-con version. It works like this: Find a vacant building with an absentee owner who lives out of state. Remove the locks and put your own locks on, and get the utilities going. Then rent out units in the building, posing as the landlord. If you make the rent inclusive and pay the utilities yourself, it can take a long time before anyone gets wise. If you have a few multi-unit buildings going at once, you can make a great deal of money ... until you get caught. Every few years you'll read in the Chicago papers about someone getting busted for this con.

Anyway, I ran into a long-con Fake Landlord Scam where the guy who got busted claimed that he was connected to the Outfit (Chicago's mafia) and tried to intimidate witnesses. In the end, he was a small operator and didn't really have Outfit muscle behind him, so he copped a plea and went to prison. But as a fiction writer, you're always asking What If...? So I started asking, What If ... he really had been connected at a high level? What If ... this was just the tip of a much bigger scam that involved some bent politicians and corrupt cops? What If ... one of the witnesses hired Ray Dudgeon to act as a bodyguard until the trial? What If ... the other witnesses started dying. And so on.

In the late-90s, I sold a screenplay to Hollywood. It died in 'development hell' and never got made, but during that time the producer flew me out to Hollywood and took me to parties with "the beautiful people" and I thought it would be fun to contrast Hollywood culture with Chicago's blue-collar Midwestern values. So that's how the Hollywood angle made its way into BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD.

3) Ray Dudgeon's back story is unraveled very slowly. How much of it was clear to you when you started writing?
I knew that Ray's mother had killed herself when he was 13. I knew that he didn't know who his father was and had been raised on a lie. I knew that he spent his teenage years living with his grandparents in Georgia. I knew that he'd moved back to Chicago and become a newspaper reporter, and that he'd quit journalism in a huff and gone into business as a P.I. But the specific details came to me as I was writing. I don't outline in great detail.

4) Was Virginia Lane inspired by a real actress?

5) I loved Gravedigger Peace, but he ended up having little pages devoted to him, even for a 'psychotic sidekick'. Was that a conscious decision?
First, thank you. Gravedigger resonated with a lot of readers, which makes me very happy. In the upcoming anthology HARDCORE HARDBOILED, edited by Todd Robinson (coming May 27), I have a Gravedigger Peace story. Ray isn't in it; it's Gravedigger's own story.

Anyway, as you said, Gravedigger doesn't have a whole lot of pages in BC,BB and he comes in fairly late. This was a conscious decision. I wanted to reflect the kind of relationship that Ray and Gravedigger have. They've shared some traumatic times in the past and they have a rock-solid bond, but they don't get together to hang out and reminisce or phone each other up just to say hi. For long stretches of time, they may not have any contact at all. But each knows, without a flicker of doubt, that the other will be there in a crisis. So Ray calls Gravedigger when he's in crisis, but not before. It felt false to bring Gravedigger in earlier, just to "set up" the character.

Some folks have written to say that they wanted more of Gravedigger. I'm happy to report that he returns in TRIGGER CITY, the next Ray Dudgeon novel. But in accordance with my approach to the 'psycho sidekick', Ray will still have to do his own moral heavy-lifting. I don't like shifting that burden onto a sidekick.

6) The security measures Ray installed for his client sounded very real. Have you used those yourself in the past or is it just good research?
Both. I worked a few Executive Protection gigs when I was a P.I. so I was familiar with the tools and procedures. But I also did a little research to keep up-to-date on changes in equipment since I quit the business.

7) Which scenes did you enjoy writing the most?
The Virginia Lane sequence was a hoot to write. In fact, the whole Hollywood plot flew along effortlessly. I also loved writing the underground garage scene and the following interrogation at the police station. And Ray's friendship with Terry Green is fun. But some of the more difficult scenes to write are also very satisfying. Ray's torture was difficult to write, but it meant a lot to me. And his struggle to communicate with his girlfriend Jill. I can't say they're "fun" because they explore Ray's weaknesses, but they make him more interesting to me.

8) Who is your favorite among the characters in the novel?
Ray. After all, I wrote the whole book about him, and told it in his voice. But I have a soft spot for many of the minor characters, and I try not to write "good guys and bad guys" so even the "villains" are a mix of good and bad, and that keeps me interested as I write them.

9) What are the best things people have said about the novel and which the worst?
I've been extremely fortunate and the reviews have mostly been great (it would be immodest to quote them here, but you can see them on my website, What really blew me away was getting emails from readers. The fact that people take time out of their day to write and tell me that the book spoke to them, that's really gratifying. And I'm very pleased that cops and FBI agents have responded so favorably. The FBI even gave the book a shout-out on their website. That was awesome.

The worst? A newspaper reviewer said that the book was immoral and offensive and should never have been published. But I don't know the reviewer's moral compass, so I don't really have the necessary context to say if I should be hurt or take it as a compliment. There was a literary agent who read the first 100 pages and then told me, politely, that I should learn how to write. I guess that was the worst.

10) Is there anything else you'd like to say about the novel?
BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD comes out in paperback on February 26th.

Sean Chercover


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