Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with the Shamus Award-winning James D.F. Hannah to discuss his Henry Malone series, which starts with the recently reissued Midnight Lullaby (Down & Out Books).
Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Midnight Lullaby! This is the first in your series of books about State Trooper-turned-PI Henry Malone. How would you pitch the book to potential readers?
“Justified but Raylan Givens as a nine-fingered recovering alcoholic and chronic asshole.”
The series was originally self-published, but are now set to be reissued by Down & Out Books – what prompted you to initially go down the self-publishing route?
I wrote Midnight Lullaby around 2015, after the Amazon Kindle boom had begun. I knew publishing was changing, and that a lot of mid-list writers I enjoyed were moving to the e-book realm after getting dropped by their publishers. Midnight Lullaby was always a “small” story, with a difficult lead character, and it was set in southern West Virginia. None of that felt like a recipe most publishers would be interested in, and I didn’t know much about indie publishing, so I decided to chuck it out into the world and see how it went.
I believe that there are five Malone books in total. Without spoilers, how does his character arc unfold?
I say the Malone books are essentially a Pinocchio story, where the goal is for Henry to become a man. When the books start, he’s already fallen off the wagon, he’s lying to his AA sponsor, he’s popping pain pills, he’s still in love with the wife who kicked him out, and he’s lost the job that he thought defined him—he’s a toxic mess. I want to grow and develop the character of Henry Malone, and have him come to terms with the choices he made, and become the person he’d fought against becoming. Of course, that’s not a perfect journey, and there are bumps and challenges along the way.
PI fiction is responsible for some truly iconic characters. Which ones influenced Malone?
Robert B. Parker and Spenser are obvious; all PI fiction exists either pre- or post-Parker, and enough can’t be said about what he brought to the genre, both good and bad. Another is Lawrence Block and Matt Scudder; Block offers real depth and growth to the character of Scudder, and it’s probably the most consistently brilliant series of PI novels ever written. Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker novels are always worth paying attention to for remaining so old-school but never being pastiche. And obviously Sue Grafton for making Kinsey Milhone so wonderfully human and flawed and believable and funny.
How conscious are you of bringing something new to the table and not imitating classic PIs of years gone by?
I know the books carry the collective weight of their influences, but I also want them to have their own voice, and for Henry to be his own person. It’s why the Appalachian background is so important, because the culture is very different there from nearly anywhere else, and it gives a contrast for telling a PI story. Also, Henry isn’t much of a knight errant; he’s not a brawler with the heart of a poet, or he’s less about being charming and more about being an asshole sometimes.
Your book Behind the Wall of Sleep won the 2020 Shamus Award for Best Original Private Eye Paperback. How much of a boost did that give you?
It was an unbelievable surprise and just such a sense of validation for the books and the writing. It was my second nomination, and to be nominated for a self-published book, alongside authors who’d won the award previously, who’d been nominated previously and were traditionally published and who I am a fan of, that was an honor by itself. Finding out I’d gotten the award ruined my day in all the best ways, because it let me think “You know, maybe you’re not bad at this after all.”
Down & Out Books has built up an impressive stable of authors in recent years. Do you have any particular favourites?
I like publishing with Down & Out because they have such a huge list of talent, it keeps my ego in check. I really love Dana King’s Penns River novels; it’s a great procedural series that harkens back to McBain’s 87th Precinct. Beau Johnson’s Bishop Rider stories are a dark ride, and he’s building this entire mythology in bite-sized increments that demand to be read. It’s tough to find new great things to say about Angel Luis Colón and Hell Chose Me, but I’ll just add that all the good things are true, and he is not only an incredible storytelling but a wonderful advocate for writers. I really dig the A Grifter’s Song series that Frank Zafiro edits; he’s brought together a great, diverse group of writers to tell very different and fun con game stories. Plus, Chris McGinley’s Coal Black is an astonishing collection of noir stories, all set in the coal mining country of eastern Kentucky, so they obviously speak to my heart
Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
Those are tough lines to call, because you have great writers like S.A. Cosby with Blacktop Wasteland or David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Winter Counts, who both bring very indie vibes in their storytelling but via mainstream publishers. They’re dealing with race and social justice and cultural identity in big ways that feel very counter to that otherwise safe, neutered norm for mainstream publishing. I’m all for that, but yeah, my tendency will always be toward indie writers like Christa Faust or Gabino Iglesias, who take huge fucking swings with every book and aren’t afraid to put it all out there.
If you could recommend one crime novel that people are unlikely to have heard of, what would it be?
Within the crime fiction community, Jake Hinkson is a known quantity, but he really should be famous. He’s one of the few writers crafting pure noir, and he often does so while also exploring the toxicity of modern religion. Any of his books are worth the time, but if you can find Hell on Church Street, grab hold of it and don’t let go. Though when you’ll done, you’ll want a shower. It’s just unrelentingly brutal noir, written to be tighter than a drum and with an ending that’s just a kick to the crotch.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
I really look up to writers like Block, who’s published for more than 60 years and still putting out new work, or Parker and McBain, who were writing to their very end. I got into this game later in life, so I’ve got some catching up to do, but I’m having the time of my life getting to do so.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
Right now, I’m working on the sixth Malone novel, tentatively titled Splendid Isolation, and then I’ll spend the summer working on a standalone set in 1970s Kentucky before I plunge into ideas for Malone #7.
Bio: James D.F. Hannah is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Henry Malone series; his most recent novel, Behind the Wall of Sleep, won the 2020 Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. His short fiction has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place, Crossed Genres, Shotgun Honey, and The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, as well as the upcoming anthologies Trouble No More: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Allman Brothers and Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel.