I used to teach at California State University in Chico. My office partner, Dr. Michael Baumann, had fled Germany with his family during the 1930s. Among Mike’s scholarly pursuits was the study of the author B. Traven, whose books were originally published in German, though his distinctly American narrators led readers to assume that their creator must be American himself.
Traven refused to make his identity or background public. So, the mystery surrounding him intrigued literary folks, especially following the release of the 1948 film version of his novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart, was a grand success. You may remember the line often misquoted as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.”
Mike Baumann spent years on linguistic and biographical research and analysis, and at last concluded that B. Traven began his public life as Ret Marut, a leftist radical pamphleteer who, following World War I, ran afoul of the German establishment on account of his involvement with the short-lived Bavarian Free State.
Yet to Mike the question remained: how did this fellow manage to so convincingly assume, especially as narrator of The Death Ship (1926), a wholly credible American identity? Mike’s strong suspicion was that The Death Ship and perhaps other Traven novels were in fact collaborations between Marut and an American expatriate with whom he connected in Mexico, to where Marut had fled from a likely death sentence in Germany.
I asked Mike what became of the American. “Right,” he said, “that’s the big question”
Later, I found an answer in the family story of Detective Tom Hickey.
The Death Ship appeared in English in 1936. My knowledge of Tom during that era being less than comprehensive, I began to investigate.
The early 20th century abounded in mysteries. Several of them piqued my imagination:
What became of Ambrose Bierce, acclaimed short-story writer and journalist whom William Randolph Hearst sent, during 1913, to cover the Mexican revolution, and who never returned. (Carlos Fuentes offered his answer in The Old Gringo.)
Were the rumors of the death in 1908 of Harry Longabaugh, aka Sundance Kid (who had become legend through a number of dime novels), erroneous? And did Longabaugh actually survive a battle in Bolivia and subsequently lend his skills not only to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, but to Depression-era bank robbery gangs as well?
Together, these and other mysteries led to my discovery of what befell Detective Tom Hickey during 1936, which in turn led to The Good Know Nothing (Poisoned Pen Press), the latest release in the Tom Hickey California Crime series.
The series is about half of the story I feel both obliged and privileged to write.
The whole story began while I read Doctor Zhivago and caught myself envying writers whose times were as loaded with drama as the Russian Revolution or the Napoleonic wars that inspired Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Or it began even earlier, with my grandma telling classic epic tales in versions fit for a little guy, which may have led me, in college, to major in literature and minor in history.
No matter the reasons, my favorite books are epic spellbinders that also help us contemporary folks understand how we came to live in the world as it is today.
So, one spring weekend in the village of San Felipe, Baja California, around a campfire high on a dune above the Sea of Cortez, while entranced by accounts and revelations from my friends Clifford Hickey and Otis Otterbach, I discovered what I’ve been writing ever since.
My story--explored through the California Crime series--is about Clifford's remarkable family, especially his father, Detective Tom Hickey; about Otis and the mission forced upon him, to rescue the world from immanent desolation; and about the mad vision of Cynthia Jones, where the Otis and Hickey stories intersect.
Over the years, life and art have taught me that neither Doctor Zhivago nor any character of Homer, Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Hardy, or Hemingway inhabited a place and time more dramatic than my own time and place, 20th-century California.
(Left) Author Ken Kuhlken
Stories that live are begotten in passion and nurtured with attitude. Let’s call my attitude Beat Noir. Noir because the darkness we live in and the darkness inside us is often my subject matter. Beat because even before I started writing, I found an affinity for the writers labeled Beats. In hindsight I see that it wasn’t their iconoclasm, wild enthusiasm, or intellectual vigor that intrigued me so much as their quest.
Here’s a clip from Wikipedia about Jack Kerouac, the prime instigator of the Beat movement:
On May 17, 1928, while six years old, Kerouac had his first Sacrament of Confession. For penance he was told to say a rosary, during the meditation of which he could hear God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in his life and die in pain and horror, but would in the end have salvation. This experience, along with his dying brother's vision of the Virgin Mary, as the nuns fawned over him convinced that he was a saint, combined with a later discovery of Buddhism and ongoing commitment to Christ, solidified his worldview which informs his work.According to Kerouac, his 1957 novel, On the Road which is commonly misinterpreted as a tale of companions out looking for kicks, is in truth “about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.”
My fascination with Cynthia Jones and Kerouac may rest upon a deep belief the three of us share: that the end of this age began in 1945, when a crew of Dr. Strangeloves and their bomb not only annihilated cities, but unleashed a legion of physical and spiritual demons.
Kerouac proposed that those of us who live with the threat of sudden obliteration ought to experience and respond with hearts and minds to everything while we can, before nuclear Armageddon gets us.
That belief was the cornerstone for the attitudes of the Beats, the hippies, and the Jesus people of the 1960s and ’70s. Most people in my generation have, in the words of Jackson Browne, traded their wings for resignation “and exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow for the glitter and the rouge.” Yet that fear and urgency still own us. We recognize that things continue to fall apart. We fear, like W.B. Yeats, that the center cannot hold, and we too wonder what strange beast is slouching toward Bethlehem.
My Hickey and Otis stories first connect when a Cynthia Jones vendetta incites the action of The Venus Deal (1993). Then a Tom Hickey rescue gives birth to Cynthia’s apocalyptic vision. And that vision drives the entire story, in four or five volumes, of Otis Otterbach.
I dream my books will acquaint more and more readers with Otis, Cynthia, the Hickey family, their times and their California, which like all true stories deserve to live in memory.
Seven Hickey books are now available, including The Good Know Nothing. The Gas Crisis, first volume of the Otis saga, will appear in October 2014.
I fondly hope you will read the whole story.
READ MORE: “9mm: An Interview with Ken Kuhlken,” by Craig Sisterson (Crime Watch); “Summertime Won’t Be a Love-in There,” by Stephen Miller (January Magazine).