No Hard Feelings is my sixth August Riordan novel, and it’s been six years since the last one--The Big Wake-Up--was published. As I sat down at my office desk to write Feelings, I had a variety of pent-up motivations, “unrequited” plot arcs, and literary and real-world inspirations from which to draw.
First there was the momentum of Riordan’s character development. In the blurb Megan Abbott kindly gave me for The Big Wake-Up, she said, “Coggins gives us a detective at the center who doesn’t know all the answers but whose self-effacing wit and hard-struck honesty draw us in from the very start and never let go.” That’s a nice way of saying that Riordan has never been the smartest or most subtle of private detectives. As the series has progressed, however, he has gained a modicum of wisdom and judgment--at the expense of becoming jaded and world-weary. And by the end of Wake-Up, he is pretty damn jaded. To paraphrase an old cigarette advertisement, he is “detecting more and enjoying it less.”
He’s become so jaded, in fact, that he decides to close his office in San Francisco, leave the city, and move to a dilapidated trailer in Palm Springs. The decision to go to Palm Springs also has its antecedents in Wake-Up. There he came to grips with his relationship--or lack thereof--with his father. His father died and was buried in
In addition to severing his relationship with San Francisco, the move to the Springs severs his relationship with series regulars Chris Duckworth and Gretchen Sabatini. Ray, a retired aerospace engineer, who is an old friend of Riordan’s father and lives in the same trailer park, takes up some of the slack.
The person who gobbles up the remainder and stretches it drum-tight is Winnie, a character from Vulture Capital (the second novel in the series). Here we move into the territory of unrequited plot arcs. In Vulture, Riordan was hired to find the missing chief scientist of a biomedical start-up company that makes implants enabling spinal cord injury victims to regain mobility, but soon realizes that the scientist’s disappearance is part of a larger conspiracy to use the technology to control people who aren’t paralyzed.
Riordan ultimately succeeded in unraveling that conspiracy and stopping the bad guys, but in No Hard Feelings, the worst of them--a character referred to only as “the Winemaker”--is back, as is Winnie, the human guinea pig on whom the technology was first tested.
The Winemaker wants Winnie for her implants and he wants Riordan for revenge. Having already fended off several attacks from the Winemaker’s men, Winnie traces Riordan to his desert exile both to warn him and to enlist his aid. They are co-protagonists in this new book. Breaking from my usual pattern of first-person narration solely from Riordan’s point of view, No Hard Feelings is told in alternating POVs: mainly Winnie’s and Riordan’s, with some contributions from the Winemaker and Ray. And because I so admired the way Ron Hansen did it in Atticus (1996), his acclaimed novel of a father searching for a lost son, sometimes the “tape is rewound” and a scene previously narrated by one character is retold by another.
(Left) Author Mark Coggins
Ron Hansen’s Atticus is an example of a literary inspiration for the way No Hard Feelings is told. Another comes from a completely different sort of novel: Paul Cain’s hard-boiled gem, Fast One (1933). Fast One is a story of constant action, or as Irwin Faust says in his afterward, “unceasing, unrelieved, unleavened, unnaunced pow, smash, go.” I don’t claim to have fully replicated that pace, nor do I write in the spare, paired-to-the-bone style of Cain, but I held Fast One as a lodestar as I wrote, eschewing interludes, digressions and exposition as much as possible to keep my foot mashed to the throttle. I can’t say I matched the body count of Fast One either, but not for lack of trying. To wit, four bad guys meet their maker in the first 24 pages, three of whom are dispatched by Winnie. (As an aside, it is no exaggeration to say that Winnie is more like Gerry Kells, the tough-guy protagonist of Fast One, than Riordan is.)
A final piece of the story behind the story is inspiration from real-world events. The Winemaker has a chief lieutenant named George Donovan, whom he breaks out of Corcoran California State Prison near the beginning of the book. Donovan was a high muckety-muck at Praetorian, a private security firm hired to protect U.S. embassy employees during the Iraq War, and he was jailed for machine-gunning civilians while leading a team of contractors in Baghdad. If Praetorian sounds a lot like the real-world private military firms the U.S. government contracted during the Iraq War, there’s good reason.
A second real-world inspiration comes from even more recent events. The Winemaker is obsessed with defeating Islamic militant groups such as ISIS, and he intends to use the technology from Winnie’s start-up against them. One insidious application is to turn the ISIS tactic of enslaving and raping non-believers around by electronically enslaving Islamic women for the same purpose. Another involves suborning the leaders of those groups with the technology, and yet another would send shock troops to battle them in suicide missions. If the Winemaker succeeds in doing what he plans, it has the potential to (further) destabilize the Middle East, to say nothing of what he could do in the rest of the world.
Finally, there are drones. All of them jerry-rigged models built by engineer Ray, but none of them less effective for it.
In closing, although I’ve talked a lot about art imitating life, I can’t let an example of life imitating art go unmentioned. Rapper Sean Combs was recently arrested for allegedly threatening a UCLA coach with a kettlebell in a gym. Fortunately, no one was injured, and although initial accounts suggested Combs had swung the kettlebell at the coach, felony charges of assault with a deadly weapon have been dropped.
Suffice it to say that Winnie doesn’t leave any kettlebells unswung in No Hard Feelings.
READ MORE: “A Conversation with Mystery Author Mark Coggins,” by Lance Wright (Omnimystery News).