(Editor’s note: In this 61st installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome an author from whom we haven’t heard in a while: Robert Skinner. A resident of New Orleans and former librarian at Xavier University of Louisiana, Skinner also penned the Anthony Award-nominated novel Skin Deep, Blood Red (1997), which introduced Depression-era New Orleans nightclub owner and sometime private eye Wesley Farrell, a black man who passes for white. He followed that with five additional Farrell books. Now he’s back with Spanish Luck, the first entry in what we can only hope is a new series, this one starring a disabled war veteran turned sleuth, Sal Cortes. In the essay below, Skinner tells about how he reinvigorated his fiction-writing career.)
The story of how I came to write Spanish Luck is almost longer than the novel itself. It’s also a
picture of what a funny game writing can be and how circumstances can alter the path of a writer’s imagination. Back in 2002 I had just completed the sixth novel in my Wesley
Farrell series, The Righteous Cut. I thought it was the best novel I’d written, but I was painfully aware that I might be past the point where that series would break out and become a much greater success. I had brought my characters from the middle of the Great Depression up to the beginning of World War II, but I felt I had to do something a bit different in hopes of making the series of greater interest to a larger number of readers, while remaining in my early ’40s New Orleans universe.
The touchstones of my career have always been Raymond Chandler and the African-American writer Chester Himes. Chandler was the first hard-boiled writer I ever read, and his influence is powerful. That image of a loner’s picaresque journey through a dark, criminal city was what brought me into writing, but in my early 40s, I discovered Chester Himes and his “Harlem Domestic Series.” His view of crime from an African-American perspective really turned my writing life upside down. There is a romance to Himes’ crime writing that was unique to his time and has influenced crime writers as disparate as Walter Mosley and James Sallis, both of whom I admire very much.
At the same time, it occurred to me that New Orleans is a melting pot that includes people of both French and Spanish heritage, and this sent my imagination in a new direction. I was still working on this new direction for my fiction when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, destroyed my house and almost destroyed the university where I made my living. For a few years, most of what I did with my time was try to rebuild my personal life and help my university come back from a huge catastrophe.
I didn’t write much, but occasionally I came up with short fiction that kept some of my series cast alive. During that time, Anthony Neil Smith of the Webzine Plots With Guns invited me to write a story for an anthology he was putting together for publisher Dennis MacMillan. I recognized what a great opportunity this was, and after a week or two I came up with a short story set in the early 1950s called “Spanish Luck.” It featured a tough troubleshooter named Sal Cortes, who just happened to work for a central character in my Farrell book series, Creole businessman Marcel Aristide.
For the first time in ages, I seemed to have a real idea that I might be able to expand into something bigger and better.
(Right) Author Robert Skinner, photograph © 2001 by Jackson Hill
As all of this was going on, I was getting older and the end of my working life as a university library director was drawing near, something that further distracted me from writing. I still had a novel in mind for Sal
Cortes, but it was difficult getting it down on paper while I was contemplating retirement. Working for a living can, as some of you no doubt know, make it hard to focus on coming up with something as big as a novel.
Fast-forward to 2013 and I was suddenly a civilian again with a lot of time on my hands. I hadn’t written a book-length piece of fiction for more than 10 years and the writing muscles were flaccid, not to say creaky. But I still wanted to see if I could write another novel and Sal Cortes was hovering over my shoulder, whispering to me that he craved an adventure.
Since I had originally conceived of Sal in a 1950s milieu, I first wrote a story set in the early ’50s, pairing Sal up with a female sidekick, but the idea wasn’t right somehow. Sal seemed too restrained, not quite the guy I’d originally envisioned. I was also told that novels set in the 1950s didn’t seem to have the appeal of ’40s-era stories. So I went back to the computer and began to reimagine my story and cast.
As a child of the late 1940s, I grew up hearing about life on the home front. One of my grandfathers worked on the railroad, while another worked at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and my mother and grandmother worked at the Naval Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia. From them I got a sense that, even with all the fighting going on overseas, life in wartime America had a kind of normality to it that people in Europe couldn’t enjoy. There
were movies to go to, radio programs to listen to, dinners to have in restaurants, school classes to attend, 8-to-5 schedules, and grocery shopping. And, of course, there was crime, both petty and major.
There were returning veterans, as well, a number of them bearing wounds and disabilities that made further military service impossible. I began to envision Sal as one of those disabled vets, and imagined what such a man,
who I now saw as an ex-cop, would be facing. We know today that combat veterans experience bad dreams, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder, things that were simply shrugged off in the 1940s. Sal, I realized, would be coping with those things in addition to his physical disabilities.
I also began to imagine that Sal couldn’t be alone in whatever his adventure would be, that he might need some help and maybe some conflict in his life beyond his strictly personal problems. I began to conceive of a brother, who I named Des, who would not have gone to war because he was a cop, a profession that made its members draft-exempt.
With so many men away at war, professions of all kinds threw their doors open to women for the first time. I immediately saw a place for an intrepid young woman who’d be striving to make a name and place for herself as a newspaper reporter. She’d be ambitious, determined to make it in a man’s world. I also began to see her as a source of conflict between Sal and his brother, Des.
I now had most of my cast for Spanish Luck, but I still wanted to inject an African-American component into my plot, some characters who could really shake up the story. I began to envision a career criminal, recently released from prison. A guy who might just be looking for a big score to put himself back on his feet. Now the story needed just one more essential element: a reason to bring Sal Cortes, unofficial private eye, into the action. The African-American criminal, who I named Al Martin, would have a teenage son, Butch, who idolizes his father and
might be willing to ditch his square life in order to run off on an adventure with his dangerous dad.
Sal is brought into this case by Butch’s mother, a divorced woman working an 8-to-5 job in Jim Crow New Orleans. Having learned from Butch’s friends that the youngster was seen driving away in Al Martin’s car, she’s desperate to find her son before his father can get him into trouble.
Sal seems at first an unlikely hero. He’s got scars on his face and shrapnel in his hip. He’s missing fingers from his left hand, and he’s trying to forget the horror he’s seen and somehow transition back into civilian life. He has no official investigator’s license, but simply does “favors” for people, some of them sent by Creole businessman Marcel Aristide.
As Sal begins his search for Butch, other things are happening in New Orleans. The murder of a low-level bank employee catches the attention of Detective Sergeant Des Cortes and his erstwhile girlfriend, newspaper reporter Jessica Richards. What Des, Jessica, and Sal don’t know at this early point is that the murdered man and ex-con Al Martin have something in common--they’re connected to a professional thief named Fade Taber who’s in New Orleans to knock over a bank. The story pushes all three of my central characters along separate trails until those trails intersect and force them to work as a team.
By now, I hope you’re wondering, does Sal overcome his physical and psychic wounds? Do Des and Jessica figure
out the murder and see the connection to the impending bank holdup? Do the three of them forget what’s driven them apart and somehow work together, save Butch, and thwart the holdup gang? I can see only one way for you to answer those questions: buy Spanish Luck. I hope you enjoy it.