(Editor’s note: Michael Mayo is the North Carolina-based author of three books set in New York City during the Prohibition era of the 1920s: Jimmy the Stick , Everybody Goes to Jimmy’s , and last year’s Jimmy and Fay. All of those star Jimmy Quinn, a hobbled tough guy who has a reputation as his city’s “only honest bagman.” In addition to his work as a novelist, Mayo has written about film for The Washington Post and The Roanoke Times, and he had hosting duties on the nationally syndicated Movie Show on Radio and Max and Mike on the Movies. Below, he recalls some of his most prominent storytelling influences.)
I discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels as a high-school student. They showed me that escapism could have an underlying serious purpose. In the years since, I have reread most of those books and now understand just how good they are. As suspense fiction, as social commentary, as observation of the human condition, as insightful portraits of complex characters, they have not aged a day.
As a graduate student, I lucked into a literature course on tough-guy writers taught by Richard Dillard (The First Man on the Sun, The Book of Changes). It introduced me to Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and, particularly, Ross Macdonald. It was the first class I had that treated works of entertainment as something worthy of study.
I was living in Roanoke, Virginia, then. Downtown there was a wonderful place, the Flying Eagle Coin Shop. Despite the name, it was mostly a used-paperbacks store. It had no conventional shelves. All the books were set out—spine up—on long dusty tables in two vast, poorly lighted rooms. The thing was, the books were in absolutely no order. You’d find best-sellers intermixed with ’50s mysteries, Harlequin romances, and the most lurid porn. I’ve still got the copy of A Man Called Spade that I bought there. Damn, it was wonderful!
But I digress.
The next writer who really opened my eyes was Ross Thomas. I came across The Fools in Town Are on Our Side in a public library, and immediately thereafter read everything of his that I could get my hands on. When I met him years later, he was as smart, dryly funny, and generous as I thought he’d be. If there is a single American crime writer who’s ripe for rediscovery, it’s Ross Thomas.
I could say the same of Donald
E. Westlake. My first encounter with him was in another used-books store where I found a copy of The Hunter, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym. That book really got to me and I tracked down the sequel, The Man With the Getaway Face, still one of my favorite titles ever.
(Right) Author Michael Mayo
Those are the writers I have read, reread and learned from, but if I’m going to talk about direct influences on the Jimmy Quinn novels, I’ve got to name three men—Lawrence Sanders, Walter Mosley, and Elmore Leonard.
I read Leonard’s The Hot Kid and learned a lot. It’s a perfect example of using period details sparingly. In that book, they’re the seasoning, not the sauce.
Sanders’ “big” book, The First Deadly Sin, is a masterpiece that’s also overdue for rediscovery, but for my purposes, it’s his Archy McNally books that are important. For those who may be unfamiliar with them, Archy is an investigator who specializes in “discreet inquiries” for his father’s West Palm Beach law firm. When it comes to detective work, Archy is more boulevardier than bulldog. He’s forever zipping about in his Miata, taking great relish in food and drink and decking himself out in fancy outfits that seldom include socks.
It’s Archy’s voice that makes those books so enjoyable. He’s cheerful, literate, and lighthearted without being silly. As Archy once put it, “I mean, I wasn’t even serious about not being serious, if you follow me.” Even if you have no interest in the dirty doings of Florida’s bluebloods and nouveau riche, Archy is such a companionable narrator that his stories are well worth a second look.
I’ve tried to give Jimmy some of that easygoing charm, but I also want him to have a sharper edge. For that, I turned to Walter
Mosley’s Mouse, first introduced in Devil
in a Blue Dress (and perfectly played on film by Don Cheadle).
Even though Easy Rawlings is Mosley’s protagonist, his friend Mouse can be counted on to kick-start the action. In almost any confrontation, Mouse will commit a surprising act of violence. It shocks the reader, but to Mouse, it makes sense.
Jimmy isn’t nearly as cold-blooded as Mouse, but he has the same capacity for sudden effective physical action when it’s needed.
If I can’t be that decisive in real life, Jimmy can.