Scene of the Crime

Hemingway on the Case: The Mystery Novels of Michael Atkinson


Film critic and novelist Michael Atkinson is the author of the Hemingway Mysteries series. The first in the series, Hemingway Deadlights, finds “Hemingway on the verge of serious decline: the booze taking its toll, the writing stalled, the paranoia that would eventually lead to his suicide beginning to assert itself,” as a Booklist critic noted. The novel takes Hemingway from Key West to Cuba to solve the harpooning death of a fisherman friend in a novel that “deftly mixes fact and fiction with graphic sex and violence in a mystery sure to please Hemingway aficionados,” according to  Publishers Weekly.

Second in the series, Hemingway Cutthroat, just out, is set in 1937 in Civil War Spain, and finds Hemingway, with the help of fellow writer John Dos Passos, trying to solve the execution death of one José Robles. This book is “good fun for classic hard-boiled fans and, of course, for Hemingway aficionados, who will enjoy both Papa’s boisterous charisma and the cameos from Martha Gellhorn and Josephine Herbst, among others,” according to a Booklist writer.

Mike, it’s a pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime. Okay, my favorite first sentence of any fiction is, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more,” from Hemingway’s “In Another Country.” So you’re talking to the converted here.

Let’s start with your connection to the settings of these novels.

That’s easy for me – since Ernest Hemingway is my protagonist, and my mysteries are grafted onto his biography, my locales are dictated by where he went and when he went there. Luckily, he went everywhere, and was constantly on the lookout for inspiration, booze and trouble. What’s more, he rarely went anywhere dull – war zones, Paris, Cuba, China, African veldt…

Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?

I don’t have a sense that I used location as much as Hemingway is the one that uses them – for opportunity, luxury, risk, etc. He goes where he goes for his own reasons, and often those reasons are impulsive and drunken, and often they’re self-indulgent and adventure-seeking, but sometimes they’re righteous. In the second book, Hemingway Cutthroat, he’s in Madrid in 1937 to act as a journalist to the civil war, he says, and to help the Republican cause. We shouldn’t doubt his sincerity, but he also went looking for a new book to write, and a battle zone in which to maybe die heroically. So these were his decisions, really.

How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?

I incorporate locations in detail, because it seemed that the details, and the nature of the place, were important to Hemingway. Why else would he keep moving around so much, looking for new venues? But not too much detail; I don’t want to be dull. The lesson we should all take from Hemingway’s prose is that fiction isn’t a monologue, but a dialogue with the reader. You don’t need to tell him or her everything; instead, you need to evoke and allow the reader his or her own mental imagery. That way, they don’t sit back and relax, but sit forward, on the balls of their feet.

How does Hemingway interact with his surroundings?

To my mind, Hemingway was a child of the century and a citizen of the world, and felt comfortable anywhere and everywhere. (His sufferings were all internal.) He was also a splendid egomaniac, and often I think he saw his shifting landscapes as being at his service – places like Cuba and Key West were attractive because he was the Pharoah there, lording it over the natives. And there was fishing. But I don’t think Hemingway’s places affected him too deeply – he loved them all (though Paris, it seems, was the only city he had any emotional use for; New York repelled him). That said, it’s hard not to imagine that landing, oddly, in Idaho pushed him to finally end it all. Idaho! I will hit other locales and eras in the series, but I will not go to Idaho.

Have you made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).

I’ve been lucky with location and period details, I guess. The only objections I’ve heard so far is the use of profanity in period – so far, the ‘50s (in the first book) and the ‘30s. Mainly, I’ve had readers question whether even men like Hemingway said ‘fuck’ often or at all, among other colorful dollops. My position is that past eras are usually idealized and fondly remembered as a more innocent time, and that pervasive use of scurrilities arose only later. I think that’s bunk – just because it wasn’t published in books or magazines or uttered in movies doesn’t mean people didn’t say it. Chaucer used them, and so you can’t tell me a hardcore man’s-man and language craftsman like Hemingway didn’t employ them when he felt he needed to.

Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?

Writing about Hemingway solves problems like this fairly quickly – he may be only one of my favorites (I’m not a slavish Hemingwaian), but with these mysteries I definitely had him looking over my shoulder, attentive to place and atmosphere but not too descriptive, striving for a prosaic voice that thought a bit like Hemingway’s but did not imitate it. In fact, the manner in which I wrote the books was controlled by a simple imagining – what would Hemingway do? (Or say, or think?) Whatever it would be, it would be different than Hemingway’s prose – which was a painstakingly crafted style. No, in his head and in his mouth he was different, more reckless, capable of mistakes, envying other writers’ their freedom to overwrite, etc.

What’s next for your protagonist?

From book one to book two I traveled back 20 years, and so I thought I’d go farther back still for book three – to 1920s Paris, when Hemingway was young and newly married and a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, and drank absinthe with Ezra Pound. (And Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.) Algerian streetwalkers are being garrotted and dumped in the Seine, and Hemingway investigates…

Mike, thanks for visiting Scene of the Crime.

For more information on Michael Atkinson or the Hemingway Mysteries, visit the author’s homepage.