Former private investigator, David Corbett is the author of four widely praised novels that carve out a territory somewhere between traditional crime novels and nuanced thrillers. Of his first novel, The Devil’s Redhead, Publishers Weekly noted: “Corbett thunders out of the gate with this gritty, moving debut about an ex-con’s readjustment to freedom and his efforts to reunite with a former lover.” That book was nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel of 2002. His second novel, Done for a Dime, set near San Francisco, pays tribute to Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald in a suspense novel that employs “some of the traditional tools of genre fiction in bold new ways in [a] sharp and exceptionally poignant second suspense novel,” according to Publishers Weekly. That novel was called “the best in contemporary crime fiction” by the Washington Post, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Novel of 2003.
With his third novel, Blood of Paradise, Corbett moved further afield geographically, to El Salvador, and also into the thematic territory of Graham Greene and Robert Stone. That book was selected one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post. Corbett’s fourth book, Do They Know I’m Running?, appeared in 2010 and earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly (“Corbett…delivers a rich, hard-hitting epic that illuminates the violent and surreal landscapes of Central America and Mexico”) and Booklist (“Readers who devour and then forget formulaic crime novels won’t soon forget this one”). Agony Column sums up this recent work succinctly, terming the novels “a new sort of noir, set in the desert of the human heart.”
My last two books take place in Central America, and I got acquainted with the region through a former girlfriend, with whom I remain quite close. She was Salvadoran, and introduced me to her country back in 2003. I made two other trips there subsequently before writing Blood of Paradise, my third novel, and traveled to Guatemala as part of my research for Do They Know I’m Running?, my fourth and most recent novel. The Guatemala trip was part research (I traveled the same route my characters do in the trek through Guatemala to Mexico on their way to the US) and part work (I took place in a writing workshop led by Joyce Maynard on Lago de Atitlán).
I had followed the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s from here as they were happening, and was very much interested in how the people of the region endured the Cold War confrontations that cost so many lives in their countries. But that didn’t prepare me for the feelings of connection and fascination and fondness when I traveled there. The people of El Salvador and Guatemala were almost universally kind, generous and helpful to me. But they are now undergoing a far more insidious and violent transformation than even the civil wars presented—the takeover of huge areas in their countries and the corruption of their governments by powerful international criminal organizations.
What things about Central America make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The struggle by ordinary people to make a living and to lead safe, meaningful, productive lives is made perilous by the increasingly violent threat of crime in their communities. It’s not just street crime from gangs. Well-established mafias of businessmen and former military men and police officers enjoy virtual impunity due to their social, political and business links to well-connected elites. The judicial systems are terribly dysfunctional, riddled with corruption, making prosecutions problematic if not farcical. This battle between extremely frustrated but powerless millions against a corrupt few who form an almost invincible shadow power structure fascinates me.
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 start with story and character, and setting informs both. As I did research, scenes would create themselves because of things I saw or read about. I think setting and story and character all evolve inextricably linked, at least they do for me.
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’m very conscious of it. Although human nature is in many ways universal, local culture shapes it in subtle, unique, and inimitable ways. Class tensions are particularly intense in Central America, for example, and are very much linked to race. A person from the US won’t pick up on this right away if he only visits among the wealthy or the poor (which is why US politics on the region is so polarized—people tend to hear only one side, because they only visit with business people or campesinos, not both. That said, I found the poor people I met in both countries for the most part incredibly resourceful and kind—with a few cagey, manipulative exceptions. On the other hand, I was sometimes left speechless by the vehemence of the hatred and disgust I experienced from some wealthy people for the poor. It’s clear some among the elites feel afraid, and hide their guilt behind a steel curtain of contempt. (That said, the wealthy people I met treated me with exceptional graciousness and generosity.)
As far as how locale effects me as I write: I happened to visit the town of Tecún Umán in Guatemala on the one day of the year it was having a fair that permitted people to go back and forth to and from Mexico without papers for the purposes of trading goods. People take rafts made of scrap wood lashed to inner tubes across the Rio Suchate to make this journey. At the fair they sell everything from pots and pans to socks and underwear to plastic guns (a very convincing replica of an AK-47, for example). But the local hotel is so thronged by thieves and prostitutes my guide refused to let me stay there. The minute I arrived, I knew I had to use all this in the book.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonists?
In Blood of Paradise, my protagonist is an executive protection specialist—a bodyguard—for that rarest of creatures: an honest man. He’s an engineer who refuses to white-wash a water project he knows is horribly misconceived, a bit of spine that makes him a target to the very men who hired him. My hero is therefore an informed outsider, as it were, a person who must know the locale because it’s crucial to his job, protecting men who work there, and he is genuinely fond of it, deeply so, for he worked in the military as an engineer helping to build schools and clinics and drill wells in remote rural areas. But he is also aware that, as an outsider, there is always something he’s missing, and that sin of omission could have fatal consequences.
In Do They Know I’m Running?, my protagonist is an American teenager of Salvadoran descent, who is obliged to journey to El Salvador to accompany his middle-aged uncle, who’s been deported, back to the US. In the course of his travels, he learns things about his uncle and himself he never expected, and gets his baptism into the culture he’s only half known, and previously disregarded.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
It’s been incredibly frustrating to me that my publisher did not do more to get my books published in Spanish. That said, when locals have read the books, their praise has been heart-warming. One Salvadoran woman thanked me profusely for so faithfully representing her country. An elder Mexican reader thought I was “a cholo with a white boy name.” Informed I was indeed white, he responded, “He is a poet of my people.”
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’m sure there are many of which I’m still unaware. But one that I can call to mind instantly involves a song. In Do They Know I’m Running?, my protagonist is a musician, and a girl he’s traveling with is a singer. To help pay the freight, as it were, they perform here and there, and one of the songs they play is “Sabor A Mi,” which I know from the version done by El Chicano, dating from the 1960s. I referred to the song in the book as “a favorite, if not exactly a classic.” Well, it turns out the song dates back to the mid-19th century, and is indeed a classic bolero known as such by millions. Regrettably, I was not one of those millions before the book went to print.
Of the Central American novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
In Do They Know I’m Running?, Roque’s uncle Faustino one night has one beer too many, and decides to confide to his nephew his remembrance of El Salvador—specifically how he came to be on Volcán Guazapa during the civil war (the italicization of the dialog is intended to convey that they’re speaking Spanish):
One night, their third week there, Tío Faustino remained outside later than usual, staring across the lake toward Guazapa, the gentle slopes of the volcano luminous, a dark silvery green in the moonlight. Roque was about to say goodnight when his uncle gestured for him to sit.
—See that mountain, Roque? Celestina and I were living there when Pablo was born. We were part of the frente, and the volcano was a staging area for raids into the capital. I’ve never told you about all that. People your age know so little. It isn’t your fault. Hard to talk about. And what good does rehashing the bad do?
He fussed with his shirt, waved away a nagging fly. Every little gesture, transformed by moonlight, seemed cinematic, even with the clumsiness of drink.
—I was a mechanic, changing tires, this little shop not far from Chinameca, where I grew up. I knew nothing of Marx, Lenin, that was all lofty nonsense as far as I was concerned. I just wanted a better job. I wanted my girlfriend to be a little less sad, you know? I wanted a country where I wasn’t scared all the time, where I didn’t have to go to work and listen to one of the other guys whisper: “Hey, Faustino, somebody heard you moping and groaning the other day and a couple guys came asking for you this morning.”
Roque followed his uncle’s gaze across the lake. —What was it you said that pissed them off?
—Roque, I could have complained about the weather, okay? If some government snitch wanted to make points with the local jefe, he’d say I was bad-mouthing the army or the regime or some colonel’s homely wife. Though, I admit, in this one case I’d shot off my mouth stupidly.
There was this dentist named Regalado in Santiago de María, had connections with some colonels. Tight as turds in a frog’s ass, these people. He started what everyone thought was a boy scout troop. But these guys didn’t go hiking in the hills, learning knots and bird calls. They killed people—teachers, union members, anybody Regalado considered a Communist. Bodies showed up at the edge of town, maybe just a severed head in a ditch. One time two hands were nailed to the door of a church where the priests were sympathetic to the campesinos.
Celestina was a teacher in Las Marías, doing bible study groups, teaching people their poverty wasn’t a punishment from God, they had dignity. Regalado’s scouts came looking for her one day. She got word just in time, slipped out a window in the schoolhouse, one shoe in each hand, running barefoot through the coffee groves.
I heard about it that night, no idea where she was, crazy with worry. At work the next day I was fuming, I wanted to butcher the little creeps who’d come to get her. There was a guy in the shop getting a flat fixed, some phone company minion from Santiago. He heard me going on. We called them orejas, guys like that. Ears. They were everywhere, government informants, a hundred thousand of them, all across the country. Next day, it’s my turn for a visit. And like Celestina, I was lucky—never forget that, Roque. Call it what you want: the hand of God, the Virgin Mother, your guardian angel or just dumb luck. All of us who survived the war, we know some unseen force got us out. The ones who didn’t make it out, well, they weren’t so lucky.
Of my favorite writers who use place brilliantly in their work, I’d have to say that Alan Furst’s depiction of wartime Paris, Robert Wilson’s portrayal of Portugal, Pete Dexter’s ability to conjure both the deep south and working-class Philadelphia, Richard Price’s rendering of northern New Jersey and New York City, and Robert Stone’s depiction of any setting he chooses, have been the most inspiring. I’d say influential, but that would be presumptuous.
What’s next for you?
I write stand-alones, and the novel that is currently making the publisher rounds takes place in San Francisco (I live in the bay area). It seemed time to consummate my love affair with the city, at least in literary terms.
The novel I’m currently working on returns to the setting of my second novel, Done for a Dime—a fictional city named Rio Mirada that lies at the mouth of the Napa River, thirty miles northeast of San Francisco.
So next time we do this, we should talk about the bay area, I suppose. (If I’m fortunate enough to be invited back.)
Let’s hope for many return visits, David. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
For more information on David Corbett, see his home page.