Terence is an author from the heartland whose work appears frequently in Ellery Queen magazine. His Hollywood historical KILL ME AGAIN is one I recommend to noir fans.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a former technical writer who traded writing computer manuals for crime fiction in 1991 when my first book, DEADSTICK, was nominated for an Edgar. I’ve published seven amateur sleuth books and three private eye novels. One of those, COME BACK DEAD, won the Shamus Award in 1998.
Bring our readers up to date on the Scott Elliott series.
The Elliott books are Hollywood historicals. He’s a former actor who drifted into private security work after serving in World War II. The company he works for, Hollywood Security, specializes in discreetly cleaning up after the movie studios’ spoiled stars. Each of the stories incorporates an ill-fated movie project. In the first, KILL ME AGAIN, set in 1947, the movie is a sequel to a CASABLANCA-type wartime hit. In COME BACK DEAD, set in 1955, the film is a comeback attempt by a faded boy genius, based loosely on Orson Wells. In the third novel, RAISE THE DEVIL, the movie is a 1962 rip-off of the epic CLEOPATRA.
The Elliotts were originally published by Simon & Schuster and St. Martin’s. They’re being reissued in trade paperback by The Mystery Company.
You’re a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen magazine; how do short stories differ from longer works in terms of preparation?
The biggest difference is the idea that gets things going. With a book, I’m
looking for an intriguing premise. With a short story, I want a single twist
that will make the ending of the story effective. You might say with a book
I’m looking for a beginning and with a short story I’m after an ending.
Another difference is that I outline my books pretty extensively. I might
write a 6,000 word plot summary for what will end up being a 80,000 word book. With the short stories, I may make notes in my journal to get a sense of the story, but I don’t bother with an outline. After that, it’s really a matter of scale. You still have to do research for a short story, for example, but usually not that much. One of the attractive things about the short story for me is how quickly you can turn one out and send it off. One of the hardest things about writing books (besides having to promote them) is the months and months of slogging along with no feedback.
Owen Keane the protagonist of your mystery series is a former seminarian; how does that experience influence the novels?
Keane’s seminary background helps me to deal with what I see as the big
problem with the amateur sleuth protagonist. I think amateur sleuth is the hardest of the mystery sub-genres to write realistically. How do you involve an amateur in a series of dangerous situations without eventually losing credibility?With Keane, my answer is that he is compulsively drawn to mysteries. He investigates small, human mysteries in the hope of finding answers to the big, spiritual mysteries that tripped him up in the seminary. He can’t distinguish between these big questions and the human mysteries he encounters. For him, they’re all one puzzle. All of which makes the Keane books a little darker than the Elliotts. Keane always solves the crime, but he never gets the answers he’s really looking for.
You’re on a Bouchercon panel. What’s the topic?”
It’s about the “noir” element in mysteries. I’m on it, I guess, because of
the Elliott books, although, in some respects, the Keane books have a stronger noir tone. But there is a strong link to film noir in the Elliotts. I think film noir flourished in the American cinema as a direct result of World War II. The basic setup of a noir filma guy minding his own business is plunged into a dangerous situation he doesn’t understand and can’t controlwas the experience of millions of average Americans during that war. And it was certainly true of Elliott’s war experience. In the books, when he’s being drawn in over his head, he’s frequently reminded of his war service.
How did you first get published?
I was lucky enough to get a manuscript, a short story, evaluated by a group of British mystery writers who were touring the United States. They liked the story so much that one of them helped me make a contact in New York that led to the publication of DEADSTICK. Luckily, I had a book ready when that break came along.
What’s next for you?
I’ve a short fiction collection, THE CONFESSIONS OF OWEN KEANE, coming out from Crippen & Landru, I hope by the end of the year. It consists of six short stories and a novella. I’m working on an Elliott novella that is a sequel to the first book, KILL ME AGAIN. And I’m working on a non-series novel that I hope to finish early next year. It’s an experiment for me in a couple of ways. The most important one is that I didn’t outline it before I started writing. So it feels a little like I’m working without a net for the first time. I’m actually enjoying that feeling and the experience in general.