Summer 2000, Volume 18.0
A. Robert Lee
Denver Mysteries: Rex Burns in Conversation with A. Robert Lee
A. Robert Lee, a Britisher, is Professor of American Literature at Nihon University, Tokyo. He formerly taught at the University of Kent at Canterbury. His recent books include Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America (1988) and, with Gerald Vizenor, Postindian Conversations (1999).
When, in 1975, Rex Burns made his bow with The Alvarez Journal, a narcotics smuggling caper featuring Gabe Wager, Denver PD detective, "The West," Colorado at least, found itself with an unmistakably new popular-literary voice. No one writing American romans policiers, had previously better created Denver and its environs as a "mean streets" locale of shadow, crime, murder and its unthreading. Gabriel Villanueva Wager was a real innovation, a precinct veteran of mixed Anglo and Chicano roots, and deservedly the book won the Mystery Writers of American "Edgar" award for best first novel.
The subsequent Wager series, now running to eleven volumes and with several more in prospect, has won widespread praise for Burns, but it has been only a part of his overall output. Devlin Kirk, a Denver Private Investigator with a speciality in industrial security, first appeared in Suicide Season (1987). There have followed Parts Unknown (1991), an insurance fraud and murder story which exposes an illegal trade in human organs, and Body Guard (1992), Kirk's investigation of the would-be assassination of a wealthy engineering clan. Jack Steele, ex-Marine officer, becomes in When Reason Sleeps (1991) the unraveller of a California mystery involving a runaway daughter and a Manson-like drugs and satanism cult.
But it has been the crime world of Wager, and the Denver whose life and death labyrinths it falls to him to negotiate, that most has continued to weigh. For no less than Chandler's LA, Hammett's San Francisco, or George V. Higgins's Boston, Burns's Denver turns circumstantial into existential geography. Here, beneath every manner of everyday surface, also lies a realm of dark, citied ambiguity, human motive and errancy carried to extremes.
In this each of the mysteries draws upon a first hand command of setting, the upshot both of Burns's own many years in, or near, the city, and of friendships in the Denver PD, the courts, and his frequent ridings with night and other patrols. The payoffs are evident, especially in delineating case procedure or argot as in the small town Colorado drug domain explored in The Farnsworth Score (1976), or the gang Denver of Angle of Attack (1979), or a Denver politics of ethnicity and family in Blood Line (1995).
The Wager novels work a Denver network of Colfax, I-25 or "Valley Highway" as it has been known, the South Platte River, eateries like My Brother's Bar, a vintage jazz hang out like El Chapultepec, a cityscape of Mile High stadium and Capitol, a changing 16th Street downtown, a suburb like Boulder with its Mall, Flat Irons, college population and IT industry, and a nuclear center like Rocky Flats.
This sense of lived-in place, and Wager as moving figure and observer within or across it, has been a special feature. The novels all give evidence, whether The Alvarez Journal itself with its barrio settings, Speak For the Dead (1978) in which Wager first moves on into the Homicide Section and is faced with a severed head in Denver's Botanical Gardens, or Strip Search (1984) set in the nether world of Denver's topless bars and drug trade.
Equally a sense of time, of a not so long-ago frontier history, presses hard and sharp. In The Avenging Angel (1983) things turn on the further reaches of Colorado Mormonism. Hollywood would show an interest when the novel became a movie feature, starring Charles Bronson, albeit with adaptations in namings and script and retitled as Messenger of Death. In Ground Money (1986) the setting of rodeo and Colorado mesa country yields a timeline back into an originary, pioneer West. Similarly The Leaning Land (1997), set on the Western slope, and a Ute reservation, links its murder story to a far more ancestral play of land claims and white-Native interethnic relations.
Burns's "other" life as a Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver (during which he took out Fulbright and other visiting years in Argentina, Greece and England), and from which he has just retired, supplies its own kind of western touchstone. He has spent the better part of his teaching career in a university sited upon a once historic barrio (its refurbished "Spanish" church of Saint Cajetan gives witness), yet also, as can be seen from the Auraria Metropolitan Campus, a context as city-modern as could be wished.
It was while a classroom professional that he also wrote a considerable archive of scholarly work on detective and mystery writing. This includes editing with Mary Rose Sullivan the Viking/Penguin Crime Classics: The Mystery Story from Poe to the Present (1990), and a long career as mystery reviewer, notably for the Rocky Mountain News.
Not the least part of Burns's patient exactness of style has been his eye for urban image and the pace and networks of the city. Denver comes over as a city of neighborhoods, blue-collar and suburban, stockyardish and affluent, always highly political, racial, and, inevitably, seamed in caper and death. Yet, throughout all his fiction, he has never forgotten that Denver is also a city of, and near, the Rockies, the best power of whose ecology has been to inspire and cleanse.
The Wager novels offer their full share of mystery, be it finance, narcotics, politics, land finagle or murder. But they do so precisely against the backdrop of Colorado's sumptuous, imposing Rockies. It would be anything but off the mark to suggest that the larger "mystery" of Burns's west lies always in this contrast of metropole and mountain, the two skylines of city and Nature.
Read the untitled fiction published in this volume of Weber Studies by Rex Burns.
Although you were to publish an academic study, Success in America: the Yeoman Dream and the Industrial Revolution in 1976, your literary book career began with the first of your Gabe Wager mysteries, The Alvarez Journal in 1975. How did that come about?
My fiction writing per se began when I could hold a pen, and I scribbled poems and stories throughout my school years. As an undergraduate at Stanford, I double-majored—English and Creative Writing—and was lucky enough to be allowed into Wallace Stegner's graduate creative writing seminar. My fiction then was short stories, some of which were published in the campus humor magazine, The Chapparal (defunct). I also freelanced some non-fiction articles, the most extensive series of which dealt with repairing fiberglass boats and was sold to Boats Magazine (defunct). My first short story published in the general market was in Coastlines, a small magazine out of Los Angeles. Payment was, of course, in free copies and that magazine, too, died. (I seemed to be setting a trend.) The point of all this is that I simply wanted to write—anything. After my service in the Marines—and not too much writing other than technical and legal reports—I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. The itch for fiction remained, and I dabbled in it as a means of maintaining "creative sanity" in the world of (all-too-often) academic drudgery. During my final year of graduate study, I would do my academic work in my library cell during the day, and write fiction at home at night. This combination of writing fiction and academic studies continued through the opening years of my teaching career. By 1975, I had revised the dissertation into a book and written five book-length manuscripts which, for good reason, I threw away. The sixth was Alvarez.
As it happened, Charlotte Zolotow, the Children's Book Editor at Harper Publishers, was in Denver on a speaking tour. A friend told her that I had one manuscript in press and another—fiction—ready to be marketed. On her suggestion, I queried Joan Kahn, Harper's mysteries editor. Alex Wagner, Joan's assistant, answered and said to send it on; he then wrote to say he liked it and was showing it to Joan. After two weeks of pent breath, I received Joan's letter which included a contract. I did not read it. I signed it and ran down the street after the mailman for same-day return.
Harper worked faster than the University of Massachusetts Press, and Alvarez beat Success into print.
What, then drew you to mysteries as a genre?
Even in childhood, I liked reading mystery and detection tales—along, of course, with adventure and travel; and my wish was to offer readers as much fun as I remembered having with those yarns. Alvarez, the first "Gabe Wager," was based on an actual crime investigated by the Denver Police Department's Organized Crime Unit. Because of my experience in literary analysis and as a legal officer in the Marines—at least I like to think that's the reason, and not due to a less flattering cause—I was asked to join a task force to address the issue of "community standards" in books suspected of violating Denver laws against pornography.
The impact of the Miranda Decision on admissible evidence stimulated my interest in the operation of the law, strengthened by a tour as legal officer. Police work, in short, was one area of major social change at the time. Since my final degree was in American Studies, I saw this area to be highly pertinent to culture studies and was drawn to the attempt to portray it in terms of specific narrative.
Documents came from court records, and I interviewed several of the officers involved. One of the challenges of the story was to adapt real life to fictional demands, yet to keep the feel of that life. At this time (1973-5), television and detective fiction tended to consist of what I call the "romance of violence," and very few writers seemed to be interested in realistically portraying police work. Moreover, the effect of the Miranda Decision was changing police operations. When I started Alvarez, I wanted it to be "real" and to document this cultural shift; the—somewhat surprising—result was some popularity of a police story in which no one is killed, no shots are fired, and our hero spends much time drinking coffee from styrofoam cups while on surveillance. The tension comes from the effort to legally obtain evidence on the known criminal and to have it accepted in court.
Another major reason for selecting detective yarns was that I wanted to offer stories of Denver that might serve later cultural historians as pictures of "how it really was" when the story took place. That is, historical records routinely omitted such things as slang, physical sensations, moods of a setting, the "anonymous" citizen's view of his or her home town.
Denver is the setting for this Wager story, and for most of the nearly dozen to have followed. Beyond the fact that you were teaching in the city of the University of Colorado, what is it about Denver that has attracted your interest?
The physical setting is the stage of the action. Like dramatic setting, it modulates and comments on the narrative. For example, there is a pathetic contrast between the grime of a city alley and the beauty of the mountains that can be seen twenty miles away from the mouth of that alley. Many, many of Denver's youth never travel that twenty miles across the prairie for the beauty and solace that can exist in those mountains; they don't have the chance as children or the wish as young adults. It is, to me, a very big loss, and, of course, crime is the story of loss.
Additionally, when I began Alvarez, the primary regions for crime-story settings were New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I wanted a site which could provide a fresher venue than that triad, and that would also serve as a basis for realistic portrayal—and that demanded a place I could experience first hand.
As a "true" document of Denver's history, the story of the city, its region, and the people therein can possibly hold time at bay for those who come later and who want to know something about the past. John of Salisbury in the Twelfth Century wrote that "the lies of the poets are lies in the service of truth," and this to me is justification enough for telling stories. I also believe that all writing placed in an identifiable setting is "regionalist" writing. I wanted to tell a truth about my home.
Wager is part Anglo, part Chicano. Why the mix?
The Anglo-Hispanic mix is characteristic of the southwest and of Denver as well—in language, in culture, in genes. More importantly, I wanted Wager to be an outsider—neither Anglo nor Hispanic—to the people he dealt with. At the time, I did not know this isolation was part of the archetype of the fictional American detective; it just made it easier to focus on the cases Wager dealt with without getting sidetracked into family issues. (This turned out to be a tactical mistake—not my only one—since reading taste moved toward personal and confessional motifs in much detective fiction.)
Most importantly, however, I wanted Wager to have the toughness captured in the Spanish word "duro." He is dogged, he endures, he prides himself on pursuing a case and is often angrily frustrated by what he sees as bureaucratic and legalistic impediments to nailing a known perpetrator. He provides, in short, the common sense perspective of Sancho Panza to what he sees as the Quixotic rules of legal games.
Before coming to Denver you had an upbringing in California, the Marines, Stanford, and Minnesota. Did the idea of becoming a writer, and a writer with an interest in western settings, run through all those experiences?
I've always wanted to be a writer. Since a number of childhood years were passed in the West I wrote of what I knew. My first published story (outside of high school and college publications) was set on the Pacific coast of Baja California. Too, some of the conventions of western stories have appeal for me: the loner, the impact of the natural environment, the awareness (and feeling of ubi sunt) of rapid growth and change on a landscape, the conflict between "civilized" behavior and "natural" behavior. Often the flavor of story and character set in the west is very similar to those set in the South—and I have southern background as well.
You've been a mystery reviewer for the Rocky Mountain News and elsewhere. Who, of your generation of mystery writers, have you most admired, indeed learned from?
Tough question, for a variety of reasons. Certainly, I find Tony Hillerman admirable not only for his opening up of the Navajo setting for the modern mystery novel but also because he tells a story that's fascinating both in character and landscape. I enjoy the way Carl Hiaason pictures the wackiness of southern Florida without leaning on a stilted or mannerist prose style. Sara Paretsky is a favorite for her economical story lines and careful prose. I like Marcia Muller, Stuart Kaminski, John Lutz, J. A. Jantz—I could go on. Locally (i.e., Colorado), I find great pleasure in reading John Dunning, Wick Downing, Mimi Wesson, Stephen White, Marlys Millhiser—here, too, I could go on, since I firmly believe that in the last half of the Twentieth Century, mystery and detection writing has been the theater for some of the finest talent in fiction because it did not turn from story and plot. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is making it harder and harder for the "mid-list" writer, and that includes numerous mystery writers, some of whom I've named. Perhaps the Internet will open avenues for such writers, but the danger there of overwhelming numbers and little or no critical guidance for potential buyers is a real one. Local presses are starting to bring out writers in their regions, though distribution and advertising are still problematic, and I would like to see more development there.
As for which of my contemporaries has influenced me, I can't pinpoint any name. Certainly I have learned bits and pieces from them, from those whose fiction worked and especially from that which did not work. The specific influences on my writing have been Hemingway (at his best), Simenon, and Faulkner. The first two, in fact, became constrictive through their compression and I've made conscious effort over the years to loosen up my prose style—somewhat.
What kind of style, or narrative voice, have you aimed for?
A convincing style, a convincing voice. In addition, early on in stylistics, I wanted to achieve palpability—to make words have the effect of things. This is right out of Ezra Pound's Imagism, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, but it's always a new challenge. One of the very few poems I've published addresses this and was written at about the same time as Alvarez: "This stone/ slicks the fingers' stroke,/ pebbles lightly at the nail's edge,/ grasps the pads of flesh/ in sudden tiny yawns, and/ bends the pliant hand/ around unyielding space/ whose center's known/ only by the fingers'/ curve" (the, 10, 1972). Whatever quality may be in the poem is far surpassed by what it says about my early stylistic focus; to get to the center of things by feeling the things of the world. I still try, and that's why physical setting is so important for me. Lately, as mentioned above, I've been loosening up my style with more metaphor and simile; I've also tried a variety of points of view: restricted third person (the Wager books), first person, omniscient narrator. Each has its stylistic demands and freedoms, and none have been exhausted.
Few in the series could have picked a more western theme than Mormonism which became the theme of The Avenging Angel (1983) and from which the Charles Bronson movie Messenger of Death was taken. Why Mormonism, or why this kind of Mormonism? What kind of research was entailed?
I often get ideas from the newspapers, usually from the smaller and more cryptic stories that appear in back sections. Mormon polygamy was in the news in the early 1980's—the Allred clan and its murders. This piqued my interest not only because some of the killers were found hiding in a Denver suburb, but because the canyons and deserts of the southwest and Mexico are the refuge of people who pride themselves on maintaining their way of life in the face of government power. (Though government child support checks are not often eschewed.)
True believers, secular or religious, continue to feature in American life—witness the Jonestown suicides, the Oklahoma City bombing, and whatever headline crops up when this interview is published. The wars among Mormon polygamists are wars about who is the truest believer. Wager, with his common sense view of life, is confronted by the self-surrender of true believers.
I use newspapers and libraries for research; most helpful in the details of Nineteenth Century Mormon life—continued by the polygamists in this novel—was the historical study of Utah's Mormons by Wallace Stegner.
Angle of Attack (1979), Killing Zone (1987), and Blood Line (1995) deal in an urban west, whether gang Denver or black Denver. Do you see, as against, say, New York or Chicago, a particular kind of "western" city?
Western cities still seem to be less cramped, less closed in by their own size or by overcast skies. Even Los Angeles—sprawling as it is—strikes me as a collection of middle-sized towns linked by freeways. That's not an original observation, of course, but it does help explain the Eastern urbanite's often voiced complaint that LA has no downtown. There also seems to be a rootlessness characteristic of cities west of the Mississippi. For one thing, most of the cities are young and are populated by migrants. I can't think of any states in the East where car owners proclaim "Native" with their bumper stickers. And people drift in and out of these cities—there's always a highway leading elsewhere. Unfortunately, those highways are now lined with familiar and ubiquitous signs for chain stores and fast food stops. Perhaps now there's only one urban scene in the west, one which crops us here and there in an otherwise thinly populated landscape.
What was your take on Native life, politics and landscape, in The Leaning Land?
That western natives—Native American, Hispanic, Anglo—are undergoing rapid and major change; that the land and the people thereon are "leaning" toward something only now taking shape. How they will fall is the question.
I also wanted to try to portray Native Americans in their range of "types"—the modern, the traditional, the mix of the two, the Hollywood Indian. It seems that I wanted to do for a fictional Ute reservation what I attempted for Denver—to show some sort of reality. Thus, Wager as an observer on the reservation and in the cow-county surrounding, becomes a cicerone for the reader, and offers a sense of the reality of the people living in that landscape.
It is also a recognition of the vastness and mysterious quality of the canyon lands, where people who harbor visions of their subjection to the power of government can—and do—escape the law.
You now have three Devlin Kirk, Private Investigator, novels in print. Two deal in industrial sabotage, Parts Unknown (1991) in the human organ trade. But do you see these, too, in any way as "western" texts?
Parts Unknown (I like that title for its subject), yes, because the plot hinges on immigrants from Latin America and on their anonymity as illegals. Suicide Season and Body Guard are western primarily because of setting. True, Bunchcroft is a "cowboy" figure in his self-sufficiency; however, that type is not limited to the West, though it may have been reified in western lore.
Under the name Tom Sehler you have created a latest hero, Jack Steele, in When Reason Sleeps (1991). This is also set in Colorado. Why the new direction? Given its theme of cultism are you, again, saying something special about the West?
My faith is that the "specialness" of "my" west will come from any truth in that "something." The literary critic will compare the "something" I paint with the other "somethings" of other writers.
"Tom Sehler" is my father's name; he wanted to be a writer but went down with the USS Aaron Ward off Guadalcanal in WWII. This is his book.
"Jack Steele" was a Navy veteran who taught junior high in Pensacola, Florida—one of my many "hometowns."
The novel begins in Coronado, Calif. (another "hometown"), retirement site of many Navy people, and moves to Colorado. At the time this novel was written, reputed Satanic worship sites were discovered in the foothills near Boulder, Colorado. I combined distant and recent personal history in the tale. More importantly, I was trying to move from the police procedural, with which my name is coupled, to a different narrative style—more discursive, first person point-of-view, a protagonist of a reflective bent.
Cults abound in the West—there's room and privacy to practice whatever one wants to preach—but I don't find them limited to the West. What I did find "western" was the above mentioned rootlessness of much of the western
population, and the consequent shaky system of values, for good or bad, that rootless people seem to have. True or not, there is a belief about a certain freedom in the West for an individual to be whatever he or she wants to be. If the individual is psychologically weak, that "being" can be dictated by another—and one joins the Manson gang or the Columbine Trenchcoat Mafia, because no alternative external structure provides a counterweight. As with any other corner of the world, not every loner in the saddle is strong and brave and true; some are just alone and weak.
What, currently, do you have in the pipeline?
I'm still tinkering with a South American novel told from the point of view of a thoroughly despicable narrator. To me, it's a comedy, but there's still much work to hit the right tone. A seafaring mystery is with my agent—one which deals with supertankers. The next Gabe Wager yarn is simmering, but I'm keeping it on a back burner because I'm excited about working on a historical mystery set on Virginia's Eastern Shore in 1861. I've always enjoyed costume drama, and a British writer in this vein who delights me is Keith Miles. Other ideas are constantly popping up—perhaps I'll do one about a literary critic who asks probing questions that lead to unintended revelations by an author who has a homicidal bent.