AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID CORBETT
avid Corbett is the real thing. He not only talks the talk, he has walked the walk: after a variety of jobsincluding a brief stint as a stand-up comiche became a private investigator. David worked on some major national cases before making his most recent career move: becoming an author. Naturally he turned to his experiences as a detective when writing his novels. The first, last year's The Devil's Redhead, is nominated for an Anthony Award in the Best First Novel category. His second book, Done for a Dime, was published in July.
One might wonder how a comic ended up writing the dark noir atmosphere that infuses his novels. As so often is the case 'family' is to blame, at least partially. "My parents were Catholic, and my mother was a mean drunk," David explains. "So as an alternative to divorce they just eviscerated each other. Usually over cocktails while Ray Conniff or some other sappy muzak was playing in the background." His three brothers weren't much help either. One almost strangled him when he was twelve ("very explosive temper, that one"); another used psychological abuse to inflict his will. A tough neighbourhood and horror stories of sadistic nuns and priests didn't improve his world view. "And these were my so-called formative years," David says with good humour. "So I see violence, predation, cruelty, hypocrisy and betrayal just about everywhere." Being a PI proved no antidote to this way of thinking, but he adds, "Despite that, I continued to find people who were brave, kind, decent, honorablesometimes in the strangest places. And my marriage was almost perfect, so I know true love exists."
From his childhood onwards music has played an important part in David Corbett's life, so it is appropriate that one of his first jobs was as a musician. "I went to Ohio State, muddled around two quarters, and then joined a bar band touring for a year doing the Top Forty gig." When he returned to college he majored in math "because my teachers there were intellectually honest and devoted to their students."
After college he got a fellowship to study Linguistics at Berkeley. "I bailed within six weeks," he says. He saw a nightmare future for himself, ultimately resulting in his becoming "a lamentable, pathetic joke of a human being". No, in its place David says, "I needed to get my heart broken and my nose bloodied."
He did some odd jobs, studied acting, was heckled as a stand-up comedian, the only constant being his writing. "Short stories mostly," he says. "In my late twenties I realised that I liked writing better than my other options. At about that same time the opportunity to join Palladino & Sutherland, one of the top PI firms in the US, opened up for me. I realised I'd lose time to write but these would be my 'years at sea'." Amongst others he worked on the DeLorean case, the Jim Jones People's Temple trial, the Cotton Club Murder Case, and numerous marijuana smuggling cases. One day, whilst interviewing teenage male hustlers in the rain on Polk Street in San Francisco, David realised he had finally arrived as a PI. "As jobs go," he says, "it was fabulous."
Prior to becoming an investigator David did not read crime fiction. "Then," he recalls, "I read The Long Goodbye and got it. After that came Double Indemnity, which I read in a single sitting from 11pm to 3am one night, and was hooked." Crime novelists he admires include Jake Arnott, John Harvey, Daniel Woodrell, James M. Cain, James Lee Burke and James Crumley ("the Three Big Jims"). To this he adds "my new friends: Eddie Muller, Denise Hamilton, John Shannon, Cara Black, Dennis Lehane. I could go on here for pages."
Whilst working at Palladino & Sutherland, David Corbett met and married his wife Terri, a lawyer. They set up their own company, David doing the investigative work for Terri's legal cases. He also started concentrating on his writing, working on the novel that would become The Devil's Redhead. It is based on a number of marijuana smuggling cases, many of which involved a group of guys who worked out of San Diego and who called themselves The Coronado Company. "They were wild, wily, fun guys," David says. "Not the criminal thugs they were made out to be."
Central to The Devil's Redhead are Dan and Shel, and their story is what carries the reader through some of the novel's bleak moments. Dan is modelled on a number of people, including some of the smugglers David met as a PI. "One in particular," the author reveals. "He had four apartments around the world, all furnished with nothing but a futon and a great stereo system. One night his sailboat blew up in a freak accident and two friends were tossed into flaming water. He swam through the flames to rescue bothincurring third degree burns on half his bodyeven though he knew this would result in his being arrested." It was this selfless heroic spirit that the author gave his outlaw.
As for Shel, it turns out she was loosely based on cocktail waitresses David met as a musician in bars he performed at. "But I also gave her my wife's indomitable refusal to just sit still and accept what was happening to her," the author adds. "Terri was crucial in the formation of Shel. She read early drafts of the book and just hammered me whenever I let Shel's depression get the better of her willfulness. That tension, between her despair and her refusal to succumb (largely motivated by her love and need to protect Dan) is what, I think, makes Shel compelling."
Done for a Dime has its roots in two cases. The first was a federal narcotics prosecution in which the main target was a crack dealer and the main source of capital for property improvement in the area; the other incident was a probate matter and Terri's first trial.
As with The Devil's Redhead there is again a moving love story, that of Toby and Nadya. "Toby is based loosely on two jazz musicians I know, Marcus Shelby and Joshua Redman," David says. "But I also gave him a cool, smart-ass side which just came from my own imagination."
It turns out that Nadya is based on the teenage years of David's wife, who sadly died a year before the publication of The Devil's Redhead. "I made Nadya Ukrainian instead of Italian, and small rather than lanky, but the studying for the Tchaikovsky competition, the terrible home life, the leaving home and graduating from high school early, the cartoonish eccentricitythat's all Terri."
Next, David will turn to El Salvador, for a story of criminal and political intrigue based in part on a trip to that country he made with a woman friend, whose father, an apostate colonel, was murdered by unidentified assailants in 1980 at the outset of the civil war. ("Working title, Blood of Paradise," he says.)
And somewhere down the road, he hopes to address in his fiction both his oddly tortured Catholic upbringing and his brother's death from AIDS. The Catholic story will be comic ("How can it not be?" he quips), and will involve an amateur sleuth, a Catholic nun who writes cozies who gets tapped to write a screenplay for a killer (tentatively titled Babylon Sister). The story based on his brother is a bit sketchy so faran older gay brother and his younger straight sibling go on the run after a penny stock fraud goes awrybut it continues to percolate in the back of his mind. "Though John and I had our differences growing up, we loved each other very much," David says. "I miss him profoundly, and I owe him a book."
Further novels featuring Dan are very much a possibility: "I have an idea where he and his sister, Tina, have to deal with their weaselly father when he pops back into their lives. And Tina, being a probate lawyer, has all sorts of potential as a story enginenothing like family, death, and money to stir the pot. I may even bring her and Toby back together in a music-related probate."
David says that each novel surprised him with an unsuspected revelation. "In The Devil's Redhead, it was the folly of trying to make up for your past misdeeds through some act of retribution, rather than simply facing the person you've hurt and honestly asking their forgiveness. I had no idea that's what I was talking about till well after I finished the book. And Done for a Dime turned out to deal with survivor guilt more than I'd ever consciously plannedmainly, I suppose, because I was dealing with it after my wife's death."
It will be interesting for both the author and his fans to see what surprises future works will hold.
Adrian Muller is a British based Freelance Journalist and Events Organiser specialising in crime fiction.
© Adrian Muller, 2003