Today the Kill Zone blog welcomes our guest, award-winning author Neil Plakcy. Neil is the author of Mahu, just re-released in trade paperback by Alyson Books, and its two sequels, Mahu Surfer and Mahu Fire, which won the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural, and is a finalist for the Lambda award for best gay men’s mystery. His fourth book, Mahu Vice, comes out August 2009. Neil is the Vice President of the Mystery Writers of America, Florida chapter.
A few years ago, as he was getting his breakout novel Mystic River ready for publication, Dennis Lehane spoke at the Miami Book Fair. He’d just published the fifth Patrick and Angie book, Prayers for Rain, and he said that he’d put them through so much that they had just stopped talking to him. He thought he’d give them a break and write something else.
That idea really resonated with me, and I started to think about all the other fictional detectives, and their families and friends, who’d been put through the wringer a few times. In Les Standiford’s Deal series, Deal’s wife Janice leaves him after she’s been kidnapped, nearly drowned, and who knows what else.
The king of putting a character through hell, as far as I’m concerned, is John Morgan Wilson. Poor Benjamin Justice has lost his job and his reputation, been raped, infected with HIV, and had his eye put out. Just thinking of all that stuff makes me shiver. My hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, is my alter ego, and I can’t imagine putting him through so much—it’d kill me, if it didn’t kill him!
Not to mention the complications you set for yourself, as a writer, when you make such a major change to a character. If you shoot your protagonist in book one, then the effects of that shooting are going to resonate for a while. Kill off a girlfriend or fiancée, as they used to do regularly in the James Bond movies, and your hero’s got to get a little shy of entering a new relationship. Zoe Sharp’s Second Shot begins with Charlie Fox getting shot—and the effects of that shooting resonate through not only that book, but Third Strike, the book that follows, as well.
The same goes for the supporting players. Kimo’s best gal pal since high school, Terri, loses her husband in Mahu, the first book in my series. And then, in Mahu Surfer, the poor thing ends up in a firefight at her uncle’s house. In an early draft of the third book, Mahu Fire, I put her on the mountainside among the others Kimo needs to rescue.
Then I stepped back. How could I do that to her? And more important, would she ever talk to Kimo again after being traumatized in three books? I believe in recycling characters—but I knew that I couldn’t keep putting Terri in jeopardy, or she just wouldn’t remain a convincing character.
When I was in graduate school at FIU, our teachers, including Les Standiford and James W. Hall, reinforced to us that what happened in our books had to matter to our characters. It wasn’t enough for a detective to investigate a case; he had to have a personal stake. In Mahu, Kimo was fighting to restore his reputation at the Honolulu Police Department, and then in Mahu Surfer, he struggled to prove that he could be as good as any cop on the force, if given the chance. I added an extra bounce by bringing in an old nemesis and then putting his close friend at risk.
As I’ve written more books, it’s getting harder to find that personal connection for Kimo, without incurring what I think of as the Cabot Cove Syndrome. I used to wonder why anyone would associate with Jessica Fletcher, since her neighbors, friends and colleagues died so regularly. How much could Kimo’s friends and family take before they would get the hell away from him? And how to avoid the coincidence factor? Fortunately I write about an island, where there are lots of personal connections, where the cops either grew up with the crooks or are related to them, but it’s still important to maintain credibility.
In Mahu Fire, I brought back a sympathetic teenager from Mahu, who’d gone through some hard times, and made things even tougher for him. I teamed him up with a new character I hoped readers would care about. People care about kids, right? And then in Mahu Vice, which is coming out this August, I threw Kimo’s gay pal Gunter into danger, along with Kimo’s troublemaking brother-in-law.
But I try and remember, especially with these supporting characters, that they are civilians, not police officers, and then when they go through trauma, it’s going to take them a while to recover. Kimo’s a tougher guy; by the time we meet him in Mahu, he’s been a cop for nearly six years, three of those as a detective. He’s still got a soft heart, but his skin has been toughened by what he has seen and experienced on the street.
I’ve been shaking up his personal life, though, moving him in and out of romance, but to me that’s all part of his emotional growth and development. Getting dumped isn’t quite as life-threatening as getting shot at, but it’s still pretty painful.
For now, Kimo and his friends and family keep talking to me. Maybe some day, like Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro did with Dennis Lehane, he’ll stop. But for now I’ll keep on throwing him curve balls and seeing how he, and his loved ones, react.
CALENDAR OF UPCOMING GUESTS
Mark your calendar for the following guest blogger at the Kill Zone:
Liz Jasper, March 29