On a drive through Indiana two years ago, Michigan-based author Loren Estleman and his wife, Deborah Morgan, discovered a weathered water tower painted with the words "GAS CITY" in large letters. The sight immediately gave Estleman an idea: What about a lawless city in the Midwest?
The writer had lots of ideas motoring around in his brain, like the short stories of a film archivist-turned-sleuth, or the Western about a hanging judge, or the further adventures of Detroit P.I. Amos Walker.
See, Estleman's able to transfer nebulous thoughts into novels — and here's what's crazy: The guy can pump out three, sometimes four worthy books in a 12-month stretch. This year alone, the 56-year-old Estleman published one book of photography, three novels and slews of short fiction. He's certainly prolific. In fact, only one novelist more prolific springs to mind — Belgian-born writer Georges Simenon — who, at one point, wrote a book a week.
So what did the citizens of Indiana's real Gas City (population 5,689) think about their fictionalized town?
"I think they liked it," Estleman says.
They liked it so much that the town of Gas City, Ind., bought more than 10,000 copies of the book, and its mayor paid tribute publicly to Estleman. Talk about a nebulous idea brought to glorious completion.
Writers rarely receive such kudos, but it's not like Estleman hasn't worked hard — extremely hard — on his craft. The writer spends his weeks and weekends writing fiction. His output of fiction — which includes historical, crime and Westerns — suggests that he could be another Philip K. Dick, popping Benzedrine into the wee hours. Hardly. Estleman himself claims he's a slow writer.
Speedy or not, the one-time Michigan crime reporter has earned many national writing awards, from the prestigious Shamus (he's won four), to the American Mystery Awards to the Golden Spurs. Both the Michigan Foundation of the Arts and the Michigan Library Association have honored him. He's won three Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He's been nominated for the National Book Award and the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. The list goes on and on.
His work has appeared in at least 23 languages. His popularity swells in the United States, Europe and Japan. Even the late Mel Tormé was a fan.
What's more, the writer who grew up in a Washtenaw County farmhouse can define Detroit — through the eyes of Amos Walker and his seven-novel Detroit crime series — like no one else. And unless you follow the genres he works, you've probably never heard of him.
Estleman's writing regime began more than 30 years ago. Now it goes like this: Up by 9 a.m. each morning, he reads newspapers over a glass of orange juice in his home in Hamburg Township, about 10 miles north of Ann Arbor. An hour later he's in his book-lined office working out characters and themes, or writing and researching historical fiction, on his manual, 1960 Olivetti typer. (Yes, he works on a manual typewriter. He also uses an antiquated Underwood. He's old-school and doesn't trust laptops. He doesn't do e-mail either.) Around 2 in the afternoon, he knocks off for an hour or two to answer phone calls and correspondence before heading out for a walk. The stroll exercises the mind as well as the legs; it helps to work out his plot kinks. Then he returns to the typer. Most evenings end, he says, with five clean pages of fiction. Sometimes, when he's really stoked, the typing continues into the night.
The man's cranked-out fiction doesn't read like it's simply pasted-up and slammed together; rather, there's depth in deceptively simple storylines, and a literate sense that betrays his character composites. His work doesn't rely on hackneyed story mechanics — no mean feat considering the trodden themes inherent in Western and crime writing.
Estleman wrote the first of his 19 Amos Walker mysteries, Motor City Blue, in 1980, the year he became a full-time writer. (His first published novel, The Oklahoma Punk, appeared in 1976.) By then, detective fiction had been existentialized, deconstructed, parodied and lampooned, from Dostoyevsky and Céline to Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard. By the '70s, pulp gumshoes were either beach bums, burglars or boxers.
Estleman's Walker series doesn't have the impersonal excitement of most P.I. franchises, like, say, Robert Parker's Spencer or Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins.
In Motor City Blue, Walker describes himself this way:
I'm thirty-two years old. I was raised in a little town you never heard of about forty miles west of here. I've a bachelor's degree in sociology; don't ask me why. I tried being a cop, but that wasn't for me, so I let myself get drafted. The army taught me how to kill things and sent me out to do it. I liked almost everything about it except for the uniform, so when I got out, I looked for a way to do the same thing without wearing one.
Blue created a kind of template for the Walker novels to follow, including 2007's American Detective, the latest in the franchise. Invariably, the template involved a number of common elements, such as missing-person cases usually masking some greater crime buried deep in Detroit's past, which Walker must first solve before solving the mystery for which he was originally hired.
Estleman got Walker's moniker from a made-for-TV movie. "Before starting a book, it's important for me to come up with the name of the main character," Estleman says. "I liked the name. To me, it meant unstoppable. At the time, I was working on a Western and, as I usually do, I would use the Old Testament to find names for my characters. Just as the pioneers I was writing about had done when looking to name their offspring. I came across the name Amos and thought it too good to give to a cowboy and gave it to Walker as a first name instead. The name Amos Walker is very much like the city he P.I.'s in."
Like Detroit, Walker is tough and underpaid. He's used and abused: a chauffeur, errand boy and punching bag. He isn't stupid and is nobody's fool. Walker is the incorruptible loner in a corrupt world. He's the only one who cares.
(Later in the series Walker outs himself as a Vietnam vet, a decision, or maybe a gaffe, that Estleman regrets: "I'm afraid his background as a Vietnam vet dates the series, making Walker much older than 32.")
But in Walker is a kind of hard-boiled likability that puts him alongside the creations of such gumshoe classicists as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
Estleman laughs at the idea of being a "classicist": "It's a nice way of being called old-fashioned."
The Walker stories heavily reference local landmarks. But the city is something more than a movie back lot for Estleman, even though he sets scenes of murder and mystery in the Joe Louis Arena, Cass Corridor and Hamtramck (where Walker lived years after having left the farm). Detroit plays a sort of human character, a deeply flawed sidekick to Walker's snooping.
How flawed? People magazine once wrote, "The Detroit Chamber of Commerce should pay Estleman not to write novels about their city. ..."
Are there any similarities between the author and his fictitious Walker? Just one significant one, according to Estleman: The two were raised on farms. That's about it. Walker "is strong and overly confident," Estleman says, "and I am not. Sure, we both share similar likes and dislikes but that is as far as it goes."
What's funny is Estleman's Walker franchise almost didn't happen. The author got sandbagged by several publishers, agents and a few friends whenever he mentioned the idea of a Motor City-based P.I.
"Everyone said it wouldn't sell," Estleman says, "and that it had limited appeal. Now, I receive letters from all over, expressing thanks for the Walker novels. I get a lot of letters from relocated Detroiters, homesick for a little slice of the Motor City."
Estleman's dad, Leauvette, was something of a Renaissance man, among other things an oil painter and a wood sculptor, a trade he learned from his father, who sculptured a bed exhibited at the 1900 Paris World Fair. As a kid, the writer drew comic books at home, which he then sold at school for 12 cents. ("I made a profit of three cents," Estleman laughs.)
Leauvette regaled his sons, Loren and Charles, with the newest Zane Grey shoot-'em-ups. Westerns weren't the only reading material around — inside his father's dresser drawer, beneath the fresh pile of ironed shirts, Estleman uncovered magazines sporting such names as Argosy, True Crime and For Men Only. Splashed on covers were drawings of scantily clad redheads sprawled in arms of cigar-chomping, bare-chested soldiers. (Estleman: "They were the pulps of the day.") The author got another taste of storytelling from his pop.
"Dad was a born raconteur," Estleman says. "No matter how many times he told the same story, he always told it the same way. He didn't embellish. He never dropped a single detail from the stories he told and that's why I loved listening to the tales my dad told. It was like watching an old movie or getting reacquainted with a favorite book. I think my favorite story was the one about the bootleggers."
That story goes like this: A truck driver by trade, Dad, while driving his rig home one night, found himself in a very dangerous roadblock. A procession of dark autos clogged East Jefferson. Dapper young men in straw-boaters removed wooden liquor crates from inside the black sedans and then loaded them inside a red brick warehouse across the street. A well-tailored bootlegger with a Tommy gun nestled casually in the crook of his arm stepped to the driver's side of Leauvette's cab to apologize for the inconvenience. Mobsters.
"Very nice fellas," Estleman remembers his dad saying. Leauvette even spoke of the speakeasies and nightclubs he frequented, and of Detroit's jazz scene. To an impressionable 10-year-old Loren, Detroit, circa 1962, must've resembled Treasure Island, the Wild West and the Land of Oz rolled into one.
"You must remember — everything happened in Detroit. The television and radio stations were there. The newspapers, seven or eight of them at the time, were all there. So were the big department stores, like J.L. Hudson, the movie palaces like the Fox, the Palms and the Madison. At that particular period, Detroit was the fifth or sixth largest city in the nation." Naturally, for a farm boy like Estleman, the big city held the allure and glamour as it would for the fictional Amos Walker who ran away from the farm to the city in search of fame or glory only to find himself, as a young man, pumping gas at a filling station.
"I never personally had the desire to run away," Estleman says, "and live in Detroit — and just because I haven't doesn't make me any less of a Detroiter. I will always consider myself a native Detroiter. We all are, no matter what county in Michigan we live in. What affects Detroit affects us all."
Estleman's love of mysteries came from Mom.
A confirmed mystery buff, Louise often read the latest Ellery Queen to her sons. And not to be undone by her husband's tales of bootleggers and speakeasies, Mom had stories of gangsterdom all her own. Louise dated a member of the Purple Gang when she was a young, unmarried woman. She said he was a perfect gentleman.
These weren't the movie gangsters Estleman adored when they showed up on TV's Late, Late Show. Cagney and Bogart, he loved — and the film noirs (though regular folks didn't call them that back then). Other neighborhood children romped outside in their coonskin caps going faster than speeding bullets — while the young writer stayed indoors and up late for classics like Detour, Double Indemnity and Out of the Past.
"I preferred adult entertainment," Estleman says, "to that of my peers. From childhood, I've always considered myself older than my years." Thanks in part to Mom, who took her youngest son everywhere — church gatherings, social functions and luncheons, Estleman loved listening to grown-ups talk about grown-up things.
"I imagine what appealed to me about grown-up conversations is the same thing that appealed to me in film noir. The curiosity of how things worked between men and women. In noir, mistrust and uncertainty replaced likable characters and happy endings and was for me a lot closer to real life. The paradox intrigued me. The way things are supposed to be and the way things really are."
Before Estleman discovered those dark films, his heroes had been Dick Tracy and Batman. Then he was introduced to the world of Sherlock Holmes — not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes, but rather, Basil Rathbone's Holmes. The movie Sherlock Holmes (with Rathbone as the star) hit the 10-year-old in the same way Chester Gould's chiseled-chin Tracy did.
Like Estleman's comic-strip heroes, Holmes could slug it out with the best of them, but it was the Baker Street sleuth's clear, incorruptible eye of deduction that really impressed Estleman. To go anywhere with your brain, hot as a pistol, ready to shoot down the bad guy with what Raymond Chandler called a "few lines of unforgettable dialogue," was heady stuff for a country boy.
"One time," Estleman recalls, "TV's Late, Late Show played a week's worth of Holmes' movies — Hound of the Baskervilles, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes Goes to Washington, the whole series. For an entire week, I pretended to be sick so I could skip school and stay home to watch them."
Estleman checked his first book out from the library before his 11th birthday. Most critics compare Chandler's and Estleman's gumshoes because of the existential P.I. mannerisms they share. But Estleman's inspiration goes back further than Chandler's Black Mask years during the Depression, all the way, in fact, to 1887, when the reading public was first introduced to the "Baker Street irregulars."
"I had read Chandler well after I began the Walker series," Estleman says, "but I have read and reread the Holmes adventures throughout my lifetime."
By the time the grade-school Estleman had finished reading the Holmes series, he knew he wanted to be a writer. At 15, Estleman submitted a story to the men's magazine, Argosy, which promptly rejected the teenager's unsolicited gangland tale.
To be a serious writer, Estleman figured he'd need college-level writing courses. So in 1972, at 19, Loren Estleman enrolled at Eastern Michigan University. He toyed with the idea of becoming a painter, but decided, after only a few weeks, that he didn't have the painterly chops and switched to literature instead. It was Estleman's lit professor, Curtis Stadtfeld, who taught him more than just about great writers and writing. Estleman calls Stadtfeld a mentor.
"He was a hero to us students," Estleman says. "Stadtfeld had just published his first novel about his experiences living on a farm and, obviously, that struck an immediate chord with me." The two became friends, a bond that lasted until Stadtfeld's sudden death at the age of 50.
"The best advice he ever gave me," Estleman continues, "is when he told me not to count on the pulps to make a living. He said to have something to fall back on and it had better do with writing."
Estleman graduated from Eastern with a B.A. in both English lit and journalism. For a time, he worked as a crime reporter at two of Washtenaw County's newspapers; first, the Ypsilanti Press, then the Dexter Reader. He found crime reporting uninspiring.
"Wasn't really much crime to report," Estleman says, somewhat apologetically for not having newspaper stories as incendiary as those told by the grand old men of reportage, like his fictional Constantine "Connie" Minor. Based on one or two aging reporters hanging around Washtenaw's city desk, Estleman's Minor is a reporter out of the H.L. Mencken age. Brash and cocky, Minor's a has-been who'd sell his soul for a byline. The character made its debut in 1990's Whiskey River, the first of seven novels (so far) in Estleman's Detroit crime series and the beginning of a trilogy involving Minor.
Based on 1920s gang lore, Whiskey River is a subtle and savage tale of warring bootleggers, crooked cops and newspapermen. Minor doesn't propel the action because he's unaware of the facts that everybody else knows; even the cops know more about the case he's working on than he does. So the yarn unravels around him — and corruption wins. Minor reappears in Edsel as an unwitting participant in an assassination attempt on UAW leader Walter Reuther. He's back, old and cancerous, a third and final time in Motown, where the sins of Whiskey River fuel the flames of the '67 riots. "In the Detroit series, I cast the city of Detroit as the main protagonist and like a human character; Detroit goes through several tumultuous transformations. For the Detroit series, I spent many hours in the microfilm reading room of the Detroit Public Library, scrolling through back numbers of local newspapers."
Estleman continues, "Journalists in the 1920s and 1940s were no more accurate than they are today. All the drama and suspense you would ever want is in the pages of the past. Despite all the ransacking, there are plenty of stories that have never been told in the context of fiction."
In another book in the series, 1998's Stress, Estleman introduces black rookie Detroit cop Charlie Battle, who, at first, appears to be a noble black man not unlike Sidney Poitier's Mister Tibbs. Battle's neither a token of an all-white police department nor the Uncle Tom the Black Panthers say he is. Battle's his own man, a formidable protagonist whom the author brought back for a second time as a pal to Doc Miller, an ex-baseball player just released from prison.
"Although some members of the human cast appeared in more than one book," Estleman says, "no one character continued through the series ... because one person cannot be expected to be in several places at once, whenever and wherever the action happens to be."
Estleman's troupe of crime-novel characters is black-and-white, with good guys and bad guys of both races, just as many black sociopaths as there are white.
Estleman's blacks do what they do in response to evil done to them, and they'd come off as stereotypical or cheap in a lesser writer's hands. His prose is taut and knotted with lessons in corruption. Historical references slip into the text unobtrusively, and he sometimes underplays plot to concentrate on people. As much as he's an entertainer, Estleman tells stories of the human condition and says he tries "to give the bad guys the same dignity that I give to my heroes."
Whiskey River was Estleman's first mob book, and 60 novels later, he has written his first film noirish novel in Gas City. In it, Police Chief Francis X. Russell and mob chieftain Anthony Zeno have run Gas City for years. Situated somewhere in the Midwest, in the shadow of an oil refinery, this blue-collar metropolis has gotten fat on its own avarice and corruption, and no one knows this better than Russell, who, as a bagman for the Zeno mob has risen to his post from beat cop. There's betrayal, redemption, greed and godlessness.
Some reviewers compared Gas City to Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris. In Oil!, Sinclair's god is greed, as it is in Norris' McTeague. In Gas City — which opens with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost — there is no god. Fatalism threads throughout Gas City, just as it does in the best film noir. There are no Amos Walker or Connie Minor surrogates, nor are there any historic references or city-as-character motifs.
"I'm a visual writer," Estleman says. "Whereas other authors, like Detroit's Elmore Leonard, write for the ear, I write for the eye."
But Estleman fans waiting for a Walker mystery to hit the big screen as Leonard has will have to wait. The author has received what he calls "nibbles" from studios, but nothing like a concrete movie deal.
It's Hollywood that fuels Estleman's latest novel Frames. It's neither satire nor an ugly expose of the film business; rather, it's about dreams and the movies that produce them. It stars a UCLA film archivist named Valentino. It's Estleman's Hollywood mystery, filled with colorful characters. If any of Estleman's books beg to be made into a film, Frames is it. Estleman thinks so too.
"I've written over 60 novels in 30 years," Estleman laughs, "and you'd think one of them would've been filmed by now. Must be some sort of a record."
And what's even more elusive to the author than a movie deal is a No. 1 spot on America's best-seller lists. In our current craze for horrific thrillers, readers want to experience the crazy fear that children get when they are told bedtime spook stories. Estleman goes beyond pulp and brings an imagination to his work — whether it's a Western, mystery or crime novel.
Frames might put Estleman in touch with a mass audience, via Hollywood. If it doesn't, he'll still reside in that place reserved only for American classicists. He'll reside there, at least for now.Odell Waller is a Detroit playwright and author. Send comments to [email protected]