Local author Axel Howerton has never been a down-on-his-luck private dick.
Nor has he ever been battered to a pulp, pinballing between the mob, the Yakuza and the cops, with the only way out of his likely fatal situation lying in a hasty alliance with a violent Mexican drug cartel. So much for the old adage “write what you know,” right? Well, actually, there’s a lot more of Howerton in his new novel than you’d first think.
Hot Sinatra, a modern pulp tale that careens through all the tropes that made Hammett and Chandler novels and movies like the Maltese Falcon such enduring favourites, is about intrigue and action. But the glue that binds Howerton’s debut novel together is the characters, and that’s where you’ll find tiny pieces of the writer, carefully embedded, providing the spark that brings them alive. Take Moss Cole, the story’s barely off-the-bottle protagonist, for example.
“I was really close with my grandfather, so I used that relationship as the foundation,” says Howerton. “I tried to use that desire to honour his granddad, this revered detective that raised him after the death of his parents, to make a living anachronism like Cole believable in a modern setting.”
It works. It even explains the Rat Pack-era fedora that Cole wears, which once belonged to his grandfather. Going a step further, Howerton disperses pieces of his surrounding life into the story as well, much of it recognizable to Calgarians. Lifting the name of a popular local watering hole for an L.A. dive, building a supporting character out of a dearly departed local musician (guitarist Ryan Fox), demonstrating modern street cred by invoking the name of bygone indie stalwarts Wagbeard — Howerton uses his life to catapult a loved but timeworn genre into today’s world.
Chances are good this methodology will come up at the panel he appears in, Pushing the Limits of Traditional Mystery, as part of When Words Collide (whenwordscollide.org), a conference for writers and readers alike taking place August 9 to 11 at the Carriage House Inn. It’s one of three panels he sits on, another of note being Violence in Literature. Because, make no mistake, this book, on U.S. imprint Evolved Publishing, is riddled with violence.
The beatings, bruises and cuts in Hot Sinatra add up quickly, but they always fit the characters — which takes us back to their careful construction, particularly regarding Kickerdick and Manlove. How does one pull up personal DNA for two hired goons who moonlight as gay sex performers? The duo certainly takes on a life of their own — to the point they now have their own short story in Clones, Fairies and Monsters in the Closet, an LGBT-themed anthology from Big Pulp magazine.
“I honestly thought it would be funny to go against the conventions of the genre and have two standard thugs, but in their off hours they were a couple, an effeminate Jewish pretty boy and a big, ugly, ex-skinhead. But if you stick to obvious stereotypes, those characters play tinny and untrue,” says Howerton.
“So I looked at my own marriage and thought about how we fight and argue and still love, respect and enjoy each other, and then gave us an extra penis.”