Paul Marks joins us today to talk about his new book, The Blues Don't Care. Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn”. Betty Webb of Mystery Scene Magazine calls its sequel Broken Windows “Extraordinary”. His short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award. And “Fade-Out on Bunker Hill” came in second in the 2020 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. “Windward” was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, and won the 2018 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. He has written four novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories, including many award winners and nominees. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, and many others. He has served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.
How is the Blues Don't Care different from your other novels?
The Blues Don’t Care is different from my other novels. First, it’s set in 1940s Los Angeles during World War II and second, it’s more expansive and goes into a lot more description of the setting. I wanted to immerse the reader in the time period—really make them feel like they’re there listening to swing music, inhaling the smoke from a cigarette and feeling the rhythm of the band playing. And I wanted to dig deep into the main character, Bobby Saxon, as I find him unique and interesting.
The character of Bobby was challenging to write in that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Bobby’s on a mission. He wants to play piano for the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor band, the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in the heart of Los Angeles. But there’s a problem: he’s young and he’s white. So if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. That’s not the only thing standing in his way. In order to get the gig he must first solve a murder that one of the band members has been accused of. And if that’s still not enough there’s another big thing standing in his way…
Where did you get the idea for THE BLUES DON'T CARE? What made you decide to tell this story in the past rather than the present?
I had previously written three short stories with the Bobby Saxon character, but they were published quite a long time ago, so I don’t think most people remember them. The general inspiration for Bobby came from a real person. But everything else about Bobby is fictional.
One of the elements of this story was the attitude of society at that time towards people who were different from the mainstream. Bobby doesn’t fit into the society of the 1940s and by joining an all-black band he becomes an outsider among outsiders and that gives the story another layer of depth.
I’ve always loved the 1940s era and wished I’d been born in the 20s so I could have lived then. I think the time period is fascinating and full of conflict, both in terms of the war and in terms of changes happening in society at that time. Conflict in real life maybe isn’t so good, but it’s good for writers. It’s the engine of your story. And I think telling this story in the past allows us to view things that are happening today through the prism of the past.
What was it about the music scene that called to you? Do you have a background in jazz/swing/other music yourself?
Although I’ve always loved music, I didn’t always love swing music. My dad loved it and any time we went somewhere in the car he would play it on the radio—his car his rules. I wanted to listen to rock. Later, my dad took us to see Benny Goodman, and I was bored. But I was a dumb kid.
Then something strange happened: as I got older, I started to like it. Maybe having been exposed to it as a kid gave me an appreciation for it that came back to me later on.
Also, as an adult I started watching old movies from the 30s and 40s and the swing music in some of them started to appeal to me. My friend Linda and I would go to swing dances and concerts at various venues and even went to see many bands and singers from that era that were still around. We got to see Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sing Tangerine and Brazil. We saw Tex Beneke lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I got to see Johnny Otis, who took over as band leader of the house band at the Club Alabam, though I would have loved to have seen him there.
My musical background, at least as a player, is rock. Bass player. I was in a few bands when I was young, but knew I didn’t have the talent to do it professionally. But that didn’t stop me from trying. And, of course, I can always listen to various kinds of music.
What did you do to research THE BLUES DON'T CARE?
I love research. It’s a downfall of mine. I just like learning stuff and love history. General history and L.A. history in particular. Blues is set on the Los Angeles home front during World War II.
I start with the usual sources, books and the internet. But also the music of the period gives you a feel for it and for what people were thinking. As do the movies. Watching movies from the time can show you how people dressed and talked, etc. Same with reading fiction written at the time. But I also had another source that was terrific: my mom and her friends, who remembered L.A. from when they were young during the war years. So I had first-hand sources to go to. And they had things to say that you normally wouldn’t find in books or other second-hand sources.
And one question I had was how to get the characters from Point A to B. Because in those days not only were there no freeways, but some of the roads were different as well. So one of the best resources I found were old 1940s maps of Los Angeles on eBay. I bought several. And I figured out how to get Bobby and his ad hoc partner Sam from L.A. to Long Beach on surface streets. Today we’d just take the freeway, but not back then. So maps are something I highly recommend as research tools.
What was the most challenging part of dealing with several controversial subjects such as race and gender?
It’s always challenging dealing with controversial issues because writers aren’t like journalists. We’re not always trying to be objective observers. We’re trying to tell a story from our characters’ points of view and we have to get inside their heads and see things the way they would have seen them. There’s always a temptation to look at things from our modern POV but if you do that you lose authenticity.
I think the main thing is that you want to be true to the time period but at the same time realize that we’re living in a different age with different sensitivities. So things that people (characters) might have said or done back then can be hurtful today. That said, I want to be true to the time and the characters, so my way of dealing with it is to put an author’s note—or what these days might be called a trigger warning—at the head of the story so people know what to expect and can decide not to buy or read the book if they think it will upset them.
If Bobby was actually a real person, would you be friends? Why or why not?
Interesting question and one I hadn’t thought of. Yes, I think we’d be friends. I enjoyed writing Bobby in all his aspects. I think I’d enjoy his music and empathize with his struggles as an outsider.
I like Bobby because he’s trying to find his way in the world. He’s on a mission, he knows what he wants. And is willing to do almost anything to get it. I’m kind of the same.
Also, I think we’d relate on the level of our love of music, though he’s a much better musician than I could ever hope to be. We’d also relate re: detective movies. There’s also things that we wouldn’t have in common, but that goes for anyone.
Do you share any traits with your protagonist? Which traits?
I share traits with pretty much all of my characters because they’re filtered through me. In terms of Bobby specifically, we both love big band music. Both like detective movies. And I wish I could rock a fedora and a trench coat. I don’t smoke like he does. But I do sometimes feel like an outsider and Bobby is an outsider. In fact, he’s an outsider among a group of outsiders in the society of that time. I think we’re both struggling to find our way in the world. Like Bobby, I didn’t have a good relationship with my father and needed to look outside for role models. And I think, like him, I had certain screen characters that I found that in. And later musicians and some others.
I’m also like him in that we’re both on missions. He to become a musician in the club band at the Club Alabam. And me to make something of myself as a writer. So even if Bobby and I are different in some ways I think in others we’re very similar. Driven. Dedicated. Sacrificing other things to do what we want. And trying to make our way in this crazy world.
What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?
This is a tough question because I know a lot of contemporary authors and if I mention someone then someone else’s feelings might be hurt if I leave them out. So I hope you don’t mind if I dodge this at least a little. I’ll talk about some books that I really like by well-known authors so no one feels snubbed. So these might not be the latest books I’ve read and loved, but they are definitely books I love.
Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep (and pretty much all of his novels). He’s a master of description and really puts me in the Los Angeles of another time. I feel like I’m there. And Philip Marlowe is the epitome of the cool, cynical P.I. Michael Connelly’s The Poet. I read it when it came out but it’s stuck with me and I’m ready to read it again. I like it because it’s so well written and plotted that you never see the twists coming. It’s my favorite of his books and blew me away when I read it.
Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. A hardcore look at the dark side of the LA sun, sand and surf scene.
Walter Mosely’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley brought back the P.I. novels of the 40s and 50s but from a new perspective. Easy and Mouse are memorable, well drawn characters.
David Goodis’ Down There (renamed Shoot the Piano Player after Francois Truffaut’s move of that name, based on the Goodis book). It’s been said that Goodis is the “poet of the losers” and that couldn’t be more true. But there’s something about his losers that keeps me coming back for more.
All of Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series. Mallory is a near-sociopathic NYC detective. She had a tough life and is a hard as nails cop. I turn almost everyone I know onto this series and people either love it and her or hate it. What I like is that even though Mallory is intense, the stories are poignant and touching. It’s almost like Mallory’s lack of empathy and warmth brings out the more human elements of the other characters.
James Ellroy. Particularly his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). His stories are tough. They don’t particularly conform to reality. And if you’ve ever been to one of his signings he’s whacko. And I guess that’s part of what I like about him.
What is your favorite book of all time?
My favorite book of all time isn’t a mystery. It’s The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. It’s about someone trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into everything, which is something I relate to and which also comes through in Bobby’s character. Another favorite book is Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I like revenge stories and that’s the revenge story to end all revenge stories. My favorite mystery would probably be Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Just so good.
What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your novels?
There’s a lot of good things, but if I had to pick one it’s getting to know people in the writing community. I’ve met a lot of terrific people. I’ve made some good friends and what more can you ask for? And I feel like there’s almost no state that I can’t go to and have dinner with someone. Someone maybe I’ve met already in person or someone that I only know online. That’s pretty cool. And it goes for some foreign countries too.
What are you working on now?
I have several things going. I’m working on the third novel in my Duke Rogers series that began with White Heat and Broken Windows. I’m also working on a stand-alone that’s set in New York City. I’m known, to the extent that I’m “known,” as an LA writer. But I write things in other locales too. And I’m really excited about this NY novel. I think it’s pretty high concept and can’t wait to finish it. I’ve also had a series of stories running in Ellery Queen—the Howard Hamm stories—and I’m working on a new one in that series, which I hope they’ll like. Have recently completed a couple of short stories for anthologies. So there’s always something happening.
Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn”. Betty Webb of Mystery Scene Magazine calls its sequel Broken Windows “Extraordinary”. His short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award. And “Fade-Out on Bunker Hill” came in second in the 2020 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. “Windward” was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, and won the 2018 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. He has written four novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories, including many award winners and nominees. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, and many others. He has served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.