Incredibly, in his spare time, Chris has now written a stunning series of noir crime novels set in 1930s Chicago. His recurring hero, Ross Duncan, is a handsome Dillinger-lookalike bank robber, a dead shot with either hand, who not only carries a Bible around but studies chapter and verse. With Duncan, Bartley has taken on what I deem an impossible challenge—to create a compelling action hero with a tortured soul, like C. S. Forester’s Hornblower, a man seeking redemption while he shoots his way out of heists gone wrong and brutal mob violence. But, just like his hero when the odds are stacked against him, Bartley not only pulls off the challenge, but makes it look easy. So let’s ask him some questions…
What are your novels about?
What are your novels about?
Christopher Bartley: They are hard-boiled crime novels about a bank robber set within the historical context of America in 1934, but more then that, they are stories about the people who lived in America during that period – including how and why they came to America. Some of the stories I tell are from my own family – including that of my great-grandfather who served in the Spanish American War and lived long enough to tell me about it firsthand.
Why did you choose 1934?
Christopher Bartley: I find it to be an interesting year. America was in the fifth year of a Great Depression, unemployment is running above 25% and many people have lost their savings and their homes to bank foreclosures. Prohibition was just repealed and organized crime is flourishing. The jazz music, the clothing, and automobiles of the period were all marvelous, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Division of Investigation (later to become the FBI) was building its reputation for law enforcement by glamorizing, demonizing, and hunting down the independent bank robbers who emerged in the wake of the depression. In 1934 Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Homer Van Meter, and Baby Face Nelson were each gunned down by law enforcement officers. It was essentially the last year of the celebrity bank robber. Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis continued on just a little bit longer.
Tell us about your protagonist, “Ross Duncan”? Who is he and what drives him?
Christopher Bartley: Before I started writing my first novel They Die Alone, I didn’t commit a word on paper until I had my protagonist, Ross Duncan, firmly in my mind. First, he is a criminal, a bank robber, one of the so-called “Public Enemies.” He is laconic, fearless, world-weary, flawed in many ways, and filled with awareness and regret – but also loyal, guided by a moral code, and seeking something deeper. More challenging, I had to know how he spoke, what he did, what his history was (i.e., juvenile delinquency, stints in prison, early crimes) and why, who his friends and enemies were, where his values fall, and how he related to females (and vice versa) and society at large. Somewhere in the first novel, Duncan observes: “The heartless, blinding light of the early morning sun catapulted over the tall city buildings, mocking me for a fool as I reached the street with my hands trembling in my pockets.” He is humbled and alone in the big concrete city, overcast by the planetary conditions of an indifferent god, still searching.
Why wasn’t Ross Duncan a private eye?
Christopher Bartley: Because that was too obvious and it’s been done so much already. Also, a professional criminal presented different challenges and opportunities. Could Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade ever rob a bank, make deals with gangsters, or shoot a man in cold blood? I don’t think so, but Ross Duncan certainly can – and does.
What can you tell us about the role of scene and character in your novels?
Christopher Bartley: Scene and character are essential characteristics of my writing. Both are set within the immoral landscape that the narrator – usually a private detective – walks. For me, the setting could not be modern day. It had to be a mythic past, a time when smart phones, video games, and reality TV series were not yet changing American society. I went back to the last Great Depression, urban Chicago openly ruled by mobsters, and the other great cities of that era: New York, Kansas City, San Francisco. It was a time when men still had the power to forge their own destiny outside the controlling hands of the rapidly growing federal government, at least for a short while yet.
This is not modern suburbia or polite society as represented to the world in the Hollywood of happy endings. This is a landscape of treachery, low morals, greed, lust, racism – but also real people, with real strengths and flaws and dreams. In part, I’m trying to tell their stories as viewed through Duncan’s eyes – and often as they tell it themselves to Duncan in their own words. I try to write seriously about the moral failings of the human condition, while maintaining readability, and a sense of purpose and hope.
Who are your literary heroes and why?
Christopher Bartley: First, the classic American hard-boiled crime novelists – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson – because they ruled the form with literary eloquence, and remain relevant today, more than seventy years after their emergence. Second, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway because they wrote powerful, meaningful stories that were direct and concise – never an excess word.
Why are you fond of hard-boiled American crime novels, sometimes referred to as “noir” or “pulp fiction”?
Christopher Bartley: I think there is something uniquely American about the form. Dashiell Hammett’s iconic Sam Spade, played for the ages by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, lived in the shadows of 1930’s San Francisco. He saw the world around him as it was, not as it was idealized to be. He was clear-eyed about the corruption, large and small, around him and he saw through the darkness of men’s hearts, observed their wickedness without stepping onto higher ground. He was there raking about in the gutter himself, where the action was, where the little soft nuggets worth finding were to be had. He harbored no illusions about his partner, Miles Archer, knew his greed and lust. Still he felt duty-bound to seek out and punish his murderer after Archer was dead. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it,” he explains.
By reputation this hero is no saint himself. He drinks too much and he’s perceived by others to be corruptible. Only it turns out his avarice is no match for his desire to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end of the day. He’s stubborn, softhearted, even, at the fringes. He wants to save the girl, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; knowing she’s flawed, he wants to believe she’s worth saving, and that redemption can be found for them both.
He’s all that and still, he’ll only be played so far. He won’t play the patsy, and he won’t play it perhaps for no other reason than because the woman is counting on him to. He’ll wait for her to get out of jail, but he won’t take the fall for her or let her walk away from her crime. It hurts him, wearies him. If they hang her, he’ll always remember her. He also notes, “a lot more money would have been one more item on your side” (of the ledger), rendering his final risk calculus as something less than full morality. Then again, he’s a hard man, hard-boiled all the way through – and we, the readers, have no way of knowing what he might have done for more money. One has the sense, that, while it was a theoretical possibility, practically speaking there would not ever be enough money to corrupt him.
How do you conduct the historical research for your novels?
Christopher Bartley: I read a lot. One of the first books I ever remember reading – I was probably nine or ten years old - was the autobiography of Alvin Karpis, one of the last of the celebrity bank robbers and one of the few to survive past 1935. A contemporary of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, he spent thirty years in Alcatraz prison and lived to write about it afterward. In my office at the university and at home, I have stacks of books about the 1930s and the criminals, musicians, politicians, and athletes who lived in America at the time. I also have over fifty books about the cities and the settings that I use. These include histories, but also books of old photographs and maps of the cities over time.
Your action sequences are especially well done – the violence seems cinematic, unfolding with indelible high-def images, even occasional freeze-framing and slow-mo. Do you labor over these artful descriptions, or do they just flow?
Christopher Bartley: I don’t labor action scenes at all. For some reason they just flow. I probably write them twice as fast as I write any other section of a book. As a reader, you tend to read action scenes faster – and for some reason I also write them faster. Maybe it’s even the same reason. Interesting. Never thought about it before.
You seem to know a lot about robbing banks. Have you ever robbed one yourself?
What are you working on right now?
Christopher Bartley: Naked Shall I Return. Ross Duncan is in San Francisco – Chinatown – taking care of old and new business.
How has your literary agent helped you?
Christopher Bartley: My agent is Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates, one of the major literary agencies in London. Sonia helped me enormously since I signed with her six years ago. She’s given me encouragement, constructive feedback, and guidance at every turn – as well as all the technical aspects of representation. Lately, we’ve been having a conversation about whether I should start writing some other type of fiction – more contemporary fiction. Sonia has been giving me a gentle nudge to consider that. I will continue to write Ross Duncan novels, but will also try to write another type of novel in the next year.
Most of your books are dedicated to “Karen.” Who is she?
Christopher Bartley: Karen is my lovely, talented, and wonderful wife who has put up with me for the past 27 years.
One last question: As a clinical psychologist, what are some of the experiences you’ve had that have influenced your writing?
Christopher Bartley: I spent fifteen years working in the Veterans Affairs system treating and studying combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Most of these men and women knew what it meant to live with a gun in their hands – they had fears and regrets, as well as an acute understanding of how fragile human life is. I’ve also consulted to the Department of Defense and other government agencies on a variety of issues, been inside a maximum security prison, testified in a murder trial, and held private conversations with several national and state-level politicians in Washington DC and Texas over the years.
Titles in the Ross Duncan Series:
About Chris: In addition to writing crime fiction, Christopher Bartley (under his real name) is a behavioral scientist and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, Hawaii, and also McNair Scholar and Director of Clinical Research at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. He conducts clinical trials, epidemiology, mental health services studies, neuroscience, and historical research, primarily with psychiatric inpatients, prisoners, and combat veterans.
He has authored more than 250 scientific publications, including a recent graduate textbook on psychopathology and papers on posttraumatic stress disorder, military suicides, alcoholism, and psychiatric illnesses among Union Forces during the U.S. Civil War. During his career he has consulted to US Congressmen, various elements of the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the National Board of Medical Examiners, healthcare systems and universities, criminal and civil trial lawyers, and private philanthropists in Houston and Washington, D.C. He has also authored commentaries published in the National Review, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, New York Times, and Time Magazine. For his scientific work he has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Scientific American, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Chris Bartley’s Online Info:
Facebook: https://www .facebook.com/christobartley