accomplished writers I’ve met online, none is more remarkable than Christopher
Bartley (a pen name). On his “day job” Chris is a clinical psychologist and a psychology
professor (at the U of Hawaii on Hilo) and also manages to direct research at
the Menninger Clinic in Houston while consulting at the Baylor College of
Medicine. Chris has written and published extensively in these disciplines,
but, as implied above, he also has a secret literary life.
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?
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 Prohibition was just repealed and organized crime is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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
You seem to
know a lot about robbing banks. Have you ever robbed one yourself?
What are you
working on right now?
Bartley: Naked Shall I Return.
Ross Duncan is in San Francisco – Chinatown – taking care of old and new
How has your
literary agent helped you?
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
Most of your
books are dedicated to “Karen.” Who is she?
Bartley: Karen is my lovely,
talented, and wonderful wife who has put up with me for the past 27 years.
question: As a clinical psychologist, what are some of the experiences you’ve
had that have influenced your writing?
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:
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
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.
Bartley’s Online Info: