“Kent Harrington: A Conversation”
by Lou Boxer
Lou Boxer: Tell us about your family’s background.
Kent Harrington: I was born in San Francisco in 1952 during the Cold War and the real threat of atomic annihilation, a la Hiroshima. (Ironically, we are back there again, complete with Russia as boogie man.) The Irish side of the family had come during the Gold Rush, penniless refugees from the first potato famine. By the time I was born, the Beat Generation had landed in town and set the stage for the coming cultural revolution of the ’60s. I came of age when the world was changing quickly. The “Establishment” was viewed with suspicion because of Vietnam and the Kennedy Assassination. Americans started flipping the script, including women. It was a wonderful time to be young.
My mother, Victoria Aguilar-DeLeon, was from an upper-class landowning family in Guatemala. The DeLeon’s had come to Central America with Pedro Alvarado’s invaders from Spain, probably with a rented sword and helmet. It is said that our family owned the first car in Guatemala! I grew up a conservative Catholic and thought I would be a soldier or doctor when I grew up. Soldier was my real calling, probably, certainly not novelist. We had no artists in the family and my mom wanted me to be a soldier. The Guatemala I experienced, before the civil war of the ’80s and ’90s, was colonial, reactionary, with only two classes: a privileged oligarchy and everyone else.
My father, an Irish Jew, by the ’60s had made good selling women’s hats. He was in many ways a typical traveling Jewish salesman: tough, optimistic, hard-working, honest, and all business. The antisemitism he and his Jewish traveling salesmen buddies experienced on the roads of America only made them tougher. That salesman’s culture I witnessed as a boy left its mark on me. The masculine grittiness of it, that willingness to work hard despite obstacles, being a lonely stranger in a one-horse town somewhere in Alabama complete with Sundown laws, for example. I think it’s my father’s influence and experience as a traveling salesman—truly at the bottom of the social system—that helped me appreciate and recognize the importance of the so-called pulp writers like Jim Thompson later in life. The pulp writers, especially, understood that the real America, was violent, racist, homophobic, dominated by a few East coast families who sold a shop-worn Horacio Alger myth to a gullible population.
The facts were obviously otherwise. Horatio Alger had to pay someone off and he couldn’t be black. And if the bellboy and the hooker who worked in the shadows told anyone what was truly going on in the hotel’s Presidential Suite, they wouldn’t be believed, or someone would report them to the FBI for being Communists.
When my parents divorced, my mother sent me to military school at age of nine. An all- boys school is an incredibly brutal place. It was a seminal experience as it taught me that no one was going to be there for me—not my family for sure. Most importantly, I learned very young, that you had to take care of yourself emotionally and physically. Many boys were ruined because they couldn’t take it. You couldn’t call your momma up. You had to take care of it yourself. The military school changed me and not necessarily for the better, but I don’t regret going as the academics were excellent and helped me learn some important things about life. Oddly, I am grateful for the experience. It made me who I am and served me well later in life.
LB: When did you decide to become a writer?
KH: When I was in my mid-twenties. I just decided I would try it. I wrote my first novel in my girlfriend’s father’s little trailer. Not a good novel, but a start. I did it on a typewriter. You know those funny things you see in old movies! Literature had always called to me since childhood. Being a novelist is the most closeted thing you can do. You sit in a room and talk to yourself on paper. Very strange. I don’t think I was ready for a normal life, really. Too much had happened to me. I’d left home at sixteen, been quasi-homeless, sold marijuana to keep body and soul together, got in trouble with the law, and spent time in Juvenile Hall. I’ll never forget the sheriff deputy ratcheting the handcuffs down on my wrists one night and saying: “You are out of parental control, son”. Being locked up with real criminals clears the head! One day I realized I was locked up on a basketball court, no guard, with a couple of kids who’d murdered people in cold blood—real psychopaths. OK, I thought looking at the lock on the cage door. This shit has to change! I was just seventeen—I was living at Gate 6 in Sausalito on my own. Gate 6 at the time was a collection of house boats and a low rent Sodom and Gomorrah. It was full of runaways, and crazed Vietnam Vets, dope dealers, Hollywood writers, you name it. I wrote about it in the Rat Machine, what a place! The cops didn’t bother to go there. They just wrote it off. I decided one day I didn’t want any part of a life of crime. I left it behind and decided to go to college. I would probably be dead by now as many of the kids I knew then did die violently.
After I got out of college, I kicked around worked at various jobs including selling life insurance, where I got the idea for Dark Ride. My brother threw a Jim Thompson paperback on my couch one day and I read it and said to myself, Yeah, I can do that. And I did. An agent at William Morris, Mel Berger, called. He’d wanted to represent me! The problem was that St Martin’s, who published Dark Ride, wanted me to be a miniature Jim Thompson. For a variety of reasons that were never clear to me, they wouldn’t publish my second novel, Dia De Los Metros, which ironically became a minor hit later.
Getting the boot from St. Martin’s probably was the best thing that could have happened to me creatively. In those days the important bookstore for crime fiction belonged to Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop. The one in New York still exists and is probably the leading crime fiction bookstore in the country. The manager of Otto’s L.A. store at the time, Shelly McArthur, loved Dark Ride and hooked me up with Dennis McMillan, the noted publisher. My manuscript for Dia De Los Muertos was an orphan until Dennis picked it up, luckily. Dennis at the time had the premier crime imprint in the country, despite his being a small press. He literally had a world-wide reputation for crime fiction. He had quite the roster of writers, too. I wanted to do other kinds of books and I got that chance with him. I wanted to explore the Graham Greene style novel, and got to do that with Red Jungle, The Good Physician, and Satellite Circus. If it wasn’t for the Mysterious Bookshop, its influence, and Dennis McMillan, I wouldn’t have had a career. Period.
LB: Last Seen is a very exciting, hard-boiled tale, with San Francisco as a backdrop. You seem to always go back to the covert actions of the CIA which is so very plausible. Sex workers, “Honey Traps,” and espionage—as old as time itself! Why was Publisher’s Weekly so negative? Another covert arm of the government to direct our attention elsewhere?
KH: That’s a very interesting question. The PW reviewer didn’t believe that a female sex worker portrayed in the book would be recruited by CIA as an asset. They said that it was “unbelievable.” This is of course absurd and speaks to the level of criticism today, I suppose, because the review was so off the mark in terms of history and facts. After all, the recent Epstein case is obviously in part about intelligence work. Honey traps are common to intelligence work and always will be. But at the end of the day, good or bad, you have to believe in your work regardless of dumb reviews, or for that matter great reviews. I have had both. But reviews aren’t the last word. Whenever I start a novel, or a screenplay, I always feel completely frightened, and no review, good or bad, is propping me up. The only thing that matters to me, or that I care about, is that I work as dangerously as I can, in search of what I believe is true and good, as Hemingway might have put it. That’s what I care about. It’s the only reason to sit for months in a room by yourself, believe me. It’s because the book matters to you first and foremost. It’s about what the author gets out of it I’ve learned.
LB: What about your recent work for film and television?
KH: Years ago, Danny Huston optioned Dia De Los Muertos and we wrote the script together. We went to Tijuana twice and that was fun as Danny is a character. That was my introduction to Hollywood. I recently adapted a non-fiction work called Our Man in Mexico, for series TV, about a famous CIA officer, Wynn Scott, who was head of the CIA station in Mexico City in the 1960’s, including when Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly went to Mexico City. It’s going into development presently. I enjoyed doing that pilot because I knew a lot about that time in Mexico and a lot about CIA operations, so I felt competent. I got a call from Wynn Scott’s son, Michael, who had become a movie director. He asked me if I would adapt the book for him and I said yes. Burning the Past, a TV is pilot I recently did as well, in the Peaky Blinders mode, is a work I am pushing, because I love it. It’s about the immediate post-war world in Europe, from the point of view of two young women. I was moved by Two Women, the feature film with Sophia Loren, done in the ’60s, and shot in Europe. It’s a great film and spiritually connected to my Burning The Past.
LB: What is your favorite books of yours?
KH: My favorite novel of mine is the perfect one I never wrote. I don’t know. They all seem to have flaws. I enjoy the language most in the Graham Greene style books, because it seems the most high-flying. Satellite Circus, a novel that was only published in France, has some of my favorite passages, but it’s flawed, terribly flawed, in fact. Sometimes the narrative doesn’t live up to the prose! You have to get them both right. Where I got close to getting it right was probably Red Jungle, or if you like espionage yarns, The Good Physician.
LB: Let’s talk about your fascination with the intelligence world. You’ve done several books with CIA officers Alex Law and Butch Nickels. Where does this interest come from?
KH: My grandmother, Leonora DeLeon, was murdered in the American Embassy in Guatemala City sometime in the 1920s. The murder was covered up due to the politics and powers-that-be at the time. An embassy employee is thought to have shot my grandmother, Leonora, because she was jealous of her having an affair with someone important at the embassy. It was all kept hush hush. That murder colored everything afterword. Nothing was normal for my mother after that. She was shunted here and there, ruining her childhood. Perhaps it was that murder that gave me a good feeling for intrigue and the underlying, often hidden, truth of things. What is behind the curtain? Secrets and lies. The best crime and spy fiction deals in those goods and those pursuits. I told some of my grandmother’s story in Red Jungle, although it’s a work of fiction. I certainly am drawn to secret worlds.
LB: Dennis McMillan. One of a kind and true renaissance man. True or false?
KH: Yes. But I am biased as he published several of my novels. The really unanswered question, given the fact that Dennis almost single handedly brought back not only Jim Thompson but the whole pulp revival in the 80s, is why the big publishers didn’t make him an important editor. One of the majors should have given him an imprint. It would have been successful. But by the ’80s and ’90s the New York publishing world had moved to the right—Tom Clancy, et al.—and become extremely conservative. Dennis is a lot of things, but conservative isn’t one of them. To his credit, he was no war monger when it was profitable to be one as a publisher. Young writers today don’t understand New York publishing’s being under the thumb of whatever the politics of the day is.
LB: Any advice for young writers?
KH: I wrote an essay a while back called Alone in A Room. It’s on my website and free. I have a soft spot in my heart for young people starting out and wrote the essay to help those who, like myself, had no one in the family who was involved in the arts. The only thing I would add to that essay, now, is that publishers large and small want novelists to be PR professionals too. They do that to cut their own costs and improve their margins. In the old days, publishers had a PR budget for a title. You should fight for a PR budget. Today publishers expect authors starting out to have expansive SM presence. The problem with that is that the novelist isn’t compensated for that work. In my view it’s created an unnecessary atmosphere whereby you click or die. Many go too far with that self-promotion, stealing time from their primary job: writing quality novels, which is hard enough! Keep in mind, too, that this need to self-promote has led to all kinds of dishonesty online. At the end of the day, it’s a fool’s errand. The best thing a young novelist can do is learn the craft. If you do that and write entertaining novels, whatever the genre, believe me, the audience will come to you.
Lou Boxer is the co-founder and director of NoirCon. A life-long bibliophile with a passion for the human condition and the all-to-often marginalized, Lou has surrounded himself with some of the brightest and best champions of Noir. While this world gets more and more tribal and exclusive, the NoirCon family tirelessly strives to be inclusive, tolerant and accepting of all.
Kent Harrington’s first published work was the well-received noir thriller Dark Ride. Booklist’s review said: “This is as noir as it gets.” His follow-up noir thriller Dia De Los Muertos is now considered a modern crime classic. Amazon’s editorial review says: “If ‘American noir’ were in the dictionary, you might find Kent Harrington’s picture in place of the definition.” His latest novel is Last Seen.