WU contributor David Corbett just released his latest novel The Mercy of the Night. We’re so pleased he’s with us today to tell us more about it!
Q: What’s the premise of your new book?
There is no freedom without trust. And the truth does not lie with God or in Platonic ideals or in a library. It exists between people. Either we share the truth or we share a lie.
Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?
It was based on three traumatic incidents in my own hometown, though I fictionalize the locale to a city named Rio Mirada, lying on the Napa River, midway between the vineyards and San Francisco.
The first incident was the abduction of two nearly identical girls only weeks apart about a decade ago. The first girl was never found. The second girl escaped after three days. She was hailed as the plucky little heroine, and testified against her abductor, but by the time she’d reached sixteen her life had gone pretty severely off the rails. I saw a story in that: a girl who’s suffered through such an ordeal and its often ugly aftermath trying to get her life back on track, however misguided the effort might be.
The second incident was the town’s filing for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 9. This resulted from a political standoff between the public service unions and the city, which was out of money. The fight was heated, the union coalition fragmented with the police cutting their own deal, and the head of the firefighter’s union refused to back down. The result: a ruling in federal court that went against the unions. He went from being a hero to a scapegoat in a heartbeat, and again I saw a story in that.
Finally, some kids started throwing stones at a city employee on a backhoe. He got off, words were exchanged, and suddenly anywhere from 20 to 40 kids were beating him into a coma. The incident was caught on a security camera from a nearby gas station, and the story became something akin to: What’s wrong with this city’s kids? I considered that a really convenient answer, and thought there was a deeper story.
For my inciting incident, I mashed these three things together. I had the head of the firefighter’s union, who’s now taken another job out of town, offering this troubled girl a chance to come with him, leave her past behind. Then some kids start pitching rocks at the car they’re in. He gets out, confronts them. And the next thing you know…
Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
Jacqueline “Jacqi” Garza is my troubled teen, and she’s been used so many times by so many people in so many ways, all of them claiming to want to do her a favor, that she no longer trusts anyone. She has to overcome that fear, and also her fear of what will happen if she finally, ten years later, tells the real truth about what actually happened to her.
Phelan Tierney, my quasi-PI—he’s a kind of lapsed lawyer and legal jack-of-all-trades—has to overcome the unconscious obsession with saving someone that’s had it in its clutches since the death of his wife.
And they both have to overcome the relentless pushback of Jacqi’s family, who want the truth buried forever.
Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?
I’d resisted writing a PI novel, since I’d been a private investigator myself. The PIs I found in books bore little resemblance to me and how I did my job. But I finally found a way to make it work, I think, by looking at the matter in a new way. I made my PI a helper, not a fighter or a hunter, though he can do both of those things if need be. His primary motivation, though, is to help those honest enough to own their mistakes and try to clean the slate, start over.
The challenge came in not realizing just how hard it is to write a compelling hero when he bears too great a resemblance to oneself. You assume things are on the page when they’re not, and the result is a cipher, a shadow, not a character. I realized I had to make Phelan Tierney different than me in critical ways, ways that made me have to discover him, not just take him for granted.
Also, this was the first book where I deliberately stage a double reversal, where two characters had to change to make the story work. It was trickier than I’d originally thought, mainly because I had to make sure I didn’t confuse the reader, making them wonder whose story it was.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
It’s been a while since my last novel, and it’s nice to be back in the fiction aisle. Also, I went through a rather rough period for a while publishing-wise. No New York publisher wanted the book, and my agent and I parted ways. The novel finally found a home at Thomas & Mercer, and preliminary response has been pretty good, especially this, from Booklist (starred review):
Corbett handles his story line and subplots adroitly, in economical but polished prose, but his real strength is in character development; Tierney and company are so real they seem to step off the pages. Superlative hard-boiled crime fiction with a strong emotional center.
You can learn more about The Mercy of Night on David’s website: http://www.davidcorbett.com/.