The writer behind the David Mapstone mysteries
An interview with Jon Talton, a business journalist who also writes the David Mapstone mysteries.
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “The Night Detectives” will appear at noon Thursday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com).
I’m a fan of journalist Jon Talton, who writes a business column for The Seattle Times. He’s smart, a clear and precise writer, and I like his relentless insistence that, though we live in a great place, it could all go south if we don’t pay attention.
When I heard that Talton writes mysteries I thought, “I should read one of these.” I just finished his latest, “The Night Detectives” (Poisoned Pen Press, 234 pp., $24.95). It’s a smart, noirish tale, one of several Talton books featuring failed historian-cop-private eye David Mapstone.
There are explosions, right-wing conspiracy theorists, a kidnapped baby and a former sheriff who got voted out of office because he believes in civil liberties. It’s set in Phoenix, a town that Talton both loves and hates. I talked with Talton about his old home (Phoenix) his new home (Seattle) and his two writing jobs:
Q: You started your working life as an emergency-medical technician. How did you get into journalism?
A: Between high school and college, I worked as an EMT-paramedic in Phoenix and the suburbs. Then I took a job at a very small college in Oklahoma, teaching theater and stage management. ... The pay was so abysmal, when the little newspaper in town had an opening, I walked in and applied. This gruff old guy looked over his cheaters and said, “Can you spell?” I was hired.
Q: Tell me about your relationship to Phoenix.
A: I am a fourth-generation Arizonan. The Phoenix I grew up in is very different from the one now — 4.5 million people in the metro area. Then it was 400,000 people. It was an oasis. It still has a lot to offer. ... On the other hand, it has made so many mistakes, destroying the desert, the citrus groves. Anybody like me who has a sense of history can’t help but be horrified.
I never thought I would go back. Then they (The Arizona Republic) offered me a job as a columnist. My job as a (Phoenix) columnist was to start conversations, speak truth to power.
This did not exactly make me friends with people in powerful places ... a new publisher came on, reorganized the newsroom. They said, “You can stay, but do something else.” I said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and left.
I still write about Phoenix at my blog Rogue Columnist. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Phoenix ... it’s not going to do well with climate change.
Q: Why write mysteries?
A: I like journalism, I like the sense of serving the public trust. Originally it was a plan to get out of the newspaper gig when the roof fell in.
(Mysteries and writing fiction) are hard work, and it’s a very different part of the brain. I can turn a column around pretty quick, I can use the analytical part of my brain. ... Fiction writers have to dig deep.
Q: Why did you make Mapstone into a historian as well as a cop?
A: At one point I was going to go back and get my Ph.D. and become a history professor. I always try to bring history into my life as a journalist.
The idea of bringing a historian’s perspective appealed to me, bringing that to cold cases. When I wrote “Concrete Desert” (2001), “cold case” wasn’t even the vernacular. Mapstone came to town, he didn’t have a job, (Sheriff) Peralta gave him a file and said, here, do with these what you can.
Q: Mysteries seem to be getting progressively more violent. How do you handle the violence in your books?
A: It is a difficult line in today’s publishing environment. The early Mapstones are very intellectual, but the publishing industry keeps changing. Violence to children, going into the mind of a serial killer, those are places I don’t want to go. But they are places at least some readers increasingly demand.
I try to make what happens in the Mapstone series organic to the characters — People do get hurt, but there is a sense of justice.
I think we have a much more coarse society, and television drives that to an extent. I remember when television didn’t even show you a person getting hit. Now they show bodies on autopsy tables.
Q: What mystery writers do you admire?
A: I hate Dennis Lehane because he’s so good. Some books, I can learn this or that. It’s all about becoming a better cabinet maker. But someone like Lehane or Don Winslow (“Savages”), I think, I can’t learn anything from this, they are just so good.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.