The author Jon Talton admitted last Wednesday that he hadn’t grown up watching Fritz Lang films and reading Dashiell Hammett.
“I wish I had such a good pedigree,” laughed Talton, a writer of bestselling mystery novels and a beloved Phoenix historian. “In my late teens and early 20s I read a lot of John D. McDonald and a lot of Raymond Chandler and a fair amount of Robert Parker’s wonderful Spenser series. And then I stopped reading mysteries and wrote a book about my experience driving an ambulance in Phoenix in the '70s.”
Talton sent his book to 50 publishers and got back 50 rejection letters. “I papered a wall with them,” he said. “This was not a healthy thing to do.”
Shortly after, the young author shifted gears. “I thought I would write mysteries, make some money, and later do serious fiction,” he said. “To quote Joan Didion, ‘Was anyone ever so young?’ Yes, I was.”
Talton shopped Concrete Desert, the first of his well-loved David Mapstone mysteries, for five years before placing it with St. Martin’s Press in 2011. “I wasn’t part of that elitist Manhattan group where everyone knew everyone else,” he explained. “I was living in Cincinnati. And I learned pretty quickly that you don’t make much money writing mysteries.”
Yet he’s been doing it ever since, to praise from literary critics and noir fans alike. “Mystery readers like a series, so here I am, 13 novels later.” Most are set in Phoenix, where Talton, a former Arizona Republic columnist, was raised. He lives now in Seattle and writes about the economy for the daily there.
“I’m grateful to still be around,” he said. “A lot of midlist authors have been kicked to the curb. I haven’t been, yet. I emphasize the word yet.”
His newest novel, the just-published City of Dark Corners, follows a former homicide detective who’s chasing down Depression-era missing persons when he discovers a dismembered body beside the train tracks.
Because this is a noir mystery, the murder is linked to powerful people, both good and bad; and because it’s a Talton thriller, the gumshoeing goes on in Phoenix. The book is bursting with cameos by long-gone local celebrities and well-loved places: A man wearing a Vic Hanny suit walks into Rosenzweig and Sons Jewelers and there’s a young Barry Goldwater, eyeing a pocket watch. Private eyes lunch at the Saratoga; characters name-drop Carl Hayden and Governor Hunt and Winnie Ruth Judd and Otis Kenilworth, the barber.
“A lot of my readers live in Phoenix,” shrugged Talton, whose Rogue Columnist blog charts our local history. “So when I’m writing, I might need a character who’s a barber, and it may as well be Otis, who opened the first black-owned barber shop to serve both whites and blacks in Phoenix. He cut my hair when I was a little boy, and he was an old man. I was terrified of him.”
More frightening than Otis the barber is the shady figure of notorious Arizona rancher Kemper Marley, who turned up in Talton’s last book as well.
“He’s an archetypal asshole in both stories,” Talton said. “You couldn’t invent a character that evil, so I figured, why not go with the model that works?”
Written while Donald Trump was still president, City of Dark Corners offered a peculiar respite from the daily news of the day.
“Things were so bleak,” Talton said, “that I actually found comfort in going back to the Great Depression for some normality. Things were bad back then, too, but I knew how that story came out, which was much better than not knowing how things were going to go with Trump. Would there be a crisis of democracy, would there be fascism or communism?"
He noted, too, that authors weren’t asked to warn readers about racist language in a book set in the 1930s. “James Ellroy’s books took place in the '40s and '50s, and the racist language is horrifying,” Talton admitted. “But it was also authentic to that period. That’s really how people talked then. There was no trigger warning in the front of an Ellroy novel, but my publisher asked for one, so I wrote one.”
Talton said he dreaded the process of writing a novel. “I so wish I could set up a factory and just grind these books out. I have tried, Lord have I tried. It doesn’t work. I’ve read that Michelangelo used to say the statue was already in the marble, and it was his job to chip it out. For me, the story I’m telling has already happened, the mystery has already been solved. But I have to sit down and write a thousand words a day, to get it down on paper for others to see.”
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