Born Again P.I.

Private detective Martin McDonough was born twice, first in 2005, when he popped into my head after Akashic Books asked me to write a short story for its’ Noir series, then again in 1900, when I began filling him out as a character.

I wanted McDonough to age in lock-step with the 20th century because I had a life in mind for him. It began when he and the century were in their mid-30s, a perfect age for a street-wise PI, and exactly the right decade for a noir story set in St. Paul, a notorious hangout for Depression-era gangsters. The St. Paul police were corrupt, and the protection they offered was priced to sell.

Although McDonough is among the twice-born, he is not a religious man. He’s a fallen-away Catholic and a hard drinker, a type I am familiar with from my own youth when I had some good friends who fit that description, one of whom McDonough is loosely based upon. He waits until late afternoon for his first drink, and takes it at a bar where the cops hang out, thus turning what could be construed as a crippling liability into a major asset. Most of the cops are Irish too, and because they have a lot in common with him, and he has a gift for conviviality, they are forever giving him off the record information. That’s his stock in trade.

The Martin McDonough story I wrote for Twin Cities Noir was nominated for the Shamus Award, which prompted me to write several more short stories that were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and then a novel, Smoke Got In My Eyes, that takes McDonough into middle age.

His World War II experience in some ways parallels that of my uncle, who was drafted when he was too old for combat except in a real pinch, which never came. He spent the duration in a camp near Gilroy, Ca. where he and his buddies occasionally hunted deer with their Garland M-1 rifles, but otherwise never squeezed a trigger. He drank some when he went into the army, and had become a full-blown alcoholic by the time he was discharged. There wasn’t much else to do, he told me years later, when he was an AA member and mentor to younger people who had a drinking problem.

That doesn’t sound like something that’s in the cards for Martin McDonough. The novel ends shortly after the war ends. He has taken up residence in San Francisco. He’s hanging out in a jazz joint, and doing some pre-trial investigative work for a lawyer who represents North Beach mobsters (McDonough refers to them as “moblets,” in contrast to the gun-happy gangsters he knew back in the day).

If you’re interested in sampling the McDonough tales, a short story featuring him called “Indian Rose”, first published in Ellery Queen’s, is available free by clicking this link. If you like it, there is a handy link to purchase Smoke Got In My Eyes.

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