The late, great Edgar Allan Poe has influenced mystery writers from his
own era on, including many of today's most well-known authors in the mystery and horror genres. It's no surprise – he’s often called the Father of the Detective Story because of four remarkable tales featuring his famous detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin: "The Gold Bug," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget."
In honor of the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth, his numerous literary contributions, and the debt of gratitude mystery writers and readers owe to him,
we've asked some of the most renowned authors of today's mysteries and thrillers to relate how Poe has influenced their writing.
I and everyone else at Curled Up With A Good Book are pleased that James Grippando, the author of fifteen bestselling books, perhaps most notably those featuring criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck (most recently Born to Run, has agreed to be among those who contribute their thoughts about how Poe has influenced their own novels.
Interviewer Douglas R. Cobb: Edgar Allan Poe's writing has been credited as being the flame which first lit the candles of numerous authors' careers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's and Dame Agatha Christie's, to name two. What was the first Poe poem or short story you recall having read, and what age were you at the time?
James Grippando: I was in elementary school, and I have a very specific memory of sitting on the couch with my mother—I was wearing my Halloween costume—who read it aloud with me. I didn’t even realize that we were reading Poe at the time, but later in life I realized that it was “The Raven.” First short story was not long after: “The Black Cat.”
Poe referred to his detective stories as "tales of ratiocination." Dupin worked out the clues and puzzles of the mysteries through a combination of reason and intuition, a method of solving mysteries that could just as easily describe how trial lawyers work. You were trial lawyer for twelve years, and your character Jack Swyteck is in your novels. How much of an influence would you say reading Poe's stories has had on your writing?
I really got into Poe at a very formative age as a writer—my high school and early college days—so I would say that the influence was profound. Interestingly, it was a record album that prompted me to head to the library and immerse myself in Poe’s writings. I was the only kid in my school with a quadraphonic sound system—four speakers in a tiny bedroom!—and my favorite album was “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by the Alan Parsons Project. It was a progressive rock album that put the lyrics of Poe’s poetry to (at the time) cutting-edge music.
In your third Jack Swyteck novel, Last to Die, Jack somewhat reluctantly defends Tatum Knight, the brother of Jack's best friend, Theo. Tatum is accused of killing wealthy heiress Sally Fenning, and he and five others people, none of whom were exactly on Sally's Christmas list, have been named beneficiaries in her will. The catch? The last living beneficiary inherits the entire $46 million.
Jack and Tatum were the only two people to have faith in Theo's innocence when, in a previous book, Jack defended Theo on a murder charge and got him released from jail. Were these two characters were based on anyone you've defended? Have you ever defended two members of the same family?
Can’t say I’ve defended two members of the same family, but like Jack, I did do death penalty work and did, on occasion, wonder about the guilt or innocence of a client. My first job out of law school plunged me into death penalty cases. I was a law clerk to a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and we were the court of last resort for death row inmates in Florida and Georgia—two states that, at the time, were carrying out more executions than the other 48 states combined. Death cases were always last-minute pleas for a stay of execution. The legal briefs came with boxes and boxes of materials: transcripts from the trial, photos of the victim, maybe even a written confession from the defendant. The evidence of guilt was often overwhelming. But every so often, a case would make me wonder: What if this guy really is innocent?
Your Jack Swyteck novels are politically conscious. In his travels to different countries to defend clients, his (and your) concern about the rights and welfare of people around the world adds a lot to the novels.
For instance, in Last to Die, Jack goes to Africa to meet with Sally's sister Rene, who becomes his girlfriend. While there, issues such as the AIDS epidemic in Africa and child slavery in the cocoa plantations there arise. Sally herself was dying of AIDS before she was shot to death. Did you decide to have Jack be a sort of advocate before you ever wrote the first Swyteck novel?
Definitely not! I like to spark people’s interest make them think about important issues when they read, but I hate to read preachy novels, so I don’t write them. The Pardon, for example—the first Jack Swyteck novel—involves capital punishment. I’m very proud of the fact that no one can read that novel and guess where I stand on the death penalty.
One of my favorite Jack Swyteck novels (maybe because it was the first I read), Hear No Evil, blew me away, probably thanks to its initial twisted premise that gets Jack to accept the case of a woman (Lindsay Hart) accused of murdering her husband, an American soldier at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lindsay is the adoptive mother of Jack's son, who Jack doesn't know about. The boy's biological mother and an old girlfriend of Jack’s, Jessie Merrill, never told him that she got pregnant and had his baby. Swyteck believes that Hart, if not a murderer, is at least a liar and a blackmailer. He’s not very enthusiastic about taking the case, but if he doesn't defend her, he may lose any chance he to establish contact with his son.
He travels to Cuba to investigate the facts, and learns some things about his own past – including that his mother was Cuban. Do you have plans for Swyteck to return to Cuba in future books?
I actually did take Jack back to Cuba in a short story in the Thriller anthology called “Operation Northwoods.” Whether I’d take Jack again to Cuba in another novel is tough to say at this point. I think the trip to Cuba worked so well in Hear No Evil because it was a very personal journey for Jack. I’d mentioned many times in my novels in the series that Jack’s mother was born in Cuba. She died in childbirth, however, and Jack knew very little of his Cuban heritage. This idea of discovering who we are—whether by going back to Cuba or Italy or Africa or wherever—is a powerful theme.
Jessie Merrill was introduced in Beyond Suspicion and also murdered in it, making Jack appear to be the most probable suspect when he discovered her dead body floating in his bathtub. Swyteck fought in court for her to receive a $1.5 million dollar settlement when she sold her life insurance policy for a viatical cash benefit.
The Russian mob set up the viatical scam that Jessie becomes a victim of. An assassin kills another character who accepted Jessie into the insurance scam despite the fact that they had primarily targeted people with AIDS before this. Did you base the novel on any actual viatical scams?
Before I wrote Beyond Suspicion, I came across the findings of a Florida grand jury, which concluded that "fraud in the viatical-settlement industry is rampant" and that as many as 40% to 50% of the settlements were tainted with fraud. As I dug deeper, I discovered a Texas case in which the accused ring-leader of an alleged $10 million viatical settlement scheme happened to be on parole from a murder-for-hire conviction. Although no one was found to have been murdered as a way of expediting the pay-off to investors, it got me to wondering... what if? I simply had to run with this notion of investors having a serious financial interest in the early death of a total stranger.
Another Swyteck book I really liked - they're all good, but this was a particular favorite - is When Darkness Falls. Part of the plot centers on the plight of the people of Argentina, who suffered torture, death, and sometimes the theft of their babies during what's known as the Dirty War. A homeless character called the Falcon who acts crazy and demands to talk with the mayor's daughter worked at one of the camps many Argentinians were forced into, and he knows she was one of the babies stolen during the war. Where did you first learn about the Dirty War, and why did you decide to use it in one of your novels?
Like most Americans, about the only thing I knew about the Dirty War was that the fascist regime behind it fell after the Falkan Islands War. There is a huge Argentine population in south Florida, however, and through contacts in that community I started to hear about recent lawsuits that were being filed in Argentina—grandmothers who, thirty years after their daughters were murdered and their babies stolen, were trying to track down their grandchildren. These lawsuits were controversial, because many of these stolen children were placed with supporters of the fascist regime. In many cases the children (now grown and in their late twenties or early thirties) did not want to know the truth about their biological mother and adoptive parents. It was this personal and tragic component of the Dirty War that propels When Darkness Falls.
Your standalone non-Swyteck novel, Lying with Strangers is quite an atmospheric, creepy, and disturbing book about a first-year resident at the Boston Children's Hospital who is being stalked. Nobody believes her, not even her husband. The character Rudy is one of the most twisted villains you've written about. Did you do much research on the behavior of stalkers for this novel?
I love doing research for my novels, and I do it all myself; I don’t have a “research assistant.” Rudy, however, did not come into the story until I was well into my field research on Boston (where Lying with Strangers is set) and pediatric medicine. I had the unique opportunity to shadow the chief resident at Children’s Hospital, Boston. While staying at his house, he told me about another pediatric intern—a brilliant and beautiful young woman who had been stalked by a patient's relative. A light immediately went on, and Peyton Shields, the lead character in Born to Run, was born. I was then off and running to research my stalker, Rudy. I’m glad to hear that you found him both twisted and convincing!
I haven’t yet read your two latest novels, Born to Run and Intent to Kill. Is either a Jack Swyteck novel?
Born to Run is the eighth installment in the Swyteck series—different from the others mainly in that it’s a Washington-based thriller that takes Jack away from his south-Florida comfort zone. In Born to Run, the president of the United States has a secret as old as he is—a bombshell that his operatives will stop at nothing to keep from leaking to the public. When the vice president turns up dead on a hunting trip in the Everglades, the former governor of Florida—Jack’s father, Harry Swyteck—is nominated to replace him. Jack discovers that the vice president’s untimely death is linked to an elaborate cover up, and that his father has been tapped by a president who should never have been elected in the first place.
Intent to Kill will be released in April 2009, a stand-alone thriller about a rising baseball star who is married to the perfect woman—until a car accident changes everything. The research was really easy for this one. I love baseball and, of course, I’m married to the perfect woman.
Our thanks again to Mr. Grippando for sharing his time and thoughts with us, and for furthering awareness of what a great American author Edgar Allan Poe was, the contributions he made to literature, and what an influence he remains on authors today.
We’d also like to extend our condolences to Mr. Grippando after the recent death of his father.
Douglas R. Cobb/2009.