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High School Noir
Michael McCulloch is not just another talented first novelist. Yes, his debut crime novel, Cold Lessons (Five Star), is a hard-hitting roman noir, but McCulloch is more than he seems. Lurking behind the pseudonym is our own Keir Graff, Booklist Online’s Senior Editor. Why did Keir elect to use a pseudonym for his first novel?
“I hope to write a lot of books, but I’m still feeling my way into my fiction-writing career. And though I love crime novels, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be known primarily as an author of crime novels. So I thought I’d save ‘Keir Graff’ a little longer to see what I decide. Who knows? Keir Graff may write a crime novel, too. On the other hand, I’m not using a pen name because I’m not proud of the work. I put a lot of effort into this book, and it’s something I would be proud to put my name on, if I hadn’t put someone else’s name on it instead.”
No matter what name is on the title page, Cold Lessons is, indeed, a novel to be proud of. In an era when the term noir has lost most of its meaning (it’s not a synonym for hard-boiled), Keir takes us back to the classic noir writers (Thompson, Goodis, et al.) whose heroes typically faced a challenge and failed. So it is with Keir’s hero, Gil Strickland, a hard-drinking high-school English teacher who sets out to expose a cocaine ring running out of his school. Keir explains the story’s genesis this way: “I had both David Lynch and James Crumley in mind when I started—and also Clint Eastwood—and my thought was, ‘What if an unlikely sleuth wasn’t actually up to the job?’ So often in fiction and movies, ordinary Joes find themselves possessed of superhuman strength and insight, which develops over the course of only a few days. My book isn’t entirely realistic, of course—I allow Gil a few wisecracks at odd moments, just because I didn’t want him to seem entirely defeated all the time—but Gil isn’t the kind of guy who suddenly starts belting the bad guys on the jaw. Then I took the concept one step further: hard-drinking (or formerly hard-drinking) heroes are common in crime fiction, but what if Gil’s drinking problem literally caused him problems?”
But why an English teacher? There’s a long history of drunk English teachers in comic literary novels (Lucky Jim, for example), but noir writers tend to prefer piano players to poetry profs. “Fourteen years ago, when I wrote the first draft of Cold Lessons,” Keir explains, “I was living in my parents’ basement, in the same room I lived in when I went to high school. My father left for work every day to teach English. (For the record, he’s a social drinker who once poured a too-strong martini into a plant.) It was winter. And I guess I was feeling as if I’d accidentally stumbled back in time instead of leaping out into the world as I’d planned. So setting the story in high school made sense.”
It also made sense to place the action in Missoula, Montana, where Keir grew up. Missoula is called Garden City in the book, but the bars Gil frequents will be familiar to local pub crawlers—and perhaps also to readers of the numerous well-known crime writers who probe the underside of Big Sky country. Was Keir influenced by Missoula’s literary lions? “Growing up,” he says, “I was a huge fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels—I read Black Cherry Blues on the other side of the lake where some of the action is set—and Crumley influenced me with the amount of chaos in his characters’ lives and the use of Montana bars as settings, but I find myself unable to write tough guys like he does. I’m just not a tough guy, and so I find it difficult to put myself in their shoes.”
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