Curt Colbert is such a genuinely good guy one wonders before reading his work if he can truly create a down ’n’ dirty alternate reality with conviction and credibility. But by setting his cleverly concocted tales of private eyes, gangsters, grifters, gun molls, jazz musicians and just plain folks in an evocatively reconstructed mid-century Seattle, Curt manages to not only honor the timeworn tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but flesh out the bare bones of classical hardboiled fiction in such a way that contemporary audiences feel right at home, decades in the past.
This ability to transport readers to a previous period and very specific place can only be accomplished if the author has the skills to describe every character and circumstance in vivid, cinematic detail, painting pictures of the past that are as beautiful as they are brutal, as vibrant as they are violent, and as complex as they are colorful. The author also must have a musical ear for the witty patter and narrative nuances one associates with both this genre and that time.
Curt Colbert is That Writer…
Your Rat City series is poetically evocative of a bygone era, the 1940s, which was the heyday of classic film noir. What do you think is the lingering appeal of that place and time in popular culture?
I think the appeal of the 1940’s in popular culture has to do with a certain amount of nostalgia for the decade – a time when everything was much simpler than today. No cellphones, no personal computers, no internet, typewriters and dial phones were high-tech, newspapers and radio were king, the Great Depression had come to an end, the good fight of World War Two was won, good was good and bad was bad, as in the popularity of Westerns in film, where the good guy always rode off into the sunset having given the bad guy his comeuppance. People had faith in the police and faith in government. Jobs were plentiful and offered good enough wages that one could buy a house working only one job.
On a personal note though, I doubt the decade is remembered with the same nostalgia by people of color who were so terribly marginalized, and worse, in our society during the 1940’s. Therefore, prejudice in its many forms is one of the themes in my series of hardboiled PI novels: Rat City, Sayonaraville, and Queer Street.
As both a genre author and the editor of the anthology Seattle Noir, do you see the Emerald City as a hub for modern crime fiction, like L.A., the Bay Area, South Florida and East Texas?
While the juxtaposition of murder and other dark crimes occurring under sunny skies and palm trees in places like L.A. and Florida is ironic, I think crime occurring in the backdrop of greater-Seattle’s scenic snow-capped mountains, sparkling waters of Puget Sound, and beautiful nearby forests has its own inherent irony. And for atmosphere, especially in my 1940’s noir milieu, a “dark and stormy night” is hard to beat when you consider the chilly, grey, rainy weather we have for roughly half of each year. While a sunny day is a happy treat in our town, and murder certainly happens then, I like the image of a dead body sprawled on dimly lit, wet pavement outside an after-hours, Jackson Street jazz club as a tenor sax improvises an impassioned riff in the background.
Jazz infuses and informs much of your work. How important is music to your creative process?
Which brings me to jazz informing much of my work. I don’t care for quiet when I write – I like music playing – usually jazz if I’m working on a 1940’s PI story. Jazz is the original American music – from the earliest syncopated jazz, to later big band music, hot jazz, cool jazz and bebop, it defined America, especially in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. While there are plenty of original jazz compositions, part of the genius of jazz is to sometimes take an old standard, and through improvisation transcend the tune, making it new and fresh again.
I sometimes think that my 1940’s private eye is rather like a jazz musician. Both he and I, the author, are working with an “old standard” – that is, the historical PI style – and while playing through the traditional melody of murder, motive, red herrings and dead ends, must improvise to not only solve the case, but to also make the material immediate and vital again.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
The authors who have influenced me most are: Raymond Chandler; Dashiell Hammett; James M. Cain; Mickey Spillane; James Ellroy; Elmore Leonard and G.M. Ford. In addition, classic noir movies have informed my style a great deal. While they showed what goes around, comes around, they also began to show that our ideas of good and evil are sometimes mutable.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on several projects. I’m shopping around my novel, All Along the Watchtower, featuring Jake Rossiter’s son, Matt Rossiter, a PI like his dad, who is a Vietnam vet with a hellacious case of PTSD. I’m also finishing the fourth novel in the Jake Rossiter and Miss Jenkins 1940’s PI series, titled Nowhere Town. Further, I’ve started my first thriller, titled, The Full Empty, featuring a suicidal Seattle homicide detective.
Cheers and thank you, my friend! See you soon at Noir at the Bar Seattle.
CURT COLBERT is the author of the Jake Rossiter & Miss Jenkins mysteries, a series of hard-boiled, private detective novels set in 1940s Seattle. The first book, Rat City, was nominated for a Shamus Award in 2001. A Seattle native, Colbert still resides in his hometown. He is the editor of Seattle Noir.
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PHOTO: CURT COLBERT