I’ve always thought of hard-boiled detective fiction as an American art form. At their finest, these crime stories are far more than a lone figure trying to unravel a mystery — they’re commentaries on politics, culture, music, the uneasy relationship between men and women and the bottomless depravity and cruelty of human nature. They also create a keen sense of time and place. And they feature a main character who relies on brains, brawn and a threadbare code in grim pursuit of answers that may not lead to anything resembling justice. That’s the kind of story I set out to tell in my Ed Earl Burch thrillers. And I wanted Burch to be a deeply flawed character — tough, profane, reckless and just smart enough, but angst-driven and battered by life. A guy who sometimes forgets the code he lives by until the chips are down. He isn’t super sharp like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe — he’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he isn’t super cool like Frank Bullitt. He’s Columbo without the caricature — and he makes people pay for underestimating him.
Ed Earl Burch is a classic American anti-hero. He’s a defrocked Dallas homicide detective, a deeply-flawed character who’s been smacked around by life and carries the guilt of a dead ex-partner and three broken marriages. He’s got bad knees, a wounded liver and an empty bank account. And he’s fatally attracted to women who leave him an emotional wreck. But when the chips are down, he’s smart, tough, profane and reckless in the relentless pursuit of the bad guys he wants to bring down. With handcuffs or bullets. It’s their call — he’ll deal it either way.
Burch is strong, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a goes-against-the-grain guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. He’s a cashiered Dallas homicide detective, eking out a living as a private eye, chasing financial fugitives and the occasional wayward husband or wife. He’s an ex-jock gone to seed with bad knees, a belly, a wounded liver and an empty bank account.
When not on a case, he keeps one boot on the rail of his favorite saloon, drinks bourbon neat with an ice-water chaser, chain-smokes Lucky Strikes and chases women who leave him an emotional wreck. He’s not Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe — he’s much more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys. He’s a bit of an Everyman, smacked around by life, a little slow on the uptake but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt — he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Colombo without the caricature — people he goes up against underestimate him and he makes them pay for that mistake. With a bullet or handcuffs. Smoke ‘em or cuff ‘em. It doesn’t matter to him how they deal the play. Add it all up and you’ve got that classic American anti-hero.
Here’s an interview Ed Earl did recently with ace reviewer Anita Lock for Underground Book Reviews:
I am thrilled to be interviewing the famous or infamous—whichever way readers want to look at him—Ed Earl Burch, the featured character in Jim Nesbitt’s The Right Wrong Number and The Last Second Chance.
1. Ed–may I call you Ed—did you ever realize that you could become the next beloved Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or Mike Hammer. Obviously, you’re not like any of them. You’re quite different. Why do you think Jim placed you in this hard-boiled setting?
A. Meaning no disrespect, ma’am, but nobody calls me Ed. Had a lady friend who used to call me Eddie in intimate moments, but she tried to kill me a couple of times. So, just call me Ed Earl. Everybody else does. Leastwise, everybody who likes me or hopes I’ll pay back the money I’ve borrowed from them. As for being different — I sure hope I’m different than those pulp fiction characters you just mentioned. For one thing, I’m not as smart or as tough as those other guys. I’m more the dogged, persistent kind, like a dog with a bone that won’t let go. That’s how I am with a case or an assignment. I’m not super smart or cool like Spade or Marlowe, but I ain’t a dumbass. I don’t have a granite jaw like Mike Hammer, but I can take a punch and dish one out like Mike and we both like .45 semi-automatics, the old 1911. People tend to underestimate me and I tend to make them pay for it in the end. Think of me as a chicken-fried Columbo, but without the raincoat and chewed up cigar. And I’m a helluva lot meaner and more likely to shoot you. As for that Nesbitt guy — he didn’t place me anywhere, but he did a pretty good job of telling the tale I told him. It’s a pretty grim story of revenge and redemption involving a lot of nasty folks with few redeeming qualities. And it takes place in Texas and northern Mexico, in some pretty stark, desolate country. Which is perfect for a primal and bloody story like this.
2. What’s with the full use of your name?
A. That’s a Southern thing in general and a Texas thing in particular. We call people by their first and middle names down here — Mary Nell or Jim Tom. Ray Merle or Carla Sue. With men, it may be because several descendants have a grandfather’s first name, so the second name is thrown in so you know who you’re talking about. But not always. And they’ll use the familiar instead of the formal — in my case, Ed Earl instead of the name on my baptism certificate, Edward Earl. To add to the confusion, a lot of men just go by their initials — C.W. or J.T. Some folks call me E.E. or Double E to be cute or picturesque, but I don’t much care for that. An ex-wife called me both of those, but she got killed because of something I stuck my foot in. Don’t need to be reminded of guilt I’ll never get over. So, Ed Earl will do just fine.
3. If you had to name two favorite characteristics about yourself, what would they be? How about two least favorite characteristics?
A. I don’t quit and I’m loyal to the few friends I’ve got. I’ve also got a code to live by when I’m not distracted by sex or money shoved in front of my nose. That’s three good things. There’s a laundry list of bad, but I’ll stick to my bottom two. I’m fatally attracted to women who are smarter than me and want to drive a stake into my heart. I’m also a brooder who blames himself for getting a partner, an ex-wife and a best friend killed and can’t let myself off the hook for that. Guilt’s a killer and revenge never erases that completely. I’ll mention one other characteristic and let you be the judge whether it’s good or bad. I’m a terminal smartass who can’t resist taking a whack at somebody even though I know they’ll whack me back.
4. How do you think Jim uses your characteristics to make you such an interesting figure?
A. Nesbitt’s a nosy bastard and asked me a lot of questions over deep whiskeys about my past, my ex-wives, my partner, why I got booted off the force and can’t carry that gold detective’s shield I worked so hard to get. He asked me so many questions about my feelings that I started looking around for the shrink’s couch. He kept hanging around at Louie’s, my favorite watering hole in Dallas, watching me, scribbling in that steno pad he carries and saying nothing for a long time. Then the questions would start again. I tell you, it flat wore me out, but I guess there was method to his madness because I think he captured me pretty well, warts and all. I asked him why he kept wanting to know what makes me tick and he said I was an Everyman with whom folks could identify, a guy who’s been smacked around by life but keeps plugging along. And then he gave me a nickel’s worth of psychoanalysis — said I was a deeply flawed guy, tough, semi-smart, relentless, guilt-ridden and reckless. Said that made me a far more interesting character, more compelling than those pulp fiction dicks you mentioned earlier. I don’t know about all that. I’m just who I am.
5. Why do think Jim plopped you in Texas? Why not great noir-y places like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York City?
A. No mystery there. I’m a Texan and I live and work in Dallas. I’d be a fish out of water in Chicago, LA or the Big Apple. Nesbitt ain’t a Texan, but he spent a lot of time knocking around the border, the Big Bend Country and the Hill Country in his journalism days. He lived in Dallas for a while and knows Austin, Houston and El Paso pretty well. So, when I was telling him my story, I didn’t have to fill in a lot of blanks about the places I went because he already knew the turf. I do know Nesbitt loves this state and is drawn to that stark, sun-blasted land in West Texas. Seems to suit him. He once told me that if a writer captures Texas just right — the real Texas, not the myth and legend — it comes alive as a character unto itself. He also told me it’s the perfect place to tell a primal story of revenge and redemption. Makes a helluva lot of sense to me.
6. You’ve gone through a lot of broken relationships; and readers don’t know too much beyond this. Do you think Jim has plans of revealing more of your past in future Ed Earl Burch novels?
A. I sure as hell hope not. I don’t need any more reminders of the ex I got killed and the others who got away.
7. With such a hard life—as much as readers know, why do you think Jim throws you into so many graphic scenes of sex and violence? Readers may think you would want to get away from all this stuff and have an easier life.
A. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to grab some rays by the pool sipping frou-frou drinks with little paper umbrellas in them. I have to work for a living and make what little I can with what I know how to do. I used to be a cop and a pretty good detective. It’s what I know how to do so I’ll keep doing it. Don’t much care for staking out no-tell motels and taking snaps of folks doing the wild thing with partners other than their spouses, although I’ll take on a divorce case to get the rent paid. What I’m real good at is poking my nose in places some real nasty people want to keep covered up, cases the cops would rather keep cold and closed. I’m a past master at stirring up the shit pot and seeing what floats to the top. And I’m not afraid of getting covered up in night soil and stink to find the truth. The people in my world are low down, dirty and mean. Most would cheat their mothers out of a Social Security check. More than a few are killers. They’re violent predators and if you’re going to go up against them, you best be able do them worse than they want to do you. I’m not shy about shooting somebody who needs killin’. As for the sex — I like women and most of the ones who like me ain’t Sunday school teachers. They like to bang boots with a guy like me. I like the way Nesbitt tells those parts of the story without blinking an eye or using euphemisms. He says that insults the reader’s intelligence and I agree with him on that one. Besides, I wouldn’t know the easy life if it bit me on the left ass cheek.
8. Is there one type of woman that you’re looking for, and do you think you’ll ever marry again?
A. After going oh-for-three at the marriage plate, I believe it’s time for me to hang up the spikes. I’ve told friends to shoot me dead if they ever see me buy a diamond ring for a woman again. Besides, the women who really turn my crank are smart, tough, more than a little crazy and utterly incapable of being true to one man.
9. Without giving too much away, what would you say is your favorite part in The Right Wrong Number?
A. Although readers will probably like the shootout scene at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, my favorite part is the end. This isn’t my line, but I do think it applies — a bullet always tells the truth. In this case, it’s eight of them telling the truth right at the end of the book.
10. If you had your way, what changes would you make in either of Nesbitt’s books?
A. I’d get Nesbitt to make me about 25 pounds lighter than I am and give me a little more hair on top of my bald noggin. Or, at the very least, give me a stylish hat to wear like Raylan Givens in Justified. Maybe a smoke grey Resistol with a Gus crease and a San Antone roll in 10X beaver felt.
11. What would you like to see yourself doing in future Earl Burch novels?
A. I wouldn’t mind finally getting the girl at the end — one in particular I have in mind. And I’d like to keep the rest of my teeth and not wind up in the hospital so much. Staying out of the morgue is also high on my list.
12. If you had the opportunity to talk to Jim, what would you tell him?
A. I imagine I’ll have that opportunity pretty damn quick since Nesbitt is already eyeing another case of mine to write about. I can’t kick about the stories Nesbitt told already. He pretty much nailed it, but I damn sure wish he didn’t make me so fat and bald.