Jochem Vandersteen is a rare bird, a Dutch aficionado of private eye fiction. A rock music reporter by day (by night?) he’s the founder of a group of hardboiled writers known as the Hardboiled Collective. Jochem made his bones in crime fiction in two ways. He’s the owner of one of the pre-eminent blogs for PI fiction, Sons of Spade; and writes his own stuff, best known for the Noah Milano series of novellas and stories. His newest Noah Milano novella is Serving Justice.
Jochem’s the kind of guy with enough things going on that he lends himself to a more conversational approach to an interview, so I was delighted when he agreed to take some time out of busy schedule to chat with me.
One Bite at a Time: It’s been a while since we heard from Noah Milano. What’s he up to this time?
Jochem Vandersteen: The security specialist business is slow. That's why he decides to do some process serving for Maxwell Slim, his dad's lawyer who has gotten him out of some jams in the past. When he clashes with a MMA fighter and stumbles on a dead body stuff gets nasty. Also, it's his birthday! All of this can be found within the pages of the new novella, Serving Justice.
OBAAT: It’s been a while since you’ve been here, too. What have you been up to lately?
JVS: Living life, working, taking care of my family and finding the energy to write again. Sometimes the fact I get good reviews but sales stay low can drag me down a bit. Luckily I read some good PI fiction lately that sparked my energy.
OBAAT: Your blog, Sons of Spade, has earned an intercontinental reputation. What is it about private detectives that winds you up so much?
JVS: I like mystery, I like action. PI's combine that. Also I love the fact that in most PI stories you really follow the story through the eyes of the protagonist, making you live his life within those pages.
OBAAT: Who do you consider to be the cream of the crop in PI fiction?
JVS: In the past of course Raymond Chandler. After that Andrew Vachss, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, Todd Robinson, Dave White, Alex Segura, Les Roberts.
OBAAT: It’s traditional for PIs to have done something else first. Usually they’re cops. Noah has a different pedigree. What did he do before he turned Shamus?
JVS: His background is pretty unique. I didn't want him to be a cop or soldier, so I thought... Who would have criminal contacts and who would be able to fight off the bad guys? A criminal of course! I also love redemption stories (like the Xena tv show) and from that the idea was born that Noah Milano would be the son of a big mobster, looking to better his life because his mother asked him to just before she died. One of the main plot drivers of the stories is how hard it is for Noah to do his work as a security specialist but still stay far away from the man he used to be.
OBAAT: I was in an interesting Facebook chat a few weeks ago, talking about detectives and their psycho sidekicks. Some of your favorites have them, some don’t. What’s your thought about detectives who have helpers like Hawk or Mouse or Bubba Rogowski to handle some of their dirty work for them? Does Noah have one?
JVS: Noah has one, maybe two. Tony Hawai is his buddy but also a small-time crook. He's more of an informant than a real pyscho sidekick though. Kane, Noah's mentor, taught Noah all his fighting skills and works for Noah's mobster father. He doesn't hesitate to kill or torture when necessary. That's not to say Noah doesn't cross the line himself every now and then. The main reason Kane is there is to connect Noah to his darker past and because... psycho sidekicks are just insanely cool!
OBAAT: Your taste in PI writers run the gamut from Chandler through Parker to younger writers like Dave White and Todd Robinson. What do you think has changed most over the years?
JVS: Stories have gotten a bit deeper I guess. More character development. More influences from the thriller genre or with female PI's the chick-lit genre. Basically though I think nothing has changed that much, really. It's still about loners out for justice, just like I like it.
OBAAT: When did you first decide you wanted to write PI fiction?
JVS: When read my first Spenser novel I guess, back when I was an early teen. When I later read Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone I was inspired to really go ahead and do it. His characters felt so young, fresh... It showed me that a PI doesn't have to be into jazz and be in his forties, I could relate to them more so I decided I could write about a PI I could relate to as well. Ironically I am in my forties myself, I still listen to metal and punk rock, not jazz though.
OBAAT: I can see Noah’s unorthodox background causing him trouble, though. Fictional cops and PIs have a history that alternates between cooperation and animosity. Noah’s background and family must make that even tougher. Does he also have problems with clients who come to him to skirt the law, assuming he’s still connected somehow?
JVS: Yeah, that played a part in some of the short stories like can be found in Tough As Leather. There's also a lot of trouble he runs into because the cops, especially his nemesis Detective Williams, still want his hide. He can't count on much cooperation from them, so he has to use his more criminal contacts or his best friend, Medical Examiner Minnie.
OBAAT: I’m in the process of re-reading Declan Hughes’s All the Dead Voices. Hughes spoke at Bouchercon several years ago and gave an impassioned plea in favor of private detective novels, arguing that, when done right, they are the highest form of crime fiction. Reading one of his books provides a compelling argument in that direction. Do you agree with Declan? Either way, why do you agree, or disagree?
JVS: I guess they can because of the chance to do a good character study. I'm not sure other crime novels can't be just as good. Just depends on the writer. I'm not in this racket to be the highest form of crime fiction. Just to serve up some very good entertainment.
OBAAT: To me, the core difference between a traditional PI story and much of current Elmore Leonard-George V. Higgins-influenced crime fiction is the first person vs. third person point of view. The PI can put his or her thoughts directly into the mind of the reader, but can only transfer knowledge he or she is privy to. Multi-POV stories allow the reader to know more than any of the characters, but lose a little of the intimacy of speaking directly to the reader. You’re a PI guy to the core. How to you take advantage of those strengths and try to minimize the weaknesses?
JVS: It's cool to see the story through the eyes of the PI and I find it comes very naturally to write that way. I try to take the reader along the ride and make the voice entertaining. I find the voice of the first person PI just more entertaining. Also, I think it prevents people from skipping parts because they're just not interested in the other character whose POV you follow. Also, there are no clues given away like that. Basically I see more strengths than weaknesses in the first person POV.
OBAAT: What can we expect from Noah in the near future?
JVS: Not sure yet. Right now I'm writing my first Cash-novella, where an ex-cop gets out of jail after being wrongfully imprisoned there for killing his family. Now free, he wants to find clues to the real killer and ends up being hired to track down the missing daughter of a mobster. Don't worry, Noah will be sure to return in another short story, novella or whatever. He's been with me so long I won't every let him go.