Flashback: Russel McLean interviews Steven Torres

From Crimespree 21


An interview with Steven Torres

By Russel D McLean

Steven Torres made his name writing about Puerto Rico, but his new novel, The Concrete Maze, moves into the more definitively hardboiled territory of New York in the early 90’s and packs one hell of a punch into the bargain.

Your intrepid Crime Spree Correspondent (Scots division) caught up with Torres in cyberspace to discuss Hardboiled cozies, the difficulty of settings and the meaning of noir in relation to the real world.

Russel: The Concrete Maze is a very different beast from your previous novels. What made you decide to move away from the Puerto Rico series?

STEVEN TORRES: Well, since I wrote the first Precinct Puerto Rico novel (which will see light of day next year as the fifth in the series…) people have been telling me I should write a New York City novel. In fact, the day I sat down to write that first novel, my first decision was whether to write one set in New York or one set in Puerto Rico.

Two things made me decide for Puerto Rico. First, I figured there were a lot of books about New York and few about Puerto Rico. I was right on that score and it got me published. Second, if I wrote about New York, I’d have to be precise in every detail. With Puerto Rico I could just develop a mountaintop town and the streets could run any which-way as I needed them.

Setting the new novel in New York during the early 1990s was an easy choice however. When I lived there, the murder rate was elevated and I saw crimes first hand. I knew some criminals – the butcher shop next door employed one, for instance. The impression for outsiders was that life was cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Even if the murder of someone in your family didn’t make the newspaper, it still hurt.

A man near where I lived got revenge on his straying girlfriend with a gallon of gasoline – you might think he used it on her, but since the disco where she worked was crowded, he poured the whole thing at the only entrance. 87 people died. Can’t really avoid noir there.


R: Do you think you’ll be returning to Puerto Rico?


ST: Well, the series continues. St. Martin’s Press has paid me for another book which has been delivered. After that, I’ve no idea if there will be interest, although I am happy to continue the series. There comes a time when Sheriff Gonzalo meets up with Viktor Petrenko, my Russian mercenary character. Laughs all round.


R: What made you describe the Puerto Rico series as “Hardboiled Cozies”?


ST: The “hardboiled cozy” description of Precinct Puerto Rico comes from the fact that there is violence on the page, but the violence is usually between people who have known each all their lives because they live in this tiny town in the mountains. There is, in fact, a mansion in the town of Angustias complete with butlers and maids. I’d like to set a novel there.


R: Did you find it a conscious decision to write more “noir” with the new novel or was it something that arose naturally from the new characters and locations?


ST: The noir feel to my latest book is indeed one that I was aiming for consciously, but becauseI wanted to write about these people, this setting. For the lower classes in New York City, life can be full of tough choices. No right or wrong, just pain. I knew a lady – sweetest lady you’ll find – whose son was a minor drug dealer. He decided to skim from the profits. Ask me how that worked out for him. When the police told her her son had been murdered, she collapsed like a house of cards. Not physically. That would have been a mercy. Her soul. You couldn’t even touch her because the pain oozing from her might kill you. She was a strong woman, unbreakable. More’s the pity. Unbreakable but fractured in a thousand places. I wanted to put that on the page. Call it noir.

I think noir’s the struggle against impossible odds. The fight for lost causes. It’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even with the brigade of children bringing in pennies (or whatever it was that saved the day) the idea that the entirety of American government was corrupt at the core – that’s pretty noir (Actually, maybe a commonplace now, but not in the 1930s). Just think; the downtrodden in Czarist Russia improved their condition with the Revolution as did those in Cuba and China. When Stalin, Mao, and Castro are an improvement… that’s noir.


R: I love your definition of noir – the idea of this struggle against impossible odds. But when you see the world like that, I have to wonder how you manage to stay such a seemingly positive person!


ST: Finding the positive side of noir… This may not be easy, but I suppose you have to have faith in Platonic Ideals. The noir hero knows for a dead certainty that there is such a thing as Justice with a capital J. There is Right and Good. That there is Love. This is what they struggle for – the hope that they may see that capitalized Ideal here on Earth, in the flesh. If they didn’t know these Ideals existed (a hero need only have one of these Ideals in mind) they wouldn’t fight except to be contrary. Real noir, I suppose, is where the hero knows the mission is doomed – their action in this case won’t bring about the Ideal they hoped it would. They are not the chosen one. This by no means is a sign that they should stop, however – heroes don’t do that.


R: Your personal experiences and observations clearly influence your writing a great deal…


I find that the things I’ve seen in the Bronx growing up or even what I read about in the papers, is far more noir than what I can imagine on my own. In the first Precinct Puerto Rico novel, I have an elderly character who talks about having seen people die of starvation. This is based on events my own grandmother went through. It was a bad time in Puerto Rico, she had four children to feed on her own. Her neighbor had two and tried to keep their bodies and souls together with soup made from the roots of banana trees. Might just as well have boiled a newspaper for all the nutrition she was going to get. Anyway, it didn’t take long for the youngest child to die. The older one lingered a bit longer. My grandmother visited everyday, but with four of her own, how could she spare even a crust of bread? So she sat with her neighbor and watched the children slip out of this world and onto the next. That’s noir, but there’s worse still. Go tell a noir story to someone living in Darfur. Tell one to a child sex slave or a child soldier. There are ten year olds with stories that can freeze your heart. Five year olds with stories that can shatter you.

I can’t wait for the Akashic noir anthologies based in Cuba, Nigeria, Turkey, and the Out of the Gutter edition concerning war stories. This is an opportunity for hard-boiled and noir writers to get it right, I think.

Steven Torres’s Precinct Puerto Rico novels are available from St Martin’s Press in hardcover and Dorchester Publications in paperback. Dorchester have also published The Concrete Maze (July, 2007) in paperback.