INTERVIEW WITH JON TALTON

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 11 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now lives in Seattle, where he is the economics columnist for the Seattle Times and writes the blog Rogue Columnist. His latest novel, THE BOMB SHELTER,  is now.

Mike Barson: The jumping-off point for the story is the bombing death of a Phoenix newspaper reporter some forty years ago. Is that a case that has long fascinated you? If so, why?

Since I began the David Mapstone Mysteries, readers have encouraged me to take on the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. I do this in a fictionalized way with The Bomb Shelter. 

I want to be clear that this is fiction, my own imagination, yet based on facts, history, and extensive research, including with detectives who investigated the Bolles case. But out of respect for the Bolles family, I don’t want to appear to be exploiting the real case.

On a personal note, I was working as an EMT-paramedic in Phoenix the day Bolles was bombed. My partner and I were one call rotation away. We responded to an auto collision with injuries (962 in radio code) in south Phoenix. Minutes later the bombing call came in and a friend of mind responded. A twist of fate and I would have been there.

MB: THE BOMB SHELTER is the ninth book in your Mapstone series. How has your approach to writing one of these mysteries evolved since you worked on the first one?

JT: I’ve learned a great deal more about the craft of mystery writing since the first novel, CONCRETE DESERT. So I hope that shows in the new book. 

This also required much more extensive research than any fiction I’ve ever written. The real case is highly complex, a rabbit hole of theories and conspiracy speculation with scores of players. I had to make that readable in the mystery genre, with the right pacing and plot and character reveals. It’s the toughest book I’ve ever written.

MB: Phoenix is very much a character in this story, with Mapstone ruminating frequently on how the city has been altered over the past several decades, almost always to its detriment. Is it fair to say that Mapstone’s rueful observations mirror your own feelings about the changes Phoenix has undergone over the past fifty years or so?

JT: It is fair. The Phoenix I grew up in is nothing like today’s megalopolis. I’ve lived in cities across the nation, and in nearly every case their changes have been largely for the better. Phoenix has a lot of people, but it has largely changed for the worse. Most people don’t even know what has been lost. Or the dangers Phoenix faces from climate change and its mode of development.

That said, I have plenty of affection for Phoenix. And I have to avoid being heavy-handed and offending too many new residents, who can be very defensive.

MB: As a career newspaperman yourself, you were able to craft Mapstone’s thoughts on the diminishment of the news media in a most convincing manner. What is your take on the future prospects of journalism?

JT: My real newspaper book is the thriller DEADLINE MAN. But, yes, THE BOMB SHELTER is about the importance of a free press and holding the powerful to account. No real journalism, no democracy. 

The future is quite bleak. The business model of newspapers is broken (and many self-inflicted wounds were made, too). Nobody really knows how to pay for serious journalism. Some experiments are under way. A few newspapers, such as the Washington Post, have owners who will invest in journalism. But too few. More and more sections of the country are turning into “news deserts.”

It’s no coincidence that the death spiral of newspapers has coincided with national calamities, from the rackets that caused the Great Recession to the rise of far-right neo-fascism.

MB: Have you been a longtime reader of mysteries yourself? If so, which crime writers of the past have you most been influenced by? And whose work do you especially enjoy today?

JT: I’m mostly old school, influenced by Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, John D. McDonald, and Robert B. Parker. But my influences have also been Michael Connelly, Don Winslow, and James Ellroy, among others — who I still enjoy now. Betty Webb and Donis Casey are fine writers published by my house, the Poisoned Pen. My favorite reading is history.

MB: You lived in Phoenix for many years, but now reside in Seattle. It’s hard to think of two major American cities that are so extremely different– beginning with that 106 degree weather! How have you found the adjustment most trying?

JT: I still have a condo in Phoenix and spend time there. My family has been in Phoenix since the 1890s. But, yes, Seattle and Phoenix are so different that it would take hundreds of words to describe it. As a native Phoenician, nothing makes me more depressed than endless sunny days. I love the rain (and it doesn’t rain as much in Seattle as people think).

In my adventures across the country, I became a real city boy. Seattle has the urban amenities and vibe I love. I’m not car-burdened (and live on the light-rail line in Phoenix, too). But Phoenix is my muse, and the home of my heart.