Reed Farrel Coleman is well-known by thriller lovers everywhere. He’s the author of many novels and the winner of the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards as well as being a three-time Edgar Award nominee. His books include the Moe Prager series and the Gus Murphy series, among others.
What You Break features retired Suffolk County cop Gus Murphy who’s caught up in a heinous crime committed decades earlier. Gus’ friend, ex-priest Bill Kilkenny, introduces him to a wealthy businessman who wants Gus to look into the motive of the brutal murder of his granddaughter. That’s when Gus finds both his own life and that of his girlfriend Magdalena, in imminent danger.
Tell us about the title, What You Break, and how it relates to the story.
We’re all familiar with the sign in many stores saying, If you break it you own it. To me, What You Break is the story of people who have things in their lives that have been broken. Some things they themselves broke; some things, broken by others. It’s a story about who accepts ownership of what they’ve broken and who refuses to do so. And it’s about the price one pays for the damage done.
We’ve all broken things in our lives, but how many of us have paid the price for having done so?
Gus Murphy is a somewhat cynical guy whose life has taken some terrible turns. He’s a complex character with different facets to his personality. Will you tell us a little about him?
If you look at my other popular protagonist, Moe Prager, and compare him to Gus Murphy, they have similar back stories: both were cops; both have families; both become private investigators, but Moe has always been cynical, whereas Gus, had been an optimistic guy, who believed in people even after twenty years as a Suffolk County police officer. However, after Gus’s son dies unexpectedly, while playing pick-up basketball, Gus is in the process of becoming someone different—someone the old Gus wouldn’t recognize. Gus is becoming cynical, and he’s far less optimistic about the future. He has a darker view of people. Gus is evolving, and my goal in the series is to see who Gus becomes. I think that’s what makes the series interesting.
Two of the issues in What You Break are guilt and redemption. Will you talk about that?
In classic hard boiled fiction, a crime is committed. The PI or cop comes on the scene, and his duty, against great odds, is the restoration of balance and of some small measure of redemption. In What You Break, guilt and redemption are explored in what I think are interesting ways.
There are two characters about whom Gus has very different feelings. Both have committed terrible crimes. Can Gus restore any humanity to either one of those characters? And, do they want it restored? Gus dirties himself by trying to redeem both of them, but we won’t talk specifics because we don’t want to put out spoilers.
One of the things I loved about the first Gus Murphy novel, Where It Hurts, and now in the second one, is that Gus comments to himself about the human condition. How does this relate to crime novels?
Let’s think about the arena in which Gus operates. It’s the worst and most emotionally trying arena. It’s one reason why people are drawn to war movies: the characters are operating in the most emotionally heightened conditions possible. Murder does the same thing. You deal with people who are in the most extreme situations, which exposes them for who they really are. In day-to-day life, we all do a great deal of covering up about who and what we are, but when we’re stressed and pushed, that’s when our true selves are revealed.
Seeing people in this heightened state of reality gives Gus insight about them and on himself. It’s a great arena for him to be an observer of the human condition.
In What You Break, Gus appears to be evolving in relation to his son’s death. Will you talk about that?
Immediately after his son’s death, he was grief-stricken, but I think his major reaction was anger at how dare the universe operate in a way he could never have imagined. He always had everything he wanted; a job he loved, a wife and family, a house and a pension. When his son died, the rug was pulled out from under his feet. He was angry at everyone and everything. Also, he was angry at himself.
What You Break takes place three years after his son’s death. He’s become more philosophical. He used to think there were answers for everything. He now realizes that sometimes there are no answers, and sometimes even when there are answers, it barely matters. It’s an interesting dilemma for Gus, because as a PI, he’s in the business of providing answers.
How much of Reed Farrel Coleman is embodied in Gus Murphy?
Actually, unlike Moe Prager, who is very much like me—he’s a better-looking, less intelligent and braver person than I am—Gus isn’t me at all. People think only someone who has suffered tragedy could write such a book, with Gus having lost his son. That kind of tragedy hasn’t befallen me. I’m grateful not to be Gus. I’m enjoying imagining someone in that situation and seeing how he goes on with his life.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s surprised me is how hard it is. As much as I love writing, the fact is it’s hard work. Even if I don’t feel well, I sit down and write. If I had another job, I might call in sick, but the job of writing is always there, right in front of me. I always tell people who say they would like to write, if it’s not a calling and you earn a living doing something else, keep doing that something else. It has to be a labor of love to write.
What’s coming next from Reed Farrel Coleman?
I’m writing the 2018 Jesse Stone book, it’s Robert B. Parker’s, The Hangman’s Sonnet.
Congratulations on writing What You Break. It’s a gripping and beautifully crafted novel about a fascinating character whose complexities and observations about life elevate the novel beyond its genre, and which the Washington Post described as an “evocative mystery readers will remember as much for its charged sense of place as for any of its other considerable virtues.”