Whether it’s the Detroit of an Elmore Leonard novel, or Don Winslow’s New York, the setting, a combination of place and time, is what transports the reader to where order gets thrown into disorder. It’s the backdrop and the mood, and it’s what adds color to the story.
Traveling back to Toronto every year, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the city where I grew up. Urban expansion, taller buildings, and wider roads. And while all that progress feels great, it’s also sad to see the places I remember torn away and disappearing.
That’s why I set my new novel, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, in Toronto. I wanted to bring back Toronto the way it was in the mid-eighties. To weave in the sights and sounds from my memory, recreating a grittier, character-filled version of the city the way I remember it growing up.
Then there was the logical side. Toronto sits across the lake from Niagara and Buffalo. It has easy access to the States, making it the perfect setting for a crime story. After reading a news article about a gun-running ring that operated between Ontario and upstate New York — which ended up being busted by the OPP working alongside several US law agencies — the story started to take shape.
There was also a lot of gang violence in the news back then, a bit of a shock after growing up in what had always felt like a relatively safe city. Not relying entirely on memory, I did quite a bit of research, too, sifting through newspaper archives, histories, and photos, choosing what I thought lent authenticity to the story.
So I had the stage, and I had the research, now for the characters and the plot. Jeff Nichols is a former inmate of the infamous Don Jail, a colorful local landmark. He’s trying to make ends meet, plus he wants to rekindle his relationship with his ex, Ann Ryan. Taking a job at a used car lot, he soon realizes the money’s not enough. He wants more. A lot more.
So, lured by another former inmate, Jeff gets mixed up with smuggling guns across the border, selling them to a couple of gangs in the middle of a turf war.
Tense as setting in crime fiction
Usually, I tell a story in the past tense, and I allow it to jump between different characters’ perspectives. For Poughkeepsie Shuffle, I kept the past tense, but I tried a different approach, telling the story through my main character’s eyes.
The first person POV narrows the scope by allowing only one viewpoint. But it also lets the reader into Jeff Nichols’ head. It gives a sense of familiarity, allows for some empathy, and delivers more emotional impact.
Seeing the story this way is interesting because Jeff is unreliable. He lies not only himself, but also in a sense to the reader. And often, his peculiar perspective makes the scenes funnier due to his biases, exaggerations and frustrations. Like when Ann’s relatives unexpectedly drop in for a lengthy visit, totally cramping his style. Or Jeff’s view on having and raising children.
As I’ve done before, I use a lot of dialog. My hope is that individual speech and tone contribute to characterization and reveal more about each of them than the words they’re saying.
I generally go lean on description, being careful not to drag the pace. But I also don’t want to give up any atmosphere, so I aim for a balance. I limit description to what I think will have the most impact, allowing the reader to fill in the rest. That way the pictures are complete and the action moves forward. Although at times I do slow a scene if I think it will add to the overall drama. And I think every scene needs a kind of hook, leading to the next one, something that will keep the reader engaged and reading on.
So, in the end we’ve got Poughkeepsie Shuffle, the story of Jeff Nichols, a guy determined to not let the lessons of past mistakes stand in the way of a good score. A guy willing to bend a few rules and break some laws for the lure of easy money, hanging on as his world spins out of control, determined not to let anything stop him from hitting the motherlode.
Want to learn more about Poughkeepsie Shuffle and Dietrich Kalteis? Check out our recent interview with him on Episode Eight of The Crime Syndicate Podcast!