Before I read science fiction, I spent fifteen years writing crime fiction. Most of it centered on a Cleveland-based private investigator named Nick Kepler. Kepler was a freelance insurance investigator, an idea I freely stole from Sue Grafton. Nick had a colorful past that included a stint as a suburban cop that ended when he beat the hell out of his partner. In Kepler’s defense, said partner was beating the shit out of his wife. Police departments sort of frown on that. They also frowned Kepler’s solution.
I wrote a few short stories about them, the first of which was “A Walk in the Rain.” That one appeared in the second or third issue of the late, lamented Plots with Guns. The world’s first sight of Nick Kepler was Nick strolling down a role stretch of highway at three in the morning outside a fringe suburb of Cleveland. Why was he walking along a lonely stretch of highway?
He had just disposed of the body of a childhood friend’s abusive boyfriend.
I read several more short stories that appeared in places like Thrilling Detective, Hard Luck Stories, and Judas. All these stories were a lead up to my very first novel, Northcoast Shakedown. In it, Kepler takes on two cases. One is a slamdunk life insurance case that will end up in an executive getting fired for writing a bad policy. Apparently, it’s something he does a lot. The other case involves a local politician with a roving eye, whom Kepler discovers is big into the local swingers scene. What surprises him is above cases are related. It all goes back to an executive at the company where Nick has scored free office space and secretarial help in exchange for throwing them claims work.
I wrote two more novels, Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion. Second Hand Goods was something of a continuation of Northcoast Shakedown. This one has Nick getting seduced into a mob war between two Russians. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Nick and his secretary Elaine have a thing for each other. And despite the fact that Elaine is married, sparks fly. That wasn’t in my original plan when I wrote this. There was one scene where Nick had to cover why his secretary was visiting him on a Sunday so his client/target didn’t think he was investigating her. Quickly thinking, Elaine steps out of his bedroom wearing nothing but a bed sheet. It’s an amusing scene, ending with Elaine going back in the bedroom and letting the sheet drop before closing the door. That was supposed to be about as racy as it got. She originally said something to the effect of, “Okay, you’ve seen me naked. Now get back to work.” Instead, things get so tense for Nick that when he is convinced he is going to die in the next twenty-four hours, Elaine gives him what neither one of them realized they wanted.
I explore this in more detail in Bad Religion. The focus of that story is a church with two preachers. The first is young, idealistic, but with a tragic skeleton in his closet. At one point, he tries to explain to Kepler why he is trying to get his fiancée pregnant. You can forgive the pastor for getting a woman he is going to marry pregnant. But there are things no congregation can forgive, at least not in that church. The other is a throwback to the televangelists of old. I might even have been thinking of Robert Tilton, a.k.a. the Farting Preacher. Cleveland is not far from Akron, and when I grew up there, the place was lousy with televangelists. I named mine Calvin Leach. “Calvin” came from the one figure in Christian history I have always despised, John Calvin. Calvin was the guy that gave the Puritans their dour demeanor. I read a book used by the Catholics when converting adults. It talked about Reformation figures. They praise Martin Luther for bringing Christianity into modern times. They actually sounded amused by Henry VIII, decrying his reasons for splitting with the church, but praising the work of the Anglicans since then. Then I got the John Calvin. They literally had nothing nice to say about him, and this was a book that actually said complementary things about Mohammed. So Calvin became this guy’s first name.
And Leach? Hey, what do you call a guy in an expensive suit fleecing the faithful? A leech. Okay, too obvious.
I wrapped up the series with Gypsy’s Kiss, based on a previous short story called “Roofies.” It begins with Nick facing bankruptcy. His sweetheart deal with his former employers at the insurance company is costing him and Elaine a lot of money they can’t afford to spend. So while they’re trying to save their business, logically Nick gives a freebie to an old friend. Gypsy is a call girl who is extremely loyal to Kepler, who got her off smack and saved her from an abusive pimp. Of course, Gypsy has said next life a few times. But this time, someone doesn’t want Gypsy from exiting the sex trade. They vandalize her apartment, and leave her a little… Let’s call it a gift, not that you’d want one of those. I accomplish two things with this book, really a novella. First, I got to write a story set in Put in Bay, one of my favorite places to visit. Second, I managed to end the series. Sure, Kepler runs off with a call girl to New Orleans, but the story is set in 2005. That’s right. Kepler ran away from Cleveland and straight into the path of Hurricane Katrina.
So now I’m bringing Kepler back. No, I’m not writing new stories about him. I think his story is done. I did leave him in a place where I could pick up his tale again. But I’m through with private eye fiction. It was fun while I did it, but I want to do other things as well. For instance, I still have Holland Bay sitting on my hard drive. That needs to see the light of day, but I don’t want to do that until I have a follow-up written. Holland Bay isn’t a private eye novel. It’s The Wire meets 87th Precinct. It’s an ensemble piece, and digs a little bit deeper than Kepler ever did. Kepler spent most of his time sleeping with his clients and getting his ass kicked. You can only tell so many of the stories. And I’m know Ross McDonald.
So I’m beginning by making Northcoast Shakedown free. I’m also releasing a new print version. I hated the formatting on the old version. The margins are too wide and I had no clue what I was doing. I still doubt, but at least now I know that. And I know what to Google since realizing that. Northcoast will be out by the end of the month, the print version may be taking a little longer.
In the meantime, I have to revamp the Internet presence of Jim Winter. Time he started paying rent on the headspace I’ve given him since 2001.