Stephen Mack Jones hit the mystery world in 2017 with his first private eye novel, August Snow. August is a half African-American, half Mexican private eye in Detroit and he brings all the richness of his heritage to the table. Jones is a fast-paced and skillful writer who illuminates his Detroit setting as well as his protagonist.
With his second novel, Lives Laid Away, August (along with his creator) tackles the tough topic of immigration. Jones joins a pantheon of great Michigan private eye writers, bringing his own take on the world to his books. His novels are great additions to private eye literature.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I love the specificity of your Detroit setting. I know you live in the Detroit area, have you ever lived downtown? Are you a lifelong Detroiter?
Stephen Mack Jones: I’ve never lived in downtown Detroit. Way back in the day when I arrived on the scene from Lansing, Michigan, there really weren’t too many options for living downtown; you had high-priced-on-the-riverfront condos with your own private pier or the Wild West neighborhoods where the law was whoever’s gun spoke first. Of course, you had student apartments—the apartments near Wayne State University, which were a third the monthly rent they are now, but I was a newly minted university graduate and felt like I needed to start living like an “adult”—whatever that means. I lived primarily in an apartment in northwest Detroit. My neighbor was a postman—nice guy—who practiced karate at night on a Wing Chun dummy and watched Chinese martial arts movies at top volume. I’ve lived in Metro Detroit for over 40 years—a long time by some standards, a “newbie” by others.
August Snow is truly a white knight (a classic private eye trope), but it's especially so in his case since he is a millionaire who doesn't have to work. Was this facet of his situation important to you?
The money aspect of his origin story meant nothing to me, just as it essentially means nothing to August. There’s the old biblical saying from Mark 8:36, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” I wanted to illustrate through August’s wrongful dismissal from the Detroit Police Department and his subsequent lawsuit award that money means very little if it means having lost both people and a career in law enforcement that he loved. He doesn’t have to work, but he wants to. Needs to. And the work he was doing, at least in his heart and mind, was helping people. Helping people validates him as a human being. It’s the person his parents raised him to be. A person of honor and integrity and dependability.
Like many mystery writers, you started your writing career at a later age. Do you think it changes how you view your writing career than if you'd written August Snow when you were 25 or 30?
Starting this new career as a mystery/thriller writer at an age when I could be doing the “Electric Shuffle” in Silver Sneakers classes at the Y is exciting and gratifying and humbling for me—not to say there’s anything wrong with doing the “Electric Shuffle” in Silver Sneakers classes. What I mean to say is there’s such unrealistic premiums and expectations placed on youth—achieve and exceed your dreams before X age, otherwise you’ll be relegated to the trash heap of low-performing 401(k)s and nightmares of failed dreams. In a number of ways, I think people are actually dissuaded from embracing dreams after the age of 30 or 40. “You missed your window of opportunity, so be content to be a cog in the machine of young achievers.” But a failed dream hardly equates to a failed life, and I think this is an extraordinarily important lesson only age, experience, and honest introspection can give a person. For the life of me, I can’t ever recall my agent (Stephany Evans) or my publisher (Soho Press) asking me my age when I submitted the manuscript for August Snow. So, yeah, maybe this dream of being a published author didn’t happen in my twenties or thirties, but it has happened and I am both ecstatic and grateful.
I saw the first book as kind of setting up your series—you were establishing August's character and why he is where he is in life. He is settling in the Mexicantown area of Detroit and rehabbing it one house at a time.
Not unlike most readers, I look for characters that are blood-rich and breathing. Characters that are as unique as the readers themselves. Any one can produce a stereotype. A cutout. But to create a character with a pulse—someone with relatable, everyday triumphs, faults and fears-—is key to having me turn the page and follow their lead. August has settled into his old neighborhood in Mexicantown because this is where he feels his wounds can be healed. Mental and spiritual wounds from his experiences as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan and his most recent wound of being unceremoniously dismissed from the DPD. He’s rehabbing houses in an effort to rebuild and refurbish himself. All of us from time to time need a quiet, safe place to gather our thoughts and take measure of who we are. Markham Street in Mexicantown is that safe place for August.
In your second book, Lives Laid Way, you get right down to business. If I was a first time reader, I'd be familiar enough with August by the sketch you provide in the first chapter, and it's easy to move forward with your story. You have an extremely timely issue you are writing about: immigration.
Not wanting to get too political, I find myself angered and offended by where we as a nation are these extraordinarily strange days. Our once collective kindness has turned into a cannibalistic tribal cruelty. Where once we as a nation strove to be that shining city on a hill, we now huddle in a cave afraid to venture out for fear of the monsters we created.
If I were to tell you 10, 15 years ago that we would become a country that put children in cages, teargassed mothers, and deported decorated Marines because they had Hispanic names, you would have vehemently denied America was capable of such unspeakable cruelty. If I told you the highest officials in this land equivocated on and excused the reprehensible and violent actions of Americans who empathized with Nazis, you would have denied such could happen. The issue of immigration and ICE deportations is important to me because its perhaps the biggest, most visible and perverse issue illustrating how America is losing its soul. We are eating our young and we don’t seem to care that others are watching us cannibalize ourselves. That’s why I wrote Lives Laid Way, to give form to my anger and give voice to people affected by this deplorable travesty.
The young girl who is killed in the beginning of the story is dressed as Marie Antoinette when she dies. Can you talk about the symbolism there?
When I first wrote the Queen Marie Antoinette scene, I really didn’t give it much thought beyond wanting a curious visual “hook.” But the more I thought about it and the deeper I got into the story, I realized what has always been beneath the surface of the psyche of some men: A perverse need to destroy any sense of power or empowerment women have.
What better way to attack and grotesquely subdue such power than by taking powerful famous or infamous women from literature and history and viciously violating them, demean them in the most unconscionable way? Much like the summation of rape: It’s never about sex, it’s always about the violent exercise of power. It’s about ineffectual, psychologically, and spiritually stunted or deformed men seeking vengeance for their own feelings of sexual inadequacy, or feelings of being socioeconomically powerless.
Even though you are tackling big issues, you are also telling a story. How did you balance the issues you are writing about with the storytelling?
Diatribes become manifestos in print. I have no interest in either. What I do have is an interest in telling a human story with a street-level, personal view of a larger social problem. And it all goes back to the characters you create: I know how I would express my anger or frustration with a situation or challenge, but how would this character or that character express or even contain their anger or frustration with the same situation or challenge? Different characters have—or should have—different personalities. Varying emotional and intellectual reaction levels. Just like real folk. An aggressive “Screw you!” in Detroit becomes a pleasant but no less scathing “Bless your heart” in Jackson, Mississippi.
You are good company with other great Michigan authors like like Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman, and Steve Hamilton. Have these writers been an influence on you?
And let’s not forget the legendary Jim Harrison! Yeah, it’s kind of freaky that an appreciable number of tremendous writers have Michigan roots like Elmore Leonard, Steve Hamilton, and Loren Estleman. Something that doesn’t get press is how absolutely generous these artists are with their time and knowledge, how gracious and accommodating they are. I can tell you right now I’ve learned a lot from reading and talking to Mr. Estleman. Every one of these Michigan writers has influenced me and taught me, for which I am eternally grateful. And none of us should be surprised to know the well ain’t about to run dry anytime soon, what with substantial support from organizations like Kresge Arts in Detroit or Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts program to name just a few.
August is African American and Hispanic, giving him a very rich ethnic background. It sets your books apart, in my opinion. Tell me about your decision to write August this way.
I can only bring what I got, Robin! No, more, no less. Yes, it’s important for me to bring August’s ethnicity forward because I believe it can inform the reader as to how he sees the world, how and why his perspectives are often different, how and why his interactions with the world may vary. At the same time, I want readers to empathize and embrace his humanity as they would embrace anyone else regardless of ethnicity, etc.
Frankly, I think readers of all stripes have longed to get beneath the skin of characters from different colors, ethnic backgrounds and cultural experiences. And why not? The world has been made smaller by the Internet, by bold new disruptive technologies and artists who are able to reach out globally in a nanosecond. Doesn’t it sound exciting and enriching to sit in your living room in Boise and, through a book, share experiences with someone from Bangalore or Bermuda?
And, no—I don’t spend much time if any thinking about my contribution to the genre. Others can obsess over my place, their place or somebody else’s place in the genre, but I don’t have the time for that categorized and ghettoized bullshit. My job—my only job!—is to entertain and inform myself first through what I think is a good story. And if I can do that with a modicum of success then I’m happy.
Can you name a book that was a transformational read for you, one that set you on a path as a reader or a writer?
Oh, that’s a brutally hard question to answer! Let’s just say the list is long and across multiple genres. Poetry was my first love including anything Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Bob Kaufman, Seamus Haney, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. I have five books in my collection that I watched the great humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Elie Weasel sign for me. Robert B. Parker was and will always be my mystery writer hero. Kurt Vonnegut’s books essentially told me, “No, Steve—you’re not crazy! It’s the world that’s nuts!” And Agatha Christie lit the way through numerous flu seasons. So, yeah—all those folks and more set me on this unusual and wonderful path.
What's next for you and August?
I’d love to tell you what’s next for August and me! But, well—August is still working it out so he’s not sure what to say at this point. Let’s just say this time around August has a few more personal demons to exorcise. Demons may that may cost him more than he ever imagined. including the life of a friend.
Finally, what’s the best coney dog in Detroit?
Are you serious, Robin?! Really?! You want me here and now to go on record choosing just one of Detroit’s Coney Islands as “the best”? No way! You ain’t gonna get me into trouble like that, girlfriend! Let me just say this: I happen to make a helluva Coney dog: Hebrew National kosher hot dogs, a can of Wolf brand or Hormel hot chili (no beans if I’m feelin’ particularly Texan, hot kidney beans if I’m feelin’ that Midwest vibe), red chili pepper flakes or fresh chopped Jalapenos, chopped white onions and shredded Mexican-style cheese. Accompany that with a good bourbon or nice Scotch and you have what gets me through a wicked Michigan winter!
Stephen Mack Jones is a published poet, award winning playwright and winner of the Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship. He was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. He moved to Detroit upon graduation from Michigan State University and has remained in the metro-Detroit area. He worked in advertising and marketing communications before turning to fiction. In 2018, the International Association of Crime Writers presented Stephen with the prestigious Hammett Prize for literary excellence in the field of crime writing. Stephen’s first adult fiction book, August Snow, was named a ‘2018 Michigan Notable Book’ by the Library of Michigan. The Nero Wolfe Society awarded August Snow the 2018 Nero Award.