The title of Daniel Friedman's debut mystery—Don't Ever Get Old—should probably be read in your best Clint Eastwood impersonation. Possibly with a Lucky Strike clamped between your teeth. It's our June 2012 Top Pick in Mystery, and Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney calls it "one of the most original and entertaining tales I have read in many a moon."
We chatted with the man behind this awesome Geezer Noir about his crochety protagonist, the process of growing older and what's next.
Describe your book in one sentence.
Don't Ever Get Old is about Baruch "Buck" Schatz, an 87 year-old retired cop and World War II veteran who goes hunting for a fugitive Nazi officer and a lost cache of stolen treasure.
When you're in your 80s, what do you hope to be doing?
My Bubbi, Goldie Burson, is 86 years old and she's amazing. She goes to the gym at the Jewish Community Center four days a week. She was already there when I showed up on Wednesday morning, and when I finished my workout, she was still going. She does 20 minutes on the elliptical and 35 on the treadmill. Goldie is inspiring. We should
all hope to be so lucky.
Fifty years ago, it seems like people tended to be on the way down by their mid-60s, and these days retirees routinely run marathons and climb mountains. I hope that, by the time I get there, 80 really will be the new 60, and I'll be playing golf every day. But consider this: When Goldie works out, she doesn't improve. Despite all her efforts, she's slower than she was last year, and next year she won't be as fast as she is now. Senior citizens today often endure for years or even decades after their bodies and minds begin to deteriorate, and if the future brings with it a longer active late-adulthood, it may also bring with it a longer period of decline.
Being young is about hope and about expectation. Tomorrow you're going to run faster or lift more weight. Next year you're going to find true love. Within five years, you'll have that promotion, and you'll make more money. But at a certain age, the expectation that things will get better reverses on you. That's what Buck is facing in Don't Ever Get Old.
"If Buck has the drop on you, and you've got a gun tucked in your waistband, he's not going to ask you if you feel lucky. Your luck has already run out."
They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but it isn't true. Invasive surgeries don't make you stronger. Hypertension doesn't make you stronger. Arthritis doesn't make you stronger. Buck Schatz is a war veteran and a retired police detective. His identity and his idea of virtue is based on being tough and self-reliant. A big part of the story is about how he struggles to cope with becoming increasingly frail and dependent on others. And a lot of older people are having to deal with the same kind of circumstances.
Would you make a good cop?
There's a great line in the movie Touch of Evil about how the Orson Welles character was "a great detective but a lousy cop." I think that's Buck, to some extent, and it's probably what I'd turn out to be.
Being a policeman means never being safe. There are more guns than people in the United States, so even when a cop is doing something as innocuous as traffic or parking enforcement, there's always a chance that he'll find himself dealing with somebody armed and angry. It's very easy for almost any interaction to escalate into a perilous situation, and something like that has to affect the way people see the world. I think it would make me very angry, and probably very dangerous.
I've been reading Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens books lately, and I think it's real cool how Raylan stands there with his fingers hooked into his belt, waiting for the bad guys to make their move before he draws and shoots them. But I can't really see myself acting that way in the same circumstances, so I write a different sort of character. Buck Schatz is more interested in getting home in one piece than in maintaining a sense of fair play. He figures that if he gives the bad guys a chance to draw on him, sooner or later, one of them is going to be faster. I don't think he would ever shoot an unarmed man, but if he's facing an armed suspect, he'd probably shoot without warning.
Even though Dirty Harry is an obvious influence for me, if Buck has the drop on you, and you've got a gun tucked in your waistband, he's not going to ask you if you feel lucky. Your luck has already run out.
Name one book you think everyone should read.
The best mystery novel I've ever read is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
I always say that having written is much better than writing. But coming up with something really clever or finding a great joke in a situation is pretty rewarding.
How do you conquer writer's block?
The hardest scenes to write are the ones that come between the stuff that goes in the outline or synopsis. If you're bad at those, your novel chokes on them. It's so easy to get stuck for days between a couple of major plot-points, and those transitional scenes always end up needing the most revision.
I find rye whiskey helps, though.
What are you working on next?
I've got two projects I'm working on right now.
One is a sequel to Don't Ever Get Old. The first book has very few flashbacks because I wanted to keep the focus on Buck's present circumstances. I feel like I've explored that theme now, so in the next one, I'm free to look back into the past and see what else we can learn about this character. I've also got an interesting new antagonist for him: a master-thief who survived the Holocaust and clashed with Buck in the '60s returns to make an offer Buck might not be able to refuse.
The other is a historical mystery that I'm very excited about. The hero is Lord Byron, the legendary romantic poet, and I've tangled him up in a series of murders in 1807 Cambridge, England. Byron believes, based on very little evidence, that the killings involve his supposedly-dead father, but he's more of a dilettante than a detective, and he gets in over his head very quickly.