This month, 3RP’s own Peter Carlaftes speaks with author Christopher Chambers about his new Dickie Cornish mystery STANDALONE–which Publishers Weekly just raved about– and constructing a sequel that brings his riveting characters into a complex new story.
“Chambers makes the smell and harrowing vibe of the mean streets of the nation’s capital come alive. Readers searching for a grittier version of Joe Ide’s Isaiah Quintabe will find him in Cornish.” —Publishers Weekly
P: STANDALONE is the second in your Dickie Cornish mystery series, yet it is also a “standalone” novel—meaning readers don’t necessarily need to have read the first book to appreciate this one. Still, it’s interesting to know how far Dickie has come from the first novel. How would you describe what’s changed about this “antihero” from the streets between the two books?
C: Before the events in SCAVENGER, Dickie has the ironic certainty of the streets, shelters, addiction, harassment by cops or cruel teenagers, exploitation–being paid a couple of bucks as a day laborer. Now, in STANDALONE he faces the uncertainty of rent, bills, putting food on his own table…getting the help from the VA to which he was always entitled. His body is on the mend from decades on the street, he’s on meds to ween him off the booze and K2, to block the voices that bedeviled him. So, there’s a new, terrible irony afoot. Living on the street, he was automatically an antihero. No longer the “bum,” the drug fiend, he must work at keeping that street sense, that instinct—all that makes him so effective first as an amateur, now professional private dick.
P: Even more so than other brilliant mystery authors, STANDALONE features a main character and supporting cast driven by desperation. How do you think this desperation drives the action in STANDALONE as well as in other well-known mysteries.
C: Dickie’s not yet a “solid citizen.” His apartment is rent-controlled through a program for the indigent. He’s got no legit P.I. license and an unlicensed pistol from his criminal pal; he takes jobs like hired goon or creeping around unfaithful husbands, must learn his craft from Youtube videos, eats cuisine that’s closer to that of his homeless roots. He lives among the invisible, poor people…made ever more expendable and unseen thanks to COVID, militarized police, gentrification, and even more pernicious caste system. They are all desperate. Dickie, in a sense, is a champion of the desperate and keeps the peace among them. This is way beyond Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlings, who takes detective jobs as a hedge to pay the mortgage. Dickie’s akin to Walter’s Socrates Fortlow. He’s desperate to show he’s a man, not a savage. That he matters.
P: So much of STANDALONE and SCAVENGER focuses on DC’s transient, often unhoused, community, with much dialog using “street” terms—often in Spanish—that are not readily available to look up in the New Oxford American Dictionary. You once said, “The language adds to the verisimilitude.” For readers unfamiliar with this language, what do you recommend to help their comprehension?
C: For many people, my crime novels are almost sci fi: a different universe. Slang, even, shifts within the community with age or neighborhood loyalty. Paying attention to context is the best guide to being a competent reader outside of your comfort zone. Enlarging one’s circle of friends, likewise, helps with cultural competence. Otherwise, there’s no dictionary. Check your kids’ Instagram feeds for extra help!
P: Whatever corruption found in the street denizens that populate STANDALONE, institutional corruption seems far more evil and widespread. How has living in DC for so long made you more aware of the amount of corruption in local and federal bureaucracies? What do you think can be done to expose it?
C: In 2001 I wrote a hardcover Sympathy for the Devil, as a reply to those tropes. Twenty years later all I see is real life decay. The band-aid solutions, yet soaring promise, of Obama is sandwiched by the benign neglect of Nixon and Reagan in that earlier generation, and the malign neglect of the Trump years. In SCAVENGER, the police were incidental. In STANDALONE they are both the subject and the allegory. Bookends of official evil. One is bureaucratic, falsely woke, and self-aggrandizing. That’s Chief Linda Figgis. The other is violent, martial, bigoted. That’s Deputy Chief Dante Antonelli. Dickie—and a lot of others both innocent and not-so-clean—must avoid getting crushed in the middle.
P: Like many major cities, the unhoused population of DC has been steadily increasing for decades. Yet few books besides those in your Dickie Cornish series feature characters drawn from this community. It’s as if literature itself dehumanizes homeless people by ignoring them as much as people who live in those cities do. Explain how your books are helping to recognize the humanity of this population—even those in it who seem most unbalanced.
C: I try to continue what I started in SCAVENGER by simply making people who are flesh and blood, joy and hurt, cruel and loving, into literary characters rather than stereotypes. Be they poor Section 8 tenants, old people with no health insurance seeking a quick death from COVID, teens dealing weed…even cops, civil servants trying to the right thing but are bent and jaded. Immigrants who aren’t mere laborers thrown in for flavor. Indeed Ernesto, “Stripe” from SCAVENGER is no longer a juvenile criminal—he’s grown into a role in any detective novel you find (like the femme fatale, for instance), the sidekick or helper. And here it’s Dickie who’s almost being a father to him. I don’t “force” them to be positive or negative, uplifting or destructive, based on what or who I based them on. I just pretend they are real and let my imagination carry them. There’s a fine line, in the reality of the street, and in the stylized reality of noir fiction, between a hero and a motherfucker anyway. I don’t need to nudge that line to fit my peccadillos.
P: How has your opinion of Dickie Cornish changed over the course of completing this second book in the series? What do you think of him now?
C: As an author I feel the same. He’s survived, by guile, force, or dumbass luck, what I’ve thrown at him, so now he can take another breath and await what comes. That’s heroism for me: getting it done until the next pause, when other people don’t even try. Would I be his friendly neighbor or bougie pal in real life? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s given me the real-life skill to look out over the streets of my hometown and see more heroes than bums, when other folks see mere faces, or don’t care to look at all.
P: Thanks Chris. We can’t wait until the new Dickie Cornish mystery STANDALONE hits the shelves in October.
Christopher Chambers is a crime novelist, professor of media studies, lawyer, and International Fellow at International Conflict Resolution Center. His previous works include the first Dickie Cornish mystery, Scavenger, as well as A Prayer for Deliverance and Sympathy for the Devil (NAACP Image Award nominee); the graphic anthology (with Gary Phillips) The Darker Mask; the PEN/Malamud-nominated story “Leviathan,” and more. Professor Chambers is a regular commentator/contributor on media and culture issues on SiriusXM Radio, ABC News, and HuffPost. He resides in his hometown of Washington, D.C. with his family and German Shepherd, Max.