MARCH 23, 2016
WILLIAM C. GORDON is a former lawyer for underdog plaintiffs who turned to writing noir mysteries after a 40-year career before the bar. His new book, Unfinished, is the sixth in his series featuring his protagonist Samuel Hamilton, a college dropout working a dead-end job selling ads in a local newspaper’s basement.
Gordon’s novels are filled with the characters of mid-century San Francisco: crooked DAs, scheming federal prosecutors, corrupt cops, honest cops, crusading lawyers, and slimy union bosses. Associated with progressive causes in his own law practice, Gordon sometimes incorporates hot-button political issues into his stories (the Armenian genocide in King of the Bottom and the Holocaust and Palestinian issues in Fractured Lives).
I talked with Gordon about Unfinished and how it fits in with the rest of his Hamilton series.
DON FRANZEN: Unfinished is your sixth book featuring Samuel Hamilton — he starts off in your first novel, The Chinese Jars, as a ne’er-do-well ad salesman who in the course of the following novels transforms himself into a star investigative reporter and murder mystery sleuth. How did you come up with the Hamilton character — what was it in your own life that led you to create him?
WILLIAM C. GORDON: When I started to write mysteries, I had already written the short story, “All You Can Eat,” which became the first chapter of The Chinese Jars. In the story Samuel Hamilton starts out, as you say, a ne’er-do-well ad salesman. I liked the tone I set in that story of a down-and-out ad salesman in 1960 San Francisco who drank too much and was depressed because of the murder of his parents in a random act of violence. He was disconsolate because he had seriously injured, while drunk, a young woman by the name of Emma, which resulted in him losing his license to drive for three years and burdened him with terrible guilt.
I also wanted to avoid all the modern elements available in the crime fiction of today such as advanced DNA techniques, and rapid means of communication — mobile phone, faxes and any other ways to gather evidence. I wanted Samuel to investigate the crime the way the great masters of the noir novels did in the old days, by becoming a gumshoe and just opening doors to make the discoveries one by one so the reader could enjoy the process as it happened.
That’s also the way I practiced law. I never knew where the next discovery was coming from. I just kept snooping around and was always surprised by what I found out. I developed Samuel as an unusual hero for a crime novel. He is not the tough guy who breaks down doors — there is almost nothing cool about him. He needs the help of others, such as Melba, the bar owner, and members of the police force. In a way, Samuel Hamilton is my alter ego.
The title of your newest novel invites a curious question — in what way is it Unfinished? Is it the characters? Is it the book itself?
Finding a title has always been a real struggle for me. I wrote the story of Emma — the woman Hamilton almost killed in a car accident — many years ago in my first unpublished novel, entitled “Flawed.” I considered hers a love story. My publisher told me that there were too many Emmas on the market and my book could get lost in the pile of Emmas. I was rewriting the story and getting into it when Isabel, my former wife, told me she thought it wouldn’t stand up as only a love story, so I threw in the crimes and started in. As I was writing, I became aware that it is not really a love story but a story of loss. And I finally came to terms with the fact that the story was actually about my losses in life disguised by fiction. And seeing the big picture of all the characters in the book showed me that each life was an unfinished life. In reality that’s what we’re here for, to hopefully finish our growth.
The earlier novels in this series dealt a lot with the development of the Samuel Hamilton character, but in Unfinished, he remains much more static while the stories of others, especially Emma Sheridan, the mother of a kidnapped boy, take precedence. What is it about Emma’s story that intrigued you?
Loss was an important theme for me and I didn’t realize when I insisted on writing it that it was really about loss and it was the story I wanted to tell because I need to start talking openly about my own losses. Fortunately fiction allows me to disguise them and before I know it, they are coming out. It is not that everything that happened to Emma happened to me, but those deep-seated feelings of loss have permeated my life, and it’s time to accept that reality and talk about their tone at least through the voices of others. This is the marvel of fiction; it gives us so much space.
Many of your novels have dealt with political or social issues, but Unfinished seems to be much more personal than political. Is this a new direction for your writing?
No, it’s just that when I started writing Unfinished I had to tell Emma’s story and finally get it off my chest. She was a holdover from my unpublished novel.
I was wondering how the relationship between Hamilton and Blanche, his main series love interest, would develop, but she only appears in the last pages of Unfinished. Why did you drop her in this novel? Will we see more of her in books to come?
Yes of course. Blanche will be back and I want to give her more depth. I will start with a short story. Right now I am writing short stories and for sure one will be about Blanche and Samuel if I can get it out.
What are your plans for the Samuel Hamilton series? Is there a logical endpoint when the story will be fully told? Do you have any other novels planned — and will you stick to the mystery genre?
That’s a very good question. I learned as a reader and as a student of life that one can express everything one wants to express in any medium without worrying if it fits the medium or not. So, as I gain readers I just ask them to stay tuned. I promise I will not bore them.