JANUARY 19, 2016
I MET DANIEL FRIEDMAN in 2013, during the paperback launch of his first novel, but I’d decided well in advance that we would become excellent friends. I’d read Don’t Ever Get Old to prepare for a joint event with Friedman at KGB Bar in New York, and I was blown away by the personality blasting out of that book. It remains one of my favorite contemporary mysteries, and Buck Schatz — a wisecracking, curmudgeonly Jewish Memphis ex-cop in his late 80s — one of my favorite contemporary detectives. (Also, no big deal, it was nominated for four first novel awards, of which it won the Macavity. The second in the series, Don’t Ever Look Back, featuring an even older, grumpier Buck, came out to much applause last year.)
So this is where I admit that I was a little afraid I wouldn’t love Riot Most Uncouth. It seemed like such a drastic departure from Friedman’s earlier work, featuring a crime-solving Lord Byron in his student days in turn-of-the-(19th)-century Cambridge. But because I read everything by Daniel Friedman (and did, in the end, succeed in becoming his friend), I gave it a go — and what do you know, I loved it.
Riot Most Uncouth follows a young Lord Byron as he involves himself, against everyone else’s desires, in a gruesome murder mystery at Trinity College. Though he has yet to cement his reputation, he thinks he’s the world’s greatest poet, and that he must be one of the world’s greatest detectives as well. Basically, he’s a blustering, egomaniacal dickwad showing up at murder scenes in the throes of a full-blown manic episode — it isn’t long before he makes himself a suspect. Friedman’s Byron is not without his vulnerabilities — he’s hilariously obnoxious, but he hides a brooding, wounded center. The novel rides on his noble shoulders, and it’s both witheringly funny and macabre to the bone.
I talked to Friedman via email about his books, his life, and his legit epigraph game.
STEPH CHA: What interested you in Lord Byron, and how did you decide that he would make sense as an amateur detective?
DANIEL FRIEDMAN: I read somewhere that he kept a bear in his college dorm room. It’s treated as a fun fact, but it fascinated me. Readers have an idea of what England was in that period from Jane Austen, and, in many cases, from the huge subgenre of historical romances that borrow liberally from Jane Austen. You imagine this place and time being populated by men in cravats and women in gowns having picnics on manicured lawns, and the iconic literary plot that defines the period is that of the daughters of a country gentleman finding suitable marriages. But here comes this dude, who is probably drunk, leading a bear on a chain leash, and he’s got guns strapped to his waist and daggers in his boots, for absolutely no good reason, except he’s the kind of guy who expects trouble and is probably going to find it. His very existence punctures the mythology we’ve built around his era.
And once you start looking into it, this period of history is full of conflict and turmoil. The legitimacy of monarchies across Europe is under question after the American and French revolutions, and the King of England, who claims to rule by divine right, has been replaced with a regent because of mental illness. At the same time, Europe is industrializing, which means that owning tracts of agricultural land no longer guarantees dynastic wealth. The population in London and other cities is increasing dramatically, and lawlessness is running rampant because the old informal systems of volunteer watchmen and militias are entirely incapable of enforcing the basic norms of civilization, but there’s strong resistance to the formation of better funded, trained or organized police, so crime is rampant.
And this is a pretty good moment to be somebody like Byron. He’s enjoying the benefits of hereditary social position while taking full advantage of the loosening of behavioral standards. For men like him, this is an age of debauchery. Which, come to think of it, is probably why the daughters of country gentlemen were having such a hard time finding husbands.
This time and place seemed like a good setting for a crime novel. Byron as the detective is a little less obvious, but his way into the story is pretty easy: he’s the kind of guy who gets himself mixed up in stuff because he’s bored, and because he thinks everything is somehow about him anyway. There’s sort of a cozy subgenre that imagines historical figures and famous writers as amateur detectives. There’s a Jane Austen series and a series where Oscar Wilde teams up with Arthur Conan Doyle, and a series where Dorothy Parker’s ghost comes back from the dead to solve crimes. I like the idea of taking a concept that’s generally kind of frothy and trying to drag it someplace dark.
This is your first novel without Buck Schatz, and on the surface, it’s a giant departure from the books that cemented your reputation. Reading it, though, I kept thinking this could only be a Dan Friedman novel. In your mind, what’s the bridge from Buck to Byron?
I write books about people who are witty or clever, but who are dealing with some serious issues; Buck is coping with age, grief over the death of his son, and the onset of dementia, while Lord Byron is struggling with bipolar disorder, addiction, the lingering trauma of a fairly horrific childhood, and probably bulimia, plus any sexually transmitted infections he might have picked up.
I think there’s an idea in entertainment media that audiences want to feel a certain way when they consume media, and so funny stories can’t contain themes or ideas that make people feel sad or scared. I give readers a little bit more credit than that. I think, if a story is good, readers will follow it wherever it goes.
Also, while I’m careful about narrative logic, and, like most mystery readers, I despise cheats and contrivances, I like to play with the conventions and expectations of the genre, and try to stretch the idea of what a mystery can or should be in unexpected directions.
Each of your 42 chapters begins with its own epigraph, taken from the writings of Lord Byron. How on earth did you do this?
I did a lot of research for this book; much more than I need to when I am writing contemporary fiction. There are so many words and phrases in modern English that weren’t part of the language in Byron’s era. For example, the word “detective” didn’t enter the lexicon until some time after 1830.
Before I started writing, I read most of Byron’s poetry, and also a volume of his collected letters that I found on Google Books, to figure out what his voice was. I had this idea that, if I was going to write in the first person, with Byron as the narrator, I should sort of show the readers a little bit of the real thing, for comparison, as a show of good faith.
I don’t think I know many crime writers who’d count Lord Byron as a major influence. Is he one of yours?
Byron was a major figure in popular culture in England in the early 19th century. At the time, narrative poems were a commercially popular form of storytelling, and novels were just beginning to emerge as a popular alternative. So long-form poems about romance and adventure like Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Corsair, and Don Juan were sort of precursors to contemporary genre fiction, and Byron’s brooding, cynical heroes are sort of a model for a lot of characters in detective fiction.
I find the idea of writing historical fiction completely daunting. How did you go about creating Byron’s world? What were the challenges involved? Did you enjoy the process?
When you start writing something like this, unless you’re already really familiar with the period, you don’t even know what you don’t know. I had to constantly go to the internet for basic questions: If he was throwing a coat on the floor, what kind of coat was it? Would he wear a vest underneath it? How long does it take to get a message from Cambridge to London via semaphor? If you enter a tavern in 1807 England, what are they serving? I was pretty shocked to find that, even though there were over 30 colleges in Cambridge in 1807, none of them admitted women, and I had to find an alternative reason for some of the female characters to be there.
This isn’t totally different from what I’ve done on books like Don’t Ever Look Back, though. I think I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out what kind of car Buck Schatz would have driven in 1965, and I ended up deciding on a Dodge Matador.
You wrote this novel, as well as your debut, while holding down an intense job as an attorney at a law firm. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled this off? What was your process like?
Don’t Ever Get Old was a little bit before Google Docs. We had shared documents software for stuff in the office, but I didn’t have anything like that for syncing personal documents among multiple devices, so I was emailing the manuscript to myself all the time.
The hours are very long in a job like that, but there’s dead time in the day, like when you send off a draft of a letter you’re working on, and then you have to wait for someone to respond or turn around notes, or there’s a conference call scheduled, but the partner is on another call and you end up waiting 20 minutes for him to join. I’d be fiddling with the manuscript during those times. And I was getting up early and going to bed a little later to work on it, when I could. I was getting by on five and a half hours of sleep most nights for a couple of years.
I understand you’re now writing full time. Has your approach to writing changed?
Well, I still work to figure out a lot of my story problems while I’m doing other things, but I can sit down and work on a manuscript now for four or five hours at a stretch, which has allowed me to start planning some projects that are, in some ways, more ambitious in scale than what I’ve done in the past.
Also, I get to go to the gym more, and I get more sleep.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on the third Buck Schatz, which I am thinking about calling You Can Live Too Long. In this one, a murderer Buck locked up shortly before his retirement in 1976 is finally about to be executed after more than 30 years on death row, and his last ditch appeals focus on attacking his original trial and on Buck’s police investigation. As Buck’s reputation and legacy are called into question, he becomes fixated on this case, as a distraction from his progressing dementia. And then, in a parallel, flashback narrative, we learn about Buck’s pursuit and capture of the killer.
I’m also working on a standalone novel that’s different from anything I’ve done before, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about that soon.