Interview: J Paul Rieger

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Baltimore crime author J Paul Rieger wide shot

Today sees the launch of Clonk!, a humour-filled crime novel by the Baltimore author J Paul Rieger, and here at Crime Fiction Lover we’re overjoyed to bring you an interview with the man himself.

Based in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, JP is a retired real estate attorney who has always been a writer only now he has swapped the ennui of legal briefs for detective fiction. Clonk! introduces us to the Baltimore police detective Kev Dixit, who is a bit of a wiseguy, and his partner Dinette Laurence, who rolls her eyes at wiseguy antics. They’re investigating the puzzling murder of well-liked artist in the city but Kev’s life is complicated by the illegal shenanigans of his old high school buddies. Needless to say, the trouble they bring – some of which relates to the real estate world that JP knows well – is a source of plenty of humour.

This is an author with a fascinating take on the genre, on Baltimore, and on life in general. Read on as we welcome him to the site…

First of all, what will crime fiction lovers love about Clonk!?
Lovers of crime fiction will enjoy the smorgasbord of crimes being committed, solved and, yes, covered up.

Tell us more about Kev Dixit and what inspired your protagonist?
I wanted Kev Dixit to be the archetypal good guy. A person just like us, doing the best they can with the cards they’re dealt. He’s a fortress in the storm of life’s absurdities. And, being a Baltimore City police detective, there’s plenty of absurdity to go around. An ultimate spin master, Kev constantly squeezes lemonade from lemons, while verbally massaging away his uncomfortable reality. He strives to do good, but, alas, “No good deed goes unpunished.”  

His old school buddies are having a few issues here – what are they and how can Kev help, or not, as the case may be?
Kev Dixit’s high school buds are a hot mess. Lou Ricciti and Pete Palanzo, have turned to illegal house flipping for profit. Their ‘business’ is soon taken over by fierce predators and sociopaths for whom murder is simply a part of the business model. Kev’s schoolmate, Alan Switzer, is a medical doctor, in and out of rehab for substance abuse. Kev puts Alan up in his garage much to the chagrin of Kev’s loving and patient spouse, Bhavna. Classmate Reg Marquis is an FBI agent overtaken by obsessive compulsive tendencies and agoraphobia. Kev and Bhavna, a psychologist, work to right Marquis’ ship.

Plus there’s his partner Dinetta Laurence – how did you shape this character and what’s her fit with Kev?
Dinetta Laurence, although utterly lacking a sense of humour, becomes an exceptional detective. She represents what we all hope to be: the hard-working student who ultimately surpasses the master. Dinetta initially underestimates Kev, believing he’s just a worn-out guy with old cop ideas. But she grows to respect Kev as they solve the crime together.

They’ve got a murder to solve in the art world. What are the challenges they’re facing?
Yes – who would murder a well-loved artist working alone in her studio? She had recently lost her spouse to cancer.  She had no enemies. Forensics points to an unplanned crime of passion or perhaps opportunity. Kev and Dinetta have dead ended. They can’t produce any sort of lead – until they grind through every detail, that one last time.

There’s a lot going on in Clonk!, with Kev split between his Ignatius High School friends and a murder investigation. And you’re an advocate of non-linear plots. Please tell us more about that and how you managed the narrative in Clonk!?
There is a lot going on, but that’s the kind of novel I enjoy reading. I wanted to present the reader with a series of scenes or ‘chunks’, seemingly thrown at the reader, but ultimately making sense. Clonk! is not a cosy. I wanted to write a Jackson Pollack painting. I wanted a roller coaster of scenes and action speckled with absurd dialogue. I love non-linear plot development. I enjoy the puzzle aspect, the piecing together of chronology. The ah-ha moment when the storyline comes together to make complete sense.

You’ve worked a lot of anecdotes from your career as a real estate lawyer into the story too, bringing humor. What’s the most outrageous example?
Well, putting aside the avaricious house flippers, probably the depiction of the barely competent attorneys representing Lou and Pete. Baltimore has long suffered ‘attorney advertising’ a form of punishment protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Blazing white veneers and orange, tanning salon faces have been glaring at Baltimore’s citizens from transit bus placards for decades and decades.

How does the setting of Baltimore contribute to the story?
Baltimore is crucial to the story. Many born and bred Baltimoreans, like the Clonk! characters, never leave here. It’s the ‘Smalltimore’ effect. We are the biggest small town going. And we are still obsessed with how the Baltimore Colts left town on a snowy March evening in 1984. This travesty is discussed in Clonk!, of course, by Lou and Pete. Baltimore was also badly victimised by illegal house flipping in the 1990s.

Clonk rejected cover art from J Paul Rieger

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but Clonk! stands out. What made you go with this cover?
OK, I love Roy Lichtenstein. Who doesn’t? We have the same hair. Anyway, my beautiful spouse, Kristin, described Clonk! as a “graphic novel, without the graphics.” That inspired me to go for a vintage comic book approach. The publisher let me take a crack at my own artwork. I originally came up with a concept: Kev lugubriously handing over the necessary green plastic garbage bags to Lou and Pete. Then, during a Zoom, the publisher mentioned, “The cardinal rule is never portray a scene from the novel as the cover.” Whoops. So, I rejected that idea, which you can still see right here, and simplified the concept. An excellent graphic artist, Bondan PS, did the illustration. I’m very happy with the result.

Which other crime novelists or book have inspired you and why? What are your reading right now?
One of my heroes is existential crime writer Charles Willeford. He once told an interviewer, “Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor.” However, not everyone appreciated Willeford’s dry wit. A particularly aggrieved reader was so angry with Willeford’s novel Sideswipe that he emptied a revolver into the book and sent the bullet-holed remains back with an angry note. By the way, if any of your readers plan to dislike Clonk!, tell them to purchase the digital edition.

I am also a big fan of the nearly forgotten works of late Victorian and Edwardian mystery writers, such as Austin Freeman, Arthur Morrison and Guy Boothby. Those writers developed mystery-solving characters later called rivals of Sherlock Holmes because they too were operating in the same era as Sherlock. But, the characters were not ‘good guys’ like Sherlock. They were villains, out for themselves.

As for more current stuff, I just finished reading Susie Steiner’s last novel, Remain Silent. Another masterpiece. Sadly, she passed away in 2022. What a great writer! If I could write half as well as she… I’ve also been reading as many Baltimore writers as I can find: poetry by Elizabeth Hazen, humour from Kathy Flann, espionage and mystery by Dan Fesperman and reality from D Watkins. Amazing stuff. And I’m in the middle of a really cool novel by Christine Grillo, Hestia Strikes a Match.

What’s next for JPR?
I just completed my third novel, The Big Comb Over. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written to date. It’s a whacky ‘comedy of manners’ featuring three nephews and their three crazy uncles. There’s a slipstream element, too. I’ve submitted to 20 or so niche publishers, so we’ll see. Perhaps I’ll have to take the walk of shame back to the dismal world of self-publishing? I’m also working on a proper Clonk! pre-sequel featuring Kev Dixit and his gang. It, too, is non-linear and should be ready to launch in early 2024. Or 2019. Or…

Keep up to date with J Paul Rieger on his website, and order a copy of Clonk! below.


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