Tucked away in the closet of Michael Simon’s New York apartment is a roll of butcher paper that measures roughly three feet wide and 16 feet long. Unfurl it and you’ll discover a detailed roadmap of the intricately woven plot of his totally absorbing first novel, Dirty Sally, a detective thriller set in Austin, Texas, during the late 1980s.
"The plot was the biggest challenge," Simon says during a call to his home. "There are so many things going on in this book. They have to interact, and they have to be real and dramatic and develop in a compelling way."
Compelling, Dirty Sally certainly is. As the novel opens, detective Dan Reles, a native New Yorker and a Jew transplanted to Austin, is coming apart at the seams after the recent death of his partner, Joey Velez, the first non-white officer to make the city’s homicide squad. Reles’ weird, angry behavior after his partner’s fatal car crash makes him the subject of an internal affairs investigation. The highly publicized case of a young prostitute killed and dismembered in an Austin crack house offers Reles a way to salvage his career. So with the clock ticking, he sets out to identify the victim – whom the squad nicknames "Dirty Sally" – and find her murderer. The problem is that his investigation leads him to a series of shady real estate development deals that involve the city’s most powerful citizens. And, as it turns out, not all of Reles’ homicide department colleagues are eager to see him redeem himself.
Simon says it took something like five years and 15 drafts to engineer the dramatic intersections of scenes and storylines that make his first Dan Reles detective novel (he is now at work on the second book in the series) so difficult to put down. To support himself during his long construction project, Simon taught writing and acting in New York for a number of years and then took a job as a proofreader for an advertising agency. For three years he wrote every morning, went to work in the afternoon, came home late at night, went to bed, then got up and did the same thing all over again. "From the night I decided to write the book, I was never half-hearted about it," he says.
As Simon tells it, he was inspired to write Dirty Sally by a conversation with his brother, who was intent on writing a military thriller and thereby achieve fame, fortune and immortality in the process. "I thought, well, there must be a way I can get a piece of this," he says, laughing. In fact, six or seven other friends also boarded the thriller-writing bandwagon. But absolutely everybody else dropped out except Simon.
Part of what sustained him was the memory of the searing experiences he’d had as a probation officer in Austin, a job he took to support himself after his graduate fellowship at the University of Texas ran out. At that time Texas, which Simon says has a long history of imposing "ridiculously long prison sentences," had explosively overcrowded prisons and, as a result, had begun undersentencing dangerous felons, churning hard cases out into the parole system. "It’s not that I particularly believe in the prison system," Simon says, "but there are some people who shouldn’t be on the street."
The effect on Simon and his coworkers was profoundly demoralizing. "I think that was the core of me wanting to write this book about law enforcement, because the work itself can be so damaging. You develop this really dark humor and you eat a lot," he says.
Simon’s main character, detective Dan Reles, doesn’t overeat but he has the dark humor of a moral hero in an immoral situation. "When Dan makes a joke it’s a dark joke," Simon says. "There are things he finds disturbing and wrong, things that fill him with contempt. So he makes a joke about it and the joke lets off some tension, but it doesn’t make him happy."
An inverted moral universe suffused with a hard dark humor is the essence of a noir thriller, and in Dirty Sally, Simon offers his own unique contribution to the genre. "The structure of a regular mystery is politically conservative," Simon says. "You have an orderly world, then one utterly extreme crime takes place and the world is totally messed up, and then a detective comes in and solves the crime and the world is fine again." Simons says the masters of noir fiction writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – turned this convention on its head: after the crime is solved, the world is "still awful."
Thus, one of the things that’s most surprising and daring about Simon’s version of the noir thriller is that he’s decided to locate its action in sunny, optimistic Austin. "I moved to Austin in the late 1980s," Simon says. "It was this incredibly beautiful town, clean, friendly. Then I got this funny job and suddenly I was looking at the other part of town, the poor part of town. I was seeing who was living by working really, really hard and who was living by doing something illegal or illicit: dealing drugs, working as a prostitute or as a pimp. And it shook up my perspective."
So Simon paints a gritty portrait of a police department divided by racial tensions, neighborhoods decimated by drugs, and a city whose financial and political power structure promotes privatization of public resources for personal gain. Through the murk of this moral and political corruption the emotionally wounded Dan Reles tries to get his man.
For all the background he manages to weave so adroitly into his tale, Simon says he "doesn’t mean Dirty Sally to be an issue-driven drama; this isn’t a political diatribe or a bumper sticker. What I really want is for the reader to enjoy the ride."
With its intricate weave of plotlines, authentic detail and strong, no-nonsense writing, Dirty Sally does indeed offer a good ride. A very good ride.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.