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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Loren Estleman: Matchless portraits of conflicts and frontiers

Fragments of self-interview.

So let's talk about great books, those that virtually define a form. The Western, for instance.

Little Big Man. Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On. The amazing Blood Meridian, a masterwork easily on the order of Moby-Dick or Dos Passos — and Billy Gashade, of course, the story of an itinerant musician that manages to compress most of the history of the Western U.S. into a vivid tapestry.

Crime fiction.

The usual suspects. Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald. Chester Himes. More recently Larry Block, Walter Mosley, K.C. Constantine, Jim Crumley, Jim Burke. And the fifteen books of the Amos Walker series, of course.

Regional fiction, histories of place?

Most of Faulkner, but especially Absalom! Absalom! Evan Hunter's Streets of Gold. Michael Ondatje's recreation of New Orleans and jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter. And the seven novels of Loren Estleman's Detroit series.

Not to mention The Master Executioner, about a hangman, a novel with the force and terrible gravity of Camus' The Stranger; the Page Murdock series of six books featuring a frontier "lawless" lawman; the Peter Macklin series of four books about a contemporary hit man lapsing into suburban life; the richly comic P.I. novel Peeper. Fifty books in all. Four Golden Spur awards from the Western Writers of America, three Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, three Western Heritage awards. Quite possibly one or two more by the time this column sees print.

All of it tapped out on a manual typewriter.

I remember Mike Moorcock telling me of an impromptu visit years ago to British novelist John Brunner, who after a few minutes excused himself to return to work. Some time further along, Mike said, John got up to use the bathroom — and Mike was fairly certain the typewriter kept going.

Estleman claims not to be a fast writer, only a dedicated one, spending an average of six hours a day behind the typewriter, even though much of what he writes there, he says, goes more or less directly from fingertip to wastebasket.

"I average two books per year. It's a metabolic condition; one would leave me with too much time on my hands and the disturbing conviction that without writing I'd be just a bum. Three, and my work would suffer from haste. I write on a manual typewriter, which allows me to work steadily, rather than fast. Unlike computers, manual typewriters never break down. My output doubled when I abandoned electrics....I sentence myself to six hours per day at the typewriter, or however long it takes to reach my goal of five clean pages."

So who is this guy?

Does his work appear on any syllabus of the contemporary novel? No — nor is it likely to. He's kept separate from the show horses, won't any time soon become canon fodder.

"American literature," he remarks, "owes nearly everything to the postwar pioneers who worked a field considered somewhat less respectable than modeling ladies' underwear, and who because they had no reputations to uphold managed to hammer out an authentic language that has outlasted the treacle that won all the prizes in their own time."

"A category unto himself," one reviewer remarked. He has no rival in evoking the American Southwest, Kirkus states. While Book World chimes in with "Estleman rivals the finest American novelists with his gritty vision and keen ear," going on to note his "quicksilver dialogue, incisive characterization, and canny interweaving" of history and narrative.

In a better world there'd be a Loren Estleman Day. Meanwhile we adamant readers celebrate it on our own, all of us who revere this man's work, each time a new book comes out.

Speaking of the two modes in which he most frequently works, mysteries and the Western, Estleman says: "Both genres deal with a frontier, someone's attempt to tame it, and someone else's efforts to keep it wild. Conflicts are between archetypes, easily recognizable regardless of setting."

One of the things you begin to notice about writing when you've done it for a while, one of the things that keeps you at it, is this recognition of how much smarter you are when about the practice, how you seem to know so much more than you do.

"I'd estimate that a year's research goes into each book, concurrent with what I'm writing at present. I'm blessed with a nearly photographic long-term memory, so the amount of cramming I have to do on each project diminishes in direct ratio to the

amount of material I've written pertaining to that area. Once you know that Doc Holiday preferred colored dress shirts and that latent fingerprints evaporate with time, you're saved the trouble of looking up those details."

One caveat, though. Should you find yourself with Estleman, do not, whatever you do, steer the conversation towards movies.

A few months back I sat at a dinner table with Estleman, Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale. As I recall, the subject of books and literature scarcely arose, but each of these guys, I swear, has seen every movie ever made. You have to wonder when they find time to write.

"I pioneered the concept of the home theater 15 years ago," Estleman says, "building a movie room into my basement with a fifty-inch screen TV and a collection of movies on tape that runs around 1,300 titles at present. Now I've started on DVD. This access to film has been of enormous assistance with such books as The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association, about early Hollywood, and the Valentino series, about a film archivist who keeps getting mixed up in murder. I've also installed a VCR with a four-inch screen on my desk to monitor specific details" — right beside the manual typewriter.

Loren Estleman. Go look him up. Introduce yourself. Take a stroll, have a coffee or a drink.

You both richly deserve it.

How would Estleman describe a perfect weekend? "No work to do and a pile of good books within arm's reach."

Not surprisingly, work comes up a lot in Loren Estleman's conversation. What we have here is the true professional, a writer of a sort increasingly rare, turning out the goods day after day, year after year, tracking the spoor of his interests, telling stories of America's open spaces and choked cities and of people forever in-between, a craftsman so given to his work as to spontaneously combust to genius.

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