Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His first novel, Dead Harvest has just been published by Angry Robot. Paul Simpson caught up with him to talk about his supernatural thriller that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.
Dead Harvest combines noir detective thrillers and almost Miltonic fantasy – which was the starting point for the story? Or was it the mash-up itself?
The starting point was the character of Sam himself. The opening scene in which he stalks a man and collects his soul, apologizing as he does, popped unbidden into my head and wouldn’t leave. Dead Harvest is the result of me trying to figure out what brought him to that point, and what happened after.
Of course, my decisions as to what brought him to that point and what happened after are colored by a lifetime of gobbling up all the fantasy and crime pulp I could get my hands on, and even my more literary obsessions tend toward darker fare like Dante or Eliot’s The Waste Land. So in that way, I suppose Dead Harvest is a reflection of my own warped worldview, more than any conscious desire to write cross-genre. Tim Powers once said he read so much science fiction and fantasy in his youth, it set all the switches and dials in his head to write the sorts of things he writes beyond any hope of resetting. That’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever heard.
Which writers have been an influence on you for both sides of the story, detective and angelic?
On the detective side of the fence, Chandler and Hammett obviously inform the series quite a bit, lending titles, flavor, and even the name of my protagonist (Hammett’s first name is Samuel, and Chandler’s middle is Thornton.) Folks like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Ross Macdonald also had a hand in shaping my story and (God willing) my style.
On the angelic side of things, Dante and Milton are clearly touchstones, as is the fact I was raised by lapsed Catholics. More broadly, my influences in all matters fantastical would include Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael McDowell, and William Gibson, to name a few.
Why did you choose to set the story primarily in NYC?
Unlike the classic detective stories it references, Sam’s series isn’t rooted in one place; the second book in the series takes Sam to such far-flung locales as Amsterdam, the Amazon, and the American Southwest. But I felt it was important to root his character in a place with a tangible connection to the pulps from whence he sprang. I grew up on the east coast, so I’m never gonna pull off a Chandlerian Los Angeles, and the story didn’t feel right in a fictionalized setting like Hammett’s Poisonville. To me, the New York of Block’s Scudder novels seemed like the perfect fit.
You’ve clearly worked out a backstory for Sam – is this really the first time he’s been rebellious?
Well, on the scale you read in the book, it’s the first time anyone’s been this rebellious. The guy takes on heaven and hell both to do what he believes is right. But there’s ample evidence of his rebellious nature in life. We learn over the course of Dead Harvest that in life, Sam walks with a limp, the unfortunate result of a tangle with some strike-busters. He certainly doesn’t take his wife’s terminal illness lying down, instead bargaining away his immortal soul to save her. And in book two, we learn that even in his decades as a Collector, he hasn’t always been so good at coloring within the lines.
Great question! Though I haven’t tackled it yet, I expect the answer is yes, with a but. I suspect only one can control a meat-suit at a given time, so it’d be a game of king-of-the-hill to determine who gets to drive, with the more powerful entity doubtless winning out. As for whether one spirit could hitch a ride unbeknownst to the other possessing spirit, definitely not. As we discover in Dead Harvest, possession leaves tell-tale signs one such as Sam couldn’t miss.
We’ve had vampires, and zombies; now stories featuring angels (both in literature and TV) are starting to trend. What attracted you to writing about them?
I suppose the fact that the modern portrayal of angels as loving, beautiful beings struck me as pretty far afield from the image I carried of them in my head. According to scripture, angels are powerful creatures, capable of great violence. And in some ways, they’re tragic figures as well, forever subservient to the will of God, yet painfully aware they are not His most favored creation. To think the only thing separating angels from their fallen brethren is that the fallen dared exercise free will is kind of astonishing, and suggests we’ve got more in common with the fallen than their angelic counterparts. So I guess, like Mick Jagger, you could chalk my interest up to sympathy for the devil.
The second novel is coming out later this year: can you tease a few details about it?
The Wrong Goodbye takes place about a year after the events of Dead Harvest. Sam’s under a microscope, with heaven and hell both just looking for an excuse to watch him burn. So when the soul he’s sent to collect goes missing – stolen by a Collector Sam once considered a friend – he’s forced to hunt it down all quiet-like. His quest takes him down the rabbit-hole of the demonic drug-trade, and uncovers a shocking truth about the true nature of Collectors, and of Sam himself.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m working on a straight-ahead thriller about a hitman who makes his living hitting other hitmen. And I just turned in a synopsis for book three of the Collector series, so with luck, I’ll be starting that soon.