In Person: Robert Greer

Dashiell Hammet and Chester Himes in a Pickup Truck

"June seventeenth turned out to be a six-biscuit day, and Vernon Lowe hated six-biscuit days..." begins Robert Greer's second novel, The Devil's Red Nickel (Mysterious Press, $22). Vernon Lowe is a morgue attendant and "biscuit" turns out to be the term for a human cadaver requiring an autopsy. Greer has that all-important knack for grabbing the reader's attention with his very first line, then introducing the reader to fresh situations and points of view in short chapters so deftly conceived that many of them easily stand alone as fully realized short stories -- not surprising since Greer was already an accomplished short fiction writer before publishing his first novel, last year's The Devil's Hatband.

In that novel, Robert Greer introduced his protagonist, C.J. Floyd, an African-American bail bondsman and bounty hunter in Denver, Colorado. In The Devil's Red Nickel, Floyd is hired to investigate the death of a legendary R&B impresario, Leroy "Daddy Doo-Wop" Polk. Delving into the world of the Fifties R&B scene, Floyd uncovers a mystery that involves payola, the mob's "red nickel" jukebox scam, and other record biz scandals, as well as exploitation, mob connections, big city corruption, and gun-toting females who advance the cause of sexual equality in mystery writing more than a whole alphabet of Sue Grafton novels.

There's also pathology, Western Americana, and the realities of African-American middle class life in the modern West, all of which Greer is intimately familiar. Besides being a writer, Greer is a professor of pathology, the editor of a literary journal, and a cattle rancher.

I spoke to Greer during his trip to Austin to sign books at Adventures in Crime & Space. We talked about writing, history, favorite novels, and the things that motivate him to write, when he's already a very busy and successful man in several other fields.

"For me, the things that I do are the things that make me whole," he said. "For some people, the things that make them whole are their kids, their passion for cars or music, or whatever. For me, what makes me whole is being a pathologist, going to my cattle ranch, being with my wife, and writing my books. That's what makes me complete."

The characters in Greer's novels are well-drawn, his scenarios compelling and evocative -- think of Dashiell Hammett and Chester Himes in a pickup truck. Greer also populates his stories with black cowboys and ranchers as well as places like Rosie's -- a gas station where attendants still check the air in your tires and wash your windshield. The result is a conjuring of a "remembered West" from a different point of view, something roughly parallel to Tony Hillerman's Navaho mysteries.

"I want to give people a slice of America they may not have seen," he said. "Black people came off of the land, they didn't just come from big cities. I wanted black cowboys and black ranchers in my novels, because they existed and because they were important in the history of this country."

The fact that Greer has brought a black point of view to a tradition that was, for the better part of 50 years or so, almost exclusively the province of white males, would not matter if he didn't do it so well. But he does these things extremely well. He's also obviously having so much fun with it that the energy just leaps off the page -- from the very first biscuit. -- Jesse Sublett

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