Land of Confusion
Michael Simon's first detective novel finds a transplanted New Yorker struggling to solve a murder in a 'completely different' Austin
Austin, 1988. For those of you who weren't here about a third of you, according to the Census department this was an Austin in which never the word dot-com was heard. The words "S&L failure" were bandied about quite a lot. This was the Austin in which the first pitched battles over Barton Springs and the development of West Travis County were taking place, in demonstrations down on Congress and a legendary session at City Hall. That year, a disenchanted UT performing arts grad student, a transplant from New York, Michael Simon, midway through his graduate work, was pondering one of the good life's eternal questions: get the Ph.D or get a job?
"I needed to find a job without a typing requirement," Simon comments, ruefully, during a phone interview. "There were six positions like that with the county as probation officers. I got one. You fly over Austin and it is beautiful, like a lot of cities that you see from the air but the difference is that it is still beautiful when you get off the plane. As a probation officer, stationed on East Seventh Street, I saw a completely different Austin."
Utilizing this experience in his first detective novel, Dirty Sally (Viking, $23.95), Simon has woven a grisly tale set in Austin in 1988, and starring various sleazy cops; an oily UT president, William Henry Oliver; some South Congress streetwalkers; and one Austin eatery, the Magnolia, for which the book's hero has an irrepressible fondness. That hero, Detective Dan Reles, parallels Simon in some respect he's a transplanted New York Jew who had come to Austin originally to study and has ended up on the police force. Simon's story shows him literally piecing together a murder mystery. The pieces are of the victim's flesh, which keeps turning up in packages posted to various prominent citizens. Reles has a threefold task on his hands: to find out whom the legs, ribs, and inner organs belong to; to find out who killed her and why; and to keep his sanity.
Austin Chronicle: In certain detective novels, for instance Raymond Chandler's, the detective mirrors the city. Could you say this about your detective?
Michael Simon: I don't know how consciously I wanted Dan to mirror Austin. He's an outsider, so he doesn't take it for granted. There's a lot he doesn't like. The upshot is: Austin is the other major character in the book.
AC: There's a sort of Dickensian theme in your book, in which the murder of one of the supposedly lowest a crack whore leads to one of the most powerful people in the city. In between, there's a lot about the process that makes one wonder about the inequality of the way we police crimes. Could you say something about that?
MS: Cops have a job that is set up for failure, in some way, because what are they and what do they do? They are working-class guys, usually, employed to keep the power structure the way it is. Crimes aren't random events much of the country isn't benefiting from the way the country is set up. I'm not saying murders are acts of revolution, but most crimes are acts of desperation. As a probation officer, I'd guess 80 percent of my clients had alcohol or drug problems.
AC: Your book has its quotient of violence. I wonder how you balance the gruesomeness of description versus the need to preserve a moral landscape in which we don't get inured to violence.
MS: Look, gruesomeness is part of the moral landscape. You know, there is a difference between gunplay in film and on the stage. In film, you fire a gun, bang bang, and it is part of the way it always is. Onstage, you can't do that. Firing a gun has to be stylized it can't be as real because people exist in a physical space with that gun. Audiences are affected physically. The reality is that firing a gun at somebody is a horrendous moral and physical act, a blow not only against the body, but against the body politic. I wanted to slow down the violence so we see what it is.