The Austin Chronicle

Land of Confusion

Michael Simon's first detective novel finds a transplanted New Yorker struggling to solve a murder in a 'completely different' Austin

By Roger Gathman, July 30, 2004, Books

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. end story

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