Writing the Book
Well-trained detectives―cops, former cops, hyper-skilled private eyes―populate most mystery novels. With Cadaver Blues, I had in mind a different kind of hero. Phu Goldberg is a debt workout specialist on the margins of society, a refugee from Long Island living in Wilmington, Delaware, a small-boned ethnic Vietnamese raised by Jewish socialists. For all these reasons, he’s a guy who spends his life fighting for his own respect―and sometimes also for respect on behalf of his down-and-out clients. I call this book (and others to follow in the series) ironic noir. The noir part: The tone is dark, the setting gritty, and Phu is a tough guy. The ironic part: Phu thinks he has the world figured out, and he’s smart enough to solve cases against great odds, but he doesn’t quite have command of himself in the way that he’d like you to believe. In fact, nothing in Cadaver Blues is exactly as it seems at first―not the women who visit Phu’s office, the teenagers who confront him on the street, the facts of the cases before him, or even Phu’s image of himself. When words don’t have the meaning we expect, that’s irony. When tough guys think they have all the angles figured out, but learn that they don’t in surprising ways, that’s ironic noir. It makes the Phu Goldberg novels different from conventional mysteries. I hope it also makes them both compelling and funny in refreshing fashion.
Phu Goldberg is an angry man. People mispronounce his first name in a manner that makes it sound like a curse word. They ignorantly presume that he’s Chinese when he’s not, and they expect him to speak with a foreign accent when in fact he’s a red-blooded American, raised from infancy on Long Island. They assume he’s weak because he’s slightly built. They presume because he’s Asian that he’s good at math, and this last one makes him angriest of all, because the bigots are completely right about the math part. To compensate for all these issues, Phu has invented himself as a tough guy, but it turns out he has a bigger heart than he lets on. He doesn’t like a system that tries to put him in a box. And because he’s in the habit of fighting, he’s turned his resistance into a business fighting for those who can’t conquer that system on their own behalf. He’s a little guy standing up for other little guys.
Mindy presents as a naif, an innocent beauty with a knockout body who trusts everyone, loves chocolate candy, and exists in blissful oblivion to her own feminine wiles. She’s a vamp without the intentionality, a vixen without the cynicism. Or is she? The woman certainly has a way of getting what she wants. Mindy seeks Phu’s help because she’s been collecting mail for her Uncle Gunnar while he’s on vacation and incommunicado. But now Uncle Gunnar has begun receiving foreclosure notices and she has to save his house. She ropes Phu into her cause but she’s also insinuating herself into his life―giving charity to another client of Phu’s that he doesn’t want to help, reaching Phu on an emotional level that he doesn’t want reached, and forcing him into the role of accidental detective, which may just get him killed.