Thursday, September 03, 2015

A Conversation with Mystery Author Mark Coggins

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Mark Coggins

We are delighted to welcome author Mark Coggins to Omnimystery News today.

Mark's latest August Riordan mystery, No Hard Feelings (Down & Out Books; September 2015 limited edition hardcover; November 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats), is published this week, and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with him talking about his work.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us a little more about August Riordan in No Hard Feelings.

Mark Coggins
Photo provided courtesy of
Mark Coggins

Mark Coggins: My series character is a private investigator named August Riordan. Until this book, he was based in San Francisco, living in a third floor apartment on the corner of Post and Hyde — which happens to be the same apartment that Dashiell Hammett lived in when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, although this is never acknowledged or discussed in the series. By the time No Hard Feelings begins, Riordan has quit his private investigation business and moved to trailer park in Palm Springs. Over the course of the novel, we learn these decisions were motivated by traumatic events at the end of the previous book — The Big Wake-Up — and that the trailer he lives in once belonged to his estranged (and now deceased) father.

In No Hard Feelings, Riordan is paired with a character named Winnie who originally appeared in my second novel, Vulture Capital. Riordan is aging, rudderless and hiding out from the world. Winnie is a determined young woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude who literally feels no pain. Although she thinks of Riordan as something of a buffoon, she recognizes his ability to make things happen and desperately needs his help to deal with troubles resurrected from Vulture.

My hope is part of the appeal of No Hard Feelings is how these two very different characters interact and affect one another throughout the course of the book.

OMN: How has the character changed, or developed, over the course of the series?

MC: I have tried to evolve Riordan's character over the course of the books. Like Robert Crais' Elvis Cole character, he is a bit more of a wiseass in the early books, a bit less mature. He has never been the smartest or most subtle of private detectives, but as the series has progressed he has gained wisdom and judgement, perhaps at the expense of becoming jaded and world-weary. His attitude to violence and borderline vigilante behavior has changed as well, especially as a result of the events in The Big Wake-Up.

In spite of it all he's been through, I hope he retains his integrity, humor and sense of place in the world. In blurb she gave me for Wake-Up, Megan Abbott said, "Coggins gives us a detective at the center who doesn't know all the answers but whose self-effacing wit and hard-struck honesty draw us in from the very start and never let go." I think that is a nice sketch of the current Riordan.

In addition to gaining some maturity and gravitas, he has also aged physically. The contrast between the physical abilities of Winnie and Riordan in No Hard Feelings is pretty clear-cut due to the difference in their ages and the rigorous conditioning to which Winnie subjects herself.

OMN: Tell us something about No Hard Feelings that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

MC: Winnie is a quadriplegic who has regained mobility through implants from a sabotaged biomedical start-up (this is explained in the synopsis). What isn't mentioned is that technology like this actually exists — it's known generally as Functional Electronic Stimulation (FES) — and a number of biomedical companies have released real-world products incorporating it.

As an example, Battelle Memorial Institute recently announced NeuroLife™ Neural Bypass: "A breakthrough technology that empowers paralyzed patients to regain conscious control of their fingers, hands, wrists and arms … [NeuroLife] bypasses damaged areas of the nervous system so the brain can communicate directly with the muscles."

A general description of FES, its current capabilities and promise for the future may be found on the FES section of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation website.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books? Are any of the storylines based on real events?

MC: Although Riordan is something of a technophobe, many of the books in the series have a technology theme and are set in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. For example, The Immortal Game involved a chess-playing computer similar to IBM's Deep Blue, the first computer to defeat a reigning world champion. Runoff involved electronic voting and the possible hacking of a San Francisco mayoral election, and as I mentioned earlier, Vulture Capital and No Hard Feelings have to do with FES — and in the case of Vulture Capital — the world of venture capital in general.

Given all this, you perhaps won't be surprised to learn that I have a background in computer science and have worked at Silicon Valley companies like Hewlett-Packard and Netscape, as well as a venture capital firm.

Speaking to the part of the question about real events, in No Hard Feelings, the bad guy — who is known only as "the Winemaker" — wants to use Winnie's FES technology to enslave and control people without spinal cord injuries. In particular, he intends to leverage it in the battle against Islamic militant groups like ISIS. One insidious application is to turn the real-world ISIS tactic of enslaving and raping nonbelievers against them by electronically enslaving Islamic women for the same purpose.

The Winemaker's chief lieutenant in this effort is a convicted felon from a private military company hired by the US Government during the Iraq War. This, too, has real-world antecedents, as the US contracted with several private companies during the Iraq War and some of the contractors were later convicted of crimes committed in Iraq, including manslaughter and murder.

OMN: How true are you to the settings in the books?

MC: I pride myself on using real locations and providing as realistic a description of them as possible. I've been in writing groups where the question of whether a locale or a city can be a "character" in a book has provoked some very heated exchanges. I understand the perspective of those who say a city can't be a character: cities don't have motives, make choices, engage in interior monologues — all the obvious things that define a character.

That said, one of the reasons that I admire the work of Chandler and Hammett so much is the way that they portrayed LA and San Francisco. When you read Chandler, in particular, you really understand what it was like to live in Southern California in the 30's and 40's. He's left behind a record of the city that photographs from the period, or even films, simply don't convey.

I do my best to live up to that high standard. In fact, it's not uncommon for readers of early drafts of my books to red-line sections where they feel I've gotten carried away. I try to take these suggestions, but if I err, I always err on the side of retaining details about a locale rather than omitting them.

I guess the end result is that locale, if not a character, is a well painted backdrop or setting in which the characters of my books interact. I suppose a comparison with stage plays wouldn't be too far off. Some plays are done with little or no props and very Spartan sets; others are done with sets that mimic real life as much as possible. It's the choice of the director — or the writer in my case — to select the approach that serves the story the best.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

MC: One big hobby — or avocation — of mine is photography. Photography has definitely found its way into my books as several of them have been illustrated with scene-setting black and white photographs taken by me. For No Hard Feelings, my new publisher Down & Out Books has made a point of printing them on full pages as opposed to partials as was done in the past.

My photographs have also been used to illustrate the books of other writers, most notably Patricia Cornwell. The end papers of her novel Red Mist are illustrated with my photograph of a foggy morning at Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.

OMN: Tell us more about the cover for No Hard Feelings.

MC: I'm very pleased to say it was done by award-winning designer Michael Kellner, who did all the great books in the Dennis McMillan list.

Like a lot of authors, I developed a notion of what would make a good cover for the book during the process of writing it. And, like a lot of authors who develop such notions, I was wrong. I had thought a moody, black and white photo of mine of a Sicilian marionette would be the perfect thing to convey the theme of electronic slavery.

Michael liked the photo well enough, but after reading the book, pointed out that it wasn't modern, and didn't convey the role of technology in the book. Furthermore, it wasn't representative of Winnie, the co-protagonist. For her, the technology provides mobility, not enslavement.

Michael recently said this in an article on author/designer collaboration: "Authors may have general or specific ideas about the kind of cover they envision, which is fine, but they should want to see what a book designer will come up with on their own. Authors should welcome being surprised."

And he's right. The cover he eventually came up with is eye-catching and provocative. It hints at themes in the book without being blatant. It really makes you want to pick up the book and find out what the heck the thing is about.

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Mark Coggins' novels have been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and have been selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press and, among others. Runoff and The Big Wake-Up won the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) respectively, both in the crime fiction category. The Immortal Game was optioned for a film.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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No Hard Feelings by Mark Coggins

No Hard Feelings by Mark Coggins

An August Riordan Mystery

Publisher: Down & Out Books

Winnie doesn't remember the last time she felt anything below her neck. Her spine is severed at the seventh vertebrae, but thanks to implants from a sabotaged biomedical start-up, she has regained mobility. She is a prototype: a living, breathing — walking — demonstration of revolutionary technology that never made it to market.

Her disability has become her armor. Because she doesn't register fatigue, she has trained relentlessly. Her hand, arm, and leg strength are off the scales for a woman, and she has honed self-defense techniques to channel that strength. She's a modern-day Amazon who feels no pain.

When the sociopath who torpedoed the start-up sends killers to harvest the implants from her body, Winnie must team up with broken-down private investigator August Riordan to save both their lives — and derail sinister plans for perverse military applications of the technology.

No Hard Feelings by Mark Coggins

1 comment:

  1. Good interview. Adds a lot of insight to the book's plot and the author's thinking. Thanks!


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