Episode 77: Michael Bowen – Locked Rooms and Courtrooms

In June, 2019, a nice young man in a blue suit asked me “when was the last time you smoked marijuana, ma’am?” I told him the truth – semester break during my sophomore year at Tulane – because you don’t lie to the FBI.

I have no objection to the truth, but I don’t let it push me around.

False Flag in Autumn, Michael Bowen

I love a good locked room mystery almost as much as I love the Nick and Nora Charles dynamic. Author Michael Bowen combines both of these in several of his nifty, “plucky couples” series, starting with his first mystery, Badger Game.

But he is also the author of thrillers, and his latest book, False Flag in Autumn, pits a savvy political operative against evil — and her own conscience. Complex characters and high stakes ignite this story, the second in the Josie Kendall series.

We also chat about the books that shaped his writing, and his life (turns out Perry Mason had an influence on Michael’s choice of career). We’re both fans of Agatha Christie (Alert! Spoilers for Murder on The Orient Express), Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner, among others.

You can learn more about Michael’s books on his author page. As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura

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Laura Brennan: Michael Bowen started writing while working as a trial attorney. While not playing Perry Mason in court, he was writing mysteries across genres including locked rooms, puzzle mysteries, and thrillers. Now that he’s retired, we can look forward to many more books from Michael. Michael, thank you so much for joining me today.

Michael Bowen: Well, thank you for having me. I’m really looking forward to this.

LB: Tell me a little bit about your career pre-writing. How did you decide to get into law?

MB: Well, as I was growing up, I had basically two possible career paths. One was to become a journalist and the other was to become President of the United States. And I knew I couldn’t start at President, so I had to do something to earn a living. So I settled on practicing law because that’s the way Abraham Lincoln did it. He practiced law and then he became President. And I had a very healthy sense of self-esteem back then.

So, basically, I turned to law because I decided I wanted to be one of the people doing things that people write about instead of one of the people doing the writing.

In the first series that I began, it’s a “plucky couple,” and the male half of the plucky couple had to surrender his license to practice law because of some shenanigans that he engaged in. And the female half was what back in the sexist, early 1960s was called a Girl Friday for a law firm. So she wasn’t a lawyer, but she did stuff that people found helpful.

My next plucky couple series involved a foreign service officer who was not a lawyer and the female half of that was a bookstore owner, and so that was a lot of fun. And in the next plucky couple series, I had a lawyer married to a woman who was a university professor and they solved mysteries together.

LB: I love the whole plucky couple concept. I’m a big fan of The Thin Man series and I just love the idea of two people working together on their marriage and also on solving crimes. What was your inspiration for plucky couples?

MB: I was absolutely enthralled by plucky couples, by Nick and Nora, by Jerry and Susan North, and I noticed that no one was doing that anymore so I wanted to bring that concept back to mysteries. But in a way, my real inspiration was my wife, Sara, before she was my wife. We met at a law school mixer for first-year law students and one of the fellow students, our classmate, was basically putting a move on her. He said, “I think that you should not believe anything that cannot be empirically demonstrated.” And she said, “Do you really believe that?” And it took him three beats to figure out he’d been had. He was affirming a belief that obviously cannot be empirically demonstrated. And I said to myself two things: one day I want to write books were people do stuff like that, talk that way, and second, I want to marry that woman. And I did both.

LB: Yes, because mostly we talk that way in our heads afterwards.

MB: Right. That’s right. You have what the French call the esprit d’escalier. The inspiration on the stairway, when you think, oh man, I should have said that! But Sara was able to come up with it right on the spur of the moment. So I thought, okay, I’ve got to do that.

LB: So tell me then how Badger Game came about? Badger Game is your first book.

MB: Right. Badger Game was the first mystery. The first book was Can’t Miss about the first woman to play major league baseball. That started out as a mystery and then I realized that I didn’t want, it wasn’t working when I had the character sitting in the press box watching the player whom she would represent as an agent, so I put her on the field. And that’s how Can’t Miss came about.

Badger Game was designed as a plucky couple mystery from the beginning. I wanted to have these two very dissimilar characters who have two different ethnic backgrounds and two different ways of thinking. I also had become familiar with the term “badger game,” which is a scam in which a woman lures a man into a hotel room and then they threaten to be surprised by — “surprised” — by the woman’s uncle or brother or something. The man hides, the guy comes in and takes all of his money and leaves. Alexander Hamilton actually complained about being the victim of a badger game, way back in the 18th century. So I wanted to work that in.

And then Wisconsin, where I was living and working, is of course the Badger State. And I thought, gosh, that’s a coincidence we have to make work somehow. So I pulled it off, I put a badger game in Badger Game and also made it a puzzle mystery, a classic locked room puzzle mystery, and just had a great time writing it. It was just tremendous.

I sometimes suspect that writers of puzzle mysteries, classical Golden Age mysteries, which I’ve been accused of being a modern perpetrator of, that they basically put the puzzle in as the sugar that helps the medicine go down. And the real point of the story is the relationships, the characters, that the readers engage with.

LB: Well, I think that’s absolutely true, and I think it’s one of the reasons why Golden Age mysteries are having a resurgence now.

MB: Oh, I think that’s right. I think — well, I think that’s part of it. Another part of it is that people are always going to be concerned about good and evil, and Golden Age mysteries bring that to the fore because generally speaking, they introduce murder into circles where people don’t generally talk about it. When we talk about good and evil, we think about holding up convenience stores or robbing banks or hijacking cars, but murder does in fact take place also in beautiful homes on leafy green streets, in vicarages, in manor houses. It is the ultimate amateur crime, and Golden Age mysteries get at that in a very no-nonsense way.

LB: I love that you said that. You called it, murder, an amateur crime. Explain a little bit what you mean by that.

MB: Well, the — people commit murder even when they are from comfortable backgrounds. The woman who murdered the Scarsdale Diet doctor, she couldn’t have held up a 7-Eleven to save her life. She couldn’t have done that in a million years, but she put seven bullets into him because he was stringing her along and was unfaithful to her. Which is a very poor example of anger management, but is a real tribute to the quality of American marksmanship.

And there are stories like that all the time. OJ Simpson’s, the murder he committed, he was someone who would never have robbed a bank, he would never have tried to knock over a casino, he would never have hijacked a car. But he fell into a jealous rage and killed two people almost literally with his bare hands. And that is, I think, the deepest attraction of the Golden Age mystery. It invites, a well-written Golden Age mystery invites the reader to look into the mirror and to say, do I have that in me? Under the right circumstances, could I do that? And the honest answer is, yes.

In Badger Game, the female half, Sandrine, is of French background. Her father was a French army officer, killed in Algeria during the uprising. At one point the villain looks into her blue, Norman eyes and wonders if, underneath the culture and the cultivation and the French learning, he is seeing the mercenary killer from 10th-century Normandy who was among her ancestors.

LB: That’s one of the things I love about Agatha Christie. People look at Agatha Christie now and think oh, she’s so cozy, but in fact in her time, she was very edgy. Because one of the things that she posited was that anyone could commit murder.

MB: Agatha Christie is, I think, one of the most underrated writers. Not just mystery writers. But underrated writers of fiction in the 20th century. Her fiction, because she didn’t affect any particular kind of style, there’s no rococo, there’s no French pastry in her writing. But what she writes about and the way she writes about it is extraordinarily deep. Murder on the Orient Express, which is sort of metafiction — it peels away the assumptions about, oh, there must be one murderer, I wonder who it’s going to be? And it makes it clear, we are all, every single one of us, we are all among the potential murderers. And then, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? That is one of the most profound things anyone has ever done in fiction in the 20th century in the English language.

LB: Now, you are also a reader for the Edgar awards and also the Hammett awards. How did you get started doing that?

MB: Someone asked me to be one of the screeners. We’re the people — we don’t pick the winners. What we do is make up the short list for the real judges who are well-known and have ample credentials to pick a winner from. They change the screeners every year and so I’ve screened for the Edgars, I’ve screened for the Hammetts. I’m not doing it this year, thank heavens, because I’ve got a book that will be put out for other screeners to read. But someone saw my name, knew what my background was, and asked me and I said yes. And once you’ve said yes one time, then you’re on the list. You can never escape. And so I’ve been through that process numerous times.

LB: So what do you look for? What you look for in someone else’s writing?

MB: First of all, I try to completely put my own, any prejudices about genre that I have aside. It’s not fair to a writer to say well, you’ve got too much sex in this book, you’ve basically written a comic book — that’s beside the point. If someone wants to do an erotic thriller, they have the right to do that and I have to evaluate it for what it is.

But the first thing I look for in any book that I’m taking a look at for one of the awards is, do I want to read page 21? If you’ve gotten a book between covers, as far as I’m concerned, you have a right to have the first 20 pages read by a screener. But then I have to want to read page 21 to go on. If I don’t, you don’t make the cut, period. End of issue.

The second thing I’m looking for is, does this writer make me, has he written a story or has she written a story that works as a crime story? A good novel about a crime is not necessarily a good crime novel. You have a 400-word description of clouds a la Proust, I’m sorry, that may exalt the souls of sensitive readers — I’m not a sensitive reader, so I wouldn’t know — but that’s not a good crime novel. You can’t spend 400 words on a description of a cloud and get at the issues of good and evil, logic and precision and intuition and so forth that make mysteries what they are.

And then the third thing that I look for is, do I at some point get the impulse to throw the book across the room and say, I should have written that story. Because if the answer is yes, it makes the short list.

LB: That is so neat. We were talking about Agatha Christie, but you also have some opinions about Raymond Chandler and what he said about mean streets and crime.

MB: Right. That gets at what we were talking about before. Raymond Chandler wrote a — he’s a fantastic writer. In fact the first mystery I ever read seriously was The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and I thought, man, this is easy. Because when you’re a genius, when you’re brilliant at something, you make it look easy. And of course I found out it was very difficult. But he wrote a famous essay called Murder Is My Business in which he decried the Golden Age puzzle mysteries. He said these are completely artificial, they have nothing to do with the real world of crime, and he said very famously, crime is something that happens on “mean streets.” And down those streets men must go who are not themselves corrupt, who are neither tarnished nor afraid. It’s sort of the manifesto of the noir or the hard-boiled private eye novel. I love hard-boiled private eye novels, but I don’t agree with Chandler on that point.

As we said earlier, murder does not just happen on mean streets, it also happens on pleasant avenues lined with leafy green trees, and evil in the human heart is not limited to the guys who go around with .38s under their armpits. It extends throughout society to all classes of people. And while it is certainly true that there is an artificiality about the puzzle mystery in certain ways, that artificiality is intended to get at specific issues of logic versus intuition, determinism versus free will, and put those before the reader so the reader can make a judgment.

LB: Let me go back, bounce back just a little bit back to Badger Game because that wasn’t just a standalone novel, that became a series.

MB: Yes, I wrote three novels with Thomas Curry and Sandrine Cadette who became Sandrine Cadette Curry. They married after the first novel. And I had a great time with those characters, because they are intended to be, to a certain extent antagonistic and to a certain extent complementary. And I had a lot of fun, a whole lot of fun, researching the early 1960s and dealing with the assumptions and the behaviors that would seem odd or off-putting to many people today. I just enjoyed that enormously. So with those two characters, I wrote Badger Game, Fielder’s Choice, in which the victim is a guy named Jerry Fielder, and then Act of Faith, which involved them in some of the colonial wars that were going on in Africa in the early Sixties.

LB: Why did you pick the 1960s?

MB: When I grew up, I’m 68 years old, so I was 10, 11 years old, 12 years old in the early 1960s. And at that time, culturally — I was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri — but culturally it seemed that New York was the center of the country. A lot of television was done in New York, a lot of movies were made in New York, Broadway was the center of American theater, and there was a New York sensibility that completely infused all of popular culture. And I enjoyed it. I thought it was tremendous. I wasn’t one of the people who was anti-New York just because it was New York. I reveled in it, and so I wanted to get to go back to it. I wanted to have stories about a place where, you know, Sandy for example would have a cigarette under certain circumstances, and then would say, she never smokes before 5 PM. And instead of saying, well, that’s ridiculous, people would say, yeah, that’s the way people behaved back then.

LB: I love that. And it’s such an interesting thing because most people, when they do historical mysteries, they go back farther in time. There are so many set in the Victorian era, there are so many set during the two world wars, but the Sixties — there was a lot going on.

MB: There was a lot going on, and, in fact, if a concept, if a 50,000-foot idea could be copyrighted, I would’ve had a great claim against Mad Men. If you think about it, this cultural phenomenon, Mad Men, what was tremendous about it, what was appealing about it was that it went back to the 1960s and recaptured the Sixties mentality. There was an enormous amount going on, there was a huge cultural change, the Boomers began to come of age and assert their own way of looking at things. And then, you know, 1968 — someone could do a book about — in fact, I make an allusion in False Flag in Autumn, the character Josie Kendall says, yeah, we’re in crazy times, but are we about to go 1968 crazy? With American cities in flames and combat troops marching down urban streets. And Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated within weeks of each other. Yes, you’re absolutely right, there was a lot going on in the 1960s.

LB: Well, that’s a terrific segue into your latest novel, False Flag in Autumn. That is the one you just talked about featuring Josie Kendall. So tell me a little bit about how you — because this is different, this is a thriller. How did you decide to move into this?

MB: Well, I had written several plucky couple mysteries that were basically Washington, political crime stories, and featuring Richard Michaelson who was a retired foreign service officer and Marjorie Randolph, who ran a bookstore near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. And I had a lot of fun with that. They were basically puzzle mysteries, locked room mysteries. I did not, deliberately, did not put a lot of action, thriller type action into them. They engaged a lot of readers, and they sort of ran their course. And then, as we moved into what the Chinese would call “interesting times” — as in “May your children live in interesting times,” as a curse — in the 2010s, politically, I thought to myself, someone really has to address this. Someone really has to get at this. And all the ways that people have tried to do that analytically, so far have been unsuccessful. People, very smart people, keep predicting things, including me, that didn’t happen and are unable to explain it. And I thought, well maybe you can get at it through fiction.

And so I decided to go with Josie Kendall. In her first book, Damage Control, she finds that her husband is suspected of a murder, and in a plucky couple typical Golden Age mystery, that would be, the predicate would be, okay we’ve got to find a way to prove him innocent. But she and her husband, being creatures of Washington, say no, this is a damage control issue. We’ve got to control the optics of this investigation, which she does.

And then I take her to the next level in False Flag in Autumn. She is not Nancy Drew, she is a Washington manipulative, Washington apparatchik, who uses the media, spins politicians, sometimes spins herself. And she operates in a world where the weapons are spin and winks and nudges and strategic leaks. And then in False Flag in Autumn, when a rogue White House aide decides to try to use her as an unwitting pawn in a plot to have an October surprise that will flip the script on the 2018 midterm elections, she finds out that something even bigger than that is afoot. And she has to decide, am I going to get out of this Washington cocoon where I can wink at someone or spin something and go into a world where the weapons are actual weapons, where they are guns and explosives and decide that I’m going to do something for other people? Or am I just going to go back into my Beltway cocoon, curl up and hope that the victims of this plot die quickly and without too much pain? So she has to make that decision.

LB: She is a very complex character. It does speak to her which decision she makes. But she is a very complex heroine.

MB: Well, I agree, and I appreciate your saying that. She has a creole Cajun background, she’s from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and she is, as I said, she is not Nancy Drew. I know that a great many readers would love to have the protagonist in a story like this be an idealistic, earnest policy wonk. I’m sorry, idealistic, earnest policy wonks do not solve problems like Josie has to address. She is an apparatchik, she knows the score, she knows the way things are done Washington. She does them. And as I say about her, if she ends up on the side of the angels, Josie being Josie, they have to be angels who play a little dirty. She is someone who, as she says, is like a spikes-high slide into second base. In ain’t pretty, but that’s the way the game is played.

LB: Do you have plans for her to reappear?

MB: Well, I have about seven different books in mind. I was a little bit put off, with False Flag in Autumn, because so many publishers felt that they didn’t — you know, fine book, just what you said about the character, multilayered, but we just don’t know what to do with political novels. By which they meant, I think, we do not want to put a story out there and then have a Twitter storm erupt from people who think we’re being unfair to one side or the other, and inject a lot of, call for a boycott for all of our authors and all of our books. And so, if we get over that, if we get publishers who are willing to do it, then I’ve got lots of ideas for Josie Kendall and her husband, Rafe, and her crazy uncle Darius and her mom. But if publishers don’t want to do political novels, I’m not going to beat my head against the wall.

LB: So how is this one coming out then?

MB: There is a publishing company called Farragut Square Publications. David Farragut was the commander of the Union Navy forces at the battle of Mobile Bay and he’s famous for, when one of the ships started pulling back and he said, why are you pulling back? And they said, torpedoes. And he said, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

So Farragut Square Publications, its mission is to take on books that publishers have gotten cold feet about because they’re too socially or culturally or politically sensitive and find a way to get them to the public. So by setting up Farragut Square, I was able to get False Flag in Autumn out there. And we’ll see if people like it.

LB: That’s fantastic. So tell me, who do you read, when you read for pleasure?

MB: Well, I read a lot, I read very eclectically. I personally enjoy hard-boiled stories very, very much. I enjoy Elmore Leonard, I enjoyed Robert Parker, back when he was doing the Spenser novels. I also enjoy procedurals, I mentioned the 87th Precinct novels, the Ed McBain novels. I enjoy Patricia Cornwell. I enjoy the entire range. I blush to admit it, but I am a fan of Mickey Spillane. I thought that his stories, which are almost universally disparaged as simplistic, I thought they had a hardness to them and an integrity to them that I can enjoy reading. I loved the James Bond novels, long before they were movies, I read a lot of them. I think it’s fascinating that James Bond became sort of an iconic character, and he’s a psychopathic killer. He’s someone who, if he couldn’t be a secret agent, would be the head of the criminal enterprise. But he engages something in the human psyche.

LB: You are something of an expert on trials, courtroom fiction.

MB: I do enjoy courtroom dramas. I’ve read a lot of them. I’ve also discovered something that I think is fascinating, and I may do something with this myself down the road. I’ve discovered that if you simply present a transcript, an unadorned transcript, of a direct and cross-examination of a witness in a murder case, that is potentially enormously entertaining. You don’t have to have the lawyer, you know, describe lawyer putting his thumbs in his vest or looking at his pocket watch or polishing his glasses. Just present the testimony, the interaction between the lawyer, the witness, the objections, the judge’s comments. That can be fascinating.

I think where a lot of courtroom drama, courtroom fiction, falls down is trying to somehow make the reader care about the lawyer instead of caring about the crime. The lawyer has to have pangs of conscience about representing someone that he, to his vast surprise, discovers is actually guilty. If you’re a criminal defense lawyer, you’ve got a pretty good idea your client is guilty when you walk into the courtroom, long before then. And lawyers in the real world simply don’t have these periodic crises of conscience, these collapses into almost nervous breakdowns about how unfair the system is. They take the system as it is. And they take their clients as they are. And they take the law as it is. And I think when people write courtroom dramas like that, you can have a lot of fun with them.

LB: Well, I did make a joke about Perry Mason earlier, but only because to me, you’re living the life, right? But the thing with Perry Mason was that in fact he, he had no conscience at all.

MB: The character Perry Mason in the Erle Stanley Gardner stories played it very close to the edge. He came close to destroying evidence, he came close to doing a lot of things that would get a lawyer in trouble with the disciplinary committee. The Perry Mason, Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason on TV, would be harshly criticized for doing stuff like that but he never, ever came close to the line. He never destroyed evidence, the closest he would come would be to tell his client, check into a hotel under your correct name so the police can’t make it look like you are running away.

But the Perry Mason stories, especially on TV, they were extremely entertaining. They were my introduction to the law and they made me want to be a lawyer. They were artificial. Perry Mason on TV defended more affluent, attractive, white women against charges of murder than the County of Los Angeles actually accused of murder in the real world during the time the Perry Mason series was running. He really had a knack for getting an unusual type of client.

LB: Oh, that is funny. I had never heard that. I was in fact thinking of the books, though, and how really very loose they played —

MB: Well, he played fast and loose with the law, with the rules. In the books, he’s a tremendous character. I mean in the TV series, also, he’s a tremendous character. Erle Stanley Gardner had a great sympathy for Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the Los Angeles area in the ’20s and ’30s. And he recognized that the justice system was not perfect and that it singled out, was used to keep groups that were viewed as undesirable under control. The Perry Mason in the books has a sympathy for them as well and feels much more comfortable on the defense side of cases than he would if he were a prosecutor.

LB: So where can people find your latest book online?

MB: It’s on Amazon. And you can also get it from Ingram, Ingram Spark, which is basically a wholesaler for all bookstores. And then I really, really hope that they can find it at bookstores. But if you want to go online, I’d go to Amazon.

LB: Thank you so much. I will link to it in the show notes. It has been just a delight talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me today.

MB: You’re very welcome. I’m glad we had a great time. The questions were wonderful and I hope that the people who hear this enjoy the stories and will take a shot at looking at False Flag in Autumn.