Our next guest on the Crime Cafe podcast will be Jason Kapcala.

In his guest post, he talks about the inspiration for his novel, Hungry TownHe’s also giving away a signed copy of his book.

For details on the giveaway, check below the guest post, after you’ve read it. 🙂

And, that said, let’s hear from Jason!

Hardboiled and Scrambled:
How I Came to Write Hungry Town

Law enforcement stories hold a special place in the American mythos—the perceived inherent drama of a police officer’s job, the righteous meting out of justice, forms a kind of wish fulfillment where, at least on the page or the screen, good guys always triumph over bad. Cinematically and on the page, we find ourselves cheering on anti-hero cops—the Dirty Harrys, the Murtaughs and Riggses, all those “Bad Boys” (whatcha gonna do?)—because we know that, while their methods may be unorthodox, even illegal, their innate sense of right and wrong remains intact on some higher moral plane. Sure, they may bend or break a few rules to apprehend the criminal, but in these stories the ends always justify the means and, often, there’s something satisfying about bypassing the bureaucratic B.S., the imperfect system where legal and illegal aren’t always synonymous with right and wrong. These anti-hero cops are going to get the right man in the end—a criminal for whom we’ll feel no remorse, the kind of guy who’s got it coming—and for 120 minutes or 280 pages, that’s all that matters.

And yet, that’s not the sort of law enforcement officer we want patrolling the streets of our neighborhoods in real-life—in fact, we don’t need to look far to find examples of how wrongheaded and indiscriminate that warrior mentality can be.

Let me set the scene for you:

One night, two police officers, Stefani Rieux and Harry Mulqueen, respond to a crap call at the abandoned steel plant in their little town of Lodi, Ohio (no relation to the actual Lodi, Ohio). A silent alarm has malfunctioned, and when they get to the mill, they find that another cop, Ed Lewis, has already arrived on scene. Lewis is “old school,” a dinosaur in the worst ways, and he fancies himself a tough guy.

When the three cops enter the machine shop, they discover teenagers, Rodney Peach and Shay Counterman having sex. They also discover Rodney’s eight-year-old  brother, Stanley, who is being forced to take illicit photos of them, using a stolen camera.

The scene turns unexpectedly violent when Lewis overreacts and throws Rodney in a chokehold. Rieux is eventually able to pull Lewis off the boy, but in the scuffle, Rodney makes a break for it. Mulqueen winds up chasing him deeper into the mill, and in the end, Rodney hurls himself through a window to escape the police, badly miscalculating the outcome.

This opening scene sets off the events for the rest of Hungry Town. Rieux and Mulqueen will struggle to make sense of their lives and their work in the aftermath of this tragedy and the ensuing investigation. And young Stanley Peach will find himself alone, left to fend for himself in the hardscrabble neighborhood where he lives—Rodney wasn’t a very ice older brother to Stanley, but he at least kept the wolves at bay.

Hungry Town is a book that asks a lot of big questions, but I would be lying if I said that I set out to write about abuse of authority, law enforcement ethics, or the tragic outcomes that result from lack of restraint. In fact, none of this was on my mind when I sat down to write Hungry Town. When I write, my ambitions are much smaller: I try to follow the characters around, and I try to understand them to the best of my ability, well enough that a reader can connect with them down the road in some meaningful way. That’s it. I believe that when a character’s experience differs from the reader’s, it forces the reader to imagine that character’s suffering, and that builds empathy. Conversely, when a reader identifies strongly enough with a character’s experience, that may help that reader to feel less lonely. Those are my only real aspirations for my writing. And so, I didn’t approach Hungry Town with any particular ax to grind, no cautionary points to be made about the thin blue line.

Still, having grown up on police procedurals and buddy cop movies like those mentioned above, I wasn’t comfortable writing the same old dirty-cop-with-a-good-heart noir. It felt out of touch to me (not to mention stale). You know the story, where the jaded dinosaur finds himself paired with some wet-behind-the-ears rookie who doesn’t approve of his (or her) older partner’s shoot-from-the-hip tactics. It’s street-weary experience versus ideological progress, and the whole point is that, in the end, one of them will learn they’ve got it all wrong—either the world has moved on from its wild west past, no room left for dinosaurs . . . or it hasn’t, and it’s a dark and futile place outside the Academy.

That story’s been done before (and done better than I could hope to manage). So, as I wrote Hungry Town, I tried to twist these common elements. For instance, I chose to make Rieux, my burned-out veteran cop, a woman:

“Two-time Ohio Officer of the Year. Purple Heart recipient. She was practically a legend, and he’d heard all the stories. How, on her very first night on the beat, she’d followed a bridge jumper over the side into the biting Monhocken. How she’d broken up a bar fight and dragged the assailant in for booking, his flip knife still sticking from her palm. How she’d disobeyed a direct order, sneaking into Lodi High School alone, without backup, talking down a disturbed kid who held his class at gunpoint. She’d been no older than he was now, and Mulqueen couldn’t help but wonder what he might have done in the same situation. Probably not that. Rumor was, after that last one, they’d presented her commendation for bravery with a sanction for disobeying orders stapled to it, just in case she’d forgotten how brightly the top brass shone.”

And I paired Rieux with Mulqueen, a younger, more cerebral male partner, who may be more physically imposing but who is also more sensitive to the ugliness of the job:

“She remembered the way Mulqueen had looked when he’d turned to face her in the frame of that window, palms up. Defeated. And again, before he’d disappeared into his apartment building, shoulders hunched like an overgrown child. She’d seen it before: for all his grim toughness, Harry had trouble resigning himself to a world where kids were out screwing in mills when they should have been at home sleeping. A world where kids died of senselessness. . . .”

I tried to put Rieux and Mulqueen in as many “classic” buddy cop situations as I could think of—getting chewed out by the Chief, drinking at the cop bar off-duty, competing at the shooting range, a hostage standoff in a diner, and so forth—familiar scenes we’ve seen countless times. I wanted to see how they would play out differently with this gender-swap in place. For me, it was the only way to write the hardboiled cop book I wanted to write without leaning on the same tired stereotypes, and without ignoring all the problems that cling to those old stories like fleas on a dog. In the end, what I found is that writing this way gave my characters more space to think about their lives, especially Rieux who asks some questions that don’t usually get asked in these sorts of stories, and for me, that became the most intriguing part of writing Hungry Town:

“How many crooked cops had she been warned about on her way up? How many macho power-trippers who got off on rousting kids and minorities, picking on the poor? Old-boys, just retiring on duty. Before Holbrooke tidied up the place, how many shakedowns had occurred—how many corners cut just because a cop didn’t like the way someone looked or talked or dressed? Not so many? Far too many? Sides of the same coin.

In the end, Holbrooke hadn’t cleaned things up that much.

Someday it’ll catch up with all of us, Rieux thought. And when that day comes, who pays the debt?”

***

I’m giving away a signed paperback copy of Hungry Town to one winner, chosen at random. If you’d like to find out what happens to Rieux and Mulqueen, send me a message, using the contact form on my website www.jasonkapcala.com. Include “Crime Café” in the subject line, and feel free to let me know which crime novels are your favorite. Be sure to include the address where you’d like me to mail your book.

***

Jason Kapcala is the author of two books, the novel Hungry Town (West Virginia University Press, 2022), and a collection of short stories North to Lakeville. He lives and writes in northern West Virginia. Find out more at his website: www.jasonkapcala.com.

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