An interview with UH Hilo psychology professor Chris Frueh about his crime novels

Professor Chris Frueh (nom de plume Christopher Bartley) recently published the 7th novel of his Ross Duncan series, Every Secret Thing.

By Frankie Bow
The following interview with University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Professor Chris Frueh was originally published at Frankie Bow’s blog. Used with permission.

Chris Frueh
Chris Frueh

Christopher Bartley, a pen name for Chris Frueh, is a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist. In addition to writing crime fiction, he is a professor at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, Hawaii. He conducts clinical trials, epidemiology, mental health services studies, neuroscience, and historical research, primarily with psychiatric inpatients, prisoners, and combat veterans.

He has authored over 250 scientific publications, including a recent graduate textbook on psychopathology and papers on posttraumatic stress disorder, military suicides, alcoholism, and psychiatric illnesses among Union Forces during the U.S. Civil War. During his career he has consulted to U.S. Congressmen, various elements of the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the National Board of Medical Examiners, healthcare systems and universities, criminal and civil trial lawyers, and private philanthropists in Houston and Washington, D.C. He has also authored commentaries published in the National Review, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, New York Times, and Time Magazine. For his scientific work he has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Scientific American, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, among others.

Christopher Bartley’s 7th novel in the Ross Duncan series, Every Secret Thing, was published in November of 2014.

Q: I’ve just finished the first Ross Duncan novel, They Die Alone, and enjoyed it tremendously. For those readers who are not yet familiar with your novels, what are they about?

A:  They are hardboiled crime novels about a bank robber set within the historical context of America in 1934, but more than that, they are stories about the people who lived in America during that period – including how and why they came to America.

Q: Why did you choose 1934?

A:  I find it to be an interesting year. America is in the fifth year of a Great Depression, unemployment is running above 25% and many people have lost their savings and their homes to bank foreclosures. Prohibition has just been repealed and organized crime is flourishing.

The jazz music, the clothing, and automobiles of the period were all marvelous, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Division of Investigation (later to become the FBI) was building its reputation for law enforcement by glamorizing, demonizing, and hunting down the independent bank robbers who emerged in the wake of the depression. In 1934 Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Homer Van Meter, and Baby Face Nelson were each gunned down by law enforcement officers. It was essentially the last year of the celebrity bank robber. Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis continued on just a little bit longer.

Q: Tell us about your protagonist, “Ross Duncan”? Who is he and what drives him?

A: Before I started writing my first novel They Die Alone, I didn’t commit a word on paper until I had my protagonist, Ross Duncan, firmly in my mind. First, he is a criminal, a bank robber, one of the so-called “Public Enemies.” He is laconic, fearless, world-weary, flawed in many ways, and filled with awareness and regret – but also loyal, guided by a moral code, and seeking something deeper. More challenging, I had to know how he spoke, what he did, what his history was (i.e., juvenile delinquency, stints in prison, early crimes) and why, who his friends and enemies were, where his values fall, and how he related to females (and vice versa) and society at large. Somewhere in the first novel, Duncan observes: “The heartless, blinding light of the early morning sun catapulted over the tall city buildings, mocking me for a fool as I reached the street with my hands trembling in my pockets.” He is humbled and alone in the big concrete city, overcast by the planetary conditions of an indifferent god, still searching.

Q: Why wasn’t Ross Duncan a private eye?

A: That was too obvious and its been done so much already. Also, a professional criminal presented different challenges and opportunities. Could Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade ever rob a bank, make deals with gangsters, or shoot a man in cold blood? I don’t think so, but Ross Duncan certainly can – and does.

Q: What can you tell us about the role of scene and character in your novels?

A: Scene and character are essential characteristics of my writing. Both are set within the immoral landscape that the narrator – usually a private detective – walks. For me, the setting could not be modern day. It had to be a mythic past, a time when smart phones, video games, and reality TV series were not yet changing American society. I went back to the last Great Depression, urban Chicago openly ruled by mobsters, and the other great cities of that era: New York, Kansas City, San Francisco. It was a time when men still had the power to forge their own destiny outside the controlling hands of the rapidly growing federal government, at least for a short while yet. This is not modern suburbia or polite society as represented in the Hollywood world of happy endings. This is a landscape of treachery, low morals, greed, lust, racism – but also real people, with real strengths and flaws and dreams. In part, I’m trying to tell their stories as viewed through Duncan’s eyes – and often as they tell it themselves to Duncan in their own words. I try to write seriously about the moral failings of the human condition, while maintaining readability, and a sense of purpose and hope.

Q: Who are your literary heroes?

A: First, the classic American hardboiled crime novelists – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson – because they ruled the form with literary eloquence, and remain relevant today, more than seventy years after their emergence. Second, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway because they wrote powerful, meaningful stories that were direct and concise – never an excess word.

Q: Why are you fond of hardboiled American crime novels (sometimes referred to as “noir” or “pulp fiction”)?

A: I think there is something uniquely American about the form. Dashiell Hammett’s iconic Sam Spade, played for the ages by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon lived in the shadows of 1930’s San Francisco. He saw the world around him as it was, not as it was idealized to be. He was clear eyed about the corruption, large and small, around him and he saw through the darkness of men’s hearts, observed their wickedness without stepping onto higher ground. He was there raking about in the gutter himself, where the action was, where the little soft nuggets worth finding were to be had. He harbored no illusions about his partner, Miles Archer, knew his greed and lust. Still he felt duty-bound to seek out and punish his murderer after Archer was dead. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it,” he explains.

By reputation this hero is no saint himself. He drinks too much and he’s perceived by others to be corruptible. Only it turns out his avarice is no match for his desire to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end of the day. He’s stubborn, softhearted, even, at the fringes. He wants to save the girl, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; knowing she’s flawed, he wants to believe she’s worth saving, and that redemption can be found for them both.

He’s all that and still, he’ll only be played so far. He won’t play the patsy, and he won’t play it perhaps for no other reason than because the woman is counting on him to. He’ll wait for her to get out of jail, but he won’t take the fall for her or let her walk away from her crime. It hurts him, wearies him. If they hang her, he’ll always remember her. He also notes, “a lot more money would have been one more item on your side” (of the ledger), rendering his final risk calculus as something less than full morality. Then again, he’s a hard man, hardboiled all the way through – and we, the readers, have no way of knowing what he might have done for more money. One has the sense, that, while it was a theoretical possibility, practically speaking there would not ever be enough money to corrupt him.

Q: Your writing reminded me very much of Raymond Chandler, not just because of the time period or the hard-boiled genre, but because like Chandler, you don’t explain everything for the reader. Your protagonist has things to do, and it’s the reader’s job to keep up (or just go along for the ride). Was this a conscious choice? 

A: Well, first, thank you for the huge compliment by comparing my writing to Chandler! He is definitely one of my literary heroes and influences. It is a conscious choice for me to write that way, but I think it also comes naturally. Ross Duncan is a man of direct action and his thoughts and emotions are usually very private. Plus, I like to leave the reader with a few things to think and wonder about.

Q: How do you conduct the historical research for your novels?

A: I read a lot. One of the first books I ever remember reading – I was probably nine or ten years old – was the autobiography of Alvin Karpis, one of the last of the celebrity bank robbers and one of the few to survive past 1935. A contemporary of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, he spent thirty years in Alcatraz prison and lived to write about it afterward. In my office at the university and at home, I have stacks of books about the 1930s and the criminals, musicians, politicians, and athletes who lived in America at the time. I also have over fifty books about the cities and the settings that I use. These include histories, but also books of old photographs and maps of the cities over time.

Q: You seem to know a lot about robbing banks. Have you ever robbed one yourself?

A: Never!

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: Naked Shall I Return. Ross Duncan is in San Francisco – Chinatown – taking care of old and new business.

Q: I’ve heard that you have an outstanding literary agent. Tell us about her!

A: My agent is Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates, one of the major literary agencies in London. Sonia helped me enormously since I signed with her six years ago. She’s given me encouragement, constructive feedback, and guidance at every turn – as well as all the technical aspects of representation. Lately, we’ve been having a conversation about whether I should start writing some other type of fiction – more contemporary fiction. Sonia has been giving me a gentle nudge to consider that. I will continue to write Ross Duncan novels, but will also try to write another type of novel in the next year.

Q: Most books I read start off with laundry-list-style dedications, but I noticed that They Die Alone was dedicated simply to one person: Karen. Who is she?

A: Karen is my lovely, talented, and wonderful wife who has put up with me for the past 27 years.

Q: One last question, to do with your “other” identity, your academic career as a clinical psychologist. What does the future of mental healthcare look like?

A: As a field we are on the verge of many exciting discoveries that will radically change how we are able to treat mental illnesses within the next ten years. Neuroscientific discoveries in brain imaging, genetics, the microbiome, and neuromodulation will change how we understand and treat mental illness.

Contact Chris Bartley (Bartley “Chris” Frueh); also on Facebook  and on Twitter.

If you are in the Hilo area on January 21, 2015, come hear a talk by this author on the future of mental healthcare. He’ll be speaking on the campus of the University of Hawaii, Hilo at 6:30pm in UCB 100.  The talk is open to and intended for the community, and is free!

Frankie Bow is the author of The Musubi Murder. See also the Frankie Bow website. On Twitter, on Facebook.