A Conversation with John McMahon about
THE GOOD DETECTIVE
Where did the idea for THE GOOD DETECTIVE come from? How long have you been working on your debut novel?
The novel was in the works for about two years. For me as a writer, I begin with tone and voice. So I heard the voice of P.T. Marsh first, waking up in the parking lot of a strip bar. P.T. is in that location because he’s following someone, but he’s fallen asleep. We’re not sure if he’s drunk. We know he’s worn down. And we quickly realize he’s more than flawed. He’s at the bottom of the swamp and can’t get out. And when a good man is at the bottom and gasping for air, he makes unwise decisions.
From there, the plot presented itself. P.T. would rough someone up—to help out a woman who’s being physically abused. And the next day—when we discover that same man has been murdered—we’re not sure if P.T. did it or not. And neither is he.
Who were your writing inspirations?
James Lee Burke is one of my favorite authors. I love the writing of Cormac McCarthy and how he uses dialogue. I love how spare and focused James Ellroy’s work is. Michael Connelly is a master at plotting. The southern guys I enjoy like Burke or Greg Iles—they write thicker prose and dialogue than I do, and I appreciate them for it. Growing up, my favorite writer was J.D. Salinger, and my favorite book was Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina.
Tell us about your protagonist, P.T. Marsh. What were your influences in his creation? What drives this hard-edged detective now that he has lost both his wife and son?
P.T. is a guy driven by justice, and that’s what the story is really about. Early on, he discusses something that’s at the heart of the book. Which is the idea that we often don’t find real justice because along the way we make compromises. These might occur during the investigation or during the legal battle to convict. But either way – P.T. feels like he’s been a part of that process. And now that he’s a man with nothing to lose, he doesn’t want to be part of it anymore. So he’s still following the rules by the book, but in his head, he also sees the advantage of being judge, jury and executioner.
Marsh makes some of his decisions after too much drinking as well as by not properly dealing with his past, including the death of his family. How important are his personal demons to this story?
For P.T., his personal demons don’t drive him, but they haunt him tremendously. At the center of this is how he’s linked to the night his wife and son died – simply by his inaction in coming to help them. I think we all have these moments where we made the simplest of choices –A versus B. In P.T.’s case, the results of not coming to help his wife with something simple were disastrous, and he’s not letting himself off the hook.
Why did you choose to have the mystery at the heart of the story date back to the Civil War-era?
It’s recent history really, and it’s our history as Americans. Sometimes we think of things like the Civil War as having happened a thousand years ago. But it’s not true. American history is all so recent, and the effects of these moments still resonate today.
Your background is in advertising. What did that career teach you about writing, and how did you employ those skills in creating THE GOOD DETECTIVE?
Advertising prepared me more for the business of writing, rather than the raw skills. And that’s because you write and re-write and edit others’ writing, so it’s really a collaborative and iterative process that mimics the editing workflow in getting a book ready for market. But I’d say that on our best days in advertising, we can and do write beautiful, touching, poetic things—to remind people why they love a brand.
Tell us about the inspiration for Marsh’s partner, Remy Morgan. Who is she and how does she help shape Marsh’s journey in the book?
In some ways, Remy Morgan is just as much the hero of the book. She’s a strong African American woman with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. And aside from his dog Purvis, Remy is P.T.’s most loyal friend. Remy is a local to the area, but grew up in a different culture than P.T., so she sees things differently. So at some level, Remy is a newer “version two” of P.T. She’s made detective at an even younger age than him—she knows she’s got a lot to learn—and she’s not scared of being in what is largely a man’s industry.
There are a couple supernatural-esque elements to the mystery that Marsh isn’t able to completely figure out. Why did you include those details, and is this something you plan to revisit in future P.T. Marsh novels?
The supernatural or mystical is something I definitely plan to visit more in the future. Overall, that desire is about trying to write a mystery with classic southern gothic elements, which include things like a sharp contrast between rich and poor, religious fervor, or these haunting grotesque landscapes. The supernatural—which includes faith—dovetails right into these.
Given that you live in L.A., why did you set this book in Georgia? How did you ensure you fully captured the spirit of Georgia in the book? And did any particular region in the state help inspire the fictional Mason Falls?
I have a good friend from Atlanta who recently said to me “your love of this area is strange and charming.” I hope when Southerners read THE GOOD DETECTIVE, they will agree with the charming part. I did some traveling for business in Georgia about 15 years ago. And I’d drive the area on down days and fell in love. So when I set out to write a story that had Southern Gothic elements and a backdrop full of magic and mystery, it just felt like it had to be set in Georgia.
In terms of what region the book is set in, I’ve purposely tried not to be too literal about this—but let’s call it north by northeast of Atlanta. I did a good amount of research and some travel in the area, but as a writer, you’re always researching everything. So I’m looking into the botany of Georgia as much as I’m researching an element of police procedure, in an effort to get it right. The research part of the process never stops, but if anyone wants to lend me their house on Lake Lanier or great tickets to a Bulldogs game, I will be in Georgia even more often.
What’s next for Marsh?
I see THE GOOD DETECTIVE as the first of 3-4 novels that follow a ‘plot arc’ involving P.T.’s past, so right now I’m almost nearing the end of my first draft on the next book. I think readers will be surprised to learn that certain elements that might’ve appeared insignificant in the first book will have resonance in the next one. And the one after that. So don’t stop reading!