Q&A with Christopher Charles,
author of The exiled
"Your husband owned a cattle ranch with no cattle on it. you manage an art supply store in a town of fewer than two thousand people. but there's a brand-new jaguar in the garage and an add-on to the back of your home. where did you think the money was coming from?"
In The Exiled, Christopher Charles takes on the detective genre, introducing readers to Wes Raney, once an up-and-comer in the NYPD who now lives a solitary life in the New Mexico desert. Through this protagonist, Charles explores moral relativism, the nature of temptation, and why detective fiction is forever.
Victoria Fullard: The Exiled is, in many ways, a classic detective story. What do you think makes this genre so evergreen? Are detectives somehow ideal protagonists?
Christopher Charles: I think so. Stories are about problem solving: before you can have a story, something has to be broken, and someone has to want to fix it. In that sense, the detective's métier lends itself well to fiction. Then there are all the ways in which the detective's/criminal's/victim's personal lives might be broken. It's hard to think of a story that can't be told through the vehicle of a murder mystery.
The detective is also the closest thing we have to a mythic hero. Critics talk about the novel as a fall from grace—"grace" being the classical epic. It's no longer possible, in the modern era, to have an infallible hero. Instead of Odysseus, we get Phillip Marlowe, a flawed character who often has to break the law in order to make everything turn out right in the end (or not). He mirrors the ethically ambiguous world most of us live in; he's what the hero looks like in the age of moral relativism.
But the detective has also been domesticated quite a bit since Chandler was writing. Henning Mankell's Wallander, for example, is a divorced dad trying to patch things up with his grown daughter. In other words, the detective's personal struggles look more and more like our own. As a character, the detective is highly adaptable, which might answer the "evergreen" part of your question.
VF: What are some of your favorite mysteries, crime stories, etc.? Did any of them serve as inspiration for The Exiled?
CC: I love Chandler's The Big Sleep, George V. Higgins The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Ruth Rendell's Live Flesh, Jim Thompson's Savage Night, Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy. Leonardo Sciascia is an author I keep returning to, in particular Day of the Owl and Equal Danger. John Banville's The Book of Evidence is a masterpiece. And I'm really interested in novels that cross multiple genres, like Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters and Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase.
Those are just a few (the titles I happened to think of today). I don't think there was any direct inspiration for The Exiled—writing it had more to do with being immersed in the genre since I was a kid.
VF: The Exiled bounces back and forth in time, telling two distinct stories about protagonist Wes Raney. Why did this structure appeal to you?
CC: In part because I hope to be introducing a series, so I wanted to really establish Raney as a character. But I also like juxtaposition as a structural tool—it allows the reader to make connections between multiple narratives. Jonah Man, my first novel, operates in a similar way.
VF: Both The Exiled and your earlier Jonah Man explore substance use and addiction. What draws you to this theme?
CC: Well, it runs in my family, so I grew up around it. But I also understand the impulse. Life is hard. Knowing we're going to die is a pretty heavy psychological burden. There aren't too many people who make it through the day without some kind of help. Sometimes that help is benign or even constructive (running, yoga, psychotherapy, etc.); sometimes it's the opposite. But, to answer your question more directly, I think people who fight their addictions (like Raney) represent the best in all of us: they're trying, against unfriendly odds, to make a better life.
VF: One of the questions raised in this book is whether the ends justify the means: are Raney’s transgressions as an undercover cop forgiven if they help bring down a bigger criminal. What’s your take? Did putting yourself in Raney’s shoes impact your thinking on this question?
CC: His transgressions, at the time he commits them, are largely a matter of survival. That doesn't necessarily absolve him, but I think it complicates the ends/means question. I'm more interested in the aftermath—once the chaos lifts and the threats are neutralized, how does he live with what he's done? How does he continue? I think we all have to deal with that question, albeit on a smaller scale.
VF: You published The Exiled under the name Christopher Charles, but your previous book, Jonah Man, was published as Chris Narozny. What prompted you to use a pseudonym? How did you choose the name Christopher Charles?
CC: I'm using the pseudonym to distinguish between genre fiction and "literary" fiction—I want people to know what they're getting into. A number of writers have done this (John Banville publishes crime fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, for example).
Charles is my middle name. It was also my father's name, and he introduced me to Chandler.
VF: Writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, and Colson Whitehead are making writing across genres more and more accepted. You’ve now written both a literary fiction novel and a classic noir tale. What other genres interest you, and why? What do you think you’ll take on next?
CC: In theory, everything is interesting—as long as it's well done. I'm not closing any doors. Currently, I'm working on a second Raney novel and trying to finish a literary manuscript I started four years ago.
VF: Fill in the blank (hopefully in an unexpected way): People who like ________ should read The Exiled.
CC: People who like to imagine the other lives they might have lived should read The Exiled.