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Interview: August 11, 2022

Edgar Award-winning author Larry Beinhart revives his legendary detective, Tony Cassella, in THE DEAL GOES DOWN, his first novel in 14 years. This gripping thriller is about marital discord, contract killing, off-piste skiing and the deep state. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Beinhart talks about his protagonist’s evolution as a character in a world that’s constantly changing, some of the crime fiction writers he has admired over the years, his dream cast for a potential film or television adaptation of the book, and his surprising connection to Sylvester Stallone.

Question: When you decided to revive your character Tony Cassella after retiring him in 1991 following three well-received novels, did you ponder how he would have changed in the intervening decades?

Larry Beinhart: I came to mystery/detective novels as a reader. There were quite a few series that I enjoyed. Most of the protagonists never changed. If I didn’t think there were serious genre scholars out there ready to prove me wrong, I’d say none of them changed. Anyway, I can’t remember any who did. Sometimes it bothered me. “Come on, McGee, time to show the effects of all those adventures. Make big changes in your life.” Back then it was a feeling. Now, being analytical, I’d say there are a lot of layers.

Being in a series inherently limited --- cushioned, ameliorated --- anything that happened to the hero. Heartbreaks, revelations, physical damage, betrayals, corruption --- no matter, he or she would emerge after a shower to put on his or her costume and do it all again just like the last time. When the heroes were unchanging, the worlds around them became static too. That’s not logically or necessarily true, but it’s effectively true. It puts stylistic limits on the writer, leading to prose and prosaic typecasting.

So I made those three Cassella novels as stylistically different as I could. The first, NO ONE RIDES FOR FREE, was a deliberate emulation of Dashiell Hammett (with others unconsciously mixed in the stew). “What would Sam Spade, creature of the 1920s, be doing in the 1970s?”

The second, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAID FOR, was inspired by E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME, mixing fictional characters with real ones, fictional events into historical events, though mine were only two years past and his were 40 or 50.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE was inspired by Eric Ambler --- ordinary people, little people, caught in the violent tides of Mitteleuropa politics and war. When the Times Literary Supplement said, "A witty, stylish thriller by an author who is as knowledgeable about post-Communist central Europe as Eric Ambler was about the pre-Communist version,” I was as thrilled as I could possibly be from a review.

The character changed from book to book. That was conscious and deliberate. The world he was in changed. That was less deliberate but probably more important.

Q: Well into his 70s now, Tony Cassella must rank as one of the older action protagonists in crime fiction. Did you have to approach his exploits here any differently to make allowances for his septuagenarian status?

LB: It’s always been important to me to have the protagonist --- as well as everyone else rambling through the pages --- act with realistic powers and within realistic limitations. Violence is dangerous. Violence hurts. Punch someone the way TV, movie and book heroes normally do, and you will likely break your hand. Even Muhammad Ali broke his hand fighting Joe Frazier. Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw.

I once dislocated my shoulder. When I followed the doctor from the waiting room to his office, I was bent over lower than Quasimodo, so low that all I could see was the heels of his shoes. It was like I was submerged in a pond of pain until he popped it back in.

So, yes. Of course. The guy is in his 70s. Everything about him reflects that, and not just in the stunt work. In his own words: "Young men run on passion. Old men are filled with broken shards of memories. As if we've been looking at our lives in mirrors, all along, through all those years, lots of them forgotten, some lost, most of them broken, nothing really true or completely whole is left, just all those bits and pieces left, sharp edges, and silver peeling off the backs. That's all there is."

Q: With THE DEAL GOES DOWN, Tony’s career officially gets rebooted. How did you decide to deal with that 30-year gap in terms of how it affected his life?

LB: Since he’s 30+ years older, he’s done various things during those years. And various things have been done to him --- by time, fate, life. He reveals some of them in the course of the book, as are relevant. If there’s another Cassella book after this, I expect it will show that he’s left out some important bits and been less than honest about others. More important, the WORLD is 30 years older --- in terms of ethos and spirit, more than technology.

Q: Before you wrote your first Cassella book, which won the 1987 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, who were the crime fiction novelists you admired the most?

LB: I have a few:

  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Eric Ambler
  • John D. MacDonald --- God bless Travis McGee, with his precursor hipster mentality: I’m only gonna work when I’m broke and live my real life like a vacation.
  • Dick Francis --- not for his artistry, but for proving that with seriously good craftsmanship, there could be mysteries about material that I cared absolutely nothing about (steeplechase horse racing), with the same hero or clones of a hero over and over again, and I could read them with unremitting pleasure.
  • Ross MacDonald --- as one of a whole group of Chandleresque, post-Sam Spade, detective heroes.
  • Chester Himes
  • Jim Thompson
  • John le Carré
  • Richard Stark --- a pseudonym for the Parker series written by Donald E. Westlake.
  • Frederick Forsyth --- for DAY OF THE JACKAL, for the mix of fact and fiction, and what a trick. The main character’s mission is to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. We know it didn’t happen. Yet it was edge-of-the-seat all the way.
  • Martin Cruz Smith --- GORKY PARK is one novel that had more truth about the decline of the Soviet world than the New York Times, Time magazine and the CIA put together. It gave me the bright/tragic illusion/delusion that novels in our genre might matter.

Q: Can you give us your dream cast for the film (or high-end TV) version of THE DEAL GOES DOWN?

LB: Any bankable old guy who can get it green-lit in an instant. I’d say Harrison Ford because my son says he looks like me. There’s a dream part for a very young actress --- she’s supposed to be able to pass for 14 --- so I probably haven’t seen her yet. And Rachel Brosnahan (Mrs. Maisel) because she’s brilliant, for either of the two “adult” women in the book.

Q: There are a number of formidable and resilient female characters in this new book. Would the Tony Cassella of 1986 have been able to cope with them?

LB: Cope with? In their roles, or as people?

It’s important that the world of 2022 is different from the world of 1986. Women not only have more active roles (head of a start-up, etc.), they are much more likely to see themselves as being able to take on active roles. As I said above, it’s not just Tony changing --- the world is changing, and he acts accordingly in his encounters. Insofar as the females are stronger and more resilient than those he encountered in 1986, that’s how he deals with them.

As people? In his late 30s, he likely would have become sexually entangled with two of them. “Young men run on passion.” He no longer does. Is he more sensible? Less sexual? Simply aware that one of them is in her early 40s, the other in her teens, and he’s in his 70s and not so rich that it wouldn’t matter?

Q: Coming back to Tony Cassella as you did after that lengthy hiatus, do you now feel poised to continue his career with another novel?

LB: Make me an offer.

I was trying to explain to someone why Tony does what he does in this book. Here's what I came up with. I once had a border collie named Lazlo, and he was very smart. If he got out of the house, you couldn’t drive on my street. My neighbor came to me and said, “You gotta do something. I have teeth marks on my bumper.” They weren’t on the rear bumper; he was not chasing cars. They were on the front; he was herding them. If he got out on the real road, he’d stop two cars going in opposite directions, and he’d stop UPS trucks. Lazlo needed a job, but I didn’t have one for him. I finally had to give him away. He ended up demonstrating doggie exercise machines on TV, and he’s happy and successful.

That’s Tony. He’s languishing and lost, but then someone comes to him and offers him a job. It’s an insane, amoral, crazy job, but it calls for his skills. Forty pounds going up against 3,500 pounds (a Subaru Forester) and five tons (a UPS truck) at the same time. Someone opened the door. He’s out on the road. That’s Tony. That’s me too. A couple of border collies. If you got sheep, we’re willing to work.

Q: Is it true that you once worked on one of Sly Stallone’s earliest films?

LB: In 1974, I was the key grip on The Lords of Flatbush. In addition to Sylvester Stallone, it starred Henry Winkler, Perry King and Susan Blakely. If memory --- based on rumor at the time --- is correct, everyone was working for scale. New York was just bursting with talent at the time. It was everywhere.