James Kestrel is living the kind of life that a lot of other crime writers can only dream about. A practicing attorney, ex-bar owner, and world traveler who has won praise from the likes of Stephen King and Dennis Lehane for his newest novel FiveDecembers (Hard Case Crime). He certainly has hit the ball straight out of the park with his most recent swing and deservedly so. Sharing a love for crime writing and Taiwan, I caught up with the Hard Case to ask him to answer some of our questions for Punk Noir’s Important Authors Interview Series.
Thanks a lot for agreeing to answer our questions here at Punk Noir, James. To kick things off, can you tell all of our readers a little bit about how you got started in the Literature scene?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, and then I went to a boarding high school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy, where I majored in creative writing. I also majored in creative writing in college (at a now-defunct school that occupied a former funeral home in San Francisco’s Mission District). Because I was otherwise unemployable, when I graduated, I moved to Taiwan and lived there for four years teaching English. I came back to the U.S. to attend law school, then moved to Hawaii. I started publishing novels in 2013, and have put out six under my own name. James Kestrel is a pseudonym.
Tell us about your most recent novel Five Decembers.
FIVE DECEMBERS is the most ambitious novel I’ve ever written. At its heart it’s a murder mystery, but its scope is enormous and spans the entirety of World War II. The main character, Joe McGrady, is a Honolulu detective who gets swept into the war and caught on the wrong side of the lines when he tracks a killer to Hong Kong just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I tried to write it like a punch in the gut.
What and/or who are your inspirations?
Dennis Lehane, Ian Rankin, James Ellroy, Ray Carver, Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott, Laura Lipmann, Ernest Hemingway, and Haruki Murakami, to name a few.
What advice would you give to up and coming indie authors?
Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, there’s no rush. Slow down a bit, read, re-read, and revise, and then start submitting to agents or publishers. Otherwise you might publish six books and then have to change your name.
What are your plans for the future?
To fight again another day.
What is an issue you care about deeply?
Right now, preserving our form of government in the United States. I fear we are one or two elections away from the end of our 245 year experiment with democracy. My grandfather—a German-American who killed Nazis for his country—would have been disgusted by the political rhetoric of the last 4 or 5 years.
What novel are you reading now?
I’m reading THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, but in Chinese. This is extraordinarily difficult for me and will probably take me until next summer to finish. I usually only read one book at a time, but I may have to find something in English so I’m not walking around with a permanent headache.
What music are you listening to now?
My wife plays piano and violin. Right now she’s working on Scottish Fantasy in E Flat Major, Op. 46, by Max Bruch. So I listen to that a lot.
Finish this sentence: Fuck ______!
What did you last eat?
The other half of my five year old son’s breakfast sandwich that he left on his car seat after I dropped him off at school.
If you could go on a drinking binge with 5 writers alive or dead who would you choose?
Ernest Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, Jack Ketchum (I had a drink with him once, and would dearly have liked another), Iris Chang, and Toni Morrison. I’d add Stephen King to that list but I know he doesn’t drink and I’d hate to be the guy who wrecked that for him.
If you could travel to a time and place in history what would it be?
Queens, New York, around September 1945. I would track down Fred Trump and give him a box of condoms.
What would you like written on your gravestone?
1977 – 2177
(So medical science better get cracking on whatever it is that will make that possible.)
Formerly a bar owner, a criminal defense investigator, and an English teacher, James Kestrel is now an attorney practicing throughout the Pacific. His writing has won advance praise from Stephen King, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Meg Gardiner, James Fallows, Pico Iyer, and numerous other authors. A sailor and world traveler, Kestrel has lived in Taiwan, New Orleans, and a West Texas ghost town. He lives in Volcano, Hawaii.
Besides all the romance and glamour Hollywood has long been a honey-trap for wannabe actresses, hustlers, runaways, chancers, and mobsters. There’s a heart of darkness pumping poisoned blood underneath the glitzy nine white letters spelling out the district’s name.
A place forever haunted by those used, abused and murdered behind its silken, maroon curtains. Haunted by those who have faded away and disappeared without a trace from its sunshine bronzed pavements. A locale pregnant with an unholy trinity of the unexplained, the unsolved and the unspeakable. Many are aware of the stone-cold case of The Black Dahlia. Elizabeth Short, a wannabe actress and party girl discovered posed naked, drained of blood and severed in two in a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton.
Few are aware of the real case that embodies all that is beautiful and rotten about those star-paved streets, the mysterious disappearance of glamour girl Jean Spangler. It’s a case that reads like a story ripped straight from the pages of a David Goodis novel. A stunning starlet, a messy divorce, clubs, movie stars, gangsters, Palm Springs, and a violent ex-lover known to cops simply as ‘Scotty’.
A cool Friday evening. October 7th, 1949. Dressed to the nines, the stunning 26 year old, dancer and bit-time actress Jean Spangler left home telling her sister-in-law she was going to see her ex-husband, Dexter Benner, about child-support payments for their daughter and after would be going to a studio for a night shoot on the new movie she was working on. She kissed her young daughter goodbye, walked down the avenue and was never seen by her family again.
The next morning, October 8th, Jean’s sister-in-law, worried by the doting mother’s non-communication and strange absence, went to the LAPD and filed a missing person’s report.
The cops checked with the studios and the Screen Extras Guild. There were no records of Jean having worked anywhere that night. To make matters more confounding Dexter Benner, the disgruntled ex-husband, stated he hadn’t seen or even spoken to Jean in over a month. His new wife gave him an air-tight alibi and vouched for his claims.
Jean had lied. But why?
A clerk at a Farmers Market, a grocery store a few blocks from Spangler’s home stated to authorities she’d seen the beautiful young starlet browsing shelves and seemingly waiting for someone.
October 9th, a purse with a torn handle was discovered in Griffith Park. Jean’s purse.
The contents – a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a hairbrush, some lipstick and a letter.
Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,
Over sixty police officers scoured the park. No other clues were found. Persons of interest named Dr. Scott or Kirk created no fresh leads except for the whispers on the L.A. club scene that there was an illegal abortionist to the stars nicknamed ‘Doc’. The shadowy ‘Doc’ proved allusive and the LAPD were left scratching their heads again.
The newspapers and scandal rags ran amok on theories, rumors and speculation. The Black Dahlia murder was dragged back out into the cold spotlight causing panic and fear of the Los Angeles Werewolf Killer.
Actor Kirk Douglas nervous and publicity conscious contacted the LAPD Chief through his lawyer to state though he did work with Spangler on his newest movie, Young Man with a Horn, the relationship never went further than small talk on set. She was just an extra, Douglas was the star, the lawyer argued.
The cops agreed and focused on two new leads instead. A violent ex-boyfriend of Jean’s nicknamed Scotty. A war veteran who abused Spangler when she tried to leave him previously and Davy Ogul, a mob heavy for Mickey Cohen, currently under indictment and spotted together with Jean in Palm Springs prior to her disappearance.
These two leads like all the others ended point blank at the bottom of one-way streets and empty alleyways.
The cops, under pressure from the press and the public, hit the clubs Spangler was known to frequent, The Florentine Gardens, a notorious mob hang-out and The Chi-Chi Bar and Grill in Palm Springs. They turned up nothing but bar gossip and scandalized embellishments. Casting couch skin flicks. Affairs. Murders for hire. Heroin. Unwanted pregnancies.
Desperate for information detectives on the case brought in Hollywood insider and good friend of Jean’s, Robert Cummings. He told the LAPD Jean confided in him “I have a new romance.” Asked by Cummings if the romance was serious, Jean simply smiled and said, “Not really, but I’m having the time of my life.”
Eye-witness accounts continued to flood in. Jean had been spotted in Palm Springs, San Francisco, and Mexico.
All roads lead nowhere.
Jean was never seen again.
Detectives never found Davy Ogul. He went missing the day before Jean and was probably buried out in the desert somewhere, killed by his cohorts to stop him making a deal with the DA. The ex-lover, Scotty, never appeared. Ditto ‘The Doc’.
The case went cold. Then colder, and then it was dead.
Dexter Benner was awarded custody of his and Jean’s daughter. The LAPD continued circulating Spangler’s photograph years after but it was no use. The case was dead. It had always been dead. Los Angeles, The City of Angels and the city of Always the Dead.
A week before the 72nd anniversary of Jean Spangler’s disappearance, on the 1st of October, 2021, Red Dog Press will release my semi-fictional noir novel based on her disappearance. A sequel to I’ll Pray When I’m Dying and the prequel to Say Goodbye When I’m Gone. The case has been an obsession of mine for over 16 years and I hope that is evident within the pages of ALWAYS THE DEAD.
Los Angeles, California. 1949.
Scott Kelly is a World War Two Marine veteran and mob hitman confined to a Tuberculosis sanatorium suffering from consumption, flashbacks and nightmares from his experiences of The Battle of Okinawa and a botched hit for Bugsy Siegel.
When his movie actress girlfriend disappears, he bribes his way out of the sanatorium to search for her. What follows is a frantic search, a manic murder spree, stolen contraband, and a briefcase full of cash.
A story that stretches from the war torn beaches of Okinawa, all the way to the playground of the rich and famous, Palm Springs, California.
An exploration into the depths of L.A crime, PTSD and twisted love. A semi-fictional novel based around the disappearance of Jean Spangler.
Available for preorder now or from all good booksellers October 1st.
“Steeped in the grandest of noir traditions while evoking the finest examples of the genre, Always the Dead is an astonishing novel and simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.
The story of Scott Kelly is as emotionally wrought and riveting as you could ask for, and is told with such a lyrical flair and story-telling skill that it renders the novel utterly compulsive – and announces Stephen J. Golds as one of the most exciting and talented new voices in literature, anywhere.”
Rob Parker ~ Author of Far from the Tree
“Following war-haunted, tubercular Scott Kelly as he searches for his missing lover, Always the Dead is a hard-boiled crime novel with a soft heart. It crackles with ugliness and despair, absolutely refusing to flinch as it looks into the darkest parts of 1940s L.A. and the human soul.”
Joey R. Poole ~ author of I Have Always Been Here Before
“Always the Dead by Stephen J. Golds is a powerful, gripping and lyrical noir drama”
Paul D. Brazill ~ author of Small Time Crimes
“A traumatized war veteran with nothing left to lose tangles with the mob in a search for his missing lover. Always the Dead is a gripping and compelling read with all the seedy atmosphere of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.”
Seth Lynch ~ Author of Veronique
“With Always the Dead, Stephen J. Golds has created a world in which I was immersed from the first page to the last. It reads like an instant classic. The horrors of war are painted with such delicate strokes and the painful existence post-war is handled with delicacy. There is plenty of action in it, but what I loved was the exquisite way in which the main character, Scott Kelly, was built. An incredible story from a very talented writer who is going to be massive. 5 stars.”
Chris McDonald ~ author of A Wash of Black
‘Always the Dead is the tale of a bad man trying to put things right, and reeks of the kind of authenticity you find in an Ellroy novel. Stephen J. Golds is a new writer to keep an eye on.’
Paul Heatley ~ Author of Just Like Jesus
“A hard-nosed, hard-boiled story you won’t soon forget”
Steve Weddle, author of COUNTRY HARDBALL
“An uber-stylish, original and very bloody take on the soldier’s return. Always the Dead is as noir as it gets – gore-filled and fantastic. Tough guys, break-your-heart dames and a shedload of guilt. Stephen J Golds has created one of the most memorable anti-heroes of recent times – a serious new talent has come to town.”
Judith O’Reilly ~ Author of Curse The Day
“Powerful and visceral, Always the Dead left me reeling. It had me at the edge of my seat as I devoured it through the night. Populated with a host of unforgettable characters, this crime thriller is full of action, dark emotion and redemption. Stephen J. Golds is a promising new talent that the world should be reading!”
Awais Khan ~ author of In the Company of Strangers
“Stephen J. Golds has written one helluva noir novel taking us back to the years following World War 2. We follow the Marine Scott Kelly, haunted by his past, on an odyssey across Los Angeles, looking for his missing lover. This book burns. It goes down hard. Golds is one to watch.”
Anthony Neil Smith ~ Author of Slow Bear
“ALWAYS THE DEAD is noir, TRUE noir the way it was meant to be in the Goodis/Thompson tradition. Bold, bloody, and dark as an unlit corner in Hell.”
Todd Robinson ~ author of ROUGH TRADE
“Dare you read ‘Always the Dead’? “I dared and I’ve been left reeling. “This is the noirest of noirs. Truly shocking. Almost a horror novel as much as a thriller. “Old school. Non PC. Violent. Vicious. “From the gut-wrenching prologue, through the pornography of war, and the cracked psyche of PTSD, author Stephen Golds never pulls a punch. Neither does his black-hearted protagonist, Scott Kelly. Yet, amidst all the blood and guts and shit and vileness, is a dream-like use of imagery and language rare in stories like this. “And the search for the woman he loves is as brutal as the language. Tainted love! “Now I need a lie down!” — Tina Baker, author of Call Me Mummy.
Available for preorder now or from all good booksellers October 1st.
Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life.
He writes primarily in the noir and dirty realism genres and is the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine.
He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once, Cut-throat & Tongue-tied, Bullet Riddled & Gun Shy and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.