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David Corbett

It was a pleasure to have met David Corbett recently at Murder by the Book. He was in town to talk about Do They Know I'm Running? ($15), his latest crime fiction novel.

David was a private investigator in San Francisco and other areas of northern California, and writing at the same time.

His first book, The Devil's Redhead (currently out of print), won critical praise, and his second book, Done for a Dime, was a New York Times Notable Book. With his next book, Blood of Paradise, David entered the world of Third World politics and corruption, a theme he picks up again with his latest book, Do They Know I'm Running?

David's books have tough, imperfect characters, dangerous situations unimaginable to those of us who live in relative comfort in the United States, and wisdom (both philosophical and street) gained the hard way. We asked David what his influences and inspirations were.

The movies of the late 60s to early 70s had a hard edge that later movies (post-Vietnam War) didn't have, and David feels that there wasn't such an emphasis on "the happy ending." Earlier movies had more soul searching and a tragic human event that propelled the story. Characters were bound by human limitations. Small human being did not defeat mythically huge white shark, for instance, as in "Jaws."

Through acting class, David first got to know Arthur Miller's works very well. Miller, Robert Stone, and Pete Dexter have provided the literary inspiration. David came late to the genre of crime fiction. He was already a practicing P.I. when he read Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. It was soon followed by James Cain's Double Indemnity. The influence of all these authors can be seen in the tension, suspense, exploration of human frailties, and charged prose in David's books. These authors and David know how to hold a reader's attention.

In his writing, David follows the dictum to develop one's characters, and this is what he teaches his students in his writing classes. In order to make his stories more three-dimensional, he asks who or what do his villains love? It makes them less likely to be cartoonish. It's also good to see a bit of yourself reflected in the characters.

Do They Know I'm Running? is about Roque, a young American-born man, whose family is from El Salvador. When his uncle, an illegal immigrant, is forced back to El Salvador, it falls to Roque to bring him back. We meet Roque's family, from his hard-working aunt and uncle to his brother, a veteran of the war in Iraq, who has been damaged both in body and mind, to his cousin, a gangbanger. David says he tried to realistically portray the gangs who rule immigrant communities.

Roque has ambitions and a desire to fit into mainstream America, but with his mission to save his uncle, all that is put in jeopardy. Roque is an innocent, but he also has a chip on his shoulder since he's at the bottom of the food chain, teased and pushed around by Godo, his brother. Plus, Godo actually remembers their mother, who died giving birth to Roque, and Roque feels both jealousy and guilt because of that.

The political issues involved in immigration are immense, David acknowledges. It's due to a combination of drugs, poverty, Third World corruption, and weak governmental institutions. The U.S. is used as a "safety valve" by other countries. David personally has no large solutions; he just hopes that small steps will lead to a more humane approach. He believes that bigory is often masked by the call for adherence to rule of law.

In Godo, David is pointing out how many immigrants or members of their families use the military as a venue of escape from poverty and as a means of gaining legalization. Not too many years ago, men without a high school education could still get jobs in manufacturing and manual labor, but that has become more difficult.

In all of David's books, he points to societal problems and flaws in human nature, but at the base of his characters is always an apprehendable humanity.

Do They Know I'm Running, by David Corbett, $15 (shipping by media mail & handling is a maximum of $3.50)

-- Barbara 3/10