It all started sometime around 1990, when, visiting my grandparents, I took a few minutes to scan my grandfather’s impressive shelf of books. Amidst the encyclopedias, books on Cuban history, Dick Francis, Umberto Eco, and Clive Cussler novels, was another book, with an ominous, black cover and killer logo: The Godfather. Wasn’t it based on a movie? I wasn’t sure. The tattered paperback didn’t offer much on the plot of the book — just a creepy sketch of an old man’s face, staring back at me. It was probably going to be pretty boring, I thought at the time.
Not quite. What I got was a dark, pulpy, epic work of crime fiction that, in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been reading at the tender age of ten. But hey, it turned out fine, right? I still remember the shock and thrill I felt when Sonny Corleone met his final fate at the toll booth. Wasn’t Sonny the hero? You can kill key characters? The way Puzo pulled it off left a lasting impression.
That novel spurred me to seek out more crime books over the years, like the Sherlock Holmes series and true crime capers that focused on gangsters and other criminals. At the same time, I was devouring any comic book I could find, especially dark, gritty tales like Batman: Year One, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, and certain eras of Chris Claremont’s X-Men, to name a few. The comics and novels wove together to create a story sensibility that I still rely on to this day. I was drawn to tales of messed-up people trying to do the right thing and not always succeeding. I just didn’t know that I wanted to write those kind of stories, too.
Fast forward twenty or so years and I’m a newly-minted New Yorker, working in the comics industry and trying to navigate the big city after living most of my life in Miami. I was excited to be working at this dream job, but I was also painfully homesick. To pass the time in those early days, I remember reading a lot of crime comics—like Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s seminal 100 Bullets, the early issues of Jason Aaron and RM Guerra’s Scalped, and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s underrated Sleeper. I became fast friends with Vertigo’s then-editor Will Dennis. We dug the same kind of stories and both had a passion for music and books, not just comics. It was over one of these late-in-the-work-day chats that Will rummaged through his desk and handed me a novel.
“Here, read this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it. The guy in it likes some good music, too.”
The book, A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos, was thin, with a blazing orange cover and a funky design. While I’d read a lot of crime novels before, they were mostly classics, like Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and the like. A Firing Offense was of the moment, and blistering in its prose and energy. It felt modern and alive. In Nick Stefanos, Pelecanos created a proto-detective, a flawed and conflicted lead who was as likely to make a mistake as save the day. He was fucked up, uncertain but also appealing. The book also transported me from the hustle and bustle of a strange city to a different metropolis with a different rhythm. The Washington, DC, of Nick Stefanos had dark, dangerous corners and unseemly characters littered around the tourist landmarks and destinations. It peeled back my perceptions of the place to show me something grittier, nastier, and with more menace.
More importantly, the book made me think: Hey, maybe I could do this, too.
That was the spark, and I started pecking away at a short story. I didn’t have an outline, and the first words you read in my first Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery, Silent City, are the first words I wrote. As I got more pages under my belt, I got to know more about Pete and his world, and I wanted to spend more time there. I wanted to find out how this screw-up was going to find this missing woman and how it all tied into that case his dead father was investigating years before. I was flying blind. While I’d done plenty of writing before as a journalist, I’d never tried my hand at long-form fiction. But hey, why not? I settled into a pretty solid routine: Get home, eat, write.
At the same time, I was diving into modern crime fiction, reading books by authors like Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy, and older books by luminaries like Jim Thompson and Lawrence Block. Each book and each author informed Silent City as I worked on it, and became, inadvertently, Pete Fernandez’s DNA.
Eventually, I had a book. Or, a stack of pages that looked like a book. I sent it around to a few friends, including Jon Jordan, who was a friend and also happened to oversee one of the most important publications in our little tribe, Crimespree Magazine, with his amazing wife Ruth.
I was on the phone with Jon a few months after sending him the manuscript when I asked him what he thought. I waited on the other end of the phone for what felt like centuries but was probably closer to a few seconds.
“Oh, yeah, I read it,” Jon said. “It was pretty good. I liked it.”
Another friend from work, who’d spent time in mystery publishing agreed to take a look. He scanned the first few pages while I watched, a nervous ball of tension. He tossed them down and looked at me.
“You passed the test,” he said.
“You didn’t lose me in the first five pages,” he said. “If your opening is boring, nothing else matters.”
Those were the moments where the idea of writing a novel went from “Hm, this is a fun, weird thing I do kind of in secret,” to “Hey, maybe this could be something.”
With the manuscript in my back pocket (figuratively), I started to research. I started to talk to other authors and I started going to events where crime fiction fans congregated, like Bouchercon and Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee. I found my crew, basically. I found a friendly, supportive and like-minded group of people that wanted to help and that I wanted to help, too. Even if nothing ever came of that first book, I would have made dozens of lifelong friends.
I got an agent at my first Bouchercon in San Francisco. It was both thrilling and anticlimactic. The novice in me thought the rest—publishing deal, fame, fortune (yuk, yuk)—would come soon after. The pessimist wondered when the confetti and cover band were going to kick in. Little did I know that publishing is a long, winding path and can often be a slog. It’s a path rife with rejection, false advertising, and unexpected detours. Those were lessons learned along the way, as I waited for word on The Big Deal and started writing my second Pete book, Down the Darkest Street. After feeling helpless and exasperated about the progress of selling Silent City, I did the only thing that was in my control: I wrote. At the end of the day, it’s all we, as writers, can do. A few months later, I had two books taking up space in my desk and zilch in terms of publishing progress.
It was a dark time. It felt like maybe this dream would just fizzle out. I had to sit down and ask myself “What do I want? What do I want to work toward that’s in my control?”
The answer was, I wanted Silent City to exist. I wanted to introduce readers to Pete and his world, more than anything. I wanted to get my book out there.
Galvanized, I parted ways with my agent (no drama—he was a busy guy with much more important clients at the time) and moved toward Silent City becoming a reality. First off, I worked on the book. Revised, revised, revised. I had an editor look at it. I studied the industry, from traditional to self-publishing and, at the same time, I continued looking for an agent who would hopefully sell these two books.
The thing about publishing? There’s no set timeline. There’s an ideal order of events that lead to being published, but books rarely follow that recipe. How else could you explain me striking a publishing deal for Silent City while attending a small rock show in a downtown NYC bar?
I went to watch my friend Wayne’s set. We’d been in a band together and worked at the same paper in Miami. He was also running his own tiny publishing company, Codorus Press. They published sci-fi, poetry, and memoirs. Good stuff, but they didn’t pop into my head as a place for crime fiction. But after the show, we got to talking. I let him know about these books I’d written and how I was trying to find a home for them and he said, flat out, “I’ll publish the first one, just send it my way.”
And that’s how it started. The first edition of Silent City hit in 2013. It got good reviews. Sold some and generated a bit of buzz. Enough to get on the radar of my current agent, who’s been a great advocate for the books and my work, and enough to find a permanent home for the entire Pete series with Jason Pinter and Polis Books, shelved next to a murderer’s row of fellow crime writers, including names like Jason Starr, Todd Robinson, Patricia Abbott, Rob Hart, Dave White, Steph Post, Kristi Belcamino, Bryon Quertermous, and more.
The series continues this month with Dangerous Ends, the third Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery, a book that widens the scope of Pete’s Miami and is the most ambitious book I’ve ever written. While it all started when I cracked open that battered copy of The Godfather, the routine remains the same: get home, eat, write. That’s all I can control.
Thanks for the book, Abuelo. I never did return it.
Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novels featuring Pete Fernandez, SILENT CITY and DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, and DANGEROUS ENDS, via Polis Books. He has also written a number of comic books, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed ARCHIE MEETS KISS storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story, ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES and the upcoming THE ARCHIES one-shot. He lives in New York with his wife and son. He is a Miami native.
To learn more about DANGEROUS ENDS, click on the cover below: