Chuck Greaves has been a finalist for many national awards in crime writing, including the Lefty, Shamus, Macavity, and Audie Awards, as well as the New Mexico-Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado Book Awards, the CAL Award in both Fiction and Mystery, the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award, and the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. He is the author of seven novels including The Chimera Club, a 2023 Colorado Book Award finalist.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Chuck Greaves: “The Chimera Club” is the fourth installment in a series of legal mysteries that began back in 2012, all featuring L.A. trial attorney Jack MacTaggart. Since I spent 25 years as an L.A. trial attorney, Jack’s origins are self-evident.
This particular novel is set in L.A.’s Chinatown, for reasons I can’t quite explain except to say that it’s an evocative locale, part of a gentrifying section of L.A.’s original downtown that, Robert Towne notwithstanding, seemed underutilized when compared to the glitzier ZIP codes (Hollywood, Beverly Hills) to the west.
While I wouldn’t describe the series as “L.A. Noir,” it does feature noirish elements, which made the setting, and the story that grew out of that setting, particularly apt.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Greaves: Were I to pen a logline for the novel, it might read something like, “A jaded lawyer. A beautiful client. An impossible murder.” This excerpt, which is the novel’s first chapter following a brief prologue, introduces the reader to both the lawyer and the client, and they to each other.
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Sparks aren’t flying yet, but you can already smell ozone in the air. This, I thought, is an appropriate point of entry, both to the story and to Jack.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write?
Greaves: There’s a high-concept tentpole to the story that’s not revealed to the reader until the final chapter, and so can’t be revealed here. I will say that readers will learn a bit about DNA evidence and modern electronic surveillance – all of it true, and just enough of it to inform without distracting from the business at hand, which is figuring out how a suspect whose blood is found at a murder scene in L.A. can have been seven thousand miles away in Hong Kong at the time of the murder.
That’s the conundrum facing Jack when he’s hired by the suspect’s daughter to defend her father. It’s also the central mystery confronting the reader, working through Jack’s first-person POV, and it’s quite a challenge for all concerned, if I do say so myself.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Greaves: I confess to taking some pleasure in tweaking the standard novel format, again without distracting the reader. In my novel “Tom & Lucky,” for example — a Wall Street Journal “Ten Best Mysteries of 2015” selection — I employ four alternating points of view, one in the first person, one in the present tense, and so on in an effort to make each character’s voice distinctive.
“The Chimera Club”
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“The Chimera Club” has only one first-person POV throughout, but is structured as a story-within-a-story. It begins with Jack in Hawaii, telling a woman he’s met there what’s just happened to him, and it ends where it began, in Hawaii, as Jack finishes the story. I’d never done that before, and I feel it worked pretty well.
So yes, you try things, and hopefully they click. If not, you delete and start over. In either event, you grow new muscle as a storyteller.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Greaves: As in any series, the challenge is keeping it fresh. The previous, third book in the series was published (by St. Martin’s Minotaur) back in 2014, so I’d put Jack on the shelf while working on other, more literary fiction that I write as C. Joseph Greaves. Then, after finishing a Torrey House Press title set here in the Four Corners (“Church of the Graveyard Saints,” published in 2019), I found myself missing Jack’s wiseacre voice and realized it was time to bring him back. Happily, I was able to slip right into character, so in that sense, the book was no challenge at all; just pure fun.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Greaves: Murder mysteries should entertain, first and foremost, but the best of them also teach you things. I previously mentioned electronic surveillance. In researching “The Chimera Club,” I was amazed to learn that Google maintains a searchable database called Sensorvault that basically tracks in real time the geolocations of every smart phone on earth, and that law enforcement can access that location data by means of a court order called a geofence warrant. Who knew?
So in addition to immersing themselves in a devilish whodunnit with an evocative setting, a splash of action, and a dash of humor, readers might experience a “Holy crap!” moment or two along the way.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Greaves: I’m a library geek. I’ve actually worked as a librarian, and as a young lawyer living in L.A., I founded an organization called the Pasadena Public Library Foundation and served for 20 years on its board of directors, including five years as its president.
As an author, I can’t count how many libraries I’ve visited for book events, but the answer is “lots.” So it distresses me greatly to hear what’s afoot in parts of this country when it comes to public and school libraries. I mean, if you don’t want your children reading certain books, that’s your parental prerogative. Just don’t try to dictate what my children can or cannot read.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Greaves: I only write when I’m inspired, but I make it a point to be inspired every morning at nine o’clock. In that sense, the discipline of working in a law office has paid dividends in my second career.
I compose on a laptop, in Word, in a home office here in McElmo Canyon, which is just west of Cortez, Colorado. Before that I lived in Santa Fe, where my first three novels were written. I don’t outline. I revise constantly as I write, such that my first complete draft closely resembles the final product.
I’ve never belonged to a critique group. I write with the door closed, meaning that nobody sees my novel until I think it’s ready, and only then do a few trusted beta readers get to weigh in. That’s just my personal process – each writer needs to find what works for them, and stick to it.
SunLit: So what, exactly, is a Chimera Club?
Greaves: In Greek mythology, a chimera is a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. A chimera in modern usage can also refer to something illusory, something unattainable.
Both meanings are relevant to the story, but The Chimera Club is also the name of the nightclub owned by Mae Kwan, the femme fatale we meet in Chapter 1 who hires Jack to defend her father, who stands accused of murdering film producer Ari Goldstone, who himself stands accused of having raped Mae some decade earlier. It’s Chinatown, Jake.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Greaves: I’m hoping that my next project is a film. I just finished a feature screenplay based on my 2012 novel “Hard Twisted” (Bloomsbury), which recounts the true story of a 13-year-old girl kidnapped in Dust Bowl Oklahoma by her father’s murderer and taken on a one-year crime and killing spree across the American Southwest.
The Los Angeles Times called it “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film.” One can only hope. I wrote a TV pilot in 2019 called “Badwater” that was actually produced, but the series wasn’t picked up (yet.) So while relatively new to screenwriting, I’ve already had some modest success.
Next up for me is another feature screenplay based on “Tom & Lucky” (Bloomsbury), which fictionalizes the actual 1936 vice trial of mobster Salvatore “Lucky Luciano” Lucania, who was prosecuted by Thomas E. Dewey, later the governor of New York, and nearly president of the United States. Of that novel, Tom Nolan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said, “Greaves is one helluva good storyteller.” So we’ll see if it translates.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Greaves: Some authors love to write but hate to edit. Others hate to write but love to edit. I dwell closer to the latter camp.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Greaves: When I quit lawyering and moved to Santa Fe in 2006, I wrote my first-ever short story for a Christmas-themed contest in The New Mexican. I won, which convinced my wife, at least, that maybe there was hope for this new venture.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Greaves: Satisfied, for sure. My first-ever novel “Hush Money,” while still in manuscript, won the SouthWest Writers’ International Writing Contest’s grand prize Storyteller Award, besting 680 other blind-judged contest entrants. That earned me a New York literary agent, who promptly sold it to Minotaur as a series, and lo, Jack MacTaggart was launched.
“Hush Money” went on to earn several national honors, and the audiobook version was an Audie Award finalist for Best Mystery of 2012. (Losing, alas, to some hack named Louise Penny.)
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Greaves: Cormac McCarthy. Ken Kesey. F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d want to ask them, “How on earth do you do it?”
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Greaves: One I use when teaching is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Greaves: That I read a lot!
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Greaves: Silence. I’m easily distracted, and enjoy music too much to pay it no mind.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Greaves: Probably reading “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” as a pre-teen. That book changed my life.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Greaves: There’s nothing I fear, although less-than-stellar sales can disappoint. What most writers want, I think, is neither fame nor fortune, but simply to be read.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Greaves: Finishing a book that I know is my best effort; that there’s not a word I’d change. When writing under a contractual deadline, that’s not always the case. But sometimes . . .