Seven years ago, when I interviewed writer Adam Christopher about his noir science fiction novel Made To Kill, he said it was his attempt to write what he imagined iconic noir author Raymond Chandler would come up with if he tried to write a sci-fi story. But usually writers aren’t that…exact when it comes to paying homage. So much so that it took this long for someone to say something similar. Though what’s interesting is that the book in question — Marion Deeds’ noir urban fantasy novella, Comeuppance Served Cold (paperback, Kindle) — would also be inspired by Dashiell Hammett, an iconic noir author who himself inspired Chandler.
To start, what is Comeuppance Served Cold about, and when and where does it take place?
The story is set in a magical Seattle, one week after the 1929 stock market crash. Alcohol is illegal due to Prohibition, and magic is legal but regulated. Dolly White takes a job with the wealthy, powerful magus Ambrose Earnshaw, to keep his rebellious daughter Fiona in line until her arranged marriage takes place.
That turns out to be hard work. Fiona likes speakeasies and takes a street-drug called shim. Her brother, Francis, leads a vigilante group, squeezing local magickers for money. Meanwhile, Violet Solomon, a widow who runs a speakeasy, keeps her eye on the Earnshaw family, waiting for a chance to exact vengeance for the terrible wrong they did her years before. With their wealth and influence, they’ve always been above justice. Dolly’s life intersects with Violet’s and sets a plan in motion, but both women must dodge drug-runners and protection gangs if they’re going to survive.
I envisioned it as a story Dashiell Hammett would have written if he’d lived in a world with magic.
Where did you get the idea for Comeuppance Served Cold?
The name Dashiell Hammett is going to come up a lot in this interview. Years ago, I wrote a parody / pastiche of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Instead of a falcon figure, the detective is after a grimoire that makes the person holding it experience life in the purple-est of purple prose. It was just for fun, but by the end I created a character, Dolly White, who got my attention, and I decided to write a real adventure with her as the protagonist.
Basically, I was interested in corruption and hypocrisy, the way the people who do the worst, most horrific things keep explaining to themselves and each other how they are heroes and the good guys. Prohibition, especially in Seattle, seemed like a perfect template, with an additional layer, magic. What if this world was used to magic, and in Seattle, the political leaders were working to control it, beyond the measure of control they already had? Then I gave Dolly a front-row seat to all of that, and introduced the widowed owner of a speakeasy, her shapeshifter brother, drug runners, and vigilantes.
And is there a reason you set it in Seattle in 1929 as opposed to San Francisco that same year or Seattle in 2029 or in West Orange, New Jersey in 1968?
Well, I needed Prohibition. Once I had the story firmly in mind — for a relative value of “firmly” — I knew it needed to be 1929 because the stock market crash is a catalyst. The story’s start-date became specific. Prohibition is a great American story of politics, good intentions, unintended consequences, and good old-fashioned hypocrisy. I wanted to contrast a “controlled” substance (alcohol) with “controlled” behaviors like magic.
Part of the lure of Seattle specifically is that it was dry a few years before the Volstead Act passed, and its bootlegging and smuggling were thoroughly developed — and so colorful. And Underground Seattle is too tempting not to use.
I also personally believe that the Puget Sound area, and Seattle, are magical. It may just be the latitude, or a quality of the light, but there’s something that tugs on my soul when I’m there. In a good way, not a “rip it out and feed it to the Elder Gods” way.
It sounds like Comeuppance Served Cold is a noir-infused urban fantasy story. Is that how you’d classify it?
Oh, genres and sub-genres. So many labels. Sure, fantasy noir, or noirish urban fantasy fits the story. I always worry when I say “urban fantasy” that people immediately envision a cover with a woman in tight leather pants. There are no leather pants in this book, but if Dolly wore leather pants, she’d look great in them.
Comeuppance Served Cold is your third book after Aluminum Leaves and Copper Road. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Comeuppance but not on anything else you’ve written?
And the winner is…Dashiell Hammett, again. And, even though it’s hard to see here, Dorothy Dunnett is an influence, for the conversations that happen underneath the spoken words, if that makes sense. I can and probably will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how Dunnett reveals character the way she does.
A writer and editor named J. I. Rodale, better known as the founder of Prevention Magazine, also had a small part to play, because he assembled The Said Book, a “style guide” for new writers, warning them that the word “said” as a speech tag was boring and they should use exciting verbs instead. He compiled a list of exciting verbs and fancy adverbs for pairing, like a food and wine pairing, and the result is about what you’d expect. “She adjured magnificently” is one of my faves. This book inspired the “purple prose” idea that ultimately created the character of Dolly White, so reluctantly I give Rodale some credit.
How about non-literary influences; was Comeuppance Served Cold influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
As far as a direct influence, it was mostly Hammett. I found the Miss Fisher Mysteries (series and books) after I’d sent Comeuppance Served Cold to Tor, so while I love the series, I can’t count it as an influence. Generally, I’m a fan of 1930s mysteries, and I think this book is steeped in those elements.
Indirectly, I’m a visual person, and films and series influence me constantly. Probably any detective drama or spy drama, anything where the spoken dialogue is only about one-tenth of what is really going on in the scene, has influenced me.
As you probably know, both noir stories and urban fantasy tales are sometimes stand-alone books, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Comeuppance Served Cold?
Comeuppance Served Cold is self-contained, but I’ve finished a second book, set in Seattle a few months after Comeuppance ends, and which follows Philippe Solomon, the shape-shifting bartender, his lover Gabe, and Phillipe’s sister Violet. There are definitely more stories to be told in this world.
The novella got its start as a short story, and it’s my belief short stories have to have conclusions. Then it got longer because I was having fun exploring, but it still had a conclusion, one that still worked. And — this is shallow, but I’ll say it anyway — there was a particular line I wanted for the end of the epilogue. I wanted to keep it at any cost, so I had to wrap things up to get there.
Earlier I asked if Comeuppance Served Cold had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Comeuppance Served Cold could work as a movie, show, or game?
Oh, movie or TV show definitely. It’s short enough that it could be a fun movie.
On the other hand, it could be a good limited-run series if someone wanted to expand the characters. It’s got a speakeasy! In the underground! Costume drama! Drug-runners! A guy who turns into a cougar! Tough women confronting patriarchy! Cool visual effects! It would be fun.
And if someone wanted to make it into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I think I’d leave it in the hands of the professionals. And then I’ll be complaining through the whole movie, “That’s not right — she had dark hair! Did they even read the book?” Though I will admit that I would love it if Wunmi Mosaku, who was Ruby in Lovecraft Country, played Violet. We know she can totally rock the wardrobe, and she’s a brilliant actor. I think Fiona Earnshaw, the rebellious daughter, would be a challenging role, because at first she seems fragile and empty-headed, but there’s more to her and it’s revealed later. Dolly requires an actor who plays it close to the chest while letting the viewer know there’s a lot going on in her head.
I’ve also thought less about “fan-casting,” and more about who I fantasize as producing / directing, which would be Michelle Lovretta or Emily Andras. Syfy’s Killjoys was one of my favorites, largely because of the troublesome, stubborn, and indomitable Dutch. And while Wynonna Earp is a character I personally never could have imagined, the sisterhood and family in the series of the same name, which Andras helmed, was fantastic.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Comeuppance Served Cold should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Pardon me while I surreptitiously pull out my check-list… I’m joking. I don’t have a check-list. There’s a hot gay couple in the story. I mentioned the shape-shifting. Strong women, check. Cool wardrobe, check. Magic, check. I guess the only other thing is that it’s fun.
Finally, if someone enjoys Comeuppance Served Cold, what noir-flavored urban fantasy novella of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
I can think of both a novella and a couple of novels. Can I do them all?
Anyone who enjoyed Comeuppance Served Cold will love The Chosen And The Beautiful, Nghi Vo’s piercing and beautiful retelling of The Great Gatsby, with magic. It takes the story in a direction you do not expect. A novel I read during the spring of 2021 and loved is Trouble The Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Her book is set in the 1940s, and is darker than Comeuppance Served Cold, but the worldbuilding and the magic are beautiful, with wonderful, complicated characters. My characters share some spiritual kinship with M.A. Carrick’s second-world series The Rook And The Rose, too, and I think if people enjoyed meeting Dolly, they’d really like it, too.
It’s troubling to read Dashiell Hammett now because of the casual racism and homophobia that make appearances, but people who like Dolly White would probably find The Dain Curse interesting. It’s a set of linked novellas.