Monday, October 16, 2017

Zero Avenue: Dietrich Pulls a Fast One

In the halycon days of pulp back in the thirties, Paul Cain, best known for a handful of hard, fast short stories that appeared in Black Mask, cranked out an equally jacked-up novel (his one and only) full of treachery and throbbing energy with the tell it like it is title Fast One.

Fast One? He wasn't kidding.

And now Vancouver crime writer Dietrich Kalteis has pulled a fast one of his own, that takes the fire and fury of early pulp and adds the magic ingredient we didn't even know was missing: punk rock!

Zero Avenue 
is a balls-to-the-wall last chance power drive through the turbulent 1970s punk scene of that fair city. By now, it should be no surprise that Dietrich can pull it off -- he's already spat out several turbo-charged standalones, including Ride the Lightning (a personal fave of mine), The Deadbeat Club and Triggerfish, and he's had almost fifty of his short stories published around the world.

But this Zero Avenue is something else again.

I fucking loved it. It’s like the Ramones covering Elmore Leonard covering the Ramones; so hard, so fast and so funny I almost expected each brief blitzreig chapter to kick off with a 1-2-3-4! count out and end with a big fat drum roll and a crash of angry, buzzing power chords. (Coincidentally, one of Cain's short stories is called "One, Two, Three." Coincidence? I think not.)

Yet it's not all bang-bang-bang-bang — like any truly great punk song, there’s melody tucked in there somewhere too, in the nuances of characterization, and the kind of sly wit that pervaded the early days of punk, before it became so po-faced (a lot of folks seem to forget how funny punk rock was, but Dietrich remembers).

Frankie Del Rey is a rocker with a heart of gold, or at least some sort of shiny metal; her guitar slung low like some hip-chick gunslinger. All she cares about is her music and her band, Waves of Nausea, and to that end she's slinging dope for -- and reluctantly "dating" a true and proper scumbag, club owner and drug dealer Marty Sayles, who's got his fingers in an awful lot of pies. He owns a couple of clubs, and several pot farms scattered around the area, including a grow patch and barn situated out in the boonies further south on Surrey, B.C's notorious Zero Avenue, which straddles a mostly unprotected and little watched stretch of the U.S./Canada border. Marty's crew uses the barn to process the drugs; and allows Frankie and her band to use it as a rehearsal spot.

But it gets even more incestuous -- Johnny, who's taken a liking to Frankie, tends bar and runs Falco’s Nest, a struggling punk dive that Marty owns, while Frankie’s bass player, Arnie Binz, who sleeps in the Nest's backroom, comes up with a half-baked (literally) scheme to rip off Marty's unprotected grow patch, not taking into account Marty's psycho enforcer Zeke Chamas, or Marty's not-quite-right pot farmers Sticky and Tucker.

They could all have so easily become jackhammer cartoons, but somehow Dietrich manages to imbue each one -- even the minor ones -- with just enough grit and wit to make them count. Not always an easy task when your cast features a bunch of punk rockers and other assorted dreamers and schemers: wannabe crimelords, bartenders, bouncers, bikers, skizzy moneymen and a couple of doofus drug dealers whose last functioning brain cells lit out for the territories years ago.

And the setting! I was 3000 miles east, but everything Dietrich describes reads a lot like a postcard from the Montreal punk scene I flopped around in back in the day: the swirl of punks and metal heads and disco clowns fighting it out in dubious clubs, each seedier than the next; a ramshackle world of beer-sticky floors, pot smoke-filled johns and jury-rigged sound systems, always one police raid away from being boarded up, full of misfits and malcontents not quite sure what was happening, but aware something was happening. Dietrich gets it all right.

I caught up with the man himself recently via the interwebs, and asked him how he did it.

Q: Hey, Dietrich. It’s not like this is the first crime book to use the punk scene, but it’s the first I’ve read that gets it right. How involved were you in the Vancouver punk scene? Or were you?

A: I wasn’t in Vancouver at the time. I was living in Toronto in the late seventies, and I was aware of the punk scene there, as well as with what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. Aside from D.O.A and The Subhumans I wasn’t familiar with much of the Vancouver sound until after I moved here in the early nineties. And I discovered more of the long-gone local punk bands once I started researching for the book.

Q: You’ve written five books now, all standalones. Ever thought of doing a series? Will we ever see Karl the bounty hunter turned process server from Ride the Lightning again?

A: I love a good series, and I have thought about it. I did borrow a minor character, Dara Addie, from my first novel Ride the Lightning, and made her a main character in The Deadbeat Club. That’s as close to a series as I’ve come. Usually by the time I get halfway through one novel, I’ve got a couple of ideas brewing for the next one. And so far there just hasn’t been anything that would play out as a series.

Q: What inspired Zero Avenue?

A: I liked punk’s rawness, anger and edge, and the way it threw a middle finger at the establishment. And Vancouver was this backwater place back then, a sharp contrast to what it is now. All of that just seemed to make the right setting for a crime story. And the late seventies were also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.

I knew some guys who tried to rip off a field back in the day and had rock salt shot at them. I always loved that story and wanted to include elements of it, although the way it plays out in Zero Avenue sure has a different outcome.

Q: Marty, the club owner, is a particularly odious weasel. Was he based on anyone in particular?

A: No, he’s all fiction. Marty Sayles just unfolded into the kind of protagonist he needed to be to allow the conflict to grow. Along with madman Zeke Chamas and Tucker and Sticky, Marty and his crew were more than enough for Frankie and Johnny Falco to take on.

Q: You also name-check various real-life characters and bands, like Joey Shithead of D.O.A. and Teenage Head. Were you concerned about weaving them into your story? Did you ask permission or just roll with it? How many did you catch?

A: I tossed in a few real-life characters to lend some realism to the story, just enough so I wouldn’t need to worry about getting permission. And how could I make the story sound authentic without at least mentioning a local legend like Joey? He was like the godfather of punk in these parts. And there are a few others that I wanted to pay tribute to with a mention.

Q: Your characters seem to be folks from the fringe, or straights who fucked up. Or fuck-ups trying to go straight. They’re dealers or ex-cons or failed bounty hunters or brain-fried bozos — never captains of industry or movie stars or big shots, which really harkens back to classic noir and pulp. But they’re never really cartoons — do the characters shape the story, or does the story create the characters?

A: It’s true, my characters are often marginal, folks from the fringe. At times I like them to be unwitting, just pulled into a situation they’re ill-equipped to handle. That can make them seem both believable and vulnerable, and perhaps less predictable. And these characters often bring some sense of levity in their thoughts, words and actions which creates a nice balance in a tense situation.

But the characters definitely shape the story. When I start writing a novel, I start with a scene which might be inspired by something I’ve heard, read in the paper, or seen on TV — ideas that get me thinking well, what if this happened … I drop in the kind of character I’d like to see handle the situation, and as the character takes shape, I let them roll with it and see what comes next.

Q: Your style reminds me of a boiled-down, rawer Elmore Leonard, particularly in the way the dialogue and action moves. Which writers influenced you?

A: Definitely Elmore. He was the master of character and dialog. And there was the early stuff by George V Higgins, another master of dialog. And I love anything by Don Winslow, James Crumley, Charles Willeford. And there’s Robert B. Parker, particularly his Jesse Stone series. And James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, Ed McBain, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, and Canadian great Marc Strange. There are also many greats outside the genre: Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Jack Keroac, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck. Suffice to say, I’m inspired by what I consider great writing, those voices that resonate with me.

Q: Hell, so many of the characters are so spot on, I’m beginning to wonder if any of your characters were based on real people. Personally, I think I dated Frankie, but it might have been her cousin from Montreal.

A: Sorry, Kevin, but Frankie is pure fiction. My characters are all made up and aren’t based on anybody I know. But I do like to observe people, the way they speak, their quirks and tics, and I often attribute some of these characteristics to my characters. Sort of mix'n'match.

Q: What do you listen to these days?

A: I listen to a wide range of music, from classic, to jazz, to folk, to blues, to rock — once in a while taking a stroll (or pogo) down memory lane and playing some old-school punk. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen are my favorite songwriters. And I love to listen to anybody that can play like Hendrix, Miles Davis and Robert Johnson; or belt it out like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin or Freddie Mercury.

Q: Do you play music when you write? What were you listening to while writing ZERO AVENUE?

A: I always listen to music when I write. When I started writing full time I found distraction in the usual sounds of a household: kids, cats, dogs, ringing phones, dinging doorbells, trucks and sirens going by. So I played music through my headphones. At first I thought I would go mad, or at least I wouldn’t be able to write, but I got into the rhythm of whatever music I was listening to. It was a constant sound, and it had a way of blocking out the white noise. So, I kept doing it, picking music that went with the vibe of what I was writing. And for the nine months it took to write Zero Avenue, that’s what I listened to, punk.

Q: If you had to compile a playlist for Zero Avenue, what ten songs would be on it?

Sadly there are no tunes from Middle Finger or from Frankie’s band Waves of Nausea. Just Frankie’s lyrics at the front of the book:

Oh baby, got to find a new space’cause everything’s shittyand I’m feelin’ out of placein this no fun city.

If we’re talking strictly Vancouver songs from back in the day, I’d include “World War Three” and “Disco Sucks” by D.O.A, “Barbra” by The Modernettes, “Out of Luck” and “What do you want me to do?” by The Pointed Sticks, “Past is Past” by The Dishrags, “Hawaii” by The Young Canadians (formerly the K-Tels), and I can’t forget Vancouver classics like “Firing Squad” and “Fuck You” by the Subhumans. And let’s add one by Vancouver’s first punk band, the Furies, and their song “No Fun City.”

If we stretch the playlistI’d add songs from Toronto bands: The Viletones, The Diodes, The Ugly and The Cardboard Brains. And why not throw in some by the major punk bands from around the globe who were around in the late seventies: The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, The Stooges, Black Flag, The Buzzcocks and so on.

Q: Is punk dead? Who killed it? Who killed Bambi?

A: I’m not sure about Bambi, but when punk came along, there was a certain shock that came with it. Although its fanbase grew in various cities around the globe, punk was never well received in the mainstream. Major labels were reluctant to sign punk bands, radio stations wouldn’t play their music, and clubs wouldn’t book the acts. 
When I first heard it, though, I immediately liked its edgy sound -- a welcome change to disco, but if truth be told, I thought it was a fad that would burn out fast. It turned out the only thing that died was that initial shock from when it started over forty years ago. Punk-laced bands like Rise Against, Bad Religion, Blink-182, Rancid and Green Day are still going strong. And it’s interesting to note that Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Joey Shithead, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Mick Jones are still standing and still involved in making music. So, although punk’s changed over the years, it’s still  kicking.

Q: What’s next?

A: Poughkeepsie Shuffle is next and due out from ECW Press in June, 2018. The story takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. When he lands himself a job at a used-car lot, he finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto “Why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”

I also have a story called Bottom Dollar included in the upcoming Vancouver Noir, part of Akashic Books’ Noir Series, edited by Sam Wiebe.

• • • • •

You can visit Dietrich at or at ECW Press. He blogs regularly at Off the Cuff and at 7 Criminal Minds, and he’s also on Facebook and Twitter.


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