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Chuck Hogan ’89 works eight hours a day, seven days a week. The results are explosive
On a bitterly cold December night in Boston, Chuck Hogan walks into the Bukowski Tavern, wearing blue jeans and a thin leather jacket, no hat covering his close-cropped brown hair. I recognize him from his book jacket photos, but nobody else takes notice. He’s one of the city’s most successful novelists, yet he’s still at that point where not many people know it.
It may not be that way much longer. All last summer and fall, there was a low-level buzz in town about a new Boston movie-in-the-making, starring Ben Affleck. Going by the working title “The Town,” it’s adapted from Hogan’s 2004 thriller, Prince of Thieves. When the movie hits theaters later this year, Hogan’s publisher will print a movie tie-in edition of the novel, and perhaps reissue some of his other novels—he’s had six out so far.
We take a table toward the back of the tavern. I open a conversation about his career, using the phrase “a success story.” Hogan looks uncomfortable. He wouldn’t declare himself a success yet, not in terms of being the kind of writer he wants to be. “I’ve got a long way to go,” he says.
It strikes me as a statement of ambition more than humility. I’d been reading Prince of Thieves, which is a book that dreams big, that wants to sell, that fairly qualifies as what writer P.D. James calls “the fast-action thriller with its dominant testosterone-fueled hero and its opportunities for spectacular action sequences.” It has all the elements of conventional, hard-boiled crime fiction, including believable criminals, a sharp, righteous detective, and a love story that spells trouble.
But if there’s a mystery Hogan puts at the core of the book, it’s a sociological mystery. The setting is Charlestown, that one-square-mile Boston neighborhood that at one time produced more robbers of armored cars and banks than any other community in America, according to the FBI. In the mid-1990s, reading a Boston Globe series about Charlestown as a breeding ground for thieves, Hogan started to wonder why. When you finish reading Prince of Thieves, you feel you know why. He penetrates the hoodlum subculture: its multilayered resentments, generational grudges, and disingenuous code of honor. And Hogan does it with judicious sympathy. Some villains are rats; others are, well, decent people gone wrong.
Reading the book before knowing much about Hogan, I was half-convinced he had grown up in Charlestown—that this was one of those books that came from some personal need to redeem the past. The struggles of his main character with alcoholism, and his reliance on an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, made me curious whether Hogan would order a beer at Bukowski’s.
He did. He drank a pint can of Narragansett Lager—two pints, in fact. It turns out Hogan didn’t grow up in Charlestown and has never had a drinking problem. He’s nothing like the men in his books, he admits. He seems more comfortable listening, absorbing information, than holding forth. His books are full of characters who use the language of the street, harsh and profane, yet he speaks like a well-mannered family man.
For Prince of Thieves, Hogan studied. He spent hours walking the Charlestown streets. He learned as much as he could about robbing banks and armored cars, which is easier research than it used to be, now that many court transcripts and FBI documents are publicly available online. Hogan grew up in Canton, a suburb south of Boston, but all four of his grandparents lived in South Boston, a place with the same kind of working-class insularity as Charlestown. He understands the embattled urban enclave.
More so than with any of his other books, he tells me, he knew he had to get the place right in Prince of Thieves, make it work almost like one of the characters of the book. When the novel came out, he was asked to give a reading at the Charlestown Public Library. “I went in with a fair amount of trepidation,” he says. “Thinking I’d get my car windows broken or something. But actually, there was a huge turnout.
“There’s a toast at the beginning of the book. I read that. The only standing ovation I’ve ever gotten. The people there really responded to it.”
And nobody told him he’d gotten it wrong. The toast fills most of a page. It begins:
To the Town.
To Charlestown, our one square mile of brick and cobblestone. Neighborhood of Boston, yet lopped off every map of the city like a bastard cropped out of a happy family portrait.
In some ways, success came easily, or at least quickly, for Hogan.
At Boston College, he enrolled in the late professor John McAleer’s class in mystery writing. (McAleer himself had written a biography of the mystery writer Rex Stout that earned him an Edgar Award.) Later he went to see the professor, hoping to propose an independent-study course in which he’d write some short stories. “He said, ‘Why don’t you write a novel? Just try it, and we’ll see what happens,'” Hogan recalls. At the end of the year Hogan, then a senior, had a book, not a good one he says now, but a finished story. McAleer saw enough promise that he gave Hogan an A and the name of his own literary agent—a real confidence builder.
By the time Hogan graduated with a major in English, he had outlined what he hoped would be his first published novel. He took a job at a local video store and worked for a year on the story, eventually producing an 800-page manuscript. He called the novel “Small Town Murders,” and it featured an ambitious cop trying to solve a series of puzzling deaths. The story went unpublished. He wrote another one, set in Boston’s Chinatown, also unpublished. In 1992, Hogan began thinking about an event in the news—fugitive Randy Weaver had holed up in a cabin in Idaho for 11 days before federal lawmen finally arrested him. Hogan imagined the story from the point of view of an FBI hostage negotiator, who became a character called John Banish, a recovering alcoholic brought in to deal with a heavily armed white supremacist.
With that novel in progress, he recalled that a friend had told him about meeting Amanda Urban, a top literary agent, at a party in the Hamptons. On impulse, Hogan sent Urban a letter asking if he could submit a few of his chapters. Getting a green light, he sent the first half of his manuscript, which Urban read while housebound during a snowstorm. She liked it and encouraged him to keep going. By the spring of 1994, Urban had sold the book and the movie rights. Suddenly, at 26, just a couple of months before getting married to Charlotte Bright, whom he met while both were students at Canton High School, Hogan had a publishing and movie deal that came to just over a million dollars. He gave two weeks’ notice at the video store and prepared to write full-time.
Looking back now, Hogan recalls a key piece of advice he got at the time of that sudden success. Urban told him his first task was to get a good financial advisor because “You may not do this again.” And, in fact, when the novel was published in 1995 as The Standoff, it didn’t find its way onto the bestseller list. Meanwhile, the movie—as often happens in Hollywood—failed to materialize. “I made a lot of money with the first book, and then there was a good run of years there, almost 10 years, where I made very little,” Hogan says.
He followed The Standoff with The Blood Artists in 1998, which also didn’t find a large audience. It wasn’t until his third effort, Prince of Thieves, hit the stands in 2004 that his luck began to improve. Even so, the process of turning the book into a movie unfolded in fits and starts over five years. The first production company and screenwriter couldn’t seem to get the script whittled down to a suitable length. Another team tried, bringing in Hogan to help. That effort stalled. Finally, Affleck, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, native, took up the project. With Affleck directing and playing the lead character, the moviemakers started staging bank robberies and other dramatic actions in and around Boston last year.
Hogan and his wife were invited in November to watch a scene being filmed and to meet Affleck. The production company had commandeered the 19th floor of a building in downtown Boston and remade it into the city’s FBI headquarters, Hogan recalls, “and we got to sit where the producers sit in front of the monitors, and then they had us sit behind in the actors’ chairs, watching them do the scene over and over and over again.” It was fresh material, too. Hogan found himself observing a scene that wasn’t in the book. Not that he minded. By this time, he was deep into several other projects, and was happy to leave the Charlestown crime story to Affleck and company.
Hogan followed Prince of Thieves with The Killing Moon in 2007. That novel takes place in a rural Massachusetts town beset with shady characters, a corrupt police force, a drug problem, and a missing person. By this time, he had also teamed up with Guillermo del Toro, a writer and film director (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), to produce a trilogy of horror novels in the ever-popular vampire genre. The first of those, The Strain, was published last year and made the New York Times bestseller list.
Hogan’s fifth solo novel, Devils in Exile, rolled off the presses in February 2010. In it, Hogan returns to the kind of gritty, urban crime tale that, like Prince of Thieves, manages to be something more than pure entertainment. But what, exactly? There is deep feeling in Devils in Exile for young veterans who return to civilian life in a country that seems to have no place for them. The story revolves around a character named Neil Maven, whose experiences fighting in Iraq are irrelevant as he takes a job in a convenience store and then as a parking lot attendant in downtown Boston. Maven falls under the spell of a charismatic fellow veteran, who lures him into what appears to be a vigilante squad devoted to fighting the city’s drug cartels. Suddenly his skills as a soldier matter again.
The characters work out of a Back Bay Victorian brownstone set up as a real estate office. They dine at steakhouses and bistros on Newbury Street and frequent a loud downtown nightclub called Precipice. They trail a Venezuelan into the Sheraton Boston, and some months later, his body is pulled from the frozen Charles River, the hands severed.
Hogan has lived in several parts of the city. Explaining his preference for Boston settings, he says simply, “It’s what I know and what I need.” He seems little interested in discussing the other contemporary crime novelists who’ve mined the city’s streets, Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker, for example.
Kate Mattes, the former owner of Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, recalls reading The Killing Moon and being struck by Hogan’s “ability to develop a sense of place.” She found the small-town Massachusetts setting so believable “I felt like I had driven through it,” she says. Mattes sees a key difference between Hogan’s career so far and that of the popular writer Robert B. Parker, who died at his desk in January. Hogan hasn’t created a series, as Parker did with his detective Spenser. “Bob became famous for his series characters. Chuck is becoming famous without them.” Right now, Mattes said, pausing then speaking carefully, “I’d say he and Dennis Lehane are the two best crime writers in Boston.”
Colin Harrison, Hogan’s editor at Scribner, says Hogan is on the one hand “trying to fulfill the necessities of a thriller; on the other hand he’s also trying to write at a very high level.” Harrison has worked with Hogan on Prince of Thieves, The Killing Moon, and Devils in Exile, and he describes the classic Hogan protagonist: “the person who comes from the working class who has superior abilities, either intellectual or physical, or even moral.” Hogan, he says, is interested in finding out what happens to that person, “seeing what he does when he gets into a jam, what haunts him—what his weaknesses and strengths are. You really get a feeling that Chuck knows what kind of beer he drinks, what kind of car he drives, the music he listens to, the shoes he wears, and so on. It’s not a fake man-of-the-people position on his part. I think he really just feels these guys instinctively.”
That’s not to say that Hogan has broken any mold. The best crime writers—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or, currently, Lehane, Sara Paretsky, Richard Price, James Ellroy—are always attuned to the social pathologies in the world around them. Nor will Hogan be considered by virtue of his work so far to be in the “literary” category rather than popular fiction. Devils in Exile spins toward a conclusion of almost James Bond–like sensational violence (without Bond’s endless variety of techno-gizmos), and the character Neil Maven seems capable of more than is possible.
A Washington Post reviewer several years ago referred to Prince of Thieves as “flawed but powerful.” Reviewers might well say the same of Devils in Exile. What novel isn’t—to a critic—flawed in some way? But “powerful” is accurate, too.
There’s a scene in the beginning of the new novel in which Maven is recruited by the older ex-vet into his new line of work. The vet seems to know better than Maven himself what he’s feeling:
“So—now you’re out, and here’s where you’re stuck. Socially, developmentally, you’re really not much older than the teenager you were when you first went in. But, mentally, experience-wise, you’re at least a decade older than your calendar age. It’s like those body-switching movies. There’s a progression of life that every human being goes through, and for you it’s been messed up. You’ve been taken out of life, dropped onto a desert battlefield half a world away, then taken out of that again and dropped back into your peace.”
“Everybody else your age either has a college degree or else years invested in this job market. They have employment equity, because they’ve been enjoying the fruits of your labor, working here in this nice safe bubble Fortress America. Now you come back, and it’s like, ‘Thanks kid. Let me shake your hand. Damn proud of ya. Now take a place at the back of the line.'”
Maven falls for it. And the story that unfolds is strong stuff. The young soldier is as much at war in Boston as he was in Iraq.
Hogan was born in Boston but his family moved to Canton when he was five. His father was a utility company executive. His mother worked at home while Chuck and his two younger sisters were growing up; later she worked in real estate. (She died in 2004, just before Prince of Thieves came out.) “I certainly didn’t come from an artistic family,” Hogan says. “It was definitely out of the ordinary for me to do this.”
But there were signs early on that he had an imaginative mind. His youngest sister, Julie Hogan Read ’92, recalls helping her father clean out his basement not long ago. Among Chuck’s old papers were stories he’d written in high school, and even some from elementary school. They showed an imagination inclined toward horror stories, she said—and talent. “They were not the typical writing sample a junior in high school would write,” she says. By the time she was a first-year student at Boston College and he was a senior, his ambitions were apparent. “He was always writing,” she recalls.
To hear Hogan tell it, he leads a work-focused life. He and his wife bought a house 15 years ago in Sharon because it afforded plenty of room for a home office. Hogan says he puts in at least eight hours a day writing and keeps to a seven-day-a-week schedule because he doesn’t want to lose momentum on weekends. He concentrates on long-form fiction—not seeking freelance assignments from magazines or tinkering around with essays and short stories.
Working at home, he’s able to produce and still get time with the couple’s four children, ages nine, seven, five, and two. His sister says that her parents emphasized being “well-rounded” when they were young, and that Chuck excelled at tennis and baseball. She doesn’t see him as overly single-minded, not with young children in the house. “He manages to have a balanced life,” she says.
Hogan says he does wonder what it will be like when his kids are old enough to read his books. He recalls giving Prince of Thieves to his grandmother, then in a nursing home. “I found out later that she was telling her friends that I wrote the book, but that the editors put in all the bad language to spice it up.” As for his children, he says, what he writes is “nothing like the way I am at home. So I think they’ll understand: It’s the way an actor portrays different roles.”
Hogan took up his line of work with modest ambitions. When he started reading popular fiction, he says, “I thought I could do at least as badly as the bad books—and there were a lot of bad books. I thought, well, there’s a chance maybe I could write a thriller that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed reading on the subway. . . something you wouldn’t leave on the plane when you got off but take with you and put on your shelf, or give it to someone. That was my goal.”
After five crime novels (and the coauthored vampire novel with two sequels in progress), does he worry about running out of material? “Ideas are not a problem at all,” he says. “For me, it’s finding that one idea I want to throw on my back and carry for a year or a year and a half. It’s really more choosing than it is finding.”
At the Bukowski Tavern that cold December night, we talked about books, but more about movies. The meeting place was his idea. There’s a scene in Devils in Exile that he set here, using the bar’s real name. He describes it as “a narrow bar on Dalton Street dangling over the Massachusetts Turnpike. A no-pretensions, cash-only bar to balance out the clubby steak house” in the Back Bay where his main characters have just dined.
It’s the kind of place his characters would be drawn to, a guy’s place, with a vast selection of beer, and waitresses who manage to be alluring without seeming to try. Plus, it was named for the hard-drinking writer Charles Bukowski.
We talked about how Hogan found a copy many years ago of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by the late George V. Higgins (’61, JD’67), perhaps the best Boston crime novel ever. He mentioned that the 1973 movie with Robert Mitchum holds up well—and then there are the Bukowski stories that became the 1987 movie Barfly, starring the weathered, famously intemperate Mickey Rourke. “I’m a big fan of Mickey Rourke,” he said.
Returning to Bukowski, he mused that having a bar named after you might be one of the highest honors a writer could hope for. It sounded to me, for the first time that evening, like one of his characters talking.
Dave Denison is a writer in the Boston area.
A cold Saturday night in November.
Neal Maven stood on the edge of the parking lot, looking up at the buildings of downtown Boston. He was wondering about the many lights left shining in the windows of the top-floor offices—who does that, and why—when a thumping bass line made him turn.
A silver limousine eased around the corner. Its long side windows were mirrored so that the less fortunate could see themselves watching the American dream pass them by. Maven stuffed his hands deep inside the pouch pockets of his blanket-thick hoodie, stamping his boots on the blacktop to keep warm.
Nine months now. Nine months he’d been back. Nine months since demobilization and discharge, like nine months of gestation, waiting to be reborn back into the peacetime world. Nine months of transition and nothing going right.
He had already pissed through most of his duty pay. The things you tell the other guys you’re going to do once you get back home—grow a beard, drink all night, sleep all day—those things he had done. Those goals he had achieved. The things the Army recommends doing before discharge, to ease your transition—preparing a resume,
lining up housing, securing employment—those things he had let slide.
The parking-lot-guard job—6 p.m. to 2 a.m., three nights a week—came via a posting on Craigslist. The owner of the parking lot was a builder looking to jab another diamond pin in the cushion of downtown Boston. The property manager who hired Maven, a square-shouldered Navy vet of two Vietnam tours, clapped him on the back fraternally and then explained that he would break Maven’s thumbs if he stole so much as a penny.
After a week or two of long hours stamping his feet out in the bitterly cold night, warding street people away from soft-top Benzs and Lexus SUVs, this threat took the form of a challenge. Every shift now, Maven showed up thinking he wouldn’t steal, only to soften after long hours soaking in the lonesome marinade of night. $36.75 FLAT FEE, ENTER AFTER 6 P.M., NO BLOCKING, EASY-IN/EASY-OUT. He kept it to one or two cars a shift, nothing serious. Latecomers always, inebriates pulling in after midnight, addressing Maven as “my man” or “dude,” and never requesting a receipt, never even noticing him lifting the gate by hand.
It was funny money, the $73.50 he skimmed. He wasted it accordingly.
Excerpted from Devils in Exile: A Novel, by Chuck Hogan. Copyright © 2010 by Multimedia Threat, Inc. Excerpted with permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Read more by Dave Denison