Crime & Western Writer Bruce Harris proves wily in a booze & blood-soaked 6 Stabs showdown with Jesse "Heels" Rawlins
Photo: Amazon Crime & Western Author Bruce Harris
Welcome to another spurious edition of Center Stage with your increasingly apprehensive host Mick Rose. Sidling under the Spotlight today—as we resume parsing the gritty pages of the HARDBOILED crime collection from Dead Guns Press, I'm pleased to present Amazon Author Bruce Harris—who not only writes across several genres: he also blends and bends them.
Knowing full well the night will turn cacophonous once psychotic interrogator Jesse Rawlins takes the stage, I asked the cool-n-collected Mr. Harris to swing by early for a couple of drinks. And to discuss some "business matters." The cash bar's officially open—and the pizza's free as always, just like the Admission Tickets.
MR: Welcome, Bruce. The mics are “hot.” You grew up in Plainview, NY out on Long Island, but later attended North Carolina State University—which is only about 9 hours and 540 miles south. If you don’t mind us asking, what did you study there? And when did you first get the hankerin’ to start penning your own stories?
BH: That 540-mile one-way commute nearly killed me freshman year, Mick. Thank goodness for my Ford Pinto. It might have been infamous for its exploding gas tanks, but it got good gas mileage. I studied psychology, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Social Psychology.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories hooked me on reading. My early writings are “serious” Holmes articles that appear in The Baker Street Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Journal, Canadian Holmes, and others. My first book is Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type, published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2006. It’s still available online! It’s a look at Holmes and Watson, comparing Type A and Type B personality types. To this day I continue writing Holmes-related articles.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer hooked me on crime and detective fiction. I’m still blown away by the Ellery Queen mysteries. Murder mysteries—especially locked-room mysteries—interest me more than straight crime. I’m also a big fan of the old pulps and hold the writers from the 1930’s – 1950’s in high esteem. That’s not to say there aren’t incredibly talented crime and mystery writers today—there are! But, I don’t want to forget about those who came first.
MR: Gotta love Fords, Bruce. The later technology in their “run-away” Explorers might’ve gotten you back and forth quicker—but your gas mileage wouldn’t have been as good. Glad you survived the Pinto and the commutes. How many years of study before you got to clutch that Ph.D. parchment in your hands? Did you plow straight through starting with that freshman year?
BH: Yup, straight through. I never intended to get a Ph.D. when I started out. But after my senior year, I had no job prospects. Instead, I applied to the graduate program and got in. I became the epitome of a professional student. It took almost 10 years from my freshman year to the end. That’s a long time. A couple of those years are still a little fuzzy.
MR: Quite an accomplishment, Bruce. Most of my conscious daily moments are fuzzy. And I didn’t study for a decade. But I've read some Mickey Spillane. And a slew of John D. McDonald: though largely his Travis McGee series that launched in 1964, rather than his early works, which first saw print in the 50s. Good reading. But trying to wrap my head around some of the generational mindsets held by some of the characters had a tendency to tax my bourbon-addled brain. Though on second thought what doesn't?
When you say that locked-room mysteries interest you, does that mean you also write these puzzles, Bruce? I couldn’t write one of those buggers if my life depended on it.
BH: The closest thing I’ve written to a locked-room mystery is “Death Trail,” a western short story from September 2016 that appeared online at Frontier Tales. In this twister, Polk City’s Sheriff Stock finds himself under pressure to fill a vacant jail cell—and gets his chance to put a killer behind bars when the stagecoach pulls into town—and its only passenger is a dead man. But how can a man stab himself in the back? The sheriff quickly discovers this is no ordinary murder.
I’d direct readers interested in these types of stories to Otto Penzler’s massive 2014 anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.
MR: Besides writing mysteries and seeing your crime tale “Last Meal” published in the gritty HARDBOILED fiction collection alongside 13 other writers, you’ve also had your crime stories published in a number of online magazines including the Flash Fiction Offensive and Shotgun Honey.
Yet you just mentioned Westerns—you’ve authored 7 such books so far, and you’ve also had various Western stories published in collections. So, Bruce, how did a kid from Long Island fall in love with the west and decide to put pen-to-paper and write Westerns?
BH: “Write what you know?” Nah. “Write what you like.” That’s what I did. I grew up watching TV shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Who can resist a saloon brawl, or a card game in a smoky saloon? Admit it, Mick. You’ve wanted to swing open batwing doors at some point in your life!
I admire the cowboy’s code of honor—the downtown settings—as well as the wide-open trails. The western pulps captured the characters of the old west: rifles, stagecoaches, robberies, and the like. Authors like Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone bring these things to life.
My two favorite westerns I’ve written are actually mixed genre western-mysteries. In addition to “Death Trail,” my 2018 book, Murder at Bullet Pass is also a mystery. This one features a Rabbi who helps a sheriff solve the murders.
MR: I’ve actually swung through batwing doors, Bruce. But that’s cuz I needed to use the loo in a dive bar. My quiet life idea of high drama at midnight!
Speaking of drama, that rat-tat-tat we’re hearing tells me Jesse “Heels” Rawlins is approaching stage right. Don’t know who they are … but she’s got a couple of scary brutes with her. My cue to vamoose and grab my balcony seat.
“Hi, Jess. Bye, Jess.”
JHR: Later, Mick. Well, well, well. If it ain’t Bruce Harris. Sounds like we both suffer from “arrested development,” Dr. Harris. But I’ve always been a Dr. Seuss fan. So I call these thugs Thing 1 & Thing 2. For a couple a bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine they do anything I tell ’em.
“Lucky for me. Not so lucky for you. Since you love the old west so much, but I’m far less nostalgic, my Things here are gonna strap you to this mechanical bull, which I’ve set for a sloooow ride. And while we have our little chat, I’m gonna stab ya with this custom Buck Frontiersman Wild Bill Cody knife. After the show, I’ll mail this baby to you in New York for a souvenir.
The price was absolutely criminal: $425 on eBay. But for now you can enjoy the quality of the blade firsthand—by my hand, of course. Did you know that I’m a Leftie, pardner?
The only Westerns I’ve read are by mystery writer Robert P. Parker. And to the best of my recollection, Parker’s tales aren’t set in “the old west.” Sounds like this genre’s pretty wide open. What kind of characteristics do writers like Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone tend to use in their novels? And how are yours both “similar to” and “different” from theirs?
BH: Fortunately for me, Things 1 and 2 aren’t as sharp as the $425 knife with which the sinistral Jesse seems so enamored. In fact, I’m not sure these two made it out of grade school. I think I can loosen my hands …. Yup, her dynamic duo don’t know how to tie a proper knot.
Without oversimplifying things, Jesse, Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone each give the reader good guys and bad guys and the good guys always win. I guess you can say their stories are anti-noir. Johnstone is probably more adept at character development, but both know how to keep the action going, forcing the reader to turn pages. The other important thing the two have in common is that their stories are well researched and historically accurate. Their various heroes share common traits, including love of family, honesty, and loyalty.
William W. Johnstone is now a cottage industry, run out of the family’s Tennessee farm. William W. Johnstone passed away in 2004, yet the Johnstone name continues stronger than ever. This year, 23 books will be published, and 29 are planned for release in 2020.
I wouldn’t mention my westerns in the same breath as L’Amour or Johnstone. That’s like comparing the 1927 Yankees with a lousy little league team.
There … got my hands loose.
Jesse, your two friends make me nervous. A Pair of Polished Peacemakers happens to be the title of one of my westerns, available at Amazon. And whaddya know—I also happen to have a pair of polished peacemakers aimed at their roid-filled bodies. So tell ’em to back off, Rawlins.
JHR: Hey, Mick! How much did Bruce pay you to keep his heaters?
MR: Hundred bucks and a bottle of Four Roses bourbon. Man’s gotta right to defend himself if the price is right.
JHR: Okay Thing 1 and Thing 2. Here’s four more bottles of Boone’s and bus tickets back to Cleveland. Now go play in traffic.
Meanwhile, since I live life in The Gutter, I don’t trust any of you varmints. If you look carefully at your chest Bruce, you’ll see 3 red circles dancing across your dubious heart—cuz I placed snipers in the balcony. So set your Peacemakers on that table by the bourbon—and plant your ass on that bull.
Very good, sir. Now that we’re all pretending to be civilized, you recently retired. And I imagine that’s given you a lot more time to write. And watch old westerns, of course. Do you have a routine writing schedule nowadays? How much time do you typically set aside for writing?
BH: I typically write between 1 and 4 hours a day. It breaks down to one or two hours in the morning and the same in the afternoon. I work in a coffee shop or the library. I don’t like writing at home. If things go really well in the morning, I’ll skip the afternoon. The rest of the day is spent reading, cooking, and walking for exercise—I refuse to run or jog.
JHR: I’ve got few professional sports teams I irrationally hate more than your Yankees, Bruce. I won’t stab you for that. But I will say I once visited an Irish bar that had three shamrocks mounted on the wall. They read: A-Rod sucks. Jeter Sucks. And Clemens is FAT. My kinda bar! Meanwhile, if The Gutter whisper-stream is true, I hear you’ve got a baseball story due for publication. Care ta talk about that?
BH: In what part of Boston is that dive located? I wouldn’t step foot in a dump like that even if they were doling out free vodka. Well… maybe if it was Grey Goose. Okay, if it was Grey Goose I’d go in … but I’d sit with my back facing those odious signs.
Jeez, word gets around in The Gutter. I’m a SABR: Society of American Baseball Research member. One of the society’s many committees is the Baseball BioProject. SABR’s website says, “The Baseball Biography Project is an ongoing effort to research and write comprehensive biographical articles on people who played or managed in the major leagues, or otherwise made a significant contribution to the sport.”
I’ve finished one biography, that of Bob Tufts. Bob pitched for the 1981 San Francisco Giants. Are you listening Bill Baber? And also for the Kansas City Royals in 1982 and1983. Bob is a bright guy, with degrees from both Princeton and Columbia Universities. I’m also working on a bio of Pete Craig. Pete pitched for the Washington Senators between 1964-1966. Neither are household names, but both have fascinating stories to tell. There are currently 4,985 completed bios on SABR’s website.
By the way, Rory Costello is co-chairman and chief editor of the BioProject. He’s completed around 100 biographies. Rory is also no stranger to crime fiction or The Gutter!
JHR: You also recently saw a slice-of-life essay involving one of your childhood experiences published. I was amused and stunned when the corporation involved responded on the magazine’s web site in a matter of mere days. What was your reaction when you saw the company’s response?
BH: You’re referring to my piece on Charles Atlas that appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. It’s a fantastic website, chronicling stories about New York City past and present. Initially, I was surprised that the “Charles Atlas folks” responded, but after thinking about it, it makes sense. The product is still available, and there is nothing more important to a company than its brand. My piece was intended to be humorous and hopefully it was taken as such. I think the company’s response was professional and appropriate.
JHR: Since you mentioned “cooking,” Bruce, and your contribution to the HARDBOILED crime fiction collection from Dead Guns Press chances to carry the title “Last Meal”—are you one of these guys who tosses spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks in order ta tell if it’s cooked “just right?”
And what are some of your Specialty Dishes? Fenway Franks and popcorn?
By the way, that bar with the awesome shamrocks? Not even in the state of Massachusetts, let alone Boston. This may come as a shock to you: but peeps from all across the country hate the Yankees, Bruce.
BH: Some people don’t like the Yankees? Surely that’s fake news. Don’t get me wrong; I love Boston and Fenway Park. As for the Red Sox … let’s talk about cooking. My specialty is roast chicken. I make it at least once a week. The following day I turn the leftover chicken into chicken salad. I make pretty good codfish cakes—very labor intensive, and a mean egg salad: naturally very easy. I also love grilling—burgers, steaks, hotdogs, chicken, ribs, fish, etc.
JHR: Stories I’ve read by you have involved characters ranging from crooked cops to stunt pilots, hardened criminals, and sleazy amateur con-men. Some involve surprising twists. Some are comical. Others violent. But “Last Meal” proves “sad.” And that fact surprised me.
Have you written other sad stories, Bruce? And what motivated you to pen “Last Meal?”
BH: The only other sad story that comes to mind is a flash piece, “Tommy and the Jerk,” which appeared in the obscure and defunct Twisted Tongue magazine back in April 2010. I have a 14-word untitled story online at Nanoism published July 19, 2019. It’s sad. And a sad 10-word untitled story that appeared online in Dime Show Review in May 2018.
“Last Meal” was inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s, “Cigarette.” That story originally appeared in the January 11, 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. “Cigarette” also appeared in the 2005 Woolrich anthology, Night & Fear. It’s a race against time story. The protagonist, Eddie, tries to locate someone named Adams before Adams lights up a poisoned cigarette.
Woolrich is a master at creating tension. I wrote “Last Meal” while vacationing in Singer Island, Florida. I sat outside on a 6th floor balcony, overlooking the pool and ocean, distracted by the poolside sights and smells coming from the grill. It took several days to write but somehow I finished it.
JHR: On the subjects of “finished” and “cooking, you’re starting to look like an over-filleted mignon, Bruce. So the Angels of Mercy—otherwise known as the Story and Grit medical team are gonna stitch you back together—then dump you in The Gutter so you can go about your miscreant business.
Oh! And since you didn’t answer my question about throwing spaghetti against the wall? Take that! A delightful 7th stab.
Thanks y’all for joining the show. And thanks Mick Rose for hosting us.
Photo: Crime Fiction Writer & Editor Jesse Rawlins
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. You’ll usually find her stories on the wrong side of the tracks, including flash-zine Shotgun Honey, The Rye Whiskey Review, and Punk Noir Magazine. She dazedly accepted the online publishing torch for 10-year-old Crime, Pulp & Humor mag the Flash Fiction Offensive in February 2019. And her murderous band of writing cohorts keep Jesse on her “heels.” Wanna say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook: