When a booze cruise goes wrong, Finn Roose, L.A’s most debauched restaurant manager, finds himself at the center of a missing persons case, unable to lie or charm his way out of it. To clear his name, he must navigate the seedy underbelly of Redondo Beach while holding down a job as part of its sunny, touristy facade.

Cleaning Up Finn is Sarah M Chen‘s debut novella. Smart, sleazy, and succinct, at a lean 168 pages, Finn harkens back to the golden age of crime paperbacks in page count as much as content. Along with her fellow authors at All Due Respect Books, Chen  is writing the next chapter in American pulp.

 cleaning up finn sarah m chen novella on the beach

What is it about the South Bay? For an otherwise under-celebrated part of L.A, it seems like the beaches have been all over noir and crime fiction:

You’ve got Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Tarantino’s  Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard and West Palm Beach.) Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction says he lives in Redondo (to which The Wolf replies “move out of the sticks!”)

Even the Patti Smith song “Redondo Beach”  has a dead girl in it. I’m sure there’s others…

Despite the sun and sand, there’s definitely a dark undercurrent to the South Bay that I think people like Quentin Tarantino gravitated toward as I did. Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

 

The South Bay has its vices but they’re disguised in sunshine, surf, and sand. I find that contrast fascinating and filled with possibilities. It’s a lot like Hollywood where you have the glitz and glam of the movie industry harboring the desperation underneath. But whereas Hollywood is seedy, you may not necessarily think of beach life as seedy but it’s definitely there. People either don’t think to look or don’t want to.

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

Hermosa Beach also had a big punk scene back in the day that made it cool, rebellious. But once the pier became a pedestrian plaza in ‘97, bars and clubs popped up like a spreading rash threatening to obliterate the mom and pop places, the dive bars, the artsy coffee shops, and the indie bookstores. Now it’s a more commercial party scene with DJs spinning top 40 instead of jazz and punk. This culture clash plus the illusion of an easy beach life makes it a perfect setting for a crime novel.

 

In early drafts, Finn was a short story set in Maryland. I kept moving the location around based on the guidelines of the market I was submitting to. When I had an opportunity to write a novella, I immediately thought of Finn. I felt there was more to Finn than a short story. When I sat down to expand it, I knew it couldn’t be set anywhere else but the South Bay.

 

And it’s home, right?

I’ve lived in the South Bay for over 20 years so consider this my adopted home. I grew up in Southern California, but in Orange County, which is more conservative with cookie-cutter track housing.

 

I fell in love with Hermosa Beach’s funky bohemian vibe when I first visited in the late 80s/ early 90s and knew I’d live here eventually.

 

I like that Finn’s still a dog at the end, even though he makes the right choice. We all know a guy like Finn whose fooling around gets him in trouble. I loved the way you just kept pulling that thread instead of forcing some moral awakening.

 

I really wanted to be true to Finn’s character and not make him into something he’s not or isn’t capable of being no matter how much he tries. I initially had a different ending where Finn changed but it felt forced. Of course he’d go right back to his innate douchebag self because that’s his nature. You can try to change behavior, but inherently, we are all who we are inside.

 

It’s funny because I have a friend who thought Finn had a happy ending but then her boyfriend read the book and he said, “Are you kidding? That’s not a happy ending at all. He goes right back to the way he was before and learns nothing!” It’s all about perspective. From where my friend and I are sitting, it’s a happy ending because, although he may not get away with it much longer, Finn remains true to himself.

 

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

 

Back in the day, hardboiled fiction benefitted from serialization and radio programs. Now you have blogging and podcasts and all sorts of new publishing platforms. Do you think we’re headed for a noir revival–“new neo-noir”–Is that revival already here? 

 

That’s a tough one. I think because that’s my niche and what I like to read, I feel like noir is a popular genre but really, once I leave my little bubble, it’s not.

I’m also a bookseller and I know noir titles don’t sell as well as lighter or more commercial stuff. I think short story platforms like Great Jones Street  helps to introduce the noir genre to a broader readership. I also think part of it’s geographical. I know noir is very popular with the French and sells well over there.

 

Why the novella form? What was it like working with that page count?

 

I had a contract with a fledgling publisher that was only publishing novellas. It was my first time writing one and as I said, I decided to expand my short story. I’m not sure if that made things easier or more challenging than writing a novella from scratch. I had to figure out which parts I wanted to expand, which characters to explore, and tack on a middle and third act.

 

I’m used to writing tightly because all I had written before were short stories and flash fiction so the shorter the better for me.

 

Sarah m Chen novella author

 

You’re involved with some conferences and a pretty rad sounding crime fiction community. Care to give some shout outs? Where should people go to find great contemporary noir and hardboiled titles?

 

Yes, it’s a fantastic community and I’ve met so many wonderful writers who I call friends. I admire their work and it’s exciting and inspiring to be involved with such talent.

One of my favorites of 2017 is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. It’s told from multiple POVs but essentially it’s eleven-year-old Polly’s story. Her ex-con father is on a mission to protect her from a white supremacist gang and it’s brutal yet strangely hopeful.

 

Steph Post’s Lightwood is another one I really dug from early 2017. It’s another story of a criminal family but in this one, Judah Cannon is the protagonist who gets out of prison. He wants to stay out of trouble but his father has other ideas. It’s set in Florida and is straight down and dirty Southern noir.

Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

Marietta Miles is another writer I admire. Her novella, Route 12, is disturbing and poetic. I’m looking forward to MAY, her book coming out with Down & Out early next year. I’ll read any short stories by Jen Conley and everyone should check out her collection, Cannibals. Same with Patti Abbott. Her short stories are some of my favorites and I was so excited when she started writing novels, beginning with Concrete Angel. Greg Barth’s Selena trilogy is some of the most depraved crime fiction I’ve read, yet he has a way of creating characters that you despise and root for at the same time.

 

For great noir, and not to be biased, but I think my publisher All Due Respect Books is putting out some of the best noir in the marketplace. I was thrilled ADR became an imprint of Down & Out Books as D&O also has some of my favorites like Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay.

 

And if you want to get up to speed on what indie publishers are putting out these days, check out David Nemeth’s Small Press Crime Fiction: Incident Report blog. It’s always chock full of the latest hardboiled and noir titles that you may have missed.

What’s next for you? What’s now?

I have some short stories coming out in early 2018. One that came out recently is my story “Masterpiece” in Killing Malmon with Down & Out Books, edited by Kate and Dan Malmon, reviewers for Crimespree Magazine. This is a collection of 30 stories where the only guideline was that Dan Malmon must be killed. All proceeds benefit the MS Society and I was thrilled to be invited to participate.

Killing Malmon Sarah M Chen

I’m in another anthology called The Night of the Flood which I edited along with E.A. Aymar. This was a really fun project to be involved in as fourteen of us wrote interconnecting stories that took place over one chaotic night in a fictional Pennsylvania town. Bestselling and award-winning writer Hank Phillippi Ryan wrote the intro and it will be out March 2018.

 

Other than that, I’m revising my current WIP, a novel featuring a college dropout slacker whose life is in danger thanks to the unwanted return of her estranged father. It’s set in—where else?—the South Bay.

 

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Written by Charlie

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