“Gould pithily slips in loads of relevant details about homelessness, consumerism, and waste on the way to the satisfying ending. Readers will want to see a lot more of the obsessively virtuous Waldo.” — Publishers Weekly
Published: December 7th, 2021
Blackmail, sexual harassment, murder . . .
and a missing dog: eccentric, eco-obsessed LA private eye Charlie Waldo is on the case in this quirky, fast-paced mystery.
Paying a harsh self-imposed penance for a terrible misstep on a case, former LAPD superstar detective Charlie Waldo lives a life of punishing minimalism deep within the woods, making a near religion of his commitment to owning no more than One Hundred Things.
At least, he’s trying to. His PI girlfriend Lorena keeps drawing him back to civilization – even though every time he compromises on his principles, something goes wrong.
And unfortunately for Waldo, all roads lead straight back to LA. When old adversary Don Q strongarms him into investigating the seemingly mundane death of a vagrant, Lorena agrees he can work under her PI license on one condition: he help with a high-maintenance celebrity client, wildly popular courtroom TV star Judge Ida Mudge, whose new mega-deal makes her a perfect target for blackmail.
Reopening the coldest of cases, a decades-old fraternity death, Waldo begins to wonder if the judge is, in fact, a murderer – and if he’ll stay alive long enough to find out.
Pay or Play is the third in the Charlie Waldo series, following Last Looks and Below the Line. Last Looks was turned into a major motion picture, starring Charlie Hunnam as the offbeat private investigator.
Please, tell us who Charlie Waldo is and why he deserves a Mystery / Thriller series?
Charlie Waldo is a former LAPD superstar detective who made a fatal mistake on a case in his past. In response, he’s vowed never to hurt anyone, or even the planet, ever again. So he’s become a pathological environmentalist and even a minimalist: he only allows himself to own one hundred things. When we meet him in the first novel, he’s been living as a hermit on a mountain outside of Los Angeles for three years, but then his ex-girlfriend, a PI herself, tracks him down and lures him back into the city to work a case.
Now, I cannot wait to see “Last Looks”! Tell us, please, something about Charlie Hunnam as Waldo and in general about the film and the first book in the series.
Charlie is magnificent as Waldo. Not only did he have a deep emotional connection with the character, but he took on a lot of the specifics: just before filming, he went to live by himself in the woods for two weeks, and he brought to Atlanta (where most of the movie was shot) precisely one hundred things. If he needed to add anything, he’d force himself to get rid of something else, just like Waldo does.
In that book, the central case is a sensational Hollywood murder: a belligerent alcoholic star actor may or may not have killed his wife during a blackout drunk. It may be the juiciest character I’ve ever written in any medium. In the movie it’s Mel Gibson—a clever and nervy bit of casting. He’s sensational, too.
The cover of Pay or Play says that “Fast, funny and well worth a sequel”. What makes Pay or Play funny? Why, how much, and what kind of humour are you using in Charlie Waldo’s series?
Gosh, describing comedy is about the worst thing a comedy writer’s asked to do.
I’ve made my living for decades as a screenwriter, mostly of comedy of one sort or another, so I do it in the novels because… it’s what I do.
Unlike, say, Carl Hiaasen’s, my books are built like conventional private eye thrillers—but then I spin pretty much every page with some kind of humor. Almost all the characters have some kind of unexpected or genre-subverting bend to them, plus there’s a lot of observational stuff about Hollywood and SoCal, seen through Waldo’s ascetic eyes.
When asked for my subgenre, I like to say “satirical crime fiction.” It’s lonely on that bookshelf, but it’s where I’m comfortable.
What are your plans for Charlie?
Well, the movie version of Last Looks will be out very soon, and I’m currently working on a fourth book now, which takes place in the early days of the pandemic, and finds Waldo trying to investigate a series of murders largely via Zoom.
I didn’t know about the difference between screenwriters and playwrights until I read your bio. How different is it for you to write mysteries/thrillers?
It’s very challenging. After my early college years, I didn’t attempt prose fiction for 35 years, so even that part is a real challenge. Nor was I a mystery/thriller screenwriter, so constructing good detective stories is a challenge, too. As is designing cases for a private eye who doesn’t have access to forensics, in an age when forensics provide the solution to most every case.
But I find it more deeply gratifying than my Hollywood work ever has been. There it’s all about writing a script which will entice someone else to act in it, or produce it, or direct it, or finance it, then making adjustments to suit them in order to get someone else to take another of those roles, then making their adjustments, and so on. You hope that the project gets made, you hope that none of those entities decide to replace you with another writer, and you hope that, if it gets made, the people who actually make it will make it well. It’s vanishingly rare that all of that comes to pass. As showrunner, which I was for most of my television life, you do have a little more control of the quality, but also responsibility to a lot of other entities to whom you have to be somewhat deferential along the way.
Writing a book, it’s just me, sitting in a room and thinking about the smartest people I know, and trying to write the book they’d want to read for fun.
What are the criteria you consider when assigning a case to Charlie?
I’ve never been asked that one. Great question.
I always start with a larger than life special guest star to drive the story, just like Columbo, or Batman. In the first book it’s the British actor Alastair Pinch (the Mel Gibson role). In the second book, Below the Line, it’s a teenage girl from hell named Stevie Rose. In the new one, Pay or Play, it’s a breakout TV reality star named Judge Ida Mudge, sort of a foul-mouthed cross between Judge Judy and Wanda Sykes.
Then I try to build a case around that guest star. Judge Ida’s just landed a million dollar a day syndication offer—that’s what the real Judge Judy used to make, believe it or not—which makes her a target for blackmail.
Then I try to figure out how to make the case especially challenging for Waldo, both emotionally and in terms of his stringent rules for living. In Pay or Play, it’s a 35-year-old cold case, whose suspects and witnesses have scattered around the country, so he’s got to figure out the most environmentally correct way to travel, something he’s never done since changing his life.
What do you think about today's trends in literature? What do we miss?
I miss books being as important to the culture as they were when I was younger. It surprised me, when I became an author, how many of my friends—intelligent professionals, even some people who make their livings with a keyboard—say that they don’t read books, that books simply don’t have a place in their lives. They’ve been replaced, to an extent, by “easier” media, by streaming and podcasts and tweets. But I think we’ve lost something special and important.
That said, I’m grateful for the readership I do have, and very touched that what seems an unusal percentage of people who have found Waldo have reached out through my website or social media. There’s something intimate that happens between novelist and reader, and it’s quite something to experience that from the other side. It keeps me writing, and keeps me grinding to make every story and every page as good as I can make it.
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About the author:
Howard Michael Gould graduated from Amherst College and spent five years working on Madison Avenue, winning three Clios and numerous other awards.
In television, he was executive producer and head writer of CYBILL when it won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series, and held the same positions on THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW and INSTANT MOM. Other TV credits include FM and HOME IMPROVEMENT.
He wrote and directed the feature film THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY LEFAY, starring Tim Allen, Elisha Cuthbert, Andie MacDowell and Jenna Elfman. Other feature credits include MR. 3000 and SHREK THE THIRD.
His play DIVA premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and La Jolla Playhouse, and was subsequently published by Samuel French and performed around the country.
He is the author of three mystery novels featuring the minimalist detective Charlie Waldo: LAST LOOKS (2018) and BELOW THE LINE (2019), both nominated for Shamus Awards by the Private Eye Writers of America, and PAY OR PLAY (2021). The feature film version of LAST LOOKS, starring Charlie Hunnam and Mel Gibson and directed by Tim Kirkby, will premiere February, 2022; Gould also wrote the screenplay.
Catch Up With Howard Michael Gould:
Great interview! I can't wait for the movie. And, of course, I will have to read the book first! Sounds like a lot of fun - I LOVE quirky characters and Waldo sounds perfect!
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