'Black and White Ball': Author's famous characters finally meet in latest novel

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

At last! Prolific author Loren D. Estleman’s two most famous characters — hard-boiled private eye Amos Walker and professional hitman Peter Macklin, both of whom have been around since the 1980s — finally meet for the first time in his latest novel “Black and White Ball.”

Estleman, 65, confessed he was reluctant to team them up. 

“I would hear from readers, a lot of them wanted me to bring those two together in one book,” he said. “The only reason I didn’t want to do that was because Walker always wins, Macklin always wins. I figured if I brought them together — they’re on opposite sides of the law, opposite sides of morality, for that matter – it would have to be end of days for one of them. But I came up with a way not to do that. I was pretty happy with the way it came out.”

The plot revolves around Macklin forcing Walker to protect Laurie, Macklin’s estranged wife, who’s being targeted. It turns out Macklin’s grown son, Roger, is the one going after Laurie, having inherited his father’s killer instincts and acquired all the necessary training to make him a credible threat. 

“As far as Amos sees things, a serial killer is less evil than a professional killer. A serial killer can’t help what he does, but a professional killer has that choice,” said Estleman. “They’re still who they are. Amos Walker has nothing but contempt for what Peter Macklin represents. Peter Macklin never apologizes for himself; he does what he does and doesn’t engage in a whole lot of repertoire or dialogue about what he does.” 

The book is told partly by Walker in the first-person perspective and partly by Macklin in the third-person perspective. This is how Estleman writes both series. 

“The nice thing is when you get tired of writing from one character’s perspective, you can go across town and see what the other one’s doing. It always kept it active for me,” he said.

Kristin Sevick has been Estleman’s editor for the past five years. 

“Loren is a true professional and a joy to work with. His manuscripts come in remarkably clean and always on time. Loren is the only author I work with who still sends me letters – he doesn’t have an email address – and I’m always delighted when his signature stationery arrives on my desk. For someone who can write such dark characters so well, he’s always been as nice and generous as they come,” said Sevick. 

Estleman and fellow novelist Denise Swanson will sign copies of their latest books at the Ann Arbor District Library, located at 343 S. Fifth Avenue at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 7. 

The event is sponsored by Aunt Agatha’s, an Ann Arbor-based bookstore specializing in mysteries, and is part of the AADL’s National Library Week.

“With Estleman, though the reader always gets great characters and a tight plot, for me it’s all about the gorgeous, rich language he uses. I savor each one,” said Aunt Agatha’s co-owner Robin Agnew. 

Linda Fairstein, an attorney-turned-author, agreed with Agnew. 

“Loren Estleman is one of my favorite writers,” she said. “I especially love his noir crime fiction. He’s a great storyteller, writes crisp dialogue, and has wonderful literary style. Plus, he’s one of the nicest guys in this business.”

A native of Dexter, Estleman graduated from Dexter High School in 1970. He went on to Eastern Michigan University, where he graduated with an undergraduate degree in journalism and English in 1974. In 2002, EMU awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters. He currently lives in Whitmore Lake with his wife of 25 years, fellow author Deborah Morgan. 

Walker – who debuted in 1980’s “Motor City Blue – was ingrained in Estleman at an early age. A member of the first generation to grow up with television, Estleman watched hard-boiled detective movies from the 1930s and 1940s.

“Growing up in the country, I wasn’t in touch with the rest of the world. I thought they were modern-day stories. I grew up with that sentiment and mentality, so it was natural I started writing about that kind of thing,” he said. “Amos is a 1930s throwback. It’s a nice contrast when you take an anachronism like him and put him against the modern-day realistic background of Detroit and watch the fireworks. Nobody had done a hard-boiled detective in Detroit before. He’s a combination of myself, many police officers I've known, and the quintessential American hero: the revolutionary outsider determined to see justice done.”

Walker has been the star of 29 novels. Macklin, who debuted in 1984’s “Kill Zone,” has been the star of five books. 

“I wanted to write a series… from the (perspective) of a professional killer just to show what they’re really all about. Most of the ones who make money doing it aren’t psychopaths; they don’t particularly enjoy it. They kinda fell into it to begin with and keep doing it because it’s the only thing they know how to do,” explained Estleman. “I also wanted to explore the ramifications. He tries to keep up a respectable front – he’s a family man. I decided to have him going through a divorce because his (first wife Donna) found out what he’s done and it’s been eating at her for a long time. He has to deal with that and also has to deal with that his son (Roger) might want to follow in his footsteps.”

Try as he might, Macklin – whose legitimate business was running a camera store – attempted to keep his double-life separate and failed.  

“One of those things I touched upon in this latest book was that it was ironic of his two professions the illegal one is still in demand,” said Estleman. “Most professional killer stories deal with this loner out there with no complications, but I wanted to give him all the complications any ordinary man has when trying to lead an ordinary life. He’s got a legitimate business, a home in the suburbs, he’s raising a family – all the things a father is expected to take care of, but on top of it all, he’s a killer as well.”

There was a 16-year gap between 1986’s “Any Man’s Death” and 2002’s “Something Borrowed, Something Black.” Part of the reason was Estleman didn’t want the Macklin books to become an action series. 

“In (the first) three books, I dealt with most of the issues I was talking about. Rather than let the series devolve into one of these action-oriented things where you have to keep a number on the cover, so you don’t buy the same book twice, I let the series lapse,” he said. “Years later, it struck me: What if he decides to remarry a younger woman (Laurie) who doesn’t know what he really does for a living? He think it’s behind him – he’s not doing that anymore – but his past catches up with him. Kinda that ‘Shane’ thing, trying to get away from your violent past. That gave the series new life. He had more domestic difficulties to deal with.”

Estleman would like to write more Macklin novels, but doesn’t know when. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on “Wild Justice,” his upcoming Western novel featuring protagonist Page Murdock that’s out in November, and writing next year’s Walker novel. 

In the last year, he collaborated with New York Times best-selling novelist James Patterson on “The Moores are Missing.” In it, an ordinary suburban family vanishes without a trace.

“The whole idea of putting out short novels – novelettes – for people to read while they’re traveling is a crackerjack idea,” he said. “I thought for years that short-stories and novelettes should be more popular than they are because they’re something you can read during a moderately long trip. I think it’s a great way to get people interested in reading again.”

Estleman explained the longevity of his series characters is that he doesn’t write the same story or in the same genre twice in a row. 

“I’ll write a contemporary mystery, then the next one will be a Western. The two genres are different enough for me that one is a vacation from the other,” he said. “They’re similar enough that I don’t feel culture shock from one genre to the next. I like to call it literary crop-rotation. When I finish a mystery, I’m ready to do a Western. When I finish a Western, I’m ready to do a mystery. Each one’s fresh. I’m still excited about doing a story.” 

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