Friday, 22 May 2009

Marshal Jake T. Devine

Recently The Tainted Archive and Broken Trails discussed my novel Devine's Law and in particular the brutal lawman Marshal Jake T. Devine. So I thought this might be a good moment to provide my own take on the character.

To explain where Devine started I have to go back to when I first tried to write a western. I decided I would use a pen-name and I arrived at Jake T. Devine. The Christian name matched the rhythm of James T. Kirk and the surname came from the actor Andy Devine.

I completed a book using that name. Sadly when I'd finished, it turned out to be so dire I had no choice but to send it to the loft to think on about what it'd done wrong. Despite that, I kept the name for my next western, which turned out to The Outlawed Deputy. I had it printed out and ready to go to Robert Hale Ltd, the publishers of the Black Horse Western series, but then at the last minute I had second thoughts. What if it got published, I optimistically thought, I'd be Jake T. Devine for life. Maybe I'd like to have my own name on a cover instead.

I opted for that latter option and in recognition of the pen-name that wasn't I put a one line reference into the book to Devine. The book did get published and so I kept up that personal in-joke. I think all my books prior to Devine's Law referenced him. The idea was that every book would mention him and bit by bit the reader would get a picture of who he was, and yet like Niles's wife Maris in the sitcom Frasier he'd never appear. This kept me amused, but a few chapters into a new book, I had a revelation. I was an idiot for making these self-referencing in-jokes that would interest nobody but me.

That day I resolved to write Devine into the current novel. In a no-nonsense frame of mind, I made Devine no-nonsense. From the hints elsewhere, he was an old lawman, so to have survived I reckoned he would have learned through experience how to solve problems. With a few chapters written with Gabe Cowie as the hero, Gabe was coming over as wet and bland, so Devine had to be the opposite. As Gabe's first scene involved him getting into a punch up to help someone who he disagreed with, Gabe personified the principle that he would defend someone's right to say something even if he disagreed with them. Devine had to be the opposite of that too. This led on to the thought that the conflict between Gabe and Devine had to be a battle between ends and means. Gabe believed if you did the right thing, a greater good would result. Devine couldn't give a damn how you got there and who he killed, brutalised and maimed on the way as long as he got his man in the end.

So I started writing and within an hour Devine had killed several main cast members who I'd thought would see out the novel, but that was fine as I didn't like them much anyway. I deleted their later scenes and carried on. The novel wrote itself faster than most and I can recall little about the story. It was one of the schizophrenic experiences you sometimes get where the characters tell their story and you write to find out what happens.

Periodically I stopped and wondered whether Devine was too being brutal when he beat up yet another innocent person, but I let him do what he wanted to do and went with the flow. I didn't even know the solution to the central mystery of what Max Randall's secret was. I kept writing to find out the answer, but with the book almost over and pretty much everyone dead, that secret still hadn’t come out. Then someone did a small hand gesture and that told one of the surviving characters, and me, what the story had been about. So that ended that. I did wonder whether I should change the story, especially the bleak ending, but giving Devine some humanity somehow didn't feel right. He was a force of nature, and I couldn't bring myself to give him any sympathetic traits and so I left the story as it was.

Afterwards, I realized writing him had been so easy I had to bring Devine back. So in Wanted: McBain I tried to use him again. I set him up to be the lawman chasing after the outlaws. The trouble was every time I wrote a scene with him in he immediately killed everybody. There were no half-measures, or plot developing. Devine is a blunt instrument. He just arrives, does something unpleasant and kills. I had to keep rewriting the scenes to keep enough plot for a novel and in the end I edited him out so much he appeared for one minor scene and about two lines of dialogue.

A few novels later I tried again in Mendosa's Gun-runners. I set him up to chase after the outlaws again and again he killed everyone off in his first scene. So I rewrote and kept pushing him back and back until he appeared in only one scene again. It was a slightly more significant scene this time, but I felt frustrated by my inability to use him and after two failures I gave up on Devine.

As an aside, as I've been banging on here about the tv series Ashes to Ashes, I should say that on first seeing Life on Mars I slapped my forehead in frustration. I realized Gene Hunt was the answer to my problems, if only I’d known at the time. Gene, like Devine, is a man who is concerned with ends while Sam Tyler, like Gabe, follows means. I remember thinking how I'd wished I'd given Devine some of Hunt's qualities, such as a sense of humour and made sure he only brutalized guilty people. But I hadn't and I was stuck with him.

Two years ago I had another go at a Devine story. I'd had a first chapter knocking around for a while that had gone nowhere as, to my surprise, the hero had got killed in his first scene. I had started writing his funeral, but I'd stopped as I had no idea where to go next. But when I looked again at that chapter I found I'd written in a mysterious stranger arriving for the funeral, but as I hadn’t known who this person was, I'd taken it no further. The thought came that maybe the stranger was Devine.

So I started writing to see what would happen and the next scene surged out in about thirty minutes. Devine beats up two mourners, kicks the coffin over and spits on the corpse. I decided then to go and write something else instead and haven't re-opened that file. But recently I had an idea why he might have done that, so perhaps I might let him lose on that plot idea some time soon!



I'd love to see him again but please don't put in an Audi and have him team up with a time traveller from 2010. I thought Devine had something of the Judge Dredd about him and his appeal was down to the fcat that he was such a bastard.

Ray said...

I agree - though my take is that there is more to Devine than meets the eye. It's survival of the fittest by any means possible - but he has principles. He couldn't kill one character as long as that character wore a badge. And the Judge Dredd attitude of 'I am the law' is there but Devine has a grudging respect for the law.

David Cranmer said...

And isn't it nice when a story writes itself?

I'm looking forward to reading Devine's Law as I am working my way through several Black Horse westerns. However, my outlandish TBR pile just exploded with some twenty Zane Grey westerns I bought yesterday.

I.J. Parnham said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I do like it that everyone appears to have a different take on the character than my own. I guess it sort of proves that he 'existed' independently of anything I did.