Matthew B. Gilmore
David Krugler — Interview with a D.C. Novelist
Rip the Angels from Heaven (Pegasus Crime, 2018) is the sequel to my 2016 novel The Dead Don’t Bleed, which featured a young naval intelligence officer, Ellis Voigt, and his dual investigation of a murder and a Russian spy ring operating in Washington at the end of World War II. Voigt solved the murder in the first book; now, in Rip the Angels from Heaven, he needs to break up the spy ring. To do this, he plays a risky double game, persuading the Russians he’s working for them while furtively undermining their mission to steal the secrets of the atomic bomb project. From Washington Voigt gets posted to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in July 1945, on the eve of the atomic bomb test. As the scientists prepare to detonate the weapon, Voigt scrambles to identify the Russian spy at Los Alamos while he figures out a way to keep the Russians convinced he’s helping them. It makes for a lot of sleepless nights for Voigt!
The biggest challenge of using Washington as the main setting is to envision the topography and residents of a lost city. By that I mean not just all the architecture circa 1945 that is long gone, but also the aura of a city at war. A jammed-up city, with wooden “tempos” clogging the Mall and newcomers sleeping in shifts in rooming houses. Where did Washingtonians, whether they had just arrived or were third-generation residents, eat out, dance, buy their groceries? How did they get to work? Maps, photos, oral histories, and books (especially David Brinkley’s classic Washington at War) are a big help, but they can take a novelist only so far. Eventually, you have to stop researching and start creating: pick an address for your character’s home, describe it, and then start imagining what the surrounding area looks like and who else inhabits that space. And that “leap,” if you will, is also the biggest opportunity. The fact that Washington’s history is so well documented, preserved, and studied (thank you, Historical Society of Washington and the Washingtonian Division of the MLK) is another great opportunity.
My most basic requirement is to ensure that the streets and avenues my characters traverse are historically accurate. With period maps, this isn’t hard (though I won’t claim I haven’t made a mistake now and then.) In terms of buildings, I also try to be historically accurate, especially if I’m dealing with a well-known site, but for minor locations, I happily make up places. For example, in Rip the Angels from Heaven a place called the Starlight Ballroom, located on New York Avenue, is completely fictional. I could have selected a real ballroom from 1945, but as a novelist, I have to balance historical accuracy with the needs of my story. In this case, Ellis Voigt was in that neighborhood as he tries to avoid being picked up by the Russians, and he decides that taking refuge in a crowded ballroom is his best move. As long as my fictional sites and scenes in Washington are plausible, then I’m satisfied—and I hope my readers are too!
Washington was the natural choice for the setting for two main reasons: one, Washington is an apt site for a plot involving World War II espionage; and two, as a historian I’ve written a nonfiction book about Washington during the Cold War (This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C., Prepared for Nuclear War, 2006). The research I did for that book included learning a lot about how WWII affected the city, and I ended up using a lot of information that didn’t make it into that book in both of my novels.
I tried hard to avoid stereotyping Washington. A lot of spy novels use Washington as a cut-out, referencing well-known monuments and federal buildings, but then omitting the city and residents surrounding the seat of government. So while much of my “Washington” may be fictional, as I previously explained, I want the historically accurate and historically imagined parts of the Washington of my novels to ring true.
Tough question—by nature a writer wants to avoid admitting to consciously using stereotypes. That said, I embraced the hard-nose, hard-charging FBI agent character familiar to fans of this genre. As students of modern U.S. history know, it’s a well-earned stereotype, though certainly not a complete picture of the Bureau. (For the best, well-rounded fictional depiction of various Bureau characters, I highly recommend James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover.) It fits with my story—Agent Clayton Slater, who first appears in The Dead Don’t Bleed, is convinced that Ellis Voigt is not telling the entire truth about himself and his investigation, and he’s determined to find out if Voigt’s on the up-and-up or not.
Readers who love rich, deep blends of history and fiction. So, if you like the novels of Alan Furst, Joseph Kanon, and Philip Kerr, then I’m writing for you!
I grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Nebraska (undergraduate degree) and Illinois (graduate degrees), then returned to my home state in 1997 to take a position at the University of Wisconsin—Platteville, where I’m now Professor of History. When I’m not busy with history or fiction, I enjoy world travel, biking, and reading. Lots and lots of reading—getting rid of my television not only gave me more reading time, it also opened up space for another bookcase.
Having written a nonfiction book featuring Washington, I wanted to take on the challenge of creating a compelling fictional story set in the same city as it’s bursting at the seams because of the wartime expansion of the federal government and the influx of so many new residents. I also wanted to write a World War II “home front” novel about characters who are in the military but serving stateside. Their work is important, but do they feel as if they’re not making the same contribution and sacrifices because they’re not in combat?
The way I blend history and fiction and the attention I give to period detail, language, and events.
I read much classic noir and hard-boiled fiction, also lots of espionage fiction. In this latter category, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and John Le Carre are big influences. As my next answer suggests, there are lots of DC novels that influence me as well.
Gore Vidal, Washington, D.C.; Breena Clarke, River, Cross My Heart; George P. Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown; David Swinson, The Second Girl; Edward P. Jones, Lost in the City (granted, the last book is a short story collection, but together these stories provide one of the finest modern depictions of Washington and its residents around).
Thomas Mallon, Fellow Travelers (2007). Mallon deftly weaves together history and fiction in a story that dramatizes the real, but little-known, “Lavender Scare” (in which gay civil servants were hounded and driven from their jobs during the years of Joe McCarthy’s investigations). Mallon provides a vivid portrayal of Washington in the grip of layered Cold War fears while also telling a memorable, original love story. And if you love the book, check out the opera based upon it.
I’m writing a prequel featuring one of the main characters of Rip the Angels from Heaven. This novel is set in D.C. and other locales in 1943-44 and revolves around foreign efforts to sway American domestic politics as Franklin Roosevelt prepares to run for an unprecedented fourth presidential term. Unlike my first two novels, which are written in first person from the point of view of my naval lieutenant, Ellis Voigt, this book will be written in the third person.