Today I welcome Robert Roper. Robert Roper writes novels, biographies, history books, magazine articles, and children’s books. Fatal Mountaineer, about Everest pioneer Willi Unsoeld, won the Boardman Tasker Prize, the principal world prize in outdoor literature. His fiction includes Royo County, The Trespassers, and Cuervo Tales. His latest books are The Savage Professor and Nabokov in America (a biography). He lives in California and tries to stay out of trouble.
My latest novel is my first out-and-out crime novel, although, come to think of it, violence is all over my books. That started way back in 1973 with my first novel, Royo County, which the wonderful book critic William Hogan called “shattering…authentic to the core,” a thriller “as haunting as Hemingway’s The Killers,” pointing to the passages of suspense and graphic violence. And here I thought I had written a quiet literary novel. The book was nominated for Best First Western Book or Best New Cowboy Author or something like that – another surprise to me, since I hadn’t thought of myself in the same pigeonhole with Luke Short and Zane Grey. I was aiming more for Faulkner and Melville. Oh well.
I have a friend who’s a retired epidemiologist who used to teach at UCSF med school. I’ve always been curious about what epidemiologists actually do. There’s all that math and double-blind studies, but out in the field they are investigators seeking to solve mysteries, usually with a whole lot of gruesome death involved – like detectives. My friend had run studies all over Africa and Asia, and when I went walking with him on the streets of San Francisco I was amazed by how much he noticed – he was the first person to point out to me the funny little vials we kept crunching under our feet (crack bottles, late 1980s), the first to try to read the tattoos on the necks of the young hookers we ran into on Polk Street.
I started writing a profile of him, just because he’s a fascinating guy, and suddenly it took off, with a big whoosh, into a dark California crime story. It was about a series of murders that the book’s lead character, Anthony Landau, comes to be accused of. Using his math-filled brain he goes looking for the killer. I set the story in Berkeley because I know Berkeley well and because I missed the screwy old sun-struck academic town, being at that time tied down with a job in chilly Baltimore.
Landau, the flawed hero, is a man with an off-color romantic past. He was only married for a few years and mostly he’s lived alone while conducting a number of “interesting” affairs. He’s had some complaints about his behavior from some female colleagues, but on balance he doesn’t feel he’s done anything particularly wrong. Then this series of savage crimes against women starts happening, and his past comes to be looked at in a new light. He’s subjected to a virulent public shaming.
The book is called
The Savage Professor, and some reviewers have written that it’s a “very black and bloody comedy” and a “noir thriller” with a California "satire" thrown in. I certainly wasn’t aware of writing a satire. I’m not sure I know what satire is. It could be that the way I see things is a bit tweaked, with irony and black comedy already built into the equation. For me the absurd touches to life are simple realism. Landau sees things a bit this way, in ironic terms. Most of us – unfortunately I have to include myself in this sad indictment – though we laugh in public tend to see ourselves as quietly heroic strugglers in an unfair matchup with life, persevering despite everything, bestowing acts of kindness along the way, fighting the impossible but honorable fight and gamely pushing on. Landau sees himself that way, too, in his self-pitying moments, but he can also see the absurdity of everything he’s gotten mixed up in, and he’s often mocking and undercutting himself in his own mind. Meanwhile, other people around him see him as this powerful figure, formidable, intimidating, very adept at getting his own way. He’s this big hulking mathematician-scientist with a British accent who isn’t easily done under, and he just may have tortured and sliced to death a number of young women.