We are always aware of what we have gained from modern innovations but we never stop to think what we have lost


Robert Littell

Robert Littell by Xavier Thomas

A Nasty Piece of Work

Robert Littell has been awarded both the Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His novel The Company was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a television miniseries. A Nasty Piece of Work is his 17th novel.

Hooked by the story, I read your novel very quickly. Even if I spent a really nice time reading it, I’m wondering I didn’t miss the point. Because there seems to be a “story” in every sentence. What are your motivations when you write?

Bernard, I’ve been a lifelong admirer of Raymond Chandler, who perfected the roman detective that Edgar Allan Poe invented around 1840. (The remarkable thing about Edgar Allan Poe is he was the first American writer to try to earn his living by writing; many of us are still trying!) I guess it was always my dream to try to write a novel under the star of Chandler — I don’t think many Europeans understand how great a writer he was. Americans have never looked at America the same way after reading any of Chandler’s seven novels, written in the 1930s and 40s. And more to the point, American writers have never written in the same way after Chandler. He has had much more of an influence on American writers — on me, for example — than the much more famous Hemingway. So it was pretty much inevitable that for my 17th novel, I’d try — in what is more or less an experiment in style — to produce a classic American detective novel. A Nasty Piece of Work is the result. It was great fun to write. I can only hope that it is as much fun to read.

The novel opens with Lemuel Gunn draining his septic tank. Why did you choose this opening?

The novel opens with the detective, Lemuel Gunn, doing routine chores on his mobile home that is parked, like hundreds of thousands of other mobile homes in America, especially out West, in a mobile home park. Into his life walks the barefoot contessa, and her troubles become his troubles. The important thing at the beginning of any novel is to establish the principal characters — to do so in a way that makes them come alive for the reader. The success of the novel depends completely on how the writer introduces the principal characters (and I might add, even the characters). The reader will be carried along not so much by the story/plot, but by the characters if they are well introduced and take on a life of their own.

There is a war scene in Afghanistan which is in disfavor of American soldiers. Are you angry about the way this war has been carried out?

The great strategic error of the ten-year Afghan war — perhaps the greatest strategic error in American history! — was when then President Bush attacked Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Translators, CIA officers and agents, military resources and vast funding were pulled out of Afghan for the Iraq war, which was a war of choice and in retrospect (since no weapons of mass destruction were ever found) an unnecessary war. Afghanistan is a vast country peopled by independent-minded tribesmen who, we must remember, successfully resisted the Soviet invasion and ultimately expelled the Russian army from the country. Since the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan, made the terrible decision to harbor bin Laden and his Qaeda terrorists, America had little choice but to go into Afghanistan after the 2001 attack on America. But having gone in, American resources should have remained concentrated there — and not pulled away to invade a second country.

Why did you choose Albuquerque and the New Mexico deserts as the settings for the story?

Several years ago my wife and I spent a winter in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were on the trail of the original prehistoric American Indians and also the great painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who had lived on a ranch in the wild desert of New Mexico. At one point we rented a car and drove from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. It was on this trip that we discovered the bled called Nipton, and the old hotel with one room with a plaque on the door saying that the legendary silent film star Clara Bow had slept there. Union Pacific trains, 150 cars long with two locomotives, crawled past the hotel so close that the floorboards trembled. We also discovered Kelso Station with its abandoned hotel at the edge of the Mohave Desert. And then there were the two casinos on either side of the main road just inside the Nevada border with California; casinos are illegal in California but not in Nevada. At night from afar the two casinos looked like giant passenger liners lit up at sea. A never ending line of cars coming from Los Angeles, an hour or so down the road from the casinos, filled the highway. All of these colorful places remained in my head when I was trying to figure out where to plant my story of the detective Lemuel Gunn and the gorgeous barefoot contessa.

What do you mean by “Her lips were straight out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel”?

It’s a smile that conveys much more than mere happiness or enjoyment. It conveys fragility and fear and and world-weariness as well as delight. It’s a smile that reveals the character of a character to someone who is tuned into the nuances and subtleties engraved on a woman’s lips when she smiles.

Do you consider yourself to be a man from the last century?

Like Lemuel Gunn, the detective in A Nasty Piece of Work, I have often felt out of place in the modern world of computers and fast food and Facebook and the like. I enjoy certain things as much as the next person: the automobile, which allows an enormous mobility; e-mail, which permits me to keep in touch almost daily with my children and my friends; the refrigerator, which keeps foods from rotting so that one only has to shop once or twice a week. But a lot of things frighten me: credit cards that can be used by someone who steals my identity to withdraw money from my bank account; answering machines that garble messages; buy now-pay later schemes which seduce consumers into instant gratification. Above all I am suspicious of what television and the internet have done to democracies in our Western countries where, so it now seems, elections go to the candidate who spends the most money (hundreds of millions of dollars in the case of America) and uses the modern technologies best. What ever happened to the good old days when candidates crisscrossed the country, stopping at every crossroad and whistlestop railroad station, to speak to people from the back of a train? I think in general we are always aware of what we have gained from modern innovations but we never stop to think what we have lost. My detective in A Nasty Piece of Work shares my feeling — or I share his! — that we’ve lost a great deal.

Editorial reviews (3 reviews)


A Nasty Piece of Work lives up to its title. There is betrayal and gore galore.

Littell is so gifted a creator of intelligent entertainment that I could give away almost everything and still not spoil your pleasure in reading this neat, new genre novel by one of our best.

Brainy when it needs to be, arch at every conceivable opportunity and good-natured withal. It’s a pleasure to see Littell, who’s always seemed kind of tightly wound, relax a bit and invite readers along for the ride.