Now here’s an interview I’ve really been looking forward to. Let’s meet Martin Preuss, the protagonist of “Cold Dark Lies” from Detroit author Donald Levin. I've had the opportunity to read several of the books in this series and have enjoyed each one.
Here’s a little about the story.
When distraught Carrie Morrison hires Martin Preuss to find out how her younger brother wound up clinging to life in a disreputable Ferndale motel, the private detective thinks the story will be a familiar one—a young man takes a walk on the wild side and pays a terrible price. But the deeper Preuss digs, the more he realizes that nothing is as it seems in the brother’s world of secrets and lies.
Questions multiply: How is the young man involved with a missing prostitute? What’s the link to a local rap mogul who moonlights as the city’s main drug supplier? Why is a stone-cold killer out for revenge with Preuss in his cross-hairs? And—most upsetting of all—why is a local crime boss threatening Preuss’s beloved handicapped son Toby?
So let’s get to it! Martin, tell us a little about yourself:
This is a hard question to answer . . . These are all hard questions for me, as a matter of fact. I’m a private person, and I’m not used to sharing much about myself. I’m not one of those people who will tell you their whole life story within the first half-hour after you meet them. You might pull it out of me, but only after I’ve known you for a while. That’s why I’ve put off doing this interview. But here goes: I’m currently a partner in Greene & Preuss Investigations, a private detective agency in suburban Detroit. Before that I was with the Ferndale Police Department, working my way up from patrol officer to sergeant in the Detective Bureau. I’m from Ypsilanti, Michigan, where my parents were professors at Eastern Michigan University and my brother—well, let’s just say he was good at what he did, and what he did was being a major-league drug addict and all-around jerk. I started college at EMU, but when I married a fellow student, Jeanette Russo, and she got pregnant with our first son Jason, I needed a job to support them. Her father, Nick, was a detective in the Ferndale Police Department, and he’s the one who convinced me to join up. I finished my college degree at Wayne State University in Detroit. Our family was complete when our second son, Toby, was born. Toby has lots of handicaps, but man, nobody has ever been loved as much as that boy is.
How did your background get you involved in this novel?
After I retired early from the FPD (thanks in large part to Nick Russo, but that’s a longer story), I was at loose ends . . . I wasn’t even fifty, with the rest of my life ahead of me, and didn’t know how I was going to fill my days from then on. An 83-year-old private investigator I had met on one of my previous cases, Manny Greene, had been after me to join his one-man agency. I wasn’t keen on doing that; I thought I should do something else, something new. But when Manny—that wise, wise fellow—asked me to look into the disappearance of a young man who hadn’t been seen for forty years, I realized (as I’m sure he knew I would) that investigation is what I was best at. So I joined his agency, and one afternoon when he was tied up and unable to keep a meeting with a new client, he asked me to speak with her. She wanted to find out how her brother wound up strung out on drugs at a skeevy motel in Ferndale, so the Ferndale connection got me hooked and this book was off to the races.
Who came first, you or the author?
Levin likes to think he invented me, and I just let him keep on in that delusion. You know how sensitive these writers are.
What is it about this story that sets it apart from the others in the series?
From the other stories in the series, you mean? I think this story is timelier than the other cases. It’s about the impact of the opioid crisis, which is in all the news reports lately. But it’s about the crisis as seen from “ground-level” . . . and by that I mean, it shows the impact of middle-class drug use on the lives not only of the drug users themselves, but on the people who love and care for them. The story shows how devastating drug use can be as it destroys lives and brings people in touch with the worst of themselves, as well as the worst of humanity.
Tell us something about your background that may or may not be revealed in the book?
Most people won’t know that I was terribly shy as a boy. (Of course, most people won’t know much about me, as I was saying earlier.) Looking back, I could guess it had a lot to do with my family-of-origin; I learned the world outside myself was a chaotic place. My parents were smart people—they were professors, after all—but that didn’t mean they were always good or even well-intentioned. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was a classic enabler; all her attention went toward protecting my father; my brother and I felt like intruders in our own home. I remember all the times she would shush my brother and me because “Daddy was working,” which usually meant he was in an alcoholic binge in his home office in the basement. My brother had his own drug problems (my brother’s problems were, eerily, reflected in the case in this book), and I wound up with the family disease, too . . . I was an alcoholic myself, until Jeanette died. After that I stopped drinking. If I had stopped earlier, things might have been different, but . . . as I always say, if things were different, they wouldn't be the same.
Are you the type of person who always seeks out the company of others?
Uh, no. I’ve got some friends—Janie Cahill and Reg Trombley, two of my former colleagues in the Ferndale PD, in particular—and some musician acquaintances (I play rhythm guitar in a band occasionally, whenever I can make the gigs), but I pretty much keep myself to myself. Reg has his own life with his wife and two daughters and his career in the department, and Janie and I . . . well, our history keeps getting in our way. I might have met someone in this latest book who can pierce through my loneliness, but we’ll all have to wait for the next book to see how that turns out.
What do you do to relax after a day’s work?
I spend as much time as I can with my younger son, Toby. I love the guy more than words can express. He’s multiply-handicapped, with problems that fill a couple of pages on his school IEP: visual limitations, profound cerebral palsy that left him unable to care for his own personal needs, cognitive delays, microcephaly, seizure disorder, the delicate bird bones of his legs that can’t hold up his weight and break if too much pressure is applied during physical therapy (he’s had a few broken legs). And yet, for all his problems, Toby is the happiest, most content person I’ve ever known. Whenever we go anywhere, he has the best time. He radiates an aura of peace and gentleness that is his default state, spoiled only if one of his physical ailments bother him. I usually visit him first thing in the morning, before he gets on the bus that takes him to his school program, and I stop in after work or before his bedtime to help give him his bath (his favorite thing in the world), read him some chapters from his Harry Potter books, and spend time talking with him and playing guitar for him as we both unwind from our days before kissing him good night. He lives in a group home because I can’t take care of all his needs by myself with my crazy schedule, first as a detective and now as a private investigator. Not having him live with me is one of my bigger regrets.
Which do you prefer, music or television?
Oh, music, no doubt. I can’t remember the last time I even turned on a television, but music means a lot to me. When I was young, I thought I would be a musician, in fact. Music was a way out of the dreadful realities of my family life.
Who’s your best friend and what influence have they had on your life?
That’s an easy one. Anybody who’s read my books knows the answer to this one: My dear son Toby. He’s blessed with a seemingly infinite capacity to offer and accept love from the people who take care of him (including, of course, me), a zen-like patience with the shortcomings and imperfections of other people, an eternal innocence, an ability to savor the best of every moment, and an inability to show or possibly even feel anger. As limited as Toby’s life could be, I often envy his way of being in the world. I sometimes yearn for my son’s blissful contentment, and wish I could learn enough from the boy to be able to replicate it all for myself. He’s also my sounding board for difficult cases; even though he can’t articulate words because of his cerebral palsy, I assume he understands everything I tell him, and talking over my cases with him helps me to get my sometimes-scattered thoughts in order.
What’s your greatest strength? And of course, we want to know the opposite, your greatest weakness.
I have one main strength: my secret weapon is Toby. Toby keeps me grounded, and continually shows me what’s important in life. And it’s not being a hard-drinking, womanizing, wise-cracking, shoot-first tough-guy detective like a lot of fictional detectives. No, it’s being more like what I try to learn from Toby . . . being intuitive; patient; understanding; gentle, even (I refused to carry a gun when I was on the force because I believe violence only creates more violence); and in general more real and down-to-earth than other fictional detectives. You can’t do any of that if you’re busy smashing somebody’s head in. My weakness is spending too much time in my own mind, and not being open enough to the vagaries and randomness of life. I was an English minor in college (I started out as a history major), and I remember reading about a character who said he wanted the world to be “at a sort of moral attention forever.” Too often I feel like that’s what I’m like: too guarded, too shut off. It’s something I need to keep pushing against.
What has been the most romantic thing you’ve ever done or instigated?
Well, romance isn’t something I’m comfortable with. My wife died in a car accident several years ago, for which I (and my older son Jason) blame myself even though I wasn’t driving. After one of our wilder fights, she threw the kids in her minivan and took off for her mother’s place up in Traverse City. She never made it: a drunk driver t-boned the car, killing her instantly and injuring the two boys. Since then I haven’t been involved with anyone; I’ve been in a kind of self-imposed exile from relationships. I guess you might say it’s from the guilt I feel over her death. I’ve had a few close calls with a couple of women, but nothing has worked out since Jeanette died . . . I haven’t even gone on a date, much to the chagrin of the people who read about me. To recall a romantic gesture, I’d have to go back to when Jeanette and I were married—and even then our last few years together were pretty unhappy. Mostly because of me, I hasten to add . . . with my drinking and moodiness, I wasn’t the best husband or father. But there was that time when we were younger, when we were still a relatively happy family, when for her birthday one year I arranged to have a bouquet of flowers delivered once a week all year-round, including throughout the winter. She appreciated it. Too bad I couldn’t keep that up longer, right? She might still be around . . .
He parked in front of a red-brick Arts and Crafts bungalow from the 1920s, the kind that dotted Highland Park in better days. The houses up and down the street were newer, neat and well-maintained, but this one was an original bungalow, and it cried out for work. Paint peeled off the wooden piers that held up a sagging hipped roof over the front porch, the wooden front steps were split and rotted, and cedar shingles were missing on the second-floor exterior.
The house had an empty driveway made of broken concrete pieces, and a gate hung askew from the grey hurricane fence around the weedy back yard. Broken bricks and construction rubble were piled against the side of the house.
Preuss carefully climbed the damaged front steps and briefly thought about knocking on the door. Where the doorbell used to be was an empty socket.
Deciding it would be a bad idea to warn whoever might be inside, he tried the doorknob. It turned in his hand and he pushed it open.
He took a step inside the house. No furniture in the front room, just a fireplace at the far end with an inglenook with broken benches on either side. The room reeked of damp old wood and various human bodily excretions. The oak floor was almost black with old shellac and littered with the remains of fast food meals: Arby’s wrappers, giant McDonald’s cups tipped on their sides, pizza boxes open with congealed cheese.
Moving slowly over the wooden floors to keep the creaking to a minimum, he went through the rooms on the first floor. The stairway to the second floor was, oddly, in the kitchen, and as he carefully went up the steps he smelled the sweet, skunky odor of marijuana.
He hugged the wall as he approached the room where the smell was coming from. He peeked around the door and saw a slender black woman sitting cross-legged on the floor facing him.
He stood in the doorway and said, “Meeshell.”
She gave an exaggerated flinch and jumped to her feet, the blunt hanging from her lips. She wore a black silk do-rag and her eyes were wide with surprise. She had on Levi’s torn at the knees and a red, green, and orange tunic.
She threw a look beside him as if judging whether she could squeeze by him.
He held his hands up. “Easy. I just want to talk.”
“Who are you?”
“Martin Preuss. I’m a private investigator.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I want to ask you some questions about Greg Braiden.”
At the mention of his name, she backed away, toward the window behind her. The room faced on Tuxedo. For a moment, he thought she was going to turn and jump through the window.
“Meeshell, don’t jump out and try to slide down the roof, okay? Please. Just don’t do that.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Were you with him when he OD’d last week?”
“No,” she said, too fast. He knew she was lying. And he could tell that she knew he knew.
“Meeshell,” he said, “his family’s worried about him. They just want to know what happened.”
A shout came from the back of the house outside, a male voice, loud and angry. Preuss turned his head at the sound, and in an instant she sprang toward him, knocking him off balance and leaping past him down the stairway.
He was up after her at once, but she was faster. She raced out the back door and slammed it shut at the back of the house. He heard a racket of cans and bottles and boxes as she burst through the backyard.
He pushed through the back door into a mountain of trash in time to see Meeshell scrambling over the hurricane fence at the rear of the yard. The metal collapsed under her and she stumbled but kept going. She disappeared down the alley behind the house.
He followed. The alley was a forest of leggy weeds and mulberry trees. He saw her sprinting with a long stride toward Third Avenue. He chased her down the overgrown alley but when he got to the cross street she was gone.
He walked another block each way around the neighborhood, but he had lost her.
Meeshell and Ray Tomatoes had both outrun him. I must be losing my edge, Preuss thought.
Or maybe just getting too old for this anymore.
About the Author:
Donald Levin is an award-winning fiction writer and poet. He is the author of six Martin Preuss mysteries: Cold Dark Lies (2019), An Uncertain Accomplice (2018), The Forgotten Child (2017), Guilt in Hiding (2016), The Baker’s Men (2014), and Crimes of Love (2011). Book #7 in the series is under way. He is also the author of The House of Grins (Sewickley Press, 1992), a mainstream novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005) and New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Publications, 2007). His poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous print and e-journals.
At various times he worked as a warehouseman, theatre manager, advertising copywriter, scriptwriter, video producer, grantwriter, and political speechwriter. He is retired dean of the faculty and Professor Emeritus of English at Marygrove College in Detroit. He splits his time between Florida and Ferndale, Michigan (the setting for the Preuss series).
Links to his sites:
Buy links: https://www.amazon.com/Cold-Dark-Martin-Preuss-Mystery/dp/0997294159/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=donald+levin&qid=1566231112&s=gateway&sr=8-3
Music plays an important role for Martin and Donald. Here's a track from Dylan that they both relate to.
Music plays an important role for Martin and Donald. Here's a track from Dylan that they both relate to.