Nils Grevillius is a private detective and author, based in Pasadena, California. Grevillius has written 5 books, all part of the Luke Fitz Collection.
N: Nils Grevillius, private investigator, on the record, with Amy Haben. This is the 13th of August 2014 at approximately 15:41 hours. Is there something you’d like to ask me, Ms. Amy?
A: When did you start writing and what inspired you to start?
N: I started writing about 1993, contemporaneous with finishing the police academy and starting in on trying to complete my education. I took a college level English course at a city college and it wasn’t a creative writing course but the teacher was demanding of us to be writers in expressing ourselves, lots of essays. I think there was an essay every single week of the course and I discovered that I could express myself fairly well and sometimes it would be something as dumb as listing the ingredients on a bottle of ketchup, but I needed to write these things and I started exploring more of the essay world, and discovered that I had… that I had skipped over a lot. I had read essays without really understating what I was reading in terms of context, and so I went back and read Harry Cruz, and P.J. O’Rourke again, and Joseph Mitchell who was an essayist for the New Yorker, and Dorothy Parker, and it just caused me to want to write more. When you ask me about my writing my first serious effort at a book was Four On The Floor: which fell apart not for a lack of writing ability on my part, but a partnership – a collaborative partnership with two police officers who investigated the Wonderland Avenue Murders – the collaborative partnership broke down and so I had to walk away from three years worth of work.
A: Oh no…
N: And I knew Ed (Legs) McNeil very well at the time – he and I had been introduced a year and a half before – so I looked over the stuff he was doing. He was doing a book on pornography, so there was some coinciding interest in that so he and I became friends. A couple of years later I was in Denmark, waiting for a couple of hookers at a hotel.
N: Uh, they were witnesses to a Hollywood Kidnapping actually.
A: Oh. Okay…
N: I had time, the time would drag on you know you’re closer to the Arctic there and so the sun wouldn’t set until ten o’clock at night and so I’m sitting up one night and I hadn’t been able to secure getting cooperation from either of these young ladies and I decided I’d start writing and in six hours later I created A City of Devils which is my first novella.
A: Oh cool…
N: And it is published. It was published finally in August of 2013.
A: Were the characters based on the two hookers that you were actually hanging out in the book…
N: No, I just crafted them from past experiences as an investigator.
A: Is your book Horse Play based on something you’ve been through? Is it more factual than the rest of them…
N: It is, but in sort of a voodoo sort of way – I had dealt with things at the horse track before and stolen race horses when conducting a case for the U.S. Bankrupts Trustee some years ago, and sort of crafted the story and had it all put together and published. Three weeks after it was published , I had a woman come into the office to tell me a story about a man she’d been involved with who was a European horse trainer who was believed to have brought doping meds illegally into Canada and having killed several horses.
A: Oh no.
N: For various reasons either accidentally or purposefully to collect insurance money or to fix races, that sort of thing. He’d been investigated and he was also believed to have murdered a woman he’d been involved with by faking a drowning death and…
A: Wait, wait how’d that happen? So he faked being…
N: Well the woman who I was speaking with had said that this man had been in another country on vacation with a woman he was involved with, and they had had a couple of fights, and but they were making up and that’s why they went on vacation to this other country and that at some point in this vacation he reported this woman dead to the police in that country.
N: And he had two different stories that she’d drowned in a Jacuzzi, that she’d fallen down the stairs, and that she’d had a heart attack.
A: Oh my gosh…
N: And so the woman consulting with me had a particular concern for various things and it just immediately echoed Horse Play after Horse Play had been written.
N: So that’s what I mean by voodoo.
A: Yeah, yeah. Horse Play, for me from the beginning felt very old school detective, black and white, smoky, ya know, noir sort of movie and that’s what I pictured in my head. Is that kind of – do you feel like you wrote this book purely based on this experience or did you kind of take this from old movies about detectives and…?
N: I take, ah, ya know, actually I take it from the different characters. Sometimes cobbled together two people into one or like three people into two. Just create them, and I told the story in terms as to how it feels to me without specifically stating how I feel and it’s not based on old movies, it’s based on my experiences and my use of language and the language I observe from others.
A: So tell me, so tell me about your other books. How many books have you written in total and describe each one because I’ve only read your newest one…
N: I have thus far published four. I’m almost done with the fifth. The first one I wrote was City of Devils, that was the one that I wrote in the Copenhagen hotel room. I came home from Denmark and I liked it well enough that I showed it to a few people and they liked it and so in that year I crafted two more. City of Devils is about Luke, that’s the private eye, coming to know that a operative of his that he didn’t even particularly like having been murdered and looking into the murder of that operative and discovering who had set this guy up and conflicting interests involving an El Salvadorian gang. A corrupted police officer and using an informant prostitute and that’s City of Devils.
The next one that I put together was Skulldiggery, and Skulldiggery was a play on words, uh, there was a man and artist, one of the men involved in the gallery which brought Andy Warhol last in the 50’s, ya know, went on hard times. John Kelly Reed started trafficking things that he’d found in abandoned houses and one time he tried to sell me a skull and I asked him how he obtained this skull and he would never be straight with me as to its providence, and then eventually he sold it to somebody else – now this is human remains.
Now there was a story in Pasadena about a property owner who wouldn’t sell the porno theater that he had owned in the 70’s and developers wanted his block of property and he wouldn’t sell to them and then at sundown on a summer afternoon he and his wife were leaving the theater, collecting the cash receipts. There were not credit card sales at theaters, particularly porn theaters in the 70’s. Then two black men with shotguns braced them on Holly Street at sundown and the wife reported that the sun was in her eyes as these men approached with the sun behind their backs, and they took the money bag from him and instead of shooting him, instead of letting him go, they beat his head into the sidewalk with the butts of the shotguns and left ‘em for dead, right? So they didn’t lay a hand on her, and she’s screaming. He died eleven days later in the hospital and he was septic, so the police decided that this was death by natural causes. That he wasn’t really murdered and in the issuing probate investigation it was learned that the reason he didn’t sell the property to the developers was that he didn’t truly own it. He was the straw man and the real owner of the porn theater was a member of the Chairmen of Roses and was the mayor and he couldn’t be seen as owning this, and he wore his white ice cream suit on New Year’s day in front of the crowds of prairie Protestants that populate Pasadena.
N: And that’s sort of a theme in Pasadena, it’s this bright glittering beautiful city, and not in a glitzy way, in a cultural way, it’s a cultural gem with lots of architecture and two world famous art museums and this great parade and assorted details, and underneath it’s an ugly, bloody turd.
A: Ha-ha that’s a good way to put it! My dad was in Pasadena and I grew up going to the Rose Bowl and it was a very family oriented event with the parade and stuff so it makes sense this guy had it covered up…
N: Now the next one that I wrote is Sub Rosa, and Sub Rosa isn’t in Pasadena, it has a different Pasadena theme. It involves the theft of a rare object. Pasadena has rare architecture and also rare objects associated with the architecture. Philip built these glass lamps- glass and metal lamps, and the originals are all very valuable, it involves the theft of one of those and eventually Fitz comes to believe his client, another woman in her late 50’s has murdered the woman whom she believes stole the lamp. That’s what Fitz is trying denude in his investigation, and in this one Fitz ends up having sex with his client – and I’m not writing this to instruct that I have sex with my clients as a private investigator – but I directly used a particular woman that I had had an encounter with as a young man, who was older than me.
A: Can you finish telling me about all the other books…
N: Oh that’s the first three. The fourth one of course is Horse Play – that involves the theft of a racehorse and Fitz is hired to track this racehorse down and in so doing the man who is suspected of taking a racehorse meets an ugly end. Fitz takes it through all it’s logical conclusions – the client is an attorney representing a man invested in the horse, and a horse can be sold like a piece of property with many partners, if it’s a valuable enough horse. What he discovers involves a lot of sordid fraud and treachery and that sort of thing, it’d ruin the story listening to anybody listening to this. Sometimes things are only partially explained and in an investigation. Nothing is ever perfectly explained, no killer ever perfectly confesses. They always hold something back, so I always hold something back in my stories so that it plants an incubus in the mind of my reader as to what is omitted and what’s in the offing for the next book, and I’m not serializing these but I am using the same character sometimes.
A: Luke is like the same character…
“I think it’s better to live a real life before we ever take up the pen so that we have something to compare life to.”
A: Can you tell us anything about what the one you’re currently writing is about…
N: Well sure I can. I’ll tell you a little bit: the one I’m currently writing is Suicide Jack and the One Eyed King, now I’m taking from playing cards here obviously and there are no suicide Jack’s- there are suicide King’s and one-eyed Jacks so I’ve inverted it, and it’s quite purposeful. Suicide Jack, in this case, is synthetic heroin sold in paper bindles that look like the Jack of Hearts.
A: Have you ever had any experience with drugs?
N: As a user?
N: No. As an investigator, yes. As a man who loved someone who was addicted to heroin, yes. I have enough experience, vicariously, to know that it’s a dangerous thing. Dangerous for its seductive qualities. There’s a reason why within Latin culture cocaine is called boy and heroin is called girl. It involves that and the one-eyed king is the man who is dealing it, the mastermind, the guy who is pushing it and it’s killing people. It’s called Suicide Jack because the difference between getting a high dose and a fatal overdose is measured in micrograms and so addicts are dying all over the city. There’s been a public official assassinated, there’s been a police officer – a kind of mysterious, charismatic narc has been murdered. And Luke Fitz is hired by the police protective association to investigate the murder of the narc, whom everybody now believes is dirty, ya know? And his family has gone to the police protective association to try to vindicate him and they hire Fitz to do it and I’m not gonna – I’m not gonna ruin that story.
A: As your professional life as a private investigator… have you ever been… has your life ever been threatened?
N: Many times.
A: Okay, can you elaborate at all…
N: Well when I got into the Wonderland Avenue murder investigations I got a whole series of telephone calls at a certain point from different people telling me that life was gonna get difficult for me…
A: Who hired you for that? Or did you do that yourself…
N: I did, I freelanced that entirely on my own. I think the origin of the calls was, uh, Ed Nash or Hal Blickman’s people… or potentially Henry Hodgkin’s. I know that at least one of the calls came from the South Bay. Henry Hodgkin is dead now, he ate his gun a few years ago.
A: Right, that would make sense.
N: That would be an example, typically people who threaten are barking not biting, the people who are capable of violence are just violent, they just do whatever they need to do.
A: They don’t warn you…
N: Yeah, no they threaten to try to intimidate you off of what it is that you’re doing. The way to make a threat creditable is to carry out some act of violence, maybe against someone that you love or care about, and it’s a thing that’s always on my mind. When you’re dealing with people who are psychopaths, even if they’re financial economic psychopaths, violence is always on the menu for somebody like that. Because it’s a business decision- switch this guy off, switch this woman off and the problem goes away to them. So it’s something that I have to reconcile pretty much every day that I work.
A: I think that because of your work, because you’re a private investigator, even though your books are fiction it makes reading your books all that more seductive, because people know that you have somewhat the same sort of lifestyle as the character in your book.
N: Well, yeah, I’m not much of a drinking guy anymore. Luke Fitz drinks and he suffers consequences but not titanic consequences for his drinking.
A: Yeah, it’s like a little bit more romantic version of what you do, like it romanticizes the drinking and everything right…
N: Yeah, I’m not so sure with my heart as Fitz pretends to be and the drinking life is over for me for the time. I mean I hope I never drink again. I know what it is to drink and that’s why I’ve been there and I’ve had people ask me, “why don’t you write your character sober?”, and “I think that’s a boring as hell!” That’s already been done and I’ve read those books and they don’t interest me.
A: I agree.
A: If there’s like a-a movie character or a TV character you could compare Luke to who would you compare him to- if you have one off the top of your head….
N: Well I dunno. There used to be a show called the Night Stalker on TV-
A: In the 70’s…
N: Yeah in the 70’s with Darren McGavin and McGavin was a very capable actor who wasn’t very well understood, he was a better leading man then he ever was a character actor but he’d always be cast as a character actor because of his appearance. He played the, uh, he played the heroin dealer in The Man with the Golden Arm opposite Frank Sinatra. He didn’t give a fuck and he just operated the way he needed to operate, did what he needed to do. You know he had a heart, he had a soul, he was cautious in how he used these things and many of his investigations were macabre, they involved things not quite X-Files paranormal but pretty close to it and, uh, he looked like he slept in his raincoat, and it wasn’t an act like it was with Colombo. Colombo was one of the most boring mother fuckers…
A: I know ha-ha-ha-ha..
N: Right, I was in the second grade the first time I saw Colombo and I remember the third Sunday in a row and my mother was watching Colombo and I’m sitting up and I’m telling her, “I know who did it…” , and she said, “No, don’t ruin it..” I said, “It’s already ruined mom.” “Well what do you mean it’s already ruined?” “This guy did it and he’s bringing him in, he’s pretending to be stupid to get the guy to admit it and in every episode of Colombo is the same- the exact same thing!”
A: Ha-ha-ha… It might just be a nostalgia thing because it was always on TV at that time.
A: But yeah I don’t find him interesting either, he’s not a dangerous kind of character…
N: There’s nothing threatening about Colombo.
A: Yeah, yeah he’s just like a wonky eyed… ya know…
N: He’s a mope. A Mook, he’s a mook and very few mooks find their way into homicide service. To be a homicide detective in most law enforcement agencies means that you’re in the varsity. One of the things that’s not well understood. I keep using the term well understood but it’s, ah, most homicide detectives are deeply different from the guys who work organized crime, or the guys who work financial crimes like forgery and that kind of thing. It is.. what makes them different is they make their cases, and a lot of them are women too, they make their cases in the interview process. They need to process people quickly through the interviews and instinctively know whose lying and who isn’t, even though they can’t make a case instinctively knowing what’s true and what’s not, they have to back their way into it by going back and-and they make their cases in the interviews that way, they break people down and get people to admit things not in their interest and in order to have that capacity as a human being one has to be very close to the people you’re investigating meaning, uh, homicide cops have a paper thin difference between them and psychopaths.
A: Yeah? But like I feel like maybe there are more women than men is because men usually just try to intimidate things like where as women really know how to psychologically get in there and pretend to be sweet or try to get on their level to get the information. I feel like we’re just better at that, like we’re manipulators.
N: Finessing information you’re right about that Amy, and actually having more women in criminal investigation has changed how criminal investigation is done. I have a friend who is retired from the Sheriff’s department now whose last five years was investigating child molesting cases and he learned from an older woman who had been a deputy for thirty years and back in the day they made female deputies work on those cases because they didn’t necessarily want them in the jails or on the streets or whatever.
N: And the way that she would do it is she would make repartee with her subject in order to get the subject to admit what was going on whether the subject ended up being the witness or the subject wound up being a defendant. This guy told me about sitting down with a fella who was accused of having fondled a younger female relative and that sort of thing – and just going in with a yellow legal pad and a cup of coffee. No gun, no badge just sitting down next to the guy and saying to him, “Now I know that there’s a problem here and it often has to do with how we express what the problem is. Now I’ll tell ya, I have a niece who is very attractive to me, hell she’s downright seductive – so I have to be careful around her. Please help me work out an explanation for this so I can send you on your way.” Next thing ya know the guy’s writing down a thirteen page confession about how he’d been having sex with his niece for two years.
A: Hmm…. so relating to them is a key…
A: Where can people, where can our readers buy your book…
N: I haven’t been able to- I haven’t been able to achieve a relationship with a bookstore yet, it will eventually come. My plans are to write thirty – ya know, including Suicide Jack. Thirty-five more novellas, and readers should understand that novellas relieve me of the burden of chapterization.
A: Who needs chapters anyways, really.
N: Exactly. Chapters are to demark one act into the next but mine kind of flow, ya know, into what they are and I just haven’t had the need to chapterize and maybe it’s better that I’m publishing this way- if I had a national publisher they’d probably be demanding that I chapterize or change the characters or something like that which I would never do.
A: Yeah, and I feel like writing is such a great creative outlet.
N: Are you a writer?
A: I’m a writer yes, but I mean it’s very new for me.
N: Can I observe something for you?
N: There are a lot of people who want to start out being writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s better to live a real life before we ever take up the pen so that we have something to compare life to.