Dan Stuart traveled the world as a kind of underground minstrel fronting the far-reaching band Green on Red, which began in late-’70s Tucson as the Serfers. Now, this guy we could safely call a “Tucson legend” has a new pulp-noir novel out this week entitled “Marlowe’s Revenge.” It is set in Southern Arizona and is a stand-alone work, but third in his trilogy of books. It is on Tucson-based imprint R&R Press (full discloser: R&R Press was founded by Tucson Weekly columnist Brian Smith and his wife, Maggie).
The novel is populated by misfits, losers and sociopaths struggling with internal demons, drugs, murder and love, on both sides of the border, both sides of the law and comes highly recommended. Best-selling noir writer Tod Goldberg is a “huge fan” of the book, calling it “sun-bleached desert noir at its finest. Violent, funny, weird, and 100 percent original.”
Here, in an exclusive Q&A, Stuart and Tucson historian Lydia Otero (and author of madly respected books “La Calle” and “In The Shadows of the Freeway”), talk “Marlowe’s Revenge,” truth in fiction, greed, and the hidden underbelly of Tucson’s sordid past. There is also a novel excerpt below.
A Tucson book-release party (at Pidgin Palace Oct. 21) is scheduled where Stuart will front a long-dreamed-of one-person surprise experience. The show will feature Stuart reading from his new novel and playing songs from his storied career, interspersed with what will likely be his patented droll banter.
“Most questions will be answered,” he promised.
Dan Stuart and Lydia Otero in conversation:
Lydia Otero: Who is Marlowe Billings and why did he end up in Tucson?
Dan Stuart: Marlowe goes way back to a punk-rock house in Tucson we called Serfer Hollow, around 1979. He’s my nom de guerre I guess, or alter ego. Since then, I’ve lived in maybe a half-dozen cities and three different countries, but Marlowe always comes along for the ride. Sometimes I wish he would get his own damn life.
LO: How much of your book is factual because homicides and other felonies are critical to the story?
DS: Well, everything I write is roughly 65% true. Good luck figuring out what is and isn’t. I don’t even know half the time, memory is like that. Tucson has always had a hidden contraband economy, its nickname in Sonora is el almacén, the warehouse or depot. As for the murder at Fred Enke Golf Course, there was one that occurred there, but nothing like I write about. I might add there are other criminal acts that aren’t technically illegal, but should be, like what happened Downtown with the convention center displacing an entire neighborhood, as you described so well in “La Calle.”
LO: What inspired you to write this book?
DS: I come and go to Tucson every other decade or so, and when I returned this time in 2018, I wanted to figure out what happened to me here in the ’90s. It was a miserable time, for a few different reasons, but I survived myself. This book is the last of a Marlowe Billings trilogy of both fiction and records. I thought it fitting to bring it all back home.
LO: Did you model Detective Chavez, or any of the other characters after people you know?
DS: Most are composites, or even doppelgangers of people I know, but not their true selves. It’s a work of fiction. A character like Chavez does come alive though, is born through the creative process. I like him a lot, he represents a certain dogged toughness that to me is Tucson.
LO: How does land speculation and greed figure into the story?
DS: Well it’s always been there, hasn’t it? You go back to the Horizon Corporation, or the savings and loan scandals of the ’80s, and it’s right in your face. In this book, it’s all a bit nebulous, which I think mirrors reality more accurately. An institution like Deutsche Bank, who knows what really goes on there? Money rules the world, even a child knows that.
LO: Are there any morals or lessons you want readers to take away after reading your book?
DS: A reprobate like me giving moral advice would be absurd. I do think people can survive their demons and mistakes, and should be given second and third chances. As a middle-aged white male from a privileged background, my life would be far different if I was a person of color from a different economic reality. It’s exciting to see Tucson grapple with its past, to finally have a real conversation about how we got here and why. There’s a lot to celebrate, and a lot that still needs to be accounted for.
LO: Do you play golf?
DS: I played an obscene amount of golf in the ’90s. I recently got both hips replaced, and probably could start playing again, but nah. I’m sympathetic to the view that golf courses use too much water, and shouldn’t exist in the desert. I also believe it’s a great game that can provide hours of enjoyment at a reasonable cost, given the right conditions. I swim nowadays and am more worried about the general lack of physical exercise people are getting. Many days I have a public pool almost to myself, in the middle of summer, no less. Of course, working three jobs to pay rising rents is literally killing people. Sports and recreation, the beauty of nature, helped me turn things around more than once, and should be available to all.
LO: “Marlowe’s Revenge” has been described as desert or neo-noir. Do you agree with these assessments?
DS: Why not? The novel starts with Marlowe finding a body he doesn’t report, a noir trope for sure. There also are no heroes to be found, outside of Chavez who is just doing his job, nothing above routine police work. I dislike easily identifiable heroes and villains in fiction and cinema, people are a mixture of both. As for setting, yes, the Sonoran desert figures prominently. When you grow up here it stays with you, a truly special place different from any other on the planet.
Marlowe’s Revenge excerpt:
First one out as the sun rose, with only an ancient foursome behind, Marlowe felt like an Apache scout blazing a trail. He’d been clean only a few weeks, but with every round his game was getting better. Playing almost every day, his latest and final publishing advance covered the green fees, still less than half of what he’d been spending on heroin back in Spain. The goal was to get under a 5-handicap; scratch was impossible for a popcorn hitter like him. Golf was a good substitute for dope: ritualistic, decent exercise, and left him with a post-round feeling of calm that allowed for a few precious hours of sleep at night.
Making the turn at Fred Enke, a difficult desert course, Marlowe’s drive drifted into the right hardpan after an unlucky bounce off a sprinkler head. Finding his ball beside a jumping cholla, he squinted down to make sure it was indeed a Titleist 3 he always marked with a small M in red ink. Trying to pick it clean, he caught it thin but got some roll, leaving maybe 130 yards to a back right pin. Wary of coming up short, he clubbed down to an 8, but hit it sweet and flew the green into a back bunker he couldn’t see, but knew was there.
Oh well, that’s golf.
Marlowe walked up to the green and froze to admire a Gila monster warming itself in the sun. Only the third he’d ever seen, its beaded orange-and-black hide shimmered in the morning light. Strange, he thought. They usually appear only during monsoons, which had come and gone. Entranced, Marlowe felt grateful to be out of Madrid, off dope, and in the presence of such desert royalty. The only problem was La Española, who refused to speak to him. He wondered what she was doing at this very moment back in Spain, her admirers and sycophants lined up and ready for la marcha from mid-night to dawn, hitting bar after bar, winding up who knows where.
Looking back to the tee, the geezers still hadn’t made the turn; probably stopped to grab a bite. As the fat lizard waddled off, Marlowe grabbed a wedge and putter and approached the bunker. Looking down, he found a man lying in the sand, mouth open and staring at the sun. Roughly Marlowe’s age, he was dressed in casual Tucson business attire: khaki slacks, blue Levi’s shirt, boat shoes, no socks. Marlowe’s ball had splashed the sand and rolled next to his ear, an unplayable lie.
“Hey mister, you okay?”
There were no footprints in the trap; someone had carefully raked the entire bunker.
“Hey man, you alright?”
Taking in the frozen eyes, Marlowe watched his chest, but there was no movement. A tarantula hawk wasp hovered close and entered the man’s gaping mouth before flying off in search of proper prey.
Dude was dead.
His head spinning, Marlowe panted like a dog and considered his options. As a convicted felon in the state of Arizona, he wanted no part of this—fuck no. Heart racing, he grabbed a 3-iron, went back to the bunker, and tried to retrieve his ball without stepping in the sand; impossible. He looked around for a rake, but whoever had tidied the trap had stashed it somewhere. Staring back at the tee, the foursome had just hit their drives. Goddamnit! Marlowe shouldered his bag and headed for the next tee, watching himself from above like a movie he’d heard about, but never seen. Rushing his drive on 11, Marlowe remembered what his rehab counselor told him about avoiding stressful situations: The smallest little thing could trigger an addict into using again. This here was no trifle; let someone else deal with it. He played the back nine quicker than usual, not bothering to keep score, the image of the corpse flickering in his head.
Coming off 18, he took a look at 10 and noticed a threesome on the green, but everything looked normal. No one ever takes enough club, he thought. That poor dude could go undiscovered for the rest of the day until a hacker skulls a chip across the green and into the bunker. He quickly made his way to the parking lot, put his clubs in the trunk of his ‘69 Montego, and drove home blasting the AC. It was only at a red light at Kolb and Broadway, when he reached to change the station, that he noticed his hand was shaking. Opening the door to retch, he upchucked a few drops of rancid water and bits of a granola bar he’d eaten for breakfast. A scuzzy biker in the next lane leered, then roared off, leaving Marlowe to choke on his exhaust.
Fuck Tucson, no one gives a shit about nothing.
Tucson Book Launch of “Marlowe’s Revenge”
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21
WHERE: Pidgin Palace Arts, 1110 S. Sixth Avenue, Tucson
COST: Free through eventbrite