My primary series protagonist Pat Gallegher and I have been buddies for almost thirty-five years. I wrote my first Gallegher short story in 1985, and quickly followed it with five more, before I felt I knew enough about my protagonist to try a novel. Only two of those first six short stories have found their way into print. You should thank me for that. Really. Most of them were completely awful.
In 2008, when my wife and I considered downsizing from the house we had lived in for almost fifteen years, I ran across a box filled with old legal pad manuscripts of stories. I didn’t write with a computer until the 1990s, so I knew this was some of the truly bad old stuff.
I read some of the stories and was amazed to discover that several of them—far and away the minority—had remarkably good bones. Lousy writing, but good bones. I took one of the last of the 1980s Gallegher tales entitled “Change Of Venue”, and I rewrote it top to bottom, using skills I’d developed over twenty-five years and four previous Pat Gallegher novels. I rewrote it several times. Okay, several dozen times. As I said, the bones were good, but everything draped on them was cringe-worthy. Somewhere along the line, the story acquired a new title—“The Gods For Vengeance Cry”—and in 2009 I genuflected a couple of times, sacrificed a goat, muttered a few good luck incantations, and send it in to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
It was nominated for the Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Awards, and in July 2011 it won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story. The other nominees that year included Michael Connelly, Max Allan Collins, and Mickey Spillane. And my little quarter-century-old story beat them. As I made my way to the stage, I distinctly recall saying out loud, “Oh, fudge!”
Except, like Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie, I didn’t say “fudge.”
So, as you can imagine, I’m sort of attached to Pat Gallegher. Like baseball for Chico Escuela, Pat Gallegher has been very, very good to me.
But, who is Gallegher, anyhow? He’s evolved over the years. In the original short stories, he was a former seminarian who abandoned the priesthood due to a crisis of faith, and who had wandered the country before landing in New Orleans, where he fed himself by playing a jazz trumpet in a dive bar off Toulouse Street, and by gambling. Eventually, the cards turned against him, and he found himself deep in debt to a Cajun loan shark named Leduc. Leduc exploited Gallegher’s hulking six-and-a-half-foot size and allowed Gallegher to work off the debt—in microscopic portions—by shaking down other gambling addicts for their debts. After joining AA, at the urging of a former mob wheelman named Cabby Jacks, Gallegher was compelled to balance the rickety scales of his brittle karma by helping people who had nowhere else to turn. Some of the favors he performed for these people involved murder.
Somehow, by the fifth short story, sometime around 1988, Gallegher acquired a Ph.D in philosophy. The explanation was that he hadn’t found the enlightenment he desired in the seminary, so he hoped he’d find it in a university classroom. The trumpet morphed into a cornet, for no discernible reason I can recall. As Richard Brautigan wrote, it just happened, like lint.
By 1995, when I got around to writing the first Pat Gallegher novel (Joker Poker), it suited my purposes to change his doctorate to psychology, and to give him an enhanced backstory. By 1995, I was a forensic psychologist, so I decided that Gallegher should be a former forensic psychologist. Write what you know, right? It was an easy change, since none of the original 1980s short stories had made it into print.
The plot from one of the short stories suggested that Gallegher had been a college professor at some point, and had been forced to resign after being falsely accused of sexual harassment—leading to his downward spiral and eventual hard splashdown in the Big Easy. I added that to the formula, and Gallegher as he now exists was born. Strangely, ten years after I endowed Gallegher with a former career as a college professor, I retired from active practice and became a college psychology professor myself. First, art imitated life. Then, life imitated art. Fortunately, unlike hapless Pat Gallegher, I was able to continue working as a professor until I retired in 2016. And I can’t play a note on a cornet, so there’s where the similarity between me and my creation ends.
Gallegher’s ethos is simple. Like Travis McGee, he is a knight errant, serving no master but placing himself at the disposal of anyone in desperate need. Like Mike Hammer or Spenser, he relentlessly protects his clients. Like Chandler’s prototypic private eye, he confidently walks the mean streets of New Orleans, though he is not himself mean. Incorruptible, fearless, thoughtful, introspective, and imposing, Gallegher is the French Quarter’s go-to guy when your entire life falls to pieces. If Jack Reacher put down roots, he would be Pat Gallegher.
Joker Poker came out in 2000. Two of the subsequent three titles (Juicy Watusi, and Wet Debt) were nominated for Shamus Awards. As I said, Pat Gallegher has been very, very good to me. However, there were other series (Eamon Gold, Judd Wheeler, etc) and standalone novels I wanted to write, so the Gallegher series ended in 2003, with Wet Debt. The fifth novel, Paid In Spades, comes out from Clay Stafford Books in March. That’s fifteen years between book-length Gallegher releases.
Yet, in Gallegher’s world, it’s still 2003, only two weeks after the bloody gunfight with the Anolli gang that ended Wet Debt. He uses a flip phone, because smartphones are still years in the future. Hurricane Katrina hasn’t yet ravaged the ancient streets of New Orleans. Social media is largely nonexistent—no MySpace or Facebook or Twitter. The bad guys from the previous novels—the gangsters and robber barons and schemers and ne’er-do-wells—are all still around. Gallegher still knocks heads with NOPD detective Farley Nuckolls and federal agent Chester Boulware, just as he did in the first four novels. Merlie Comineau, the auburn-haired, violet-eyed social worker who has been at Gallegher’s side since the second novel (Voodoo That You Do) is still there. Scat Boudreaux, the Cannibal Commando (my addition to the Hawk/Joe Pike/Bubba Rogowski/Win Lockwood Psychotic Sidekick rage of the ‘80s and ‘90s) is still watching Gallegher’s six.
Something is different, though. It may still be 2003 in Gallegher’s story, but we’ve lived fifteen years into his future. We know what he faces. We know the Big Sleazy Gallegher commands is headed for tragic times. Hurricane Katrina awaits. The entire culture of New Orleans and the French Quarter is cataclysm-bound, and Gallegher hasn’t a clue what’s coming. We know, though, and because we know, we also know the world Gallegher has occupied for almost a decade by the time Paid In Spades begins is coming to a close. Like watching a story set in Pompeii in 78 AD, there is a sense of melancholic apprehension. Terrible times are coming. Nobody knows whether Gallegher and Merlie and Scat and Farley will survive the monster storm only a year or so in their future. Really. I invented every one of them, and I don’t have a clue.
Maybe I’ll figure it out before I write Pat Gallegher Novel #6.
About the Author
Retired forensic psychologist and college professor Richard Helms is the author of eighteen published novels and multiple short stories. He has been nominated six times for the SMFS Derringer Award, five times for the PWA Shamus Award, twice for the ITW Thriller Award, and once for the MRI Macavity Award. He is one of only two authors ever to win the Derringer Award in two different categories in the same year--2008, for "The Gospel According to Gordon Black" (Thrilling Detective Website) and "Paper Walls/Glass Houses" (Back Alley Webzine). He also won the 2011 ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story, for "The Gods for Vengeance Cry", a Pat Gallegher story that appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 2010. He is a past president of the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and served on the MWA National Board of Directors from 2011 to 2013. He was presented with SEMWA's Magnolia Award for service to the chapter in 2017. Besides writing, Helms enjoys woodworking, traveling, reading, gourmet cooking, and rooting for his beloved Carolina Tar Heels and Carolina Panthers. A lifelong North Carolinian, Richard Helms and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, NC."