James L’Etoile has used his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. His novel, BLACK LABEL won a earned the Silver Falchion Award for Best Book by an Attending Author at Killer Nashville, and he's been nominated for The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His novel, DEAD DROP garnered a Lefty and Anthony Award nomination, a Silver Falchion Award and a Public Safety Writer’s Association win for best novel. And his latest novel FACE OF GREED was released today. James has been gracious enough to take a few minutes to answer a few questions.
Let's start by talking about your time in prison. You've worked in the prison system for several years and have written about these experiences for blogs and websites. What do think is the biggest misconception that the public has about the U.S. prison system?
That’s a great question. For the most part, I think the public is comfortable not knowing what happens inside the walls. It’s a different world run by a set of rules and a prison culture dominated by prison gangs. The convict code dates back to the 1940’s and much of it still applies today. Don’t snitch, do your own time (which translates to don’t do anything to cause another inmate to get more time), be true to your own (don’t buy drugs or get into debt to a rival gang), and be tough.
One major misconception is every prison and every bed is the same. Modern prisons operate with a complex classification and risk assessment process. Every new inmate is assessed for the risk they pose to themselves, the public, and other inmates. The length of sentence, gang ties, medical and mental health needs are considered and determine where each inmate can be housed. The highest risk are in celled housing with double perimeter barriers and a lethal electric fence. Most inmates are held in medium security dormitory settings. Imagine being in a dorm with 300 of your new closest criminal friends.
I'm sure you've met your share of criminals over the years. Without giving a name, was there one that stands out to you from all the rest? One that you have always remembered long after you left the system?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one. There’s the prison gang member who threatened to kill me every morning on the tier, and the inmate who refused my offer for protective housing who ended up stabbed to death on the yard. But the one who stuck with me with most was an older black convict who stood next to me watching the yard. He was lamenting the influx of young street gang members coming into the system, upsetting the balance and culture of the convict world with violence and retribution from street grievances. “These damn thugs are gonna ruin it for all of us.” He was so right on that count.
With your new book, FACE OF GREED, you're kicking off a new series. This new book draws inspiration from one of the first murder cases in which you were involved. Can you talk for a moment about the case and how it inspired the book?
FACE OF GREED was loosely influenced by one of the first murder cases I worked. A homeowner was killed during a brutal home invasion. The three suspects were affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood and quickly shifted blame to the victim, claiming that he stiffed them in a drug deal. The murder was somehow justified as self-defense in their minds. There was no evidence to back up their claims and the jury quickly saw through the smokescreen. The shooter was sentenced to death, and the other two were given long prison terms. But, the “story” stuck with me and when I began putting FACE OF GREED together, I went with a “what if” scenario—“what if’ there was something more sinister going on in that house than we were led to believe?
Give us a little insight into your new protagonist, Detective Emily Hunter. Who is she, and what makes her tick?
Emily Hunter is a kick to write. She’s smart, a bit sarcastic, and doesn't pull punches when she’s confronted with barriers to the truth. She has a sense of doing what’s right even if it isn’t the easy thing to do. She’s fought to get to her position in a male-dominated profession and deals with the misogynistic fallout from officers who don’t think she deserved her promotion. Like many women in law enforcement I’ve known, she has to work harder to get the same opportunities as her male counterparts. Emily has to balance her demanding career with caring for her mother who is suffering from dementia. She’s afraid to lose what’s left of her mother at the expense of holding down a detective’s job. She’s not one to ask for help…
Let's talk about writing for a moment. When you first begin writing a new book, is your primary focus on the characters or the plot?
For me, it’s character first. I need to know who I’m going to be living with for months—and in the case of a series—hopefully for years. I need to know that character, where they came from their fears, motivation, and innermost secrets. I’ve gone as far as writing a short story in the character’s POV just to get more familiar with their actions, speech patterns and how they interact with other characters. I’ve found readers are more connected with character than they are with a plot. They’ll forgive a so-so plot for a character they can invest in and care about.
What one book has had the most influence on your writing and why?
I’m going to come at this a little differently. I was reading a crime fiction novel not long after I retired and—well—it wasn't very good. I made some off the cuff comment like, “I could do better than this.” I took it as a challenge and I went about learning how to do just that. It was the moment (and the book) that pushed me into writing commercial fiction. A few years later, I connected with that author to thank them for inspiring me to become a writer. I didn’t reveal exactly how they inspired that path.
Finally, what can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any new projects?
I’ve been busy. The third book in the Detective Nathan Parker series (DEAD DROP and DEVIL WITHIN) is SERVED COLD and it comes out in July 2024. The sequel to FACE OF GREED is titled RIVER OF LIES and it’s due to hit the shelves in November 2024.
You can purchase FACE OF GREED at these retailers.