August Snow is a retired Marine sniper. He's also an ex-police detective who became a multimillionaire after he sued for wrongful termination. But above all, Snow is a Detroiter, and he's the main character in author Stephen Mack Jones' latest novel, Dead of Winter.
Jones joined Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about the third book in his August Snow series, and plans to make a television show based on the novels.
A complicated character in a complicated city
Snow is complex. He's charitable almost to a fault. He can also be incredibly violent in his quest for truth or justice. His dad was African-American. His mom was Mexican-American. He embraces both cultures, but sometimes he also gets treated like an outsider because he's biracial.
"The two largest minorities are African-American and Mexican-American. And as is probably known, the two minorities, the two cultures haven't always gotten along. I wanted to show someone who was a product of both cultures, who really embraces his Mexican-American culture, who embraces his African-American culture, because, hey, at the very least, there's great food on both sides," Jones said with a laugh.
In Dead of Winter, August Snow unravels a land development scheme with some murder and mayhem along the way. There's a billionaire named Vic Bronson who has bought up a lot of properties in his effort to remake Detroit. (A ripped-from-the-headlines detail that might sound familiar to Michiganders today.) At the same time, on a smaller scale, Snow has done the same thing in Mexicantown where he lives in the house he grew up in. Snow buys houses, hires a couple of friends to remodel them, and then resells them.
The shifting economics and demographics of Detroit neighborhoods is a recurring theme in Jones' novels.
"One of the things that I wanted to do is show the diversity of this city. Mexicantown has essentially been here for the past 100 years of Detroit history. Corktown even longer with the influx of Irish Americans," he said. "I really want readers outside of this area to discover that it's considerably more than the usual shorthand that they get in some literary novels and some news coverage."
Reading the greats
Jones was born in Lansing. Today, he lives in metro Detroit. He had a career in advertisting working mainly in the automotive category. But he turned to writing and became a playwright and a published poet. His first novel, August Snow, came out in 2017.
"As a kid growing up, my passion was science fiction, and the older I got it started to expand into poetry, the Spanish poets, and also mysteries. Let's face it, it's the middle of winter. You've got the flu. There's nothing like a good cup of hot tea and Agatha Christie. Right?"
Jones counts Christie, Chester Himes, and Dashiell Hammett among his favorites in the genre. He cites Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series as a key influence. Jones also devoured Parker's Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series.
"I was addicted to them. I thought he brought an extraordinary human view of the detective novel," he said.
There are echoes of Spenser in August Snow. Parker's Spenser, who was also portrayed on television in the Spenser: For Hire series, is an excellent cook and likes to drink. Spenser and Snow both balance their own moral codes with the violence they enact in order to live up to them.
Jones says Spenser's friend and sometimes collaborator, Hawk, provided the inspiration for August Snow. Spenser is white. Hawk is Black. Hawk is a significant character in the books, but he always remains a bit mysterious. Jones, who is African-American, wanted more.
"I always wondered what it would be like to bring that character of Hawk to the foreground," he said. "And that goes for a lot of American literature. Minorities have always been a part of the background."
While Himes, Walter Mosley, and other African-American mystery writers have found success, the genre is dominated by white authors and white characters. But Jones believes this may be a turning point.
"I think this is actually a golden era for writers of color. It has not been without its struggles, and there continue to be struggles to get out of the ghetto of, 'Oh, you're a minority mystery writer' and just into the mainstream," he said. "I think [the current landscape is] a wonderful opportunity for readers to get surprising and illuminating different perspectives."
From Detroit to Hollywood
August Snow is a Detroiter, but he's also heading to Hollywood. There is a television series in development that would star Keegan-Michael Key, who grew up in Detroit.
“The process is underway,” Jones said. “There are a lot of great people behind this project. Among them, ABC, Imagine Studios, which is Ron Howard."
Jones has been named the consulting producer.
“That means that I get everybody coffee, which I'm happy to do,” he joked. “But I can't overstate this, I am thrilled with the team. They are professionals. They know what they're doing there. I'm a novelist. That's where my focus is. Each of us are telling stories in our own way.”
Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the interview near the top of this page.