I met A.J. Devlin at last year’s Bouchercon in Toronto. When he started telling me about his debut novel, I was immediately hooked. A former pro-wrestler gets dragged back into the dirty underbelly of that world and the criminal side of Vancouver. Plus, snakes! Here’s A.J. to tell us more. - Claire
By A.J. Devlin
There really is nothing quite like pro-wrestling.
Part soap opera, part stunt show, part live-action improv – no other sport or form of entertainment can really match the distinctive, multi-hyphenate combination that is professional wrestling.
I must say, it’s kind of perfect timing for me to be able to write this guest blog post on the heels of Wrestlemania, the biggest professional wrestling spectacular in the world, as well as after the always rowdy post-Wrestlemania episode of Monday Night RAW, and this week’s release of the incredible HBO Andre The Giant documentary. Thank you to author Claire Booth and the Do Some Damage crime writing blog for the opportunity.
There were indeed a few factors that inspired my debut pro-wrestling mystery-comedy novel Cobra Clutch, of which I would like to share.
The first was real life behind-the-scenes professional wrestling documentaries and biographies that gave me a glimpse into the reality of the business. The original inkling of an idea for an ongoing mystery series first came to me after I watched the 1999 movie Beyond The Mat, which featured a spotlight segment on WWE Legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts. As a boy growing up I had watched Jake “The Snake” absolutely electrify 90,000 plus fans at Wrestlemania III, only to find him in this film to be an out-of-shape, down on his luck, former pro-wrestling legend struggling with addiction and wrestling in a barn in a remote corner of a rural U.S. state for a handful of cash (I also highly recommend following up Beyond The Mat with the recent and very inspirational documentary The Resurrection Of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, where he courageously overcomes his personal demons and is inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame).
How could someone who was once so dynamic, talented, and larger than life have such an epic fall from grace? That was my first exposure to the dark underbelly of professional wrestling – an industry rife with catastrophe where dozens of pro-wrestlers have died before the age of forty due to endless amounts of overdoses, addictions, suicide, accidents, steroid abuse, and even murder.
Despite how cartoonish and over-the-top at times professional wrestling can be, that ridiculousness is regularly offset by real-life tragedy. And even the wrestlers who are able to avoid the aforementioned afflictions still spend three hundred plus days on the road, enduring tumultuous personal lives, with many divorces and broken families resulting due to the demands of the job – yet they still do it. Willingly. Day in and day out, because they love it so much. And, incredibly, most seem to have no regrets (to truly appreciate this dedication I suggest watching the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary Nature Boy about Ric Flair).
That is the second thing that attracted me to setting a mystery novel in the world of professional wrestling – the fierce, potent, and perhaps even sometimes illogical passion these people have for their craft. As a writer who has spent the last nineteen years trying to break through and become a professional, I very strongly relate to being driven by such a passion. Something that is literally in your veins and that you are driven to relentlessly pursue, regardless of how unlikely achieving that dream may seem.
My late professor, mentor, and friend, Academy Award Nominated screenwriter and crime novelist Leonard Schrader, was the person who really turned me onto mystery novels as an alternative to screenwriting. While studying writing for film at Chapman University and later The American Film Institute, Leonard and I spent many late nights at a Hollywood diner collaborating together on screenplays and sharing our mutual obsession for great storytelling. However, I will never forget his words when he presented me with the first three Elvis Cole and Joe Pike mysteries, a series written by one of the all-time great crime writers Robert Crais, as a graduation gift for earning my M.F.A. in Screenwriting from the AFI: “Never forget that a screenplay is a blueprint for a film, of which many hands will make their way into the pot, whereas a novel will always be a complete piece of work.”
One of the most rewarding things for me personally about getting published has been being able to dedicate Cobra Clutch to Leonard, and I like to think that the book itself is a fusion of one of his many, many, talents (creating complex and damaged protagonists) with my classic Canucklehead personality (quirky and sarcastic).
Finally, the third and final element that led me to conceive of and eventually write Cobra Clutch is that for years I have been a big fan of what I have dubbed the “hybrid-athlete detective” mystery sub-genre. From Harlan Coben’s ex-basketball star turned sports agent-amateur sleuth Myron Bolitar, to Tom Shreck’s boxer-amateur sleuth Duffy Dombrowski, to Jeff Shelby’s surfer-detective Noah Braddock, to Martin McKinley’s ex-hockey player-amateur sleuth Martin Carter – there were many different sports playing key roles in shaping these protagonists personalities. However, I realized that to the best of my knowledge no one had ever written a mystery featuring an ex-wrestler-amateur sleuth before and from there I was on my way. The last puzzle piece that fell into place before I started writing “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead’s first adventure was the realization that in order to do justice to a mystery set in the world of independent professional wrestling I had to capture both sides of the coin with regards to the industry – the sometimes absurd in-ring antics and the consistent outside-the-ring tragedy – which is why humour became a vital and essential part of the story and why I prefer to call the book a “mystery-comedy.”
In conclusion, I would just like to say that professional wrestling has a lot in common with mystery novels, or with any fiction really, because in the end, the best matches are the ones that tell the best stories. Shawn Michaels achieving his boyhood dream of becoming WWE Champion for the first time, The Undertaker carving out arguably the greatest achievement in sports entertainment with “The Streak,” or Daniel Bryan’s recent return at last week’s Wrestlemania and re-igniting the “Yes! Movement” while telling a great story inside the squared circle with his athleticism and unique in-ring style – because at the heart of both, it’s simply what it is all about.
“Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead thought he’d traded the pro-wrestling world for the slightly less dangerous one of a bar bouncer and errand boy for his father’s detective agency, but the squared circle wasn’t quite done with him yet. When his former tag-team partner draws upon their old friendship for help in finding his kidnapped pet snake, Jed finds himself dragged back into the fold of sleazy promoters, gimmicky performers, and violence inside and outside the ring. As the venom of Vancouver’s criminal underworld begins to seep into Jed’s life, a steel chair to the back of the head is the least of his problems. Cobra Clutch is available on Amazon or iTunes.
A.J. Devlin grew up in Greater Vancouver before moving to Southern California for six years where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from Chapman University and a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute. After working as a screenwriter in Hollywood he moved back home to Port Moody, BC, where he now lives with his wife and two children. Cobra Clutch is his first novel. Find him on Facebook, or on Twitter @ajdevlinauthor.