Crime Addict: David Swinson on ‘The Second Girl’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m honored to share virtual space with the multi-talented David Swinson.

David is the author of The Second Girl (Mulholland Books), which was named one of Booklist’s Best Crime Novels of the Year; he previously wrote A Detailed Man. A retired police detective, David served 16 years with the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department. Prior to that, he was a record store owner, a punk rock/alternative concert promoter, and a music video producer and independent filmmaker. David currently lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, daughter, bull mastiff, and bearded dragon.

David Swinson
Photo credit: Mark Regan Photography

Praise for The Second Girl:

“Frank Marr turns the PI mold on its head; he’s an addict with a self-serving vigilante streak. But he’s also a pretty decent guy deep down who works the streets with expertise, and readers will be fascinated by the day-in-the-life perspective of an unrepentant cocaine addict. A gritty knockout debut that screams for a series.”―Booklist (starred)

“An auspicious, and gleefully amoral, series debut . . . Swinson, himself a former D.C. police detective, brings the neighborhood and its criminal underworld to gritty life. . . . Marr may be a disaster on legs, but he gets inside a reader’s head with ease. . . . It’s good news that this is merely an introduction to a character who plans to return.”―Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[A] highly original noir … Swinson keeps the outcome in doubt to the end. He also does a fine job portraying the varied neighborhoods of contemporary Washington.”―Publishers Weekly

From the publisher:

He’s a good detective…with a bad habit.

Frank Marr knows crime in Washington, DC. A decorated former police detective, he retired early and now ekes a living as a private eye for a defense attorney. Frank Marr may be the best investigator the city has ever known, but the city doesn’t know his dirty secret.

A long-functioning drug addict, Frank has devoted his considerable skills to hiding his usage from others. But after accidentally discovering a kidnapped teenage girl in the home of an Adams Morgan drug gang, Frank becomes a hero and is thrust into the spotlight. He reluctantly agrees to investigate the disappearance of another girl–possibly connected to the first–and the heightened scrutiny may bring his own secrets to light, too.

Frank is as slippery and charming an antihero as you’ve ever met, but he’s also achingly vulnerable. The result is a mystery of startling intensity, a tightly coiled thriller where every scene may turn disastrous. THE SECOND GIRL is the crime novel of the season, and the start of a refreshing new series from an author who knows the criminal underworld inside and out.

The Second Girl

Now, David Swinson reveals the origins of his new series …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write a novel – and how does The Second Girl benefit from your experiences in other artistic arenas?

David Swinson: I was first inspired to write a novel when I was seventeen years old. I finished it in one summer, and got my first rejection a few months later. I wrote a couple of other novels after that, and one of them, A Detailed Man, was published by a tiny indie press. It was a police procedural, and semi-auto-biographical.  A Detailed Man, and the unpublished books I wrote had so much of me in them. I do love crime fiction, but being a former police detective, I found myself too bogged down with having to follow proper police procedure. I came up with the character of Frankie Marr first, and the story followed. Frankie freed me from procedure, and rules and I simply had fun writing a character that was totally outside of myself.

JV: Your protagonist, Frankie Marr, is quite the complex character. What are the challenges and joys of writing an anti-hero – and how do you hope that some of his struggles might resonate with readers?

DS: The challenge was to have a character like Frankie Marr, who is a bad good man or a good bad man, and to make him likeable. I think what separates Marr from a lot of other anti-heroes is he is not the brooding, self-loathing man who seeking redemption. He does need redemption, but he doesn’t know that yet. He actually is okay with his lifestyle, even loves it. But he’s a liar and a man who breaks all the rules. He belongs in jail. He loves and hates, and is capable of extreme violence. He’s amoral, but not a psychopath. You want to root for him despite all his terrible faults, because he is also very vulnerable.

JV: In what ways did your own experiences as a cop inform the narrative – and how did you endeavor to balance authenticity with creative license?

DS: I like to write based on life experience. I don’t think I could’ve written The Second Girl if I had if I didn’t go through all those years as a cop. The book is obviously a work of fiction, and is not based on any actual case, but all the years I spent working cases and interviewing and debriefing defendants, talking to victims and witnesses, and being a part of the police family brought life to the book, a certain authenticity. I envy those writers who can achieve the same thing through research. Many of those great writers like George Pelecanos and Richard Price were my influences.

JV: The book has been lauded for its intensity. How do you go about creating heightened tension – and what is the key(s) to maintaining suspense throughout?

DS: Again, much of that comes from creating something authentic, but mostly it comes from just surprising the hell out of myself. That’s why I like first person, present tense. Most of the time I don’t even know what’s going to happen next.

JV: Let’s talk about your publisher. How did you hook up with Mulholland Books – and why do you feel that are they the right fit for these stories?

DS: That’s actually a cool story. I’ve been working for years to get published. Several of my books have been rejected. The business is tough, but when I wrote The Second Girl and sent it to my agent, Jane Gelfman, she knew it was something different. I certainly didn’t and I was scared to death. Oddly enough, I was rejected by Josh Kendall in the past for A Detailed Man. This was before he was with Mulholland. He was the editor for Tana French and Ron Rash and so many other incredible writers. I asked Jane to please send it to him first. I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted another wonderful rejection letter for my collection. But that wouldn’t come. I was at Bouchercon, in Long Beach, California at the time. Jane called me and said if you happen to run into Josh Kendall there you should introduce yourself. I thought that was odd because I knew he just got it and probably didn’t even get around to reading it yet. I didn’t look for him because it felt awkward. I had just finished a great panel, and noticed this guy walking up to me. I recognized him as Josh Kendall because I cyber stalked him. He actually approached me and introduced himself. I remember saying something stupid and abrupt like, “I know who you are.” He said he was a couple hundred pages into my book and loved it so far, and wanted to know if I wanted to get together later for drinks. We met later at a great pub owned by one of the guys from Social Distortion. It was loud, but had a good scotch list. We sat and talked for hours, but not about my book. We talked about our daughters, relationships and music. Mostly music. I remember him saying something like “I’d really like you to be a part of the Mulholland family.” I replied with, “I would like nothing more.” I found out later that evening that both Chris Holm and Matthew Quirk were talking me up to Josh too so that had a lot to do with him wanting to meet with me.

A deal was made a couple of weeks later. Josh confessed to me when we got together in New York that he was actually didn’t want to meet with me because he liked me, but had not finished the book. He thought, ‘What if it doesn’t work? If the book sucks.” Fortunately, it didn’t suck.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

DS: I recently finished Crime Song, the second book in the Frank Marr series. I’m really excited about it because it deals with what I know best – burglary and music.


With thanks to David Swinson for his generosity of time and thought and to Alyssa Persons, Publicity Assistant at Little, Brown and Company, for helping to facilitate this interview.

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