HIGHLAND — Who better to authentically write about the culture and atmosphere of Denver’s old Northside than crime fiction author Manuel Ramos? A Highland resident for nearly 40 years, the creator of the Luis Montez detective series spotlights North Denver in his latest novel, “My Bad: A Mile High Noir” (Arte Publico Press).
“My Bad” and most of Ramos’ novels feature lawyer Luis Montez, a character inspired by the likes of 1930s author Dashiell Hammett, who created the characters Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Nick and Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”).
“Crime fiction creates a place, like a painting on an easel, where you can tell very human stories with conflict and drama,” Ramos said. “You can talk about any of society’s issues as part of the story. Those elements fit in because of the nature of crime fiction. You aren’t necessarily writing a polemic, or an essay or an opinion piece; it’s fiction, it’s a story.”
Ramos, a winner of two Colorado Book Awards and an Edgar Award finalist, was drawn at a young age to reading crime fiction mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (the 1920s and 30s). The mysteries of that golden age influenced him heavily, he said and steered him toward things he wanted to write.
“I was a voracious reader,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. James M. Cain’s ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1934) is a masterpiece in American Literature.”
Ramos considers “Postman” to be a dissection of the American dream. “It contains issues of racism, gender politics, and class struggle, but at its heart, it’s a noir classic. It’s a drama driven by crime and by human passions that aren’t always heroic.”
Ramos was born and raised in Florence, Colorado, a town in the southern part of the state, near Canyon City. “At that time it was a small country town with just a few thousand people. Now, of course, the prison industry has become important to that town,” he said.
Ramos started writing in junior high school. “There’s a difference between writing and realizing that you really are a writer,” he said. It wasn’t until after his father moved the family to Colorado Springs and he was at Harrison High School when “a teacher supported and encouraged me enough to where I started to believe I really could be a writer.”
Ramos wrote short stories and opinion pieces while attending CSU in Fort Collins, where he was fairly involved in student activism. After graduating in 1970 with a degree in Political Science, he said that law school seemed like the right path to change things that needed changing. Ramos pursued a law degree at CU in Boulder and graduated in 1973.
“Creative writing stopped when I went to law school and had to focus on that legal training and a different way of thinking,” he said. “It was about a dozen years after I became a lawyer that I went back to writing fiction.
“My first book, ‘The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz’ (1993), took me two years to write, although it was longer than that because its genesis was a short story published in the late 1980s in Westword as part of their fiction contest. It’s about a Chicano lawyer in Denver. Eventually, the character in that short story became the focus of the book. That character became Luis Montez.”
Five of Ramos’ first six novels were about Montez. “The lawyer series was obviously influenced by my practicing law and knowing some of the issues and problems that people go through. In ‘My Bad,’ Montez is retiring, and he’s closing his practice. I retired a few years ago, so I know what goes on in making that decision.
“I won’t say I’m done with Montez because I once thought I’d written everything I could about the guy—the books cover about ten years in his life—from middle age to him thinking about retiring. But then Montez showed up at the end of ‘Desperado’ (2013), in which I introduced the character, Gus Corral.
“‘My Bad’ picks up a little bit later from where ‘Desperado’ leaves off. Montez hires Gus, who’s fresh out of prison, to work for him as an investigator. Lo and behold, I guess I had I had more to say about Montez.”
“The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories” (2015) is a collection of Latino crime fiction. “It’s all of the short stories I had published to that point,” he says. “That’s really where the character of Gus was first introduced.
“‘The Skull of Pancho Villa’ has to do with the robbery of Pancho Villa’s grave and what happened to the missing skull. I created a story based on the missing skull being in Gus’ family. Somebody steals it, so he has to go out looking for it—he becomes an amateur detective. That short story eventually became chapter five in ‘Desperado.’ It’s true that Villa’s grave was robbed. To this day nobody knows what happened to his skull.”
A part of Ramos’ family history served as a source of inspiration for “The Skull of Pancho Villa.” His maternal grandfather fought in Pancho Villa’s army.
Not all of Ramos’ stories are crime fiction. He says that several of his short stories are dark and noir-ish, but they aren’t necessarily mysteries. “My novel ‘The King of the Chicanos’ (2010) is a straightforward novel about a guy who’s active in what used to be called the Chicano Movement. It’s about his rise and fall as a leader.”
Ramos believes all writers have a role in promoting reading and literacy. He’s been busy speaking at workshops on college campuses, literary festivals, and book events. He writes for La Bloga (labloga.blogspot.com), an award-winning Internet magazine devoted to Latino literature, culture, news, and opinion. He has read at BookBar and West Side Books and hopes to schedule another reading soon.
Ramos advises budding authors, “Read the types of books you want to write, and read a lot. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and that’s important. It’s also important to understand that the most success you might have is just finishing a piece.
“I write fiction. I tell lies. I’m a storyteller,” Ramos said. “I try to tell good stories. For me, atmosphere, characterization, tone, and setting are key essentials.”
Ramos’ first four books (“The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz,” “The Ballad of Gato Guerrero,” “The Last Client of Luis Montez,” and “Blues for the Buffalo”) have been reprinted by Northwestern University Press and are available directly from that press (nupress.northwestern.edu). Later books are published or have been reprinted by Arte Publico Press (artepublicopress.com). Visit manuelramos.com.
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