I’ve had a soft spot for Nick Forte from the start. He first appeared in a parody written for friends, where each friend also had a small role to play. He grew into my personal rebellion against the contemporary stereotype of the damaged hero.
Forte is a regular guy, with regular guy issues. A failed musician who spent a few years in an Army band trying to get his chops together, he became a public school teacher in Chicago. After a couple of years he heard the police department was hiring, his teaching time counted toward retirement, and he’d feel safer on the streets, armed, than in a classroom, defenseless. He liked the work but not the politics and discipline, drifted into private investigations. As A Small Sacrifice opens, he has a small office on Printers’ Row, with one employee, a secretary who also does record and background checks.
He’s divorced. (Musician, then cop; damn right he’s divorced.) He’s gotten over losing a wife; his greatest worry now is keeping as close to their daughter as he’d can. He’s not particularly happy or unhappy. He has things he likes to do, things he doesn’t like but has to do, and, in his late thirties, he has a course set for how the rest of his life will play out, or at least the foreseeable future. He drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, never uses drugs, and engages in no risky sexual behavior. Keep the tone and change the specifics and this description could apply to 75% of working- and middle-class men.
So why write about him?
The Nick Forte who makes a guest appearance in Grind Joint is not the man who appears in A Small Sacrifice. People tell him he’s a better father than most who live in the home, and he knows it’s bullshit; it eats at him every day. He knows he can’t be there for Caroline as much as he’d like, so he tries to pay it forward. Maybe if he takes an interest in helping others with their children some karmic dividend will accrue and he can sleep easier about Caroline’s fortunes with boyfriends and flat tires.
The problem is, the cases he takes that allow him to feed this need don’t turn out how they should. They’re violent, and, though he gives his best effort, things aren’t put right. As he says in A Small Sacrifice:
There aren’t a lot of happy endings in my business. People don’t often come to me unless something serious is already wrong. A cheating partner or spouse, blackmail, a relative who doesn’t want to be found. I’m supposed to put Humpty-Dumpty back together so life can go on like it never happened.
It never works that way. The fabric of peoples’ lives is too badly torn for the mend job to be invisible. If you’re real lucky, you get justice. If you’re just regular lucky, you may get retribution. The best you can reasonably hope for is some closure.
I wrote four Forte novels before turning to the current series. The violence and unsatisfactory results charge their toll, case by case, until he becomes the man who appears in Penns River to visit his cousin unfazed by a situation even his former MP cousin thinks twice about. His is the story of how a regular man can be worn down by events he lacks the ability to control and the will to avoid. I hope you enjoy his trip. I really don’t know where it ends.