Cracking the Case

Pathologist Robert Greer has spent more than twenty years researching the mysteries of cancer at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. But it was during trips to his favorite restaurant, Dozens, to escape the hustle and bustle of the hospital, that he stumbled onto a mystery of a different sort.

Staring out a window toward the colorful, crumbling Victorian row houses a few blocks away on Delaware Street, Greer recalls, "I always sit here and look out at the 'bail bondsman's row,' so I said, 'You know, I wonder what those guys do?'"

So Greer did some research and conjured up CJ Floyd, the cheroot-smoking black bail bondsman in The Devil's Hatband, a new mystery novel that takes place in the mountains and around Denver, in locations such as Five Points and Delaware Street.

Although this is Greer's first novel, it's not his first foray into writing. Already an experienced short-story writer, Greer also edits the quarterly High Plains Literary Review, which he founded in 1986 out of his offices in Cherry Creek.

"There are no special secrets, no bigger brain, no special genes," he says, his voice friendly and precise, with a slight Western drawl. "I'm just very disciplined and methodical in the way I approach things. I try not to waste any time. I work all the time, but my work is enjoyment."

More enjoyable, no doubt, thanks to his novel's early success. The Devil's Hatband already sold out its initial printing run of 8,500 copies, and Greer has a contract to write two more CJ Floyd novels. And, to boot, he recently set off on a two-month promotional tour through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York. But his tour will have to compete with another commitment: Greer plans to spend five weeks in Boston trying to identify a genetic marker that can accurately predict the likelihood of a person developing cancer.

Cancer is one of the few things that links Greer's two worlds. The novel's medical McGuffin--a virus that can cause cancer in animals and people--was one that Greer actually researched in the early Eighties. "When I was writing the novel," he says, "I had to decide whether to put the truth in there or not, because if I described how you could really make this, someone might be deranged enough to use it." Ultimately, Greer chose to fictionalize the virus, and for the most part he keeps the worlds of medicine and fiction separate.

"I tend not to be thinking about one when I'm doing the other," he explains. "I don't think that somebody lying on the operating table worried about whether they have cancer of the larynx wants me thinking about CJ Floyd. But when I'm thinking about him, I don't want to be thinking about someone's life."

Greer, 52, was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in the steel-mill town of Gary, Indiana. He moved to Denver in 1974 with his wife, Phyllis, attracted to the relaxed lifestyle and Western scenery.

While the couple lives alone in Cherry Creek, the common theme of Greer's short stories and novel is the dynamic of the black working class--a reflection of his Gary roots. "I don't write about rich people with psychological problems," he says. "That doesn't interest me. I want to show that working-class people do struggle, they struggle hard, they can overcome, they have the same hopes and aspirations as people who may be more affluent than them."

At the same time, Greer says he has no "delusions" about writing fiction for a purpose higher than entertainment: "I'm not writing fiction to solve a social problem, I'm not writing fiction to answer the meaning of life, and I'm not writing it with some great intellectual debate in mind."

What's unusual is how different the fictional bail bondsman is from the pathologist who created him. Floyd is a 45-year-old divorced Vietnam vet struggling to make ends meet; Greer is a very successful, happily married doctor and writer. CJ drives a '57 Chevy Bel Air, Greer a coffee-colored Chevy Tahoe. And while one has spent years researching neck and throat cancer, the other smokes cheroots like his life depended on it.

"He is a smoker," Greer says with a shrug. "I tried not to make a perfect character. He probably drinks a little too much, smokes too much, gambles a little bit. Maybe he can grow in additional novels."

CJ grows in his debut, as well. Greer takes him "into a larger culture and makes him have to go out and interact with people in the West. He's outside of his culture dealing with those people."

But while CJ is out of his element once the mystery leads him into the Colorado high country and the culture of white ranchers, Greer doesn't seem to be a fish out of water anywhere. "Mine is the typical world any black person who's a professional has to work in," Greer says. "Mine is, you have to straddle two worlds. That's much more difficult for CJ to do than it is for me to do, because I've spent such a long time having to hone the skills that allow me to walk in both those worlds. He's never had to hone those skills."

Greer owns a 1,200-acre ranch southwest of Steamboat Springs, where he raises more than a hundred Black Baldy cattle. "I love it, I love it," he says. "It gives me the opportunity to get away from city life and to do a little ranching and to be outdoors. I like that. I knew when I started the novel I wanted to be up in the high country. I wanted to get the reader's attention."

But there are some links between the urbane Greer and the rough-and-tumble Floyd. "CJ's a big blues fan, so I stole that from me," Greer says, slipping a B.B. King disc into the Tahoe's CD player. "He's forever riding around listening to B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Muddy Waters. That's what he does all the time when he's out working."

The other is that both have been collectors for twenty years. "All those things CJ collects I collect--antiques, license plates, marbles, inkwells. The reason CJ collects is it sort of gives him a link to the past. It's the same reason I collect. It gives me a link to other times that I appreciated."

Greer's portrayal of Five Points, where the most colorful scenes of his novel take place, reflects his nostalgia. "The Five Points I described is clearly not the Five Points that's there today. What I described is the way Five Points was when I came here in the Seventies."

CJ's Five Points is a vibrant, fun community. There's no Deep Rock water plant, nor is there a Colorado National Bank at 27th and Welton. CJ's main hangout, Mae's Kitchen, doesn't really exist, but Greer modeled the place after Kapre Fried Chicken, a block up from the old Rossonian Hotel.

No one greets us at the door of Kapre--as Mae's daughter might have done for CJ--and the patrons look more dimly lit than the shady characters CJ tangles with. "Man, we used to come through here all the time," Greer says. "Every day we were eatin' this chicken. Now, any time I'm in here, I'm running to pick the stuff up to take it home, because I just don't have the time."

Outside Mae's--er, Kapre--Greer looks around quiet Welton Street and says, "There's not the liveliness there used to be. Twenty years ago if you came down here, there'd be people all over the streets. There was so much more going on."

Greer admits he tried to reflect in his novel a longing for a different Denver. "Denver," he says, "has lost more than it's gained. Clearly." Which may be why he wrote The Devil's Hatband: He can rediscover those places that existed in another Denver, and he can do it whenever he wants. "It lets me go to those places in my head that, because I'm so busy, I can't get to every day.

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T.R. Witcher