As with any other calling, there's a certain image that goes along with writing mysteries. So if you were a casting director looking for someone to fill the part of a mystery novelist, you'd probably look for a matronly, middle-aged woman who liked cats. Or a white-haired, professorial type with a cardigan and pipe. Or, perhaps, one of those hard-boiled characters who enjoys hanging around cops in their spare time.
What you would not want is a mustachioed, cigar-smoking, Stetson-wearing, wisecracking, former country music singer from Texas. In other words, this is not a part you'd cast Kinky Friedman in.
Yet Friedman not only plays the part in real life -- his sixth novel, "Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola," has just been published by Simon & Schuster -- but is about to reprise the role on film, playing himself in the movie version of "A Case of Lone Star," his second mystery.
In the meantime, he's on a promotional tour that finds him singing at bookstores and signing copies of his novels while his traveling companion, former Miss Texas Rita Jo Thompson, teaches country line dancing to the faithful.
"Every year I do say it's going to be a power year for the Kinkster -- I've been saying that for about 24 years now -- but this year, it actually looks like that could be true," he says, sitting in his room at the Omni Hotel in Georgetown. "And I'm ready for it now. I could really handle success at this time.
"As I often say, I'm not afraid of success, I'm not afraid of failure. I'm just afraid I'm going to have to stop talking about myself for 5 minutes."
Not that there's any likelihood of THAT happening. Friedman is a gifted monologist, the kind of conversational character who comes up with a quip for any occasion. Unlike some interview subjects, who give quotes about as willingly as stones give blood, Friedman began his shtick even before the tape recorder came out, and didn't let up until the reporter was halfway to the hotel elevator. And even then he kept the punchlines rolling.
Still, his gag-a-minute goes over gangbusters on the book-promotion circuit. "Most authors are stultifyingly dull people," he explains. "And compared to most of them I'm positively charismatic. So that has served me well.
"Plus I find it's a lot easier to write a novel for me than it is to write a country song."
Not that he was any slacker in that department. Friedman and his band, the Texas Jewboys, burst onto the country music scene in 1973 with an album called "Sold American." To say that it was not exactly traditional country fare would be putting it mildly; after all, you didn't hear Marty Robbins or Porter Wagoner singing stuff like "Ride 'Em Jewboy" or "Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed."
Nonetheless, Friedman was a star on the outlaw circuit, going over well with the same listeners who love Kris Kristofferson, Commander Cody and Willie Nelson. He also had quite a few fans in the mainstream country audience, and even made it as far as the Grand Ol' Opry.
Not that he minds having missed the country music big time. "I stopped just short of having a real commercial hit in the early '70s," he says.
"Had I had that commercial hit, I know right now I'd be playing Disneyland with the Pips, no question about it."
Besides, Friedman seriously despises most contemporary country music. Although he applauds the "organic individualism" Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang, he has only scorn for the big stars.
"I have come to refer to Garth Brooks as the anti-Hank. These guys, they're not from the undecaffeinated era of country music that I know and love. Their audience has no sense of history at all -- and that has never been true of a true country audience."
Still, it wasn't just fate that steered Friedman out of music and into mysteries. Personal taste played a big part in the decision.
"Along with Bob Wills," he says, referring to the legendary fiddle player whose Texas Playboys all but invented Western Swing, "the guy I'm directly influenced by is John D. MacDonald, who wrote the Travis McGee mysteries. He was a very big believer in entertaining and amusing himself. He felt that if he could put a little something in every book or a little something in every chapter that was very subtle and would amuse himself that it would keep him writing and ring true and a lot of other people might pick up on it."
So Friedman fills his novels with one-liners and witty digressions. In "Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola" where Downtown Judy, Friedman's fictional lady friend, insists on helping him crack the case. "Possibly she saw herself as Nancy Drew and me as Thomas Hardy or whatever the hell his name was," writes Friedman.
Of course, with so much of the novels' charm hanging on Friedman's literary voice, casting the movie version of "A Case of Lone Star" was, initially, a problem. Hollywood likes to think in terms of established stars, but Friedman had his doubts. "I don't think 'River Phoenix IS Kinky Friedman' is what I'm going to want," he deadpans.
So after various producers took options and let them expire, Friedman grabbed the bull by the horns and began working the project himself.
"There ain't any question that I'm going to play Kinky now," he says, adding that the screenplay is finished, and a big-time executive producer has been brought on board.
"We've got Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell. We've got Patrick Bergen, Richard Mull, Ruth Buzzi as the lesbian dance instructor. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Willie and I have a great duet worked out on this song, 'Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond Of Each Other.'
"And did I mention the fact that we're going to use subtitles when Bob Dylan says anything?"
Apart from the book signings, Friedman doesn't do any concertizing these days. "I got a little tired of it, yeah," he says.
Even so, his latest album, a collection of oldies and oddities dubbed "Old Testaments & New Revelations," was an unexpected hit, selling over 100,000 copies for Friedman's tiny Fruit of the Tune label. "What it sold is still not quite good enough to impress a real record company," he avers. "But it's real significant in that these are not particularly just baby boomers buying this. This is being bought by a lot of different kinds of people across the board."
All told, then, things are going pretty well for the Kinkster these days. And, frankly, that makes for a welcome change in his
"I've been misunderstood in every way a human being can," he says. "Lenny Bruce felt that he was, and Van Gogh, I know, felt that he was. Schubert died with an estate valued at 12 cents. LTC But it looks like it's going to be a financial pleasure for the Kinkster.
"And I would be delighted if this does turn out."