Hoffman, a private investigator based in Brooklyn, traces the origins of a $50 million supply of Ecstasy in his second novel, Every Man a Menace.
How did you get your start as a private investigator?
In 2003, I was working as a taxi driver in San Francisco when a friend told me she was working to investigate death penalty appeals. Right then I experienced one of those rare moments of clarity—private investigation combined everything I wanted in a job. The work was unpredictable, it was outside in the world, and I could get paid to make sure the police didn’t cheat. I interned at the San Francisco Public Defenders Office during the day, and continued driving a cab at night. The office was filled with fascinating people; the investigator who trained me, Nigel Phillips, for instance, had another life as the drummer in a famous British band, the Alarm. I loved it immediately.
In what ways are writing and investigation work similar?
Criminal defense in general is about telling stories—not making things up, mind you—but using storytelling in a way that disproves what the prosecutors are trying to say. They tell their story, you tell yours, and at the end of the day, whoever has a better story usually wins. Understanding people’s motives and being able to empathize with them always helps.
Did driving a taxi help you in your other work?
It was the perfect background for becoming an investigator, and being a criminal defense investigator is the perfect background for writing crime fiction. Driving a taxi, you get a glimpse of the lives of so many different kinds of people, and with investigating, you get to see the criminal world. You get to observe cops and lawyers, judges and defendants. You visit crime scenes, interview victims, look at autopsy reports, listen to hours and hours of interrogations. And you get to hang out with people during the most stressful periods of their lives.
For Every Man a Menace, were there any real-life details or people that sparked the idea for this novel?
I want to stress that my fiction is 100% made up. It’s invented, whole cloth. That said, do I see things when I’m working on a drug or murder case? Of course, but these things influence the texture more than the plot.
What would you want readers to know about the American criminal justice system?
That black lives matter. That our prisons need to be reformed. That the war on drugs will never be won.