The Most Endearing Bit Character I've Ever Created
A deep look into Uncle Zed, an unexpected star from my Sean Coleman Thriller series.
From a Dead Sleep was released on July 1, 2013. As I’ve said in a number of interviews and speaking engagements over the years, the novel was never intended to launch a series. In fact, I was part way through the writing of my second book with entirely different characters (including the protagonist), when I was so taken back by the reception to the first book, and hearing from readers who “couldn’t wait to read Sean’s next adventure,” that I started to see some wisdom in switching directions on Blood Trade.
Honestly, even without that feedback, I think it was meant to me. I realized pretty quickly that the second story was actually a much better fit for Sean and the rest of the crew. And because there were so many plot-lines and character relationships I intended to put in From a Dead Sleep, but left out due to the length of the manuscript, I already had some pretty interesting ideas to expand on.
But of all the characters I’ve created over those five Sean Coleman Thrillers (a sixth is on the way), I’m still amazed that one in particular remains so highly regarded by readers — a guy who’s really more of a bit character, though his presence, in one form or another, makes at least a cameo in every book in the series. I’m talking about Uncle Zed.
I designed Zed to be someone who readers would immediately like, because it was important to the larger scope of the book. But I never expected for a moment that there’d to be such an emotional attachment to him that I would still, after all these years, be receiving emails and in-person comments about him.
Zed Hansen is introduced to readers in chapter 7 of the first book, just after Sean, a struggling and utterly unreliable alcoholic, finds his wild story about witnessing a stranger’s suicide met with strong skepticism from his town’s chief of police. While waiting for a ride from his uncle outside the police station, Sean finds himself peppered with irritating questions by Toby, an autistic 13 year-old (and another reader favorite).
The tap of a car horn caused both of their heads to turn.
“There’s my man!” greeted a friendly, elderly male voice over the roar of a loud truck engine. “How’s it going, Toby?”
“Hi, Mr. Hansen!” replied the boy, retaining his smile and gazing out along the hood of the light-blue Ford pickup as it pulled up to the street corner perpendicular to the parking lot.
An older but distinguished-looking gentleman proudly wearing a tall, straw cowboy hat flashed a charming smile at the boy through the open window. Well-kept, long silver sideburns trailed down both sides of his face. A matching goatee added a certain dignified element to his appearance—like a redneck Sean Connery. His license plate, surrounded by a shiny chrome frame below the grill, read MRGUARD—a cheap plug for Sean’s uncle’s security service.
With a long toothpick angled out of the side of his mouth and a cunning shift of his eyes, he warned, “Don’t let that bum borrow your bike, Toby! He looks a bit cagey!”
I sometimes read passages from my early fiction writing (including the one above), and wish I had worded things a bit differently (like reducing the number of adjectives and adverbs). But whenever I can compel readers to genuinely care about one of my characters, as if that character is a real person, I take that as a victory.
I recognize now just how instrumental the introduction of Zed was, not just to the book but to the entire series. Zed is the closest thing that Sean Coleman, my deeply flawed protagonist, has to a father-figure, and I think that defining the two’s relationship in this chapter goes a long way in setting an important tone for things to come.
This exchange begins after Sean gets in his uncle’s truck:
“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to be a little friendlier to that boy,” Zed suggested, arching a brow. “He idolizes you.”
“No one asked him to.”
After a quick glance at his uncle, Sean leaned forward and twisted a brass knob on the dashboard’s A.M. radio. Sean was no fan of twangy country music, but he hoped doubling the volume would serve as a hint to his uncle to change the subject.
“You know that his daddy . . .” Zed began, before taking a second to sigh and lean forward to drop the volume back down. “You know that his daddy left him and his mother when he was a youngun’. I’d think you could relate to that a bit.”
A scoffing gasp slid from Sean’s mouth. “That kid should stay away from me.”
“Come on,” the old man snarled with a rejecting wince and a shake of his head. “Why do you always have to shit all over yourself like that?”
“Because it’s true!” Sean snapped. “What does that kid want out of me?”
“Probably just a friend.”
“A friend? What? Like someone to throw a football around with or someone to take him to the movies?”
“Maybe just someone to listen to him. To talk to.”
“Well that ain’t me. I ain’t that guy. I’m the guy who gets smashed at bars and gets kicked out of his home because he pisses away his rent money on pool and poker.” Sean’s shoulders slumped, and he took a breath. A few moments later, he somberly continued. “I’m a joke in this town. No one takes me seriously. Not Gary, not even you.”
With a discouraged grunt, Zed shook his head again and said, “Well, that’s one hell of a thing for you to say to me, boy.” His face turned to Sean, and his eyes burned right through his nephew. “I’m on your side, Sean. You’re not a joke to me. You’re my kin, and I’m proud of it. You wouldn’t be working for me otherwise.”
Sean’s eyes lowered as his uncle’s words sank in. He raised his head and glanced out his window. Mom-and-pop shops at the edge of town floated by. None of them had changed in years. Same look. Same owners. Same names. He could feel his uncle’s glare from behind.
Turning his eyes back on the road, Zed asked without expression, “You’re being evicted?”
Sean closed his eyes and rested the side of his weary head against the warm window beside him. He knew his uncle would gladly bail him out. He had done it many times in the past. But Sean had always hated asking for anyone’s help, and with how he had lost the rent money this time, he wasn’t about to let his uncle get involved.
“It’s fine. There’s no problem.” He cleared his throat and dropped his head to take inventory of his appearance, gazing down at his muddied and stained clothing. What a sight he was. Zed hadn’t remarked about the disarray of his uniform. Not one word. Sean found that odd considering the uniform actually belonged to his uncle’s company.
Until this point in the book, it’s not clear that Sean — a self-professed loner — has anyone in his life that’s pulling for him. But Zed is someone who genuinely cares, and he hasn’t given up on his nephew… despite all of Sean’s warts and life-mistakes.
An odd sensation of nakedness suddenly overcame Sean. The staple weight that normally caused his front pocket to slightly sag . . . it was gone. His hand quickly rose to his chest where he fumbled unsuccessfully for the item that always resided there on his uniform.
“Ah, shit!” he roared, before leaning forward and intensely scanning the floor and seat of the truck while distraughtly patting his hand across the other barren pocket.
“What’s the problem?” asked Zed.
Sean felt too humiliated to say, instead punishing himself over losing his badge. Despite his fuzzy head, he clearly remembered reattaching it to his shirt after waking up at the bottom of the trench by Meyers Bridge. After the morning he’d been through, it could have fallen off just about anywhere in between.
He glanced up at his uncle’s eyes. Zed’s expression revealed that he had already gathered what was up.
“Lose your badge?”
Before Sean could say a word, his uncle attempted to put his mind to rest.
“It’s no big deal, Sean. I have others.” Zed read defeat in his nephew’s eyes, and the look on his face showed that it pained his heart.
“Hey!” he said with a wink and a smile, understanding all too well the pride that Sean took in his job. With a friendly backhand to his nephew’s shoulder, he added, “It’s not the badge . . . it’s the man behind it.”
The conversation turns mostly positive after this, and at the end of the truck ride, readers get a preview of a larger family dynamic at play.
“How’s your mother?”
The delivery of the question was clearly uncomfortable—for both men. Sean’s face turned pale, which Zed hadn’t expected.
“Sad, ain’t it? I don’t even know,” Sean said. “I haven’t been over there in a month. I guess she’s fine. Diana hasn’t said anything.”
Zed recognized the look of despair in Sean’s eyes. He’d seen it many times. It was the same look that Sean used to display when he’d asked about his father so many years ago. He was but a child back then, but those droopy eyes and those low shoulders sent Zed back in time.
“Well, you’ve got me beat at least.”
Sean dropped a sneer and let out a chuckle. “Yeah, but at least you have an excuse.”
Zed slowly nodded his head and lifted his eyes. “Maybe I used to. But I’m not so sure I have one these days.”
“Uncle Zed, we both know that her problem with you has always been her problem. You didn’t do anything wrong. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.”
“Well, no one ever said that guilt by association was fair. But I’ve got no bad feelings for her. I guess that when you hate someone that much, it’s hard to see the face of his brother who looks a lot like him every time you go into town.” Zed pulled his toothpick from his mouth and held it vertically before his eyes. It was well chewed and bent at the top. After tossing it out his open window, he said, “For her, I’m a photograph that doesn’t fade. A constant reminder.”
“You’re not him. You’re just related to him. Like me. Bad genes.”
Zed reached into his front pocket and pulled out a couple of folded twenty-dollar bills. He reached across the cab and shoved them into Sean’s front pocket—the pocket where his missing badge normally hung. Sean opened his mouth to protest, but Zed cut him off.
“It’s an advance, on the Branston job.” Zed’s warm eyes glowed at Sean.
Sean’s mouth curled at the edges. His eyes expressed gratitude.
“Thanks, Uncle Zed.”
We learn a lot more about Zed’s character and personal integrity later in the book, but I think it’s chapter 7 is what ingratiated him to readers — something I find quite satisfying.
I’m thinking about profiling other characters and scenes from my books in upcoming newsletters. Let me know if it’s something you enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) this week.
By the way, as I mention below, the Sean Coleman Thrillers make a great Christmas gift!
Have a favorite character in my book series? Let me know who in an email, or in the comment section below.
As you can see in the above photo, Bernard Goldberg and I recorded an especially intellectual episode of the The No BS Zone last week. We talked about what the next presidential term may look like (under different scenarios), as well as partisan isolation in our deeply divided country. The first few minutes are free to all. Please check it out.
I also talked to author Robert H. Silbering about his new book, “Law & Disorder: How a Kid from the Bronx Became America's Top Drug Prosecutor.” Robert is a former New York City prosecutor with lots of fascinating stories to tell, including his work in the War on Drugs, and serving as an advisor on Hollywood projects like the Harrison Ford film, Presumed Innocent, and the long-running television series, NYPD Blue.
A few months ago, you might recall that I co-interviewed New York Times columnist David French. I’ve gotten to know David and his wife Nancy a little bit online over the years, and they are both amazing, moral people who’ve done some very valuable work in areas of cultural and societal importance.
Last night, Nancy posted the below message on social media. It took my breath away.
If you’re the praying type, I humbly ask for your prayers for Nancy and the French family as they navigate through this heavy ordeal. Thank you.
Obligatory Dog Shot
A Mark Ludy original, and I love it!
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That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!