Monday, September 22, 2014

The Ten Books That Stuck With Me - Honorable Mention

Today I follow up with the ten books that stuck with me, but not quite as much as in the first list.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe. Non-fiction not only can be uplifting and fun, it should be, when possible. Astronauts have been built into American demigods, and this book shows how and why without breaking down the men who earned every accolade that came their way, though maybe not in the manner in which they were delivered.

Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut. Only a genius could tell such a horrific story in such a superficially lighthearted manner. The downside is, some people won’t get it. So it goes.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller. The greatest satire since Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Double Deuce, Robert B. Parker. Not the best of the Spensers, but the one where I first fully understood what Parker was doing with the Spenser-Hawk bond.

Nobody’s Fool, Richard Russo. Empire Falls is a better book, but this was my first exposure to Russo and how well he captures the kind of town I grew up in.

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett. Nothing fancy. Tell the story and get out. This book should be taught in MFA courses.

The Book of Ralph, John McNally. Showed me there are many ways to hold together a novel-length book.

A Widow for One Year, John Irving. I read it at a good time to resonate with me, and it has the most satisfying ending I’ve ever read. No man writes female characters better.

Hombre, Elmore Leonard. Pretty close to a perfect novel. No need to gild the lily when you have great characters and a great story. Just tell it.

The Onion Field, Joseph Wambaugh. Apart from being a beautifully written and researched ode to two wronged men, it should be mandatory reading for some who wonder how police practices evolve.


I’m supposed to tag ten people now, but I’m so late to the party, just about anyone I might tag has already done this. So, if you’re so inclined, feel free to post such a list to your blog or Facebook, and let us know in the comments.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Ten Books That Stuck With Me

A meme has been going around for a month or so, writers challenging other writers to name the ten books that have stuck with them over the years. I was tagged at least twice (by Debbie Meighan and Minerva Koenig and possibly someone else, but I don’t remember who, or even if, for sure), but some urgent family business had me otherwise occupied and I’m only now getting time.

I’m happy with this list of ten, but, the more I thought about it, the more books seemed worth of mention, so, on Monday, I’ll add a post with the ten Honorable Mentions. So, to Debbie and Minerva, (and whoever you are, I do feel badly about forgetting), here are the ten books that have stuck with me over the years.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London. I lost track of how many times I read this book. I can still remember some scenes and lines after at least 45 years. (“Dat Spitz, him fight lak hell.” “Dat Buck, him fight lak two hells.”) The first book I remember taking me someplace other than where I sat to read it, every time.

The Kid from Tomkinsville, John R. Tunis. The first of Tunis’s Brooklyn Dodgers trilogy, with World Series and Keystone Kids. They were great and fun reads for a baseball crazy kid, read until they fell apart. Now I can look back and see how Tunis was ahead of his time for kids-oriented sports books. The star pitcher, Razzle Nugent, was an alcoholic who goes off the reservation when drunk. The slugger, Karl Case, is an asshole, who would almost certainly be a racist if there were any blacks in 1930s baseball. The team’s manager in Keystone Kids dies while drunk driving accident. In World Series, Roy Tucker, the Kid in the title, is a bystander when Case wins the series. There’s a lot more going on here than giving kids their dose of idol worship.

The Hardy Boys, Franklin W. Dixon. Can’t pick just one after all these years. I do remember going to social events with my parents and finding a stairwell at someone’s house where I could read whichever adventure I was working on. Where I cut my teeth on mysteries.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle. My first “adult” novel.

The Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan. World War II was of such scope, most histories can only hope to get to the division level. Ryan looked at the war through the other end of the telescope, from the perspectives of the individuals caught up in things beyond their control. The Last Battle and A Bridge Too Far are at least as good, but I read The Longest Day first, and its concentration on a single day (June 6, 1944) adds to its intensity. A Bridge Too Far may be the single greatest piece of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer. The other candidate for the greatest piece of non-fiction in my experience. An object lesson for anyone who doesn’t believe that all evil needs to be victorious is the silence of good people.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler. The book that first got me interested enough in crime fiction to consider writing it.

Big Bad City, Ed McBain. Not the first of the 87th Precinct novels I read, and not the best. Big Bad City was when I first caught on to what McBain was doing, telling stories that went beyond the crime or crimes to be solved, writing novels about people who happened to be cops, as he would put it.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins. The greatest crime fiction novel ever written.

American Tabloid, James Ellroy. I read Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy out of order, finishing with Tabloid, which came first. Now I’m glad I did. It’s a primer on what his style would become, for better or for worse, and a masterpiece in weaving fact and fiction so even a reader relatively well acquainted with the period has trouble distinguishing one from the other at times.

On Monday I’ll have the honorable mentions.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Twenty Questions With Ben Solomon

Ben Solomon is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society who lives and writes in Chicago, a prime location for crime fiction inspiration. His fiction and film criticism have appeared in a number of small, literary publications as well as online. His hard-boiled hero appears in the 2013 anthology, The Shamus Sampler II, with another yarn scheduled for Drag Noir, upcoming from Fox Spirit Books. Solomon has also penned regular columns and articles for Hollywood Online, The Motley Fool, and Chicago Parent magazine.

He drafted the first story for The Hard-Boiled Detective in August, 2012, which led to a second, and a third, until pretty soon he had something that had just about died out: a short story series. This led to the idea of a subscription website, and thehardboileddetective.com officially launched in February 2013. The first collection of stories from his throwback series, The Hard-Boiled Detective 1: First Series Collection was released on August 28 of this year.

Ben took time from his schedule to submit to the usual twenty questions, which are quite informative for those who may not yet know much about him.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Hard-Boiled Detective 1: First Series Collection.
Ben Solomon: You go for Black Mask? Hammett? Chandler? You might get a bang out of the original elevan stories from my ongoing, throwback crime series. My nameless detective faces murderers, blackmailers, adulterers and racketeers—and that's only the first yarn in this short story collection. You get the idea.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
BS: I've got a soft spot for tough guys, especially the 1930s–1940s, Warner Brothers variety. I watched those flicks growing up, and they quickly replaced fairy tales and other bedtime stories. After reading Hammett and Chandler, it was Spillane's writing that gave me the idea and the kick in the pants—could I capture the spirit of those films and translate them into a short story? "The Hard-Boiled Detective" became my attempt to answer that question.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Hard-Boiled Detective 1: First Series Collection, start to finish?
BS: There's a bit of a convoluted route to that one.

I penned the first story in August of 2012, and I had such a gas writing it that I went for another. The second one proved such a blast setting down that I dove right into a third. With three in the bag, it struck me I had a going concern. Sure. So I launched the thehardboileddetective.com in February 2013, a subscription series offering three stories every month. The series is now in its 20th month. I've got 60 yarns topping 300,000 words. It figured it was about time to come out with the first book. Going by the calendar, you could say it took 12 months for the 11 stories in this collection.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
BS: None. Purposely so. The PI hero doesn't even have a name, for chrissake.

OBAAT: In what time and place is THBD1 set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
BS: The setting's a bygone era, a vanished time and place, and ranges anywhere from 1929–1959. It's crucial for establishing the patter and attitudes, the roles of men and women, the relationships between good and evil. There's more than enough evil to go around in this series, but there's a certain simplicity and innocence to it. Ain't that swell?

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
BS: As of late I've been bogged down in PI stories, and Chandler's tops for my money. I dig Stout plenty, too. My earlier influences run from Poe to Thomas Mann to Nabokov.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
BS: I wish I kept up more, but I'm hopelessly stuck in another day. I always go back to Chandler, Hammett, S.S. Van Dine, Stout and Spillane. And make that earlier Spillane, please.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
BS: I don't get it, but I write better when I'm wearing pants. Outlines are a tremendous help, and I hardly ever use them.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
BS: I'd call it something in between. Mostly writing first person narrative, I always need to find that voice. I could probably wing a hard-boiled adventure about dish soap once I discover the narrator's attitude and perspective.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
BS: Write your ass off and make it your own. I'm repeating myself here, but I believe it.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
BS: Sitting with my girlfriend at one elbow, a double espresso at the other, and watching the world go by.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
BS: What money?

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
BS: No. That would be as good as death. I'm not ready to cash it in yet.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
BS: I'll stick with what's behind door number one. I've always been an on-my-own-terms kind of guy and I'm not about to change.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
BS: Beer. Maybe a nice French amber.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
BS: Far and away baseball.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
BS: What kind of dog was Asta in Hammett's original book, The Thin Man?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
BS: A miniature schnauzer.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

BS: Right now? More of the same, baby. I've got the next three yarns due and I'm already one week behind. I guess that means I'm right on schedule...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Twenty Questions With Austin Camacho

Austin Camacho gets around, to put it mildly. He’s the author of five novels in the Hannibal Jones Mystery Series (including The Troubleshooter, Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, Damaged Goods and Russian Roulette) and four in the Stark and O’Brien adventure series (The Payback Assignment, The Orion Assignment, The Piranha Assignment, and this year’s The Ice Woman Assignment. His short stories have been featured in four anthologies from Wolfmont Press, including Dying in a Winter Wonderland – an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association Top Ten Bestseller for 2008 - and he is featured in the Edgar-nominated African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study by Frankie Y. Bailey. He is also a media specialist for the Department of Defense. America's military people know him because for more than a decade his radio and television news reports were transmitted to them daily on the American Forces Network.

In his copious free time he is the Editorial Director of Intrigue Publishing, and is among the principal organizers of the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity Conference, to be held October 10 – 12 in Hunt Valley MD.

Austin’s newest book is Beyond Blue, which features a team of unique and intriguing detectives whose only purpose is to help police officers in trouble. He (somehow) found time to not only answer Twenty Questions, but answer them well. Enjoy.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Beyond Blue.
Austin Camacho: Beyond Blue is about a privately funded detective agency whose only purpose is to help police officers who are in trouble.  The novel follows four of the agency’s cases, which overlap and intersect: An undercover officer is in danger of really being drawn into a life of crime, a crooked lawyer is destroying police careers by making arresting officers appear to have violated criminals’ rights, a cop’s wife accuses him of abusing their daughter, and a retired police detective in charge of airport security could lose his job because of drugs being smuggled in through JFK International.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
AC: The idea actually came from one of my writing heroes, Warren Murphy (creator of The Destroyer series in the 1970s). He asked me to co-write the novel with him, planning a series, but his failing health prevented him from continuing.  Ultimately he asked me to write the novel solo, although I did have input from him and am happy to share the credit.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Beyond Blue, start to finish?
AC: Writing the draft, and three strong re-writes required a little over a year.  You can add a couple months for the work with the editor and proofreader.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
AC: Without sharing any spoilers, a wealthy secret benefactor asked Paul Gorman to establish the Beyond Blue agency.  After a brilliant Army career in the Military Police, Gorman retired and created a second brilliant career in civilian law enforcement. He ran three major metropolitan police forces and was consulted by just about every police chief or commissioner in the country thanks to his gift for observation and deduction.  He recruited a quirky collection of investigators to his team, including an ex-Marine Corps South Pacific Islander who could have been a sumo wrestler; a smart-mouthed, Black/Puerto Rican beauty who left the FBI with a bullet lodged near her spine, a lovely Eurasian charmer who believes she is James Bond’s daughter, and two ex-New York City police detectives: a sophisticated black man and his country-music-loving white partner.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Beyond Blue set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
AC: Beyond Blue takes place today in New York City.  It’s a wonderful chance to explore the neighborhoods and culture of my home town.  The NYPD is wonderfully diverse, allowing my detective team to help a wide variety of law enforcement officers.

OBAAT: How did Beyond Blue come to be published?
AC: The manuscript sat on the shelf for a couple years because I so wanted Mr. Murphy’s total involvement.  Ultimately he asked me to proceed so we placed the novel on Intrigue Publishing’s schedule. It was just too good an idea not to get out there.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
AC: I love mysteries (except the really cozy stuff) and thrillers. My favorite authors focus on great prose as much as, or maybe more than, great stories.  There are a lot of authors whose work I love. My current favorites would be Dennis Lehane, and Jeffrey Deaver for mystery, and John Gilstrap and Jon Land for thrillers

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
AC: I guess I’m most influenced by the classics.  In my humble opinion the perfect mystery would be written in Raymond Chandler’s prose, with a Ross MacDonald plot and Elmore Leonard characters.  I can only hope readers see those influences in my work.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
AC: I wear them, but don’t fly by them.  I am a detailed and dedicated outliner.  I admire those who can simply sit down and write and actually get somewhere.  For me to create anything worth reading I have to know the order of the important events from beginning to end.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
AC: Once my outline is complete I write a draft from start to finish. I never look back or edit on the go.  I simply write one scene, and then move to the next. When I reach the end I check the word count. If the manuscript is way long or short I cut or add new scenes. Then I rest the manuscript for a day or two.  When I go back I rewrite, again from the beginning straight thru to the end.  Depending on the book I may repeat this process 3 or 4 times.  On the last pass I try to challenge every verb (is there a better one for that sentence?) eliminate as many adverbs as possible and generally tighten the prose.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
AC:  Only one?  Okay, “write every day.” But if I got to offer a second bit of advice it would be to read widely, and learn to read like a writer.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
AC: I love to shoot. Whether poking holes in paper or making bottles and milk jugs explode, putting steel on target is a big kick.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
AC:  The money may be the steak and potatoes, but the good reviews are the dessert. The real reward for my work is not that someone bought my book, but that someone loved my book.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
AC: I don’t think I could successfully make that deal even if I wanted to. Never write again? I don’t think I could do that, and even if I did, that wouldn’t be living.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
AC: In a perfect universe I would choose Option Three. Not so much for the advance, but mostly because I have always wanted to at least be in the running for an Edgar award. Of course, this isn’t a perfect world and you can’t choose a Big Six publisher; they have to choose you.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
AC: Mixed. Gin and tonic is my go-to drink, but Malibu rum with pineapple juice is the summer fave.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
AC: Baseball is a game.  Football is a sport.  And the Cowboys are the family team.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
AC: Who should be reading your books?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
AC: If you love the Spencer novels, or enjoy books about Alex Cross you’ll want to read my Hannibal Jones novels.  If you follow the adventures of Dirk Pitt or Jack Reacher, you will really love the stories starring Morgan Stark & Felicity O’Brien.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

AC: I’ve been asked to supply a short story for an anthology called “Insidious Assassins.” But when that’s completed I’m back to plotting the second Beyond Blue novel.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Eleventh Rule

I gave myself permission a few years ago to stop reading any book I found myself not enjoying. It doesn’t happen often—my vetting system is sound—but I sometimes wonder what it is about a book that makes me give up on it. I a devoted blog post to what I called “bestseller style,” and why it was a pretty good bet to make me stop reading.

The other day I put down a book I’d been looking forward to; the vetting system is not perfect. A bestseller, it had the issues I cited in the other post, but it also brought about an epiphany as to what it is about bestsellers that so often turns me off: they violate the Eleventh Rule.

What is the Eleventh Rule? In Elmore Leonard’s justly famous Ten Rules of Writing*, he states:

My most important rule is one that sums up the ten: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Bingo. These books sound too much like writing. Their authors write as if ninth-grade English teachers loomed over their shoulders, poised to strike with metal-edged rulers (or worse) at the mere whisper of a split infinitive or dangling preposition. This type of writing constantly reminds me I am reading a story, taking me away from the vivid and continuous dream I want to be in as a reader. I don’t want to read stories; I want to watch them.

“But what about Chandler and James Lee Burke and Declan Hughes? Their use of language is so original—beautiful, even—you admit you read for that,” you ask. (You sure have had a lot of questions lately. Getting to be a pain in the ass, frankly.) That’s true, but, while I am aware it’s writing, their work never reads as such. I can still be lost in their prose, as if listening to a master storyteller or orator make a story transcendent through his prose.

Leonard made a point to append the Eleventh Rule to Number Ten: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Personally, I tend to skip things that sound too much like writing, even if that means skipping the entire remainder of the book.


(* - Leonard’s Ten Rules are often presented as a bulleted list, but they are best read with the explanations and caveats he provided in the original.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Easter Eggs

I don’t know Nic Pizzalatto, so I didn’t use the Easter egg defense in my comments about the True Detective plagiarism controversy. It might be 180 degrees off base. In fact, it probably is. So, never mind about that. There you go. Shortest blog post ever.

“What are Easter eggs?” you ask? (Yeah, you did. Don’t try to deny it now that it looks like I’m going to go into something and you’re afraid people will blame you. I promise I won’t say any more than I have to, if that.) Easter eggs are little bits, often humorous, (hopefully) always entertaining, that are dropped into a story like inside jokes. The secret to an Easter egg is, those who don’t get the joke should not be aware of it, and their understanding of what has been written must not be diminished. It’s strictly a bonus to someone on the inside.

I don’t like to use my own stuff as examples, but I don’t have the time to do a lot of research. Grind Joint has several. The Chinese restaurant where Doc and Nick eat lunch is called Lee Ho Fuk’s. Fans of Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London got a smile. Everyone else thought it was the name of the Chinese joint. It had to be called something. (I needed a storefront Chinese place for a gag I wanted to use. Most Chinese restaurants have names like, “House of Peking Choice,” and “Happy Garden”, or “Hunan Pleasure,” so you can’t tell by the name whether it’s a restaurant or a whorehouse. So, Lee Ho Fuk’s. Which actually suffers from the same problem, but at least it’s funny.)

About once in a PI book I’ll make mention of people who are “nibbling” drinks. I’ve only ever seen that term in Raymond Chandler’s work. Using it is my bow—my homage—to Chandler. Chandler’s characters also sometimes “used” their drinks. So do mine. If you catch it and recognize it, good for you. If not, context makes the meaning perfectly clear.

It’s yet to be proven, but I believe the conscientious and judicious use of Easter eggs can help to create reader loyalty. If some subset of readers are getting the obscure references, there may be a bit of a bond there. I believe this because I’ve seen it work on a micro level.

A friend, a former employer of mine, called one evening. The first words out of his mouth were, “You immortalized me!” I asked what he was talking about, and he had the Grind Joint page number at the ready. The sentence that set him off was:  Showed like he spent his days talking you into the Impala instead of the Cobalt, or explaining why ventless dryers were the big thing. My friend sells ventless dryers, he knew I wrote that for him, and he was right. It made his day. Mine, too, after he called.

There’s a scene in Grind Joint where Nick Forte chases a bad guy through the woods:
Benny knew these woods better, but Nick knew enough. They’d played here as kids. Army and cowboys, practiced their Scout trailblazing skills when it seemed to them the trees went on forever and getting back wasn’t a foregone conclusion. A mound of dirt might be the foxhole they’d dug, parapet and firing step and all. Benny and Russell’s old tree house was off to the left somewhere.
That prompted a call from my brother. His family had read the book, but he told them they couldn’t appreciate that scene quite as much as he did—no one could—because it described things he and I had done as kids. (The whole climactic scene of Grind Joint takes place at my parents’ house and yard, and the woods behind. Nothing was made up, though a couple of things were re-arranged as needed.)

So, if you’re lucky, Easter eggs may allow you to bond with a few readers who will get the inside joke, so they might want to keep reading to spot the next one. Worst case, no one but you and a few select friends care. Even then, no damage has been done. Those on the outside didn’t miss anything important to the story. They won’t even know they missed anything at all. The worst that can happen is, you’ll have some fun. You might as well, since you’re not going to make much money.

(Commenter Bonus: A free, signed, copy of Grind Joint will be sent to the first person to identify the Easter egg in this post, not counting those I specifically called out.)


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Difficult Men

Difficult Men is Brett Martin’s brilliant and entertaining look behind the key shows of what he calls the Third Golden Age of television, a period spearheaded by HBO with the prison drama Oz laying the foundation from which The Sopranos would become a phenomenon.

The title has double meaning. The programs that make up the core of Martin’s third golden age focus largely on the lives of forty-ish men in crisis: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Don Draper, and several cops, politicians, and drug dealers in The Wire. Those are the guys the public saw. The men responsible for their creation were forty-ish themselves, and they were, by and large, the truly difficult men.

The biggest takeaway, for me, was, “Why would anyone want to write for television?” Even if you overcome innumerable hurdles and are lucky enough to get on a first-rate show, you may get to work for a David Chase, a David Milch, or a Mathew Weiner. Chase never got over the idea he was too good for television. Weiner comes off as an arrogant an asshole ever to draw breath. Milch is such a whack job he makes James Ellroy look as eccentric as Jimmy Carter.

The stories of how all these men achieved their positions are fascinating. How events, timing, critical masses of people, and the pure luck of pitching the right idea to the right network at the right time came together to create something special. How HBO owned the franchise until it got a little complacent and FX leadership decided maybe that network didn’t have to be an afterthought at Fox, after all. AMC’s good fortune when looking for a program with gravitas, but not a crime show, which had done the heavy lifting to that point. Martin talked to a lot of people in position to know, and what they told him was too good to have been made up.

Not all the showrunners were off the rails. David Simon comes across as argumentative, but fair, and extremely loyal to both his people and his vision, which could cause friction. Shawn Ryan (The Shield) called in personal favors from friends for his pilot and to keep the cast together—casting his wife as Vic Mackey’s wife because “I know I can get you back”—and using the guerilla film tactics born of budget necessity to create something special both onscreen and off. Vince Gilligan appears to be a mensch. So, no, one does not have to be a neurotic asshole to be a big success, though it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Difficult Men is a great read for any fans of any of the shows cited, and for anyone curious about how shows get made—or, more often, don’t get made—in Hollywood. A quick read, written by Martin in an engaging manner with the perfect distance from the subject matter. Not so distant he looks down on his subjects, yet not so close he fails to recognize the lunacy. This is pretty much a pitch perfect tale.

One last thing. Despite giving David Chase every opportunity to justify the ending of The Sopranos, when all is said and done, it was still chickenshit.