Thursday, November 30, 2023

In Defense of Blogging*

I sometimes ponder the viability of this blog. The page views are typically a few dozen; comments are uncommon. The frustration always passes and the blog continues. Why?


Because I don’t write the blog for anyone except myself.


What about interviews? I do them because

I enjoy doing them and

I like helping other writers get the word out, even if only to a few dozen people.


The core reason I do interviews is because I love to talk about writing. Just because we’re not doing it in real time does not mean I don’t enjoy it. I ask questions I am curious about and look forward to the answers with the hope of learning something every time I get a response. I am rarely disappointed and I am not above sending follow-up questions if the initial response opens the door.


As for the other posts, this blog is where I work things out for myself. Some topic will strike me – or, more often, gnaw at me – and I’ll form an opinion. Opinions being like assholes (Everybody has them and they all stink), I like to work mine out. Try to develop my own counterarguments and how to either address them or change my position if I find myself to be mistaken.


Several draft posts a year never see the light of day. I either abort them partway through the first draft or they cannot support their own weight through the editing process. I do not consider any of that time wasted. I learned something, even if all I learned was that my initial thought was not worth airing.


It’s also gratifying to receive the occasional comment of appreciation, such as when I list my favorite reads of the prior quarter and someone thanks me for bringing a book to their attention. Or when I review a TV series or movie, or build a list, and people thank me for pointing out something they had not known, or felt was underappreciated. Writers often operate in vacuums, me more than most, so that is how I keep my finger on the pulse of what is going on around me.


So the blog continues. (This is Post 1,094.) I promise not to engage in too much navel-gazing, or too blatantly shameless self-promotion. I am always happy to help others, so feel free to hit me up for an interview or guest post if you have something to promote. If I’m full up, I’ll tell you, but I try to be as flexible as possible with scheduling my posts if it will help to accommodate someone else.


(* - A tongue-in-cheek homage to Peter Moskos’s fine and thought-provoking book, In Defense of Flogging.)

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Man in the Window


Today is the new cover reveal for the third Nick Forte novel, The Man in the Window.


This is the most personal Forte book for me in several ways. First, it draws on my experience as a musician; a couple of the characters are inspired by friends from my musical life. It also allows me to reflect a little, through Forte, how I felt about abandoning that life. (Though, thankfully, not the friends.)


It’s also largely based on the first Nick Forte story I wrote, “Auditioning Can be Murder.” In the story, Forte is a former musician asked to investigate what a current musician claims was a rigged audition. The story was written as a farewell to my musical life, and a tribute to my friends, several of whom were easily identifiable to those who knew them. It’s an ironic satire sent only to those involved, but was well enough received that I was inspired to continue along that path.


The book takes an entirely different look at the core story, though a pivotal scene is lifted almost word-for-word. (Edited, of course. I learned a few things in the intervening years.) From the back cover copy:


A simple adultery case turns deadly when the client is shot down on his way to receive Nick Forte’s report. Forte has no choice but to write it off as a bed debt until a mysterious man hires him to make sure the police aren’t sweeping things under the carpet. Forte and Goose soon find themselves involved with an old friend, a major symphony orchestra, and international terrorists with a range of backgrounds.


The reviews I cited on the cover are also gratifying:


Dana King's private eye uses a steady string of wise-ass remarks and clever asides to keep you laughing and caring, reminding me every chapter of the greatest P.I. writer of all time, Raymond Chandler. I put down Lee Child when I picked this up. Entertaining as all heck.


Good story and written with a great sense of humor. King's insights into the lives of professional musicians made the book even more enjoyable.


Oh, and the fact The Man in the Window received a Shamus nomination for Best Paperback original in no way diminishes my affection for the book.


Those of you who have read the book already, take note: there is nothing new here except for the cover and a few changes in the Amazon metadata. This “re-release” is intended to bring TMITW in line with the branding changes in preparation for the release of the sixth Forte novel, Off the Books, next March.


If you have not read the book, or have read it and think it would make a good gift – the holidays being right around the bend and all – here is the link to the Amazon listing.



Thursday, November 16, 2023

Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane

 I don’t often review individual books here. Much of that has to do with the number of books I read each year, which would turn the blog into a review site and that’s not why I’m here. Every so often a book compels me to draw attention to it alone. Dennis Lehane’s latest, Small Mercies, is such a book.


Small Mercies takes place during the lead up to the Boston busing riots in 1974. I’ll not say much about what happens; that’s for you to do if you choose to read the book. Suffice to say the core story concerns the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Jules Fennessy on the eve of the first busing protests, and her mother’s (Mary Pat) attempts to find her.


Small Mercies uses the busing protests much the same as Lehane used the Boston police strike for the backdrop of his 2008 novel The Given Day, though the scope here is much smaller. This is an examination of race relations, neighborhoods, and families, using South Boston as the stage.


The core takeaway is not to judge anyone unless evaluating them in their totality. Mary Pat Fennessy is blind to her own racism, which makes it even worse and harder to work around. She is also a devoted mother, in her way, and that way is how parents raised kids in South Boston, which is recommended in no book ever. Small Mercies focuses on her changes as she learns who her real friends are and how neighborhood dynamics can fracture not only friendships but family relationships.


The culture in which Mary Pat grew up is fiercely loyal and devoted to the neighborhood. People shovel each other’s walks and spread rock salt around as needed regardless of whose piece of sidewalk it will keep from freezing. Old women are helped across streets and into their walk-up apartments with their groceries. This is the standard and everyone accepts it.


In this story, the busing edict is an infringement on their neighborhood’s rights. To them it’s less about desegregation than resentment over forcing them to send their kids somewhere they do not want them to go. Fears for the children’s safety are cited - and may be legitimate - though it is clear Black families are entitled to the same concerns. More than that, it’s a matter of outsiders telling them how they have to live. The wounds fester because “The people who make the rules don’t have to live by them.” True, the racial prejudice is severe, but class hatred is also a key element. Rightly or wrongly, these people feel pressed between two forces, neither of which has their interests at heart.


As close as the people are, the book makes clear the neighborhood is always paramount; the nail that sticks up will be hammered down with a vengeance. Mary Pat runs into this as she asks uncomfortable questions about her daughter’s disappearance, and through that experience comes to see a little of the other side in this dispute. Both her actions are disloyalties akin to neighborhood treason.


No one combines complex characters, vivid dialog, the right amount of description, and a little smart-assery as well as Lehane. It was he who said crime fiction is the social novel of our time, and in Small Mercies he sets a new standard. If I am still around in a hundred years and see Dennis Lehane is considered at least the equal of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, the only thing that would surprise me is that I’m still around in a hundred years.



Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

 Today is the official re-branding re-launch of the second Nick Forte novel, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. (The most astute of you may have noticed the new cover a day or so ago. I’m a one-man operation focused more on writing than production. This is how things work in my world.) The book began as a critical look at the memorabilia industry and ended up as homage to Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon.


Russell Arbuthnot isn’t just a ham, he’s the whole pig. Forte – along with everyone else -  figures the bodyguard assignment Arbuthnot hired him for is a publicity stunt to perk up flagging ticket sales for a one-man show about to go under. When the actor actually does turn up dead, Forte faces the kind of publicity he can do without and decides, when a bodyguard’s client is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what he thought of him. He was your client and you're supposed to do something about it.


Sonny Ng, Jan Rusiewicz, Tony and Joey are all back from A Small Sacrifice, as are, of course, Goose and Nick’s daughter, Caroline. Forte also encounters Arbuthnot’s beautiful but damaged manager, a high-priced escort, and the IRA.


I probably enjoyed writing this book as much or more than any of them. Trying to tread the line between paying homage to Hammett’s masterpiece and ripping him off was a challenge, and few comments have ever pleased me more than Peter Rozovsky’s in his late, lamented blog “Detectives Beyond Borders:”


“It's a kind of authorial magic that The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of works as a tribute and as a story, and that neither aspect interferes in the least with the other… I can imagine this book finding its way into a class on writing crime fiction as an example of how to pay tribute to one's predecessors while at the same time writing a story that can stand on its own. It's an impressive accomplishment.”


That’s the kind of validation anyone can appreciate.


The only thing new about this “re-issue” is the cover and a little of the accompanying material in the Amazon listing; the book itself is unchanged. This might not seem like something that requires an announcement, but it is part of the lead-up to the March release of Volume 6, Off the Books. The changes are small, but they will give all the Forte novels the same look as well as bringing them a little closer to the Penns River branding, which I wanted to do because both series occupy their own corners of the same universe.


The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of is available in both paperback and for Kindle through Amazon, and only Amazon. With all due respect to other platforms, their business models leave little room for me, which leaves little room in  my model for them. I hope that will change someday, but I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

An Interview With J. L. Abramo, Author of Short Cuts

 One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog, Joe. It’s always good to chat with you.


Your new book, Short Cuts, is a compilation of short fiction and non-fiction with a little memoir thrown in. What gave you the idea and how did you choose what to include?


J. L. Abramo: Since the publication of the first novel, Catching Water In A Net (2001), I have been invited to submit short stories to a number of crime fiction anthologies. I thought many fans (and I use that term in all humility) may have missed many of these—so I decided to collect them all together in one place, add five never before published short stories as well as several nonfiction pieces written through the years about my writing and crime writing in general. The short fiction was easy to selectit includes all of my short works aside from those appearing in my book, Brooklyn Justice, and a story just completed for submission to yet another anthology. The essays were chosen with regard to those I thought most effectively depicted those elements I find important in my writingsuch as location, food, opening paragraphs—and those I felt were worth researching on the subject of crime and detective fiction historically.


OBAAT: You’re best known as a private eye writer, with your Jake Diamond and Nick Ventura characters covering both coasts. What attracted you to the genre and what keeps you coming back?


JLA: I have always been a fan of detective fiction, from Holmes to Marlowe, and the film adaptations. After no one would look at my first attempt at a novelinstead of wallowing in self-pity, I sat down to write. I decided to try something different. Try a first-person narrative, write something lighter. Without premeditation, I wrote 20 pages of a scene in the office of a humorous San Fransisco private detective narrator, Jake Diamond. When I heard of the Saint Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye Novel, I kept working on it, won the contest, and was published by St. Martin’s Press. I was advised to continue writing Jake, which resulted in two additional Diamond novels published by SMP. The fourth Jake Diamond novel, Circling The Runway (Down & Out Books, 2015) won a Shamus Award—all good reasons for sticking with the genre. Jake is more over easy than hard boiled andsince I couldn’t change his nature and wanted to take a shot a tougher, more forceful private eye protagonistI created Nick Ventura and placed him in the meaner streets of Brooklyn.


OBAAT: You’ve also written a couple of procedurals, Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue. As someone else who moves in those genres, I find there are different mindsets involved for each. Do you make adjustments in your writing attitude depending on whether you’re writing for a private eye or cops?


JLA: Well, since you asked. The novel I spoke of earlier, the one no one would look at in 2000 (called, at the time, A Blot On The Landscape) featured Brooklyn police detectives. It was reworked throughout the years and ultimately published in 2012 as Gravesend. What differentiates the procedurals from the PI works, at least in my case, is two-fold. Although Jake and Nick sometimes depend on assistance from others—they are, for the most part, the stars of their respective stories. In Gravesend, and its follow-up Coney Island Avenue, the detectives of the 61st Precinct depend a lot more upon each other. These novels, to borrow theater terminology, are ensemble pieces. On top of that, since these works were allowed to be lengthier than what I feel a private eye mystery should be, it afforded me the opportunity to delve deeper into the personal lives of the detectives.


OBAAT: In the section where you discuss Mickey Spillane you wrote “those of us who command a public audience would be careless to underestimate our influence or to neglect our moral responsibility.” I’ve been beating a similar drum for a while now. Not that all stories should have happy endings or that bad guys cannot be protagonists, but that we owe the public a realistic idea of how cops and courts and PIs work. Can you elaborate on your statement a little?


JLA: Although I don’t believe that reading books about serial killers will make one a serial killer (at least I hope not), I am not a fan of gratuitous violence. And there are some bad practices, depicted in books, that might be more readily imitated—particularly relating to how women, minorities and the handicapped are treated. However, the comment you mention here, with regard to Spillane (who obviously subscribed to red scare, better-dead-than-red McCarthyism—fears which in many cases destroyed lives), was addressing the problem I find with fiction that proselytizes. I believe those kinds of opinions should be left to nonfiction—which is why I wrote Homeland Insecurity.


OBAAT: The section on location also caught my eye. Private eyes seem to cry out to be integrated with their settings: The Continental Op and Sam Spade in San Francisco; Phillip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins, and Elvis Cole in LA; Spenser and Patrick Kenzie in Boston (Dorchester specifically for Kenzie); Tess Monahan in Baltimore; V. I. Warshawsky in Chicago: Moe Prager in Brooklyn. (I particularly enjoy a newer series by James D.F. Hannah set in West Virginia.) Location is a key element in any novel, but why do you think private eyes become so closely associated with theirs? 


JLA: I totally agree with your observation that location is a key element in any novel, and therefore I am not certain if I can answer your question specific to private eye novels. So, I will relate my thoughts about location in general—and hope it works to address the specific. For me, location is an additional character in the narrative. If the writer does the homework, and is accurate with descriptions of places, it serves a number of purposes. It provides familiarity to those readers who are acquainted with those locations. It gives readers who are not acquainted a taste of what these locations are like. And for me, when I write about places I know welllike Brooklyn, San Francisco or Denver—it makes me feel comfortable and at home. And, conversely, when I write of places I don’t know very wellsuch as Los Angeles and Chicagoit gives me good reason to research and learn. To quickly address the PIs. Jake Diamond crossed the continent to California to pursue an acting career, and moved from Hollywood to Santa Monica to San Francisco on the path to private investigation. He has become totally assimilated to the pace and rhythms of Northern California. Diamond belongs thereand his surroundings provide a particular understanding of his character. Similarly, Nick Ventura is totally a Brooklyn animal—and to not make the borough a pivotal element in his journey would be criminal.


OBAAT: “Even fictional characters have to eat.” Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, food was a key element of any social interaction. When I need to have two characters exchange information, I will often as not send them out for something to eat, as what they eat helps to characterize them and the act of eating provides stage business to help the dialog from being a continuous stream “saids”. How do you use food in your stories?


JLA: Food is an integral part of life. A necessity. We deal with food every single day. And food is present at our most memorable occasionsweddings, birthdays, reunions, holidays, even funerals. These realities, if nothing else, make it difficult for me to write about humans without talking about where, when and what they eat. That being said, your question effectively anticipates my answer. It seems we utilize eating in much the same fashion. I always find it convenient, when I need to arrange a meeting between two or more characters, to use a dining establishment as a setting—and I feel that if I put humans in those situations, I may as well talk a bit about the food since food preferences can serve to demonstrate individual tastes, ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions—and the foods people choose can help demonstrate the ways these characters are similar or different. And…oh…I almost forgot…writing about food reminds me that I need to take a break from the writing now and then. To eat.


OBAAT: The inevitable closing question: What’s next for Joe Abramo?


JLA: Hopefully, a trip to Sicily.


OBAAT: As always, thanks for stopping by. It’s always a pleasure, Good luck with the trip. Regardless of where you go, viaggi sicuri.





Thursday, October 26, 2023

Readers of the Lost ARCs

 I routinely post quarterly lists of my “favorite” reads of the season that just ended. I am careful not to say these are the “best” books I read, as I’m not into passing that kind of judgment. I use “favorite” as shorthand for “books I enjoyed the most.” While not an endorsement of what’s good and what isn’t, my hope is to make those who share my tastes aware of books they might otherwise miss. Responses to these posts are routinely encouraging and I’m happy to mention books some might not be aware of, regardless of topic or age of the book.


I occasionally receive an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of a book when the author is asking for a blurb or an interview. While some of these books would make the favorite reads list, I have typically refrained from writing about them in the quarterly recaps because I always post links to a book’s purchase page so anyone with an impulse can grab a copy. ARCs are, by definition, not available yet, and I know a lot of people don’t like to be teased with things that are out of reach, so I have always left such books out of the quarterly recap.


Talking to a friend about this the other day got me to thinking this is a misguided policy. Pre-orders have become so important to making a book’s success that I am doing the author a disservice if the book deserves mention and I fail to do so. My reasoning before was that there was no link to give potential readers, but pre-order links are now available weeks, sometimes months, in advance. It’s time I got with the program.


In my defense, I never heard of pre-orders when I started the blog, so they were never a concern. Times changed and I have been slow to adapt. That said, future “Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter’s Favorite Reads” posts will include any ARCs that caught my eye. I will note that they are available for pre-order so that no one gets disappointed if they try to buy one.


That’s the future. Let’s take the remainder of this post to catch up on ARCs from earlier this year that escaped notice due to my misguided policies, with apologies to the authors for my delay.


Double Exposure, Colin Campbell. Grant and McNulty are back, fighting a drug cartel that has a grudge against each of them. You already know I liked this one, as I blurbed it: “Double Exposure shows Grant and McNulty in peak form. No one writes better action sequences than Campbell.” I stand by that.


Sleepless City, Reed Farrel Coleman. Renowned private eye writer Coleman (Moe Prager, Gus Murphy) moves into the realm of more high-octane action thrillers with this, the first in what promises to be a new series. While the type of story told is different, Coleman’s artful writing and careful plotting remain solid. A lot of writers try to shift gears like this. Few do it as well.


The Get, Dietrich Kalteis. This is a typical Dietrich Kalteis book, which is to say outstanding. If you’re already a fan, get this bad boy. If you’re not a fan but like the Elmore Leonard school of writing, there is no better practitioner than Kalteis, who is able to capture the aura of Dutch’s work without sounding like a copy.






Thursday, October 19, 2023

Defending the Leonard Ten

 Of all the writing “rules” I have seen, Elmore Leonard’s are probably the best known and most often vilified, generally because they are misunderstood. The late Mr. Leonard (I want so bad to call him “Dutch” but, even ten years after his death, I can’t bring myself to even imply that level of familiarity) does not need me to defend him, but what else are blog posts for but to say things that could be left unsaid except that the blogger wants to say them. So there.


As Leonard himself said in the original New York Times piece in which the rules appeared, they are not rules at all, but suggestions. That said, I have seen few suggestions that make more sense, or that apply to more cases, than his. I don’t consciously think of them very often, largely because they are now so well ingrained into my writing process I don’t have to, but they are always at the back of my mind when I write.


Here they are, with my interpretations. I use none – well, maybe one -  of his explanations, even though ignoring those is what gets most of his detractors to look foolish.


Never open a book with weather.

“But Get Shorty opens with the weather” is a favorite refrain of those who take issue these rules.


Let’s look at the offending passage:


When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South College and had his leather jacket ripped off.


It’s a single sentence and less than half of it directly addresses the weather. The inciting incident for the book is the loss of Chili’s coat. This being Miami Beach, the reader would have to wonder why Chili even had a coat with him unless we know it’s unseasonably cold.


Plus, it’s one sentence. Not a page or more describing clouds or rain or how being uncomfortably cold/hot/wet made Susan feel about the weather/her life/ John’s failure to call. It’s a sentence to kick off the story.


Experience has taught me that anyone so willing to ignore context to criticize something isn’t writing anything I’d care to read.


Avoid prologues.

If possible. Sometimes it can’t be helped. My current work in progress is presented as the memoir of a man who lived on the Western frontier, taken from notes that were lost and only recently discovered. I present the prologue as an editor’s note to describe how the book supposedly came to be. (Or a foreword. I haven’t decided yet.)


It's also true, as Leonard himself acknowledges, that you can ignore any of these rules if you’re good enough to get away with it. I’ve read novellas shorter than the prologue to Empire Falls, yet Richard Russo makes his so fascinating I would have been satisfied is that had been the whole story, except that he so masterfully sets up what is to come.


Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.

These two go together. “Said” is an invisible word in dialog, used to avoid confusion about who is speaking. If you feel the need to use a different verb, or to modify “said,” then the dialog itself isn’t strong enough to convey what you feel is missing. Change it, and maybe throw in something to describe how the line is spoken.


Shane said, “I hear you’re a low-down Yankee liar.”

Wilson’s voice barely crossed the room: “Prove it.”


(Note: “He admonished gravely” is Leonard’s tongue-in-cheek way of telling those who are paying attention that not even he is taking this too seriously.)


Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

This goes with the “said” comment above. Exclamation points too often are used instead of well-chosen dialog to make sure the reader gets it. They’re explanations, and explanations mean what came before wasn’t clear enough. As Renni Browne and Dave King say in Self-Editing for Writers, “resist the urge to explain.”


Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

This is a fundamental “show, don’t tell” thing. Don’t tell us something happened suddenly, show us. And “all hell broke loose” is lazy writing, plain and simple. Unless used as dialog from the mouth of a conversationally bland character.


Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Notice he doesn’t say not to use it. Such language can help to define a character. (Think of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell in James Lee Burke’s novels.) To use too much, or to work too hard to spell the spoken words phonetically, forces the reader to translate what this character is saying when they should be immersed in the story.


I typically don’t care for writers who take examples from their own work unless the are superstars, but this example from my novel The Man in the Window comes to mind.


“Mr. Forte, I want to start by telling you what a fine job you’re doing of fucking up my investigation.” At least that’s what I thought he said. He wasn’t from around here. Farther south, Alabama or Mississippi maybe. … What came out sounded like, “Mistuh Foe-tay, ah wunna staht by tellin yew whut uh fine job y’all’re dewin uh fuckin up mah vestigashun.”


And that’s the last I mentioned it, except for the occasional uniquely Southern idiom, such as how he might be “fixing to do” something.


Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

You want readers to be absorbed in your story, which means you don’t want them to have to stop so they can assemble these people and places in their heads. Give only as much description as the reader needs to create the movie in their imaginations. If a detail is important to the story later on – say a unique tattoo or strikingly-colored eyes – then by all means mention it, but don’t bury it in a shopping list of other stuff.


Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Yeah, well, duh. How many times have you had to go back in a book because a detail provided on Page 123 allows what you just read on Page 136 to make sense, but you skimmed past it because your eyes glazed over from the minutiae that enveloped said key detail? Well, leave that shit out.


And finally, Rule 11, which he described as “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.”


If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Remember, you’re telling a story, not gratifying your ego by impressing anyone with all the cool words you know or constructions you can pull off. Cool words and literary constructions are not bad things unless they get in the way of the story, and, as much as possible, you want your audience to forget they are reading. They should have the feeling they’re sitting back with their eyes closed while a movie plays out in their heads.


That’s what his rules mean to me.