One Bite at a Time




Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Reads of 2012

I read 62 books this year; four more were started, but not finished. It was a good year, so I’m not going to bother with naming the ten best, or five best, or twelve best. These are the books I’d be happy to recommend to anyone looking for a good read. (Books are listed in each category in the order in which I read them. No qualitative ranking should be implied.)

Fiction:

Tumblin’ Dice, John Mcfetridge – The Saints of Hell play more of a supporting role in this entry in the continuing saga of the biker gang gradually taking over organized crime in Canada, but their presence looms over everything that happens. A rock band gets together for a reunion tour on the casino circuit and proves you can’t always get what you want. (It’s not only Mcfetridge who can quote Stones’s titles.)

Falling Glass, Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe makes a cameo here, though, as above, his presence affects everything that gets done. The most Irish of McKinty’s crime fiction, Falling Glass probes a little deeper and lingers a little longer on societal and interpersonal relationships without losing any of its momentum.

Wolf Tickets, Ray Banks – Now he’s showing off. Tells the story in first person, from the points of view of two alternating characters. Far from taking the reader out of the story, the technique gives insights into both characters, foreshadowing issues in the flow of thoughts instead of hitting you over the head with them. A fast and fascinating read.

The Bone Polisher, Timothy Hallinan – The more I read of Hallinan’s Simeon Grist novels, the more I like them; maybe I picked the wrong entry point. Here Grist fills in the gaps far-flung small town cops would never be able to coordinate to solve Los Angeles murders.

Cleansing Eden, Ben Sobieck – I don’t like serial killer novels, and generally avoid them. Sobieck adds a twist to make this psycho far more believable—and thereby creepier—in a story with overtones of the Washington sniper killings of ten years ago. An exceptional debut.

Mafiya, Charlie Stella – The poet laureate of mob fiction brings in the Russians, both the mob and an OC cop, in what might be Stella’s most compelling story.

Breaking Cover, J.D. Rhoades – The twist comes early, so I can’t say what makes Breaking Cover different from most “hunted man” thrillers. Rhoades has a knack for redneck noir, and never have the necks been redder in one of his stories. He also stays away from the pat and expected ending, which earns major points.

The Fear Artist, Timothy Hallinan – The latest Poke Rafferty thriller involves Poke in Thai terrorism and a ghost from the Vietnam War’s Phoenix program. Uses the broadest cast of all the Rafferty stories to good effect, and needs them all. I spent a day of my summer vacation reading the whole thing in virtually one sitting. Had my bladder been twenty years younger, one sitting would have done it.

Fire Season, Jon Loomis – Let’s hope some publisher figures out how to market Loomis. He’s writing a series of what should be borderline best sellers and hardly anyone knows about it. Provincetown MA detective Frank Coffin and the usual crew of LGBT accomplices combine for another tale that will keep a smile on your face until you laugh out loud, but never trivializes the violence.

Rough Riders, Charlie Stella – A bit of a change, moving away from New York to North Dakota. Rough Riders picks up the story from Eddie’s World but is not really a sequel, as a retired NYPD detective follows a trail looking for the man Eddie Senta disfigured in self-defense, who now wants revenge. Throw in some local and federal law enforcement, and a heroin ring operating out an air force base and you have Stella’s most complex and multi-layered story.

A Choice of Nightmares, Lynn Kostoff – The story of a second-rate actor and third-rate person who allows himself to be drawn into a drug smuggling conspiracy thanks to his own lack of introspection and impulse control. The fact this could happen to a lot of people if they don’t pay attention makes the story even more compelling.

Slaughter’s Hound, Declan Burke – Burke goes Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie one better in this maniacal story of what happens when Eightball Boogie’s Harry Rigby gets out of prison and goes straight. Funny, terrifying, and disturbing, this is Burke’s most accomplished work to date, though definitely not for the faint of heart.

Skin Deep, Timothy Hallinan – The first Simeon Grist book, published third (this is the strangest business in the world, except for movies), and the best. Grist is hired to babysit a thoroughly contemptible TV star long enough not to queer a syndication deal. None of the characters live in the American mainstream, but you’ll feel like you know them all by the time you’re finished reading. Nice twist to the ending, where payback is a bitch.

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut – Yes, it took me over fifty years to read Player Piano. It’s just as well. Vonnegut was either remarkable prescient or things haven’t changed as much in this country as we like to think, as his dystopian idea of the logical consequences of mechanical efficiency may be even more disturbing now than when he wrote it in the 50s.

Perfect Hatred, Leighton Gage – Ha! The rest of you won’t get to red this until February, when I’ll have a full review to accompany release. The electronic ARC I read shows Gage taking his game up a notch, weaving together stories that pull Chief Inspector Silva in different directions while pushing him between them at the same time. All the things that make the Silva series so good are here, plus a new level of complexity and danger.

The Adjustment, Scott Phillips – Talk about books that aren’t for everyone. Wayne Ogden may be the most selfish character ever written, yet I couldn’t stop reading about him. Only Phillips can get me to read about such a person and like it.

Sacrifice Fly, Tim O’Mara – Excellent debut about a former New York cop turned schoolteacher who treads the line between cops and civilians in the search for a missing student. Well-drawn characters, great dialog, and an unexpected plot direction make this a book that will get O’Mara another contract if there is any justice.

Notable re-reads:

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley – I didn’t like it much when I read it the first time, but continued to hear so much good about it I gave it another chance. What can I say? I was bedridden with mononucleosis the first time, not in the best condition to render objective reading opinions. It’s as good as they say.

Dead I Well May Be, Adrian McKinty – Another book I gave short shrift when I read it the first time, though without illness as an excuse. The best of the McKinty’s Forsythe books, getting inside Michael’s head as he evolves from criminal gofer to bad motherfucker.

The Guards, Ken Bruen – Originally read the same week as The Last Good Kiss, with the same original results and re-evaluation after the re-reading.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – I don’t have anything to add to what I and others have said before. Quite possibly the greatest piece of crime fiction ever written.

Non-Fiction (since it’s not really fair to compare it directly with fiction):

Making Story, edited by Timothy Hallinan – Essays from twenty-some published authors on how they put their books together. Includes plotters and pantsers and everything in between. Highly recommended for all writers, if only to show you can’t be doing it wrong if there is no right way.

Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke – Over a hundred authors pick books they think are important in the crime fiction oeuvre, writing essays on each. A must have for any serious reader or writer of crime fiction. I guarantee you’ll find something, or someone, new here.

Gang Leader For a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh – Graduate thesis research takes a SoCal boy to the most notorious housing project in the country, Chicago’s late Robert Taylor homes. A fascinating story, not unlike David Simon’s The Corner, but more from the gang’s point of view.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sacrifice Fly

It’s not often I discover a new author because he asked for the shirt off my back. Happened exactly once, at the bar during this year’s Cleveland Bouchercon. Ordering my drink and I hear, “I want that shirt.” Okay, he didn’t actually want mine; he wanted one exactly like it. (The shirt is question is a tasteful black tee shirt, with WWASD stitched over the left breast, and “What Would Al Swearengen Do?” on the back, a Christmas gift from The Beloved Spouse several years ago.)

Turns out the guy’s name is Tim O’Mara, a New York schoolteacher with a book due out right after the conference. Tim’s a nice guy, we’re both seamheads, and a pleasant conversation ensued, during which we exchanged cards. I then went home and placed his book on the list with the other hundred or so I’d like to read. Good luck.

Couple of weeks later I noticed the book (Sacrifice Fly) getting some love on a blog I frequent. Another few weeks down the road I saw a brief piece by Tim in the Criminal Element blog that was intriguing enough I bumped Sacrifice Fly up the list and bought a copy.

Well done, me.

Sacrifice Fly is the story of former cop and current schoolteacher Raymond Donne. Donne pulled a few strings to get student Frankie Rivas into the local Catholic high school on a baseball scholarship, but the kid can’t go unless he graduates middle school, and he can’t graduate middle school unless he starts showing up, which he hasn’t done for several days. Donne takes it upon himself to get Frankie tightened up and discovers he’s no longer staying with his grandmother, but with his father, who can charitably be described as a ne’er-do-well. Donne follows up and finds Frankie’s father dead and Frankie and his younger sister in the wind.

Sacrifice Fly does so many things well, it’s hard to know where to start. Donne left the police force after a serious injury. He doesn’t miss it—normally—but searching for Frankie draws him so close to Job he can’t help crossing the line. His internal debates always ring true, and O’Mara has done us the courtesy of not making Donne fight the demons of alcohol or drug abuse. He’s a guy, like any guy, who wants to do the right thing. He also has some skills and experience that will serve him well as he treads a little farther over the line with each episode.

The supporting cast is introduced and used judiciously and to good effect. There are quite a few characters, all so well delineated you’ll have no trouble keeping them straight. They also have a convenient combination of skill sets, but not so convenient they feel like cut-outs. It’s more a matter of Donne knowing a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. His job is knowing who to call for what, and when.

Most of the story takes place in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which is a nice change from the general “New York = Manhattan” vibe too many books put out. It’s a neighborhood—true, a changing one—but the people care about it and each other without becoming mawkish.

The plot is paced and organized perfectly. O’Mara understands suspense is the sense that something is going to happen, and knows how long to make you wait before the law of diminishing return kicks in. No outrageous surprises complicate things, but there are plenty of complications. Nothing that doesn’t make sense, but there are things you have to wonder about until the reveal makes them seem inevitable. Everything comes to make sense and he never hurries. Many writers never learn to do either.

The dialog sounds like people talking, especially when Donne is talking to other men. This must be harder to do than people think, because hardly anyone does it well. More straightforward than George V. Higgins, O’Mara’s dialog still creates the feeling you’re eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a speech.

This is a lot longer than my standard review, frankly, because Sacrifice Fly delivered a lot more than I expected. I have high expectations for books written by authors whose work I already know, and who have receive a lot of acclaim, not for guys I meet in bars. Maybe I need to spend more time in bars. O’Mara is working on another book. I’ll read it, too.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

 Another year? Well, holy cow,
That sure did fly by quick.
We were not too adventurous
And no one got real sick.

 The biggest news, as usual,
Was wrought by The Sole Heir,
Who spent five weeks in France to learn
How doctors do it there.

She’s interviewing now to find
A med school to attend,
So when the old man falls apart
She’ll give advice to mend.

Memorial Day the clan convened
In Jersey (where there’s bears),
Extended families combined
With memories to share.

 In May a deal by Dana signed,
A book will be in print,
It won’t come out till oh-fourteen;
The process is no sprint.

 Accompanying Dana to
This annum’s Bouchercon
Gave Corky her first chance to meet
The writers he dwells on.

 (Oh, Bouchercon’s a mys’try fest,
The largest on the Earth,
Where writers and their fans can share
A few pints and some mirth.)

Apart from that, a quiet year,
No surgeries or floods,
The days rolled through from one to next
Some triumphs, fewer duds.

 The timing good for such a year,
As next one will be busy,
Two graduations and a trip
Will keep us in a tizzy.

We wish you many happy days,
Both holi- and routine,
And hope too much time will not pass
Before by us you’re seen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Adjustment

Everyone has a writer about whom they say, “No one else writes like this.” Excepting the times the phrase is used as a meaningless platitude (which is too often), this means the author in question has gotten off the main trail and is finding his or her own way and no one is likely to follow because it’s scary down there. No light, no handholds, forks and switchbacks that can get you lost in a heartbeat, never to be heard from again. Sheer rock wall to your left, a thousand-foot drop on your right, and the path is a foot-and-a half wide. Then there’s the bridge across the Gorge of Eternal Peril, where if you fail to give the right answers, your bones will join the others strewn about, the careers of writers who lacked the courage of, and confidence in, their convictions. They should have turned back a long time ago.

James Ellroy’s name comes up a lot in such discussions, with good reason. My personal favorite is Scott Phillips.

In The Adjustment, Phillips builds his story around a thoroughly unlikeable character (Wayne Ogden). Ogden is a true sociopath, a small-town version of Warren Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example.” Wayne’s greedy and he’s angry and he doesn’t care who he crosses. He likes to have a good time, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. Really. Times two.

It’s not that Ogden is amoral. He knows what the right thing to do is most of the time, and is willing to do it, so long as it doesn’t interfere with what he wants or feels like doing at the time. He puts up with his pregnant wife’s abysmal cooking because he feels bad when he hurt her feelings one time, then goes out a sleeps with pretty much whoever will have him. He’s a strong advocate on condoms, though it’s primarily because the clap will keep him from getting laid as often as he’d like. This is 1946, so AIDS is not an issue for Wayne. Pregnancy is an issue, but only for his partners.

That’s an unappealing picture, and Phillips does nothing to soften Ogden’s aura. Writing in the first person, no apologies are made for Ogden’s actions or attitudes. He is what he is and you can take him or leave him. Ogden’s okay either way, and he’s too busy to talk you into anything. It’s the matter-of-factness that makes the book so readable, that and Phillips’s wit, which is considerable. By “wit,” I don’t mean what passes for wit in popular culture today, Judd Apatow least common denominator cleverness (which, admittedly, can be quite funny), but the dryness present in Thurber or Robert Benchley. Not that either Thurber or Benchley would touch a character like Wayne Ogden with a cattle prod. You’ll read the description of an unsavory, heavy R-rated action through Ogden’s eyes and find a smile growing at the same time your conscience is stripping off its clothes, looking for a place to burn them.

The Adjustment is not for everyone. (Including, I believe, Phillip’s agent at the time.) You may find yourself smiling at things that are only funny from Ogden’s perspective. The writing will bring the smile, but any self-aware reader will be unable to escape what an unsavory narrator he is. If you enjoy atypical novels written with understated panache and don’t mind spending time with a main character who will screw your wife and piss in your drink while you’re in the bathroom, you really ought to check it out.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Enough

The Supreme Court has ruled gun ownership is an individual right under the Second Amendment. That’s settled law and will not be debated.

Here are a few things we can do that might keep some guns out of the hands of those we have already agreed can’t have them, and make those who own them a little more responsible:

Enforce the three-day waiting period for background checks on all gun sales. The purpose of the check is to ensure those who should to have weapons don’t get them, and to provide a cooling off period for those who might be having violent impulses. It’s an imperfect system, but the best we have; some money for staff and database support might help. The gun show exemption defeats the purpose, and the only reason for it is convenience. The Second Amendment does not specify a level of convenience. Check everyone.

Register all firearms. The NRA doesn’t want to hear this, as it will allegedly make it too easy for the government to come for your guns if it wants to. Goddamn right. If anyone who owns a gun later commits any action that would bar him from buying another, round up the ones he has.

More accountability for gun owners. It’s your right to own a gun. With rights come responsibilities. If your gun is ever used in the commission of a crime, you own a piece of that, too. If your gun is stolen, report it right now. If you lend it out, be aware you’re lending more than the gun. You know where your car is and would report its theft in a heartbeat. Being able to account for your most dangerous possession is not asking too much.

No fully automatic weapon sales to individuals. I’m not even going to bother to explain this one. Modifying a semi-automatic weapon to full auto will cost you some prison time and a bar to owning a gun in the future.

No outsized clips or magazines. When this was last raised, the argument against was small magazines were an inconvenience to target shooter, as they have to stop to reload too often. To that I say, fuck you. Your convenience does not justify leaving the door open for someone else to shoot large numbers of people.

I write this without knowing the details of today’s Connecticut shooting, except that twenty children are dead. How he pulled it off doesn’t matter. What I mentioned here won’t solve the problem, but it’s worth a try as a start. I’ve never been against gun ownership per se, but I can’t let this kind of thing go on and accept it as the cost of living in this country any longer.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Resurrection Mall

It’s been over a week since I posted. (Amid great rejoicing.) I’m stuck for a post, mainly because the new book is starting to flow and any stray synapses have been occupied with what comes next. So, with the new book on my mind—working title Resurrection Mall—here’s…

Chapter One.

A lot colder at midnight than when Greg Twardzik pulled into the lot at Allegheny Casino at quarter to eight. Greg shoved his hands into his coat pockets and hoped his gloves were in the car. The breeze drilled a small hole dead center of his forehead and the hair in his nose was freezing together. It smelled cold, like when he worked summers at A&P and had to re-stock the ice cream freezer. All the bullshit going around about global warming, and he had to put up with this? It was cold enough to freeze a fart.

Tonight was Greg’s monthly run to the Allegheny. A true grind joint—slots and a bar, shitty restaurant, they didn’t want you sticking around if you weren’t gambling—no real competition for The Rivers down by The Point in Pittsburgh or the Meadows in Washington County. Greg saved his spare change each month like a geezer saving stale bread, except Greg fed the slots instead of the birds. “Spare change” was charitably defined in Greg’s mind. Stop at Sooki’s for a beer, beer cost two and a quarter, pay with a five. Tip Frankie a quarter, the other two-fifty becomes spare change. Next beer, another five. Take the kids to McDonald’s on his weekend with them, use a twenty to pay for twelve bucks worth of food, eight bucks spare change. Saved up ninety-two seventy-five that way in January, rounded it up to a hundred.

He came out the wrong door. Again. All the entrances looked the same once he was inside. He’d get turned around looking for a likely slot, lose track of where he came in by about the second scotch, walk out the wrong door. He at least remembered his Pontiac was in the Horseshoe lot, looking directly across Leechburg Road at Wendy’s. He came out on the Rabbit’s Foot side, by the big fences with ivy or kudzu or whatever growing on them, a barrier between the casino and the residential neighborhood that butted up against it.

The night started well. Hit for about fifty bucks half an hour in. He should have put the fifty in his pocket—that was the plan—play until the hundred was gone and leave with the winnings. That was a loser’s mentality so early in the night. Hit that fast, he knew there’d another one. There were two. Eight bucks within half an hour—big night brewing—then sixteen at eleven o’clock, about the time he started to wonder how much he had left. He’d hit the cash machine on his way to get the third drink and took out fifty—no, it was a hundred. He had twenty left. So he came with one hundred dollars, won seventy-four that was supposed to go in his pocket soon as he won it, and walked out down one-eighty, not counting the seventy-four of house money he’d blown. At least he had a good time.

He walked up the aisle facing Wendy’s, his car should be on the right, about three-quarters of the way back. He didn’t see it yet. Probably blocked by the Ford Expedition he remembered squeezing into the space next to him, left wheels dead on the line. But it wasn’t.

Must be the wrong row, but how many of those big goddamn Expeditions could there be in this part of the lot? Greg turned his back on the Ford to face ninety degrees from the casino and Wendy’s, capture his bearings. Pointed at Wendy’s and blinked his eyes. Coffee might not be a bad idea. He only nibbled the fourth drink, but he’d heard rumors there had been some drunk driving damage and the local cops might be cracking down. He’d get the car, then get some coffee. He turned slowly and pointed at the Horseshoe entrance. This was the right row. Had to be. So where the hell was his car?

It occurred to him this might not be the same Expedition he’d parked next to. That one could have left, another pulled in one row off in either direction. True, he’d lined himself up on Wendy’s and the casino entrance, but four hours and five drinks later he believed he could be off a row, either way.

First he tried a row to his left, then a row to his right. All the while thinking about what else he’d heard standing at the bar waiting for that sixth drink—the one for the road—the barmaid telling him to be careful, the locals might be cracking down on DUIs, a guy to his right bitching about something. Security. About cars being stolen right out of the casino lot and how the local cops didn’t do a goddamn thing. Greg almost asked about it, didn’t. Why would the guy still come here, he was so sure cars were being stolen?

It was on his mind now, walking a little farther up the aisle each time. Trying the aisle he thought it was, then an aisle on either side, then two aisles on either side until he realized the guy at the bar wasn’t just some jagov blowing smoke. Care were being stolen out of the Allegheny casino’s lot, and his was one of them.

Son of a bitch.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Next Thing I Hope Doesn’t Suck

Friend of the blog (and a pretty dandy PI writer his own self) Jochem vanderSteen tagged me to participate in the current writers’—meme? Chain letter? I’m a little reluctant to use the official title (“The Next Great Thing”), but I am grateful to Jochem for thinking of me.

So, here you go:

What is the working title of your next book?

Resurrection Mall.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This is the first thing I’ve ever tried to write based on no more than a title. I was looking for story ideas to re-start a PI series I had set in Chicago. When I heard Dixie Square Mall—where the famous chase scene in The Blues Brothers was filmed—was finally to be demolished, I had the idea of a preacher buying the shell and rebuilding it as a religious-themed mall. Hence the name.

What genre does your book fall under?

Crime fiction, primarily a police procedural.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Timothy Olyphant would do well as Ben Dougherty, the lead cop. Easy-going on the surface, dry sense of humor, not as country as Raylan Givens.

I have to credit The Beloved Spouse for the others. George Dzundza (Law and Order, The Deer Hunter, Crimson Tide) would be great as either police chief Stush Napierkowski or Detective Willie Grabek.

Kevin Spacey would be great as retired spook / former PI / casino head of security Daniel Rollison. Of course, Kevin Spacey is always great

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A televangelist opens a religious-themed mall as a counterweight to a small town’s casino and finds small towns are more dangerous and complicated than he thinks.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

There is no contract at this time. If I don’t get one, I’ll self-publish.

How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?

I’m about halfway through, so I estimate three to four months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I consciously try to avoid such comparisons, even with myself. I steal borrow from a lot of people.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was originally intended to be a character study for a PI series I was working on. I got halfway through that first draft and realized the story was better suited for a fictional small town I also have involved in a series.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Small-town crime is, I believe, an underappreciated venue, except in cozies. This book is definitely not a cozy. There are layers of things going on, and life around the citizens—especially the cops—is changing faster than anyone is comfortable with.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Skin Deep

Among the benefits of electronic self-publishing is the ability to discover books you missed the first time and have gone out of print. They’re inexpensive to bring back, and authors never sold the electronic rights because there were no electronic rights to sell. Timothy Hallinan, creator of the successful series of Poke Rafferty thrillers as well as the soon to be wildly successful Junior Bender series, which will be (hopefully) coming to a theater or television near you before too long.

Before Hallinan thought of Rafferty or Bender, there was Simeon Grist, LA private investigator. Grist was as tough as he needed to be, but no more, and he didn’t care much for it then, though it wouldn’t do to mess with him too much. The series did relatively well, but the publisher lost interest, and the books languished in the nether regions of out of printdom until recently.

Skin Deep was the first Grist book written, but the third to see print. (Publishing works like that a lot. Plotting the history of many books from completed manuscript to copy in hand often resembles one of those old Family Circus cartoons, where Mom has called Billy to come home right away and it takes him fifteen stops to get there, well intentioned though he might be.) In it, Grist is hired to keep a television star out of trouble while a syndication deal is struck for the star’s series. Toby Vane is handsome, charming, abusive to women, and as vile a character as I’ve read in a long time who still remains believable. Grist is repulsed by him, yet takes the case for the money after finding out how much the syndication rights are worth to the producer.

The plot moves well, but, like Hallinan’s later work, the characters are what make the story. Grist is cynical enough to take the job for money, and sensitive enough to be sold on it by convincing him he’ll be protecting women as much as shielding Toby. The producer who would sell his soul for the deal, and the PR man who did. Nana, the half-Korean nude dancer with a Texas accent who is as hard as she needs to be, which is more than she wants to be.

Everything that happens is believable, which makes much of it even more disconcerting. The dialog is each character’s own, clever and witty, never going for a laugh, though there are several in there. The prose propels the story at a less than breakneck pace, exactly as fast as it needs to go. Little gems are everywhere, such as how the strip club where Nana works, The Spice rack, got its name: Used to be a restaurant, and neon’s expensive.

Putting together a successful series is hard; ask around. Hallinan has done it three times. The fading away of Simeon Grist says much more about the publishing industry than it does about the quality of the stories. Take advantage of their resurrection to discover some underappreciated gems, and Skin Deep is as good a place as any to start.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Argo

Took The Beloved Spouse to see Argo over the weekend. Good, solid, picture with a well-written script, excellent casting, and solid performances throughout. There was the usual amount of license taken, most of which was understandable, given the constraints of time and how much the audience could be expected to keep in their heads in a fast-moving plot. The ending got a bit Hollywood, but the movie as a whole holds up well.

What you’ll remember are the performances. Bryan Cranston as a CIA manager and Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador hit all the right notes, character actors who have been around forever getting a chance to shine. The movie would be worth seeing just to watch John Goodman and Alan Arkin, two old pros who, fortunately, share virtually all their scenes, as they’d steal them from anyone else. Every time they appear is great fun. Ben Affleck—a better actor than he’s generally given credit for—keeps his CIA exfiltration expert understated and believable throughout.

What Argo does best, and what most thrillers would do well to emulate, is use humor to keep the tension moving between peaks and valleys. Not gags, or Schwarzenegger-ian catch phrases—though the catch phrase they use is spot on—but the humor of witty men under pressure. Applied with a delicate brush, the laughs are genuine and the contrast helps to accentuate the seriousness of the overall situation.

The ending was juiced more than it had to be, and there were ways they could have acknowledged the contributions of Great Britain, New Zealand, and Canada without complicating matters too much, but as a movie it’s a fascinating look at one of the great rescue missions of (most of) our lifetimes. Director Affleck acknowledges Canadian cooperation in an end note, but the British and Kiwis are openly disparaged in the film, for no good reason.

That being said, I’m a little puzzled by some of the over-the-top receptions Argo has received. It’s good, but I’ve read reviews that make it sound like voting for the Oscar is a formality. It might win, and far worse movies have won, but if it does it will be more of a reflection of a relatively weak year than of the timeless brilliance of Argo. It’s an entertaining two hours, and worth ten bucks as much as any other movie you’ll find. Let’s not get carried away, is all.

Monday, November 19, 2012

LA Confidential – The Movie

Saw LA Confidential in the theater. Rented it a few years later. Liked it maybe more. Decided to read the book. Library didn’t have it. Library had The Cold Six Thousand. Borrowed The Cold Six Thousand. Didn’t realize the title described the page length. Hated it. Most unpleasant reading experience ever. No more Ellroy for me.

Fast forward. I’m asked to review Blood’s a Rover. What the hell. It’s been a few years. My tastes evolve. My consciousness expands. I’ve showered. I devoured Blood’s a Rover. Rolled in it. Now I dig the devil dog. He hears his own drummer. Marches to it. Calls it names. Peeps on it. He’s hip. He gets it. He speaks truth. Added American Tabloid to the list. Have to read the LA Quarter in order. Work my up to LA Confidential. Settle for the movie for now.

Enough of that shit. The Beloved Spouse and I re-watched LA Confidential over the weekend. Damn near a perfect movie. Hard. Violent. Venal people. Tough language. (I said to stop that!)

Every time I see LA Confidential I like it a little more. I look forward to the favorite scenes like a Pulp Fiction fan boy. Good cop, bad cop, hanging the DA out the window. Rollo Tomasi. That is Lana Turner. Hold up your badge so they’ll know you’re a policeman. Even better, I learn a little about storytelling every time I watch LA Confidential. Getting into and out of scenes economically. Even more important, knowing how long to stay.

Not having read the book but having some familiarity with Ellroy, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson must have done some major surgery to get the movie down it its fast-moving 138 minutes. The screenplay is seamless. Even if it’s not, Hanson’s direction, combined with a cast full of spot-on performances, keep any blemishes from sticking out.

The casting is inspired. Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger were the names at the time, though Hanson had to fight the studio to use the 44-year-old Basinger. (Yeah, she was 44, kids. Can you spell MILF?) Two relatively unknown (at the time) Australians play the leads (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce). Veteran character actor James Cromwell is a villain for the ages, only two years removed from his first starring role as the farmer in Babe. Danny DeVito was born to play Sid Hudgens, and David Straithairn can play just about anything well. All brought their A games.

If you haven’t seen it and are into crime fiction, hasten thee to Netflix post haste, though I wonder how into crime fiction you can be and not have seen LA Confidential. I’m a little jealous of you, getting to see it for the first time. While Hanson has done good work since—Wonder Boys and Too Big To Fail come to mind—LA Confidential stand above his work like the Hollywood sign. Everything else look up at it, and it will always be there. He made Ellroy’s work, never readily accessible to most readers, part of the mainstream, though a very strange and alternate route sort of part.

Still, no fucking way am I reading The Cold Six Thousand ever again.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Scoundrel

I‘m not sure what to call Jochem vanderSteen’s Noah Milano stories. They live in a niche between short stories and novellas, reminiscent of what Raymond Chandler used to call “long stories” when he was serializing some of them for Black Mask. This is appropriate, because vanderSteen is writing throwback PI literature for the 21st Century and doing it quite nicely. His newest effort is Scoundrel. (Or is it “Scoundrel?” Where is Ms. Hutchison to tell me when to italicize and when to enclose in quotes when I need her?) In it, vanderSteen continues to build on the advancements of the previous stories.

Noah Milano is the son of a mob boss and was following in the family business until he promised his dying mother otherwise. No dummy, he didn’t become a scuba instructor or high school art teacher, where what he’d learned and who he’d met before getting straight couldn’t help him; he put out a shingle as a private investigator. This places him on a thin and moving line, having to decide how much help he needs—and is willing to accept—from his old life. The police don’t buy his story of having seen the light and harass him while they try to figure his angle.

In Scoundrel, Milano is helping a young, pregnant woman. Her pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand with a man who gave her a fake name. She wants to keep the baby, wants no part of the father in their lives, but does think he should have to pay her something for child support. If Milano can find him.

Well, he does—not much of a story if he didn’t, right?—after following a trail of used and abused women long enough to have legitimately titled the story Piece of Shit, “scoundrel” not a strong enough word for this guy. How he does it, and what happens after he does it, are the kinds of things you find out by actually reading the story, so hustle on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy.

Each of the Milano stories I’ve read get a little grittier and a little more involved. vanderSteen is more willing than many to draw characters who aren’t bad, but live lives no one would be proud of, and to describe them unapologetically. He has worked hard to overcome the disadvantage of writing highly vernacular prose in his second language; little of the early self-consciousness remains in his word choices. His love of the genre is evident, both in the Milano stories and in his blog, Sons of Spade. He’s going to keep getting better, and where he takes this could get even more interesting.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

An Interview With Declan Burke

New Year’s Eve, everyone makes the obligatory noises about how glad they’ll all be to see the current year end. Declan Burke won’t be among them come December. In May he won the Goldsboro “Last Laugh” Award at the Bristol Crimefest for Absolute Zero Cool. This fall saw the release of Books To Die For, a huge addition to the literature about crime fiction, which he edited with John Connolly. Today he’s agreed to answer some questions about his newest novel, Slaughter’s Hound (for Kindle here) which I reviewed a few days ago.

One Bite at a Time: I finished reading Slaughter’s Hound last week and bits of it keep coming back to me. Not just scenes, but things to think about. What made you decide to bring back Harry Rigby?

Declan Burke: “Well, I’m hoping the bits that keep coming back to you aren’t keeping you awake at night! I guess the honest answer to why I brought Harry Rigby back is that, for me, he’s never gone away. He first appeared in Eightball Boogie, in 2003, and due to his less-than-legal activities in that story, he has spent the last eight years or so incarcerated in a mental institution. I wanted to be true to him, and to reality - if I’d allowed Harry to skip free on what he did in Eightball, it’d all have been a bit of a nonsense. And what he did in that story would have a huge and profound impact on virtually any normal human being, so I wanted him to be a different person, fundamentally changed by his experience, and I wanted to explore how that kind of experience might damage or toughen or change a person. Harry had been prowling around in the back of my mind for a couple of years before I finally let him off the leash and started writing about him again.”

OBAAT: I don’t know your middle name; I wonder if it might be Ray, as Slaughter’s Hound combines many of my favorite things about Raymond Chandler and Ray Banks. Are either of them conscious influences on your writing?

DB: “I love Ray Banks’ books - Ray has that raw quality that appears to be rough ‘n’ ready on the page but is in fact the product of a writer who has fully mastered the craft. I can’t claim him as an influence for the Rigby stories, though, because I’d established that particular voice long before I’d come across Ray’s work. As for Chandler, well, absolutely. I wake up in the night in a cold sweat sometimes, having a nightmare that the Chandler Estate is suing for plagiarism. I wrote Eightball originally as a homage to Raymond Chandler’s books - I loved (and still love, and always will) that combination of tough-guy hardboiled attitude and overly ornate, cynical, wise-cracking prose. I did try to tone down the wisecracks for Slaughter’s Hound, because Harry is a little bit damaged, and not so prone to shoot from the lip, but there’s no doubt he’s very much made in the image of Philip Marlowe, that knight errant who is obsessed with justice, no matter how ridiculous it makes him look or act.”

OBAAT: I don’t know a writer so willing to change direction as you are, nor dexterous enough to pull it off. The Big O resembles Eightball Boogie not at all. Absolute Zero Cool has no comparable book in my experience, and Slaughter’s Hound, while more traditional than AZC, is still a departure in depth and darkness form anything else you’ve written. When coming up with ideas, do you consciously set out to make each book as different from its predecessor as you can, or does it just work out that way?

DB: “I do set out to write something different from the book that has gone before, that’s definitely part of it, although I’m nowhere as calculating and thoughtful about it all as I should be. There’s a few reasons why I write the way I do - one is that, as a reader (and every writer is first and foremost a reader), I have pretty catholic taste; I don’t read the same kind of book twice in a row, I like to mix it up as dramatically as I can. And if that’s what works for me as a reader, it stands to reason that it should work that way as a writer too, even if doing so is a kind of shooting myself in the foot in terms of commercial success. It’s also true that I’m more than happy to follow the logic of a story to its end, even if that’s a bitter or dark end - I’m not saying that I allow the characters to tell me how it works out, or any of that kind of faff, but if you put together a particularly dark set-up, and lead the reader to believe that it’s all going to end pretty cataclysmically, and then pull back from that to provide a palatable, saccharine-sweet ending - well, you’re cheating everyone, aren’t you? Yourself, the reader, the characters, everyone.”

OBAAT: Crime fiction aficionados love to talk about first sentences setting the hook in the reader. You do it beautifully in Slaughter’s Hound, and but in a unique way. Tell me where that sentence came from.

DB: “Well, that’s an odd one to answer, because the first sentence of Slaughter’s Hound was one of the last things I wrote for the book. It’s a long sentence, I think that’s what you’re getting at here, and it just felt right to allow it run on, because as I was writing it, it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the book. It’s also true that I’d read Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red not long before, which also opens with a pretty long sentence, and I do love a challenge … But in part, too, it’s a reaction against the conventional wisdom you’re given as a writer, that the start of a novel should be made up of short, declarative sentences, a single-image hook to grab the reader’s attention. I hate most of the advice young crime / mystery writers are given these days, not least because most of it seems to presume that the crime / mystery reader is a drooling idiot who can’t deal with complicated concepts and ideas, or styles - or sentences that are more than eight words long.”

OBAAT: Christa Faust has said—and I’m paraphrasing—the difference between hard-boiled and noir is, in hard-boiled you’re in a fucked landscape, but you’ll be okay. In noir, the landscape is fucked, and so are you. Slaughter’s Hound starts off as a classic hard-boiled story, full of sardonic comments, but morphs into bleak noir so elegantly I didn’t realize what was happening until a key event in the second half, which caught me unawares until I thought about and I realized it had to be that way. Did the tone evolve as you wrote, or was that always part of the plan?

DB: “I’ll have to be honest and say that it ‘evolved’, which is a fancy way of saying that I wrote myself into a certain position and then had to obey the logic of what had put me there. I don’t plot in advance, not to any great degree, partly because I believe that if I don’t know what’s coming next, the reader is unlikely to second-guess what’s going to happen. I knew Slaughter’s Hound would be darker in tone than Eightball Boogie, simply because of what Harry had done in that story, and the impact it had on him, but I didn’t set out to write a hardboiled novel that would morph into noir, or anything like that. I’m a big fan of writing a story to the best of your ability, and then letting other people decide what it is or isn’t, or what you’re trying to do or say. Maybe I should put more thought into all of this sort of thing before I start out, but I’m not sure I’d be all that interested in writing to a formula, even if it’s one that I’d prescribed for myself.”

OBAAT: I understand you’re not allowed to have a cat, but you clearly have a thing for big dogs. Both Anna in The Big O and Crime Always Pays and Bear in Slaughter’s Hound are huge. Is there some hidden significance to you in enormous dogs?

DB: “Ha! This is a very strange aspect of my books, because I’m not actually all that fond of dogs at all - I much prefer cats, possibly because they’re closer in personality to my own, the selfish buggers. And as for the size of the dogs, well, if you’re going to have a dog in a crime / mystery novel, you don’t want to be fucking around pretending that anyone is really interested in reading about a Pekinese or a Chihuahua. No, the dogs in both The Big O and Slaughter’s Hound were employed to represent a particular facet of contemporary society - they’re domesticated, civilised, conditioned to obey orders, but they’re both throwbacks to a pre-civilised society (Anna’s three-quarters wolf, Bear is an árchú, or Slaughter’s Hound, a Wolfhound that used to accompany warriors into battle in Irish mythology, and subsequently in Irish history). In a sense, the dogs are there to mirror their human counterparts - apparently civilised and domesticated, until you push them too far and have your head snapped off.”

OBAAT: I’m almost afraid to ask, as I’ve come to look forward to not knowing what a book of yours will be like until I’m somewhat into it, but what’s next?

DB: “Right now I’m in the process of redrafting a sequel to The Big O, a caper comedy set in the Greek islands - it’s light and humorous in tone, as a reaction to the darkness of both Absolute Zero Cool and Slaughter’s Hound. Once that leaves the desk, I’m planning on writing a story set on Crete, which is a kind of spy story incorporating a war crime, or atrocity, committed on the island during WWII. It’ll be much closer to AZC in tone and form than the Rigby books, or the caper comedies, and I’m hoping it works out.”

OBAAT: Thanks, Dec, for taking the time to chat. I know how busy you are and appreciate you stopping by.

DB: Much obliged, Dana, as always. Really appreciate it.

Note:  My review of Books To Die For and another chat with Dec on that topic can be found at the New Mystery Reader web site.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Slaughter’s Hound, by Declan Burke

Slaughter’s Hound, Declan Burke’s follow-up to 2004’s Eightball Boogie, picks up after Harry Rigby has been released from detention for killing his brother. Not prison, exactly. Much of Harry’s time was spent in mental institutions, which seems like easy time to many of his new associates, who wonder what he did to cop such a sweet deal.

No longer a PI, Harry drives a cab and does assorted semi-legal errands. While delivering a few bags of grass to his friend Finn Hamilton, Harry is shocked to see…

That’s as far as I go. Burke doesn’t tease. The inciting incident of the story is right there in the opening scene. You’d hate me later for spoiling it now. Anything I’d write telling you what happened would deny you some of the pleasure of reading the book’s superior description.

Burke is a literary chameleon, moving between types of stories and styles with apparent ease. In Eightball Boogie, he sometimes tried too hard and often for the clever simile, creating a somewhat uneven effect, given the darkness of the story at heart. Since then he’s published an Elmore Leonard-esque free-for-all (The Big O) and a daring bit of meta-fiction (the award-winning Absolute Zero Cool), both of which showed different aspects of the sureness his writing displays in Slaughter’s Hound. (Much of his “free” time between novels was taken up with editing two essential additions to the critical literature about crime fiction, 2011’s Down These Green Streets, and the recently released Books To Die For.)

The writing in Slaughter’s Hound is dead-on and perfect for the situation. Burke is able to capture the occasional absurdity of Rigby’s early situation and inexorably ratchet up the tension to the darkness that captures the end of the book. It’s done so transparently you’ll not quite notice the darkening of the prose until a key incident halfway through tells you there won’t be much fun from here on. (I’m not going to tell you what that is, either. Deal.)

Burke’s style is a seamless blend of Raymond Chandler and Ray Banks, filtered through the sensibilities of the author. Rigby has a little of the knight errant qualities of Philip Marlowe—updated to the 21st Century—blended with any number of Banks’s tragic anti-heroes, creating a character you’ll root for to the end, even though his means will make you want to turn away at times.

Slaughter’s Hound is not for everyone. Rigby’s actions become progressively more violent until gruesome is not too strong a word. It’s a risk worth taking for those who like their crime fiction to look at the effects of a story’s events on both the doer and those who have been done. Slaughter’s Hound is Burke’s most viscerally affecting book, and makes one look forward to see in which direction he’ll go next.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

Work on the next book finally began in earnest over the weekend. The working title is Resurrection Mall. It’s the third in the series that began last spring with Worst Enemies (available for Kindle and Nook), and will continue with Grind Joint (available from Stark House in the spring of 2014).

I drafted the first page Thursday, slept on it, then threw it all away and re-wrote it from scratch on Friday. The voice was wrong, but nothing a quick reading of the first four chapters of Grind Joint couldn’t fix. Two pages each day over the weekend got me back on my normal drafting schedule. (One page on work days, two pages on non-work days, Thanksgiving and Christmas off.)

Resurrection Mall picks up shortly after Grind Joint leaves off. A rising televangelist takes over an abandoned strip mall in the worst part of Penns River to convert it into his new tabernacle and studio, with small, religiously-themed business filling the rest of the space. “Not Razed, But Raised” is his catchphrase. Of course, things go terribly wrong. (Wouldn’t be much of a book if they didn’t, would it?)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Misteak by the Lkae

You didn’t really think a Pittsburgh boy could spend four days in Cleveland and not have anything to complain about, did you?

The first issue is partly my fault. I had driving directions from Google maps, but figured the hotel knows where it is, let’s use the directions on the web site. We got to a street where we thought we might need to turn, but street signs are rare as fat tweakers. The Beloved Spouse grabbed the attention of a passer by, who said, sure, this is the street she asked about. Within five minutes we were completely off the map I printed up that covered the area a mile in every direction from the hotel. No mean feat, since we realized on the way out we hadn’t been five blocks from the hotel when we got directed.

This directional thing was highlighted when we arrived at the hotel and learned there is no concierge; the Renaissance Hotel has a Navigator. Most hotels have a person who asks what you want; the Renaissance has someone to tell you where to go.

In the room, we opened the curtains to the anti-lake vista of an alley. Not just any alley, but the alley where the hotel parks its Dumpsters, as I learned at 5:45 Thursday morning. Beep-beep-beep-beep as the truck backs up to the Dumpster and I’m thinking, “Okay, I know how long this takes. There will be a crash and he’ll be gone in a minute.” Beep-beep-beep-beep. 5:50. Beep-beep. 6:00. Beep-beep-beep-beep. Now I’m up, looking out the window. The Dumpster is immediately below the window—which is why I didn’t notice it last night—and it appears to be stuck half way up the truck bed. Beep-beep-beep until 6:05 when it finally gets sorted out.

Friday morning, the Beloved Spouse turns on the TV for her Morning Joe fix, but the channels won’t change. The TV screen shows the remote signal gets through—the channel number appears on the screen—it just doesn’t go there. Even better, we can’t turn it off; there’s not even a button on the TV, it’s remote only. I should have unplugged the bastard, because that’s what the guy from maintenance did when he showed up almost an hour later. We spent more time watching ads for Ted than we did watching the movie when we saw it in the theater. I now her, “I should have asked for Teddy Ruxpin” in my sleep.

I’ll give the hotel credit for one thing: no one getting any swelled heads there. I’m sitting at the table in my first Bouchercon panel, feeling pretty good about myself, over a hundred people in the room, things are going well, and a roach the length of a quarter runs across the tablecloth in front of me. Kudos to moderator Sandra Parshall, who shooed the little vermin away without drawing much attention or flicking it into the first row. A female panelist a few hours later lacked Sandra’s aplomb, squealing like a mouse had crawled down her blouse when the little critter—or a cousin—crashed her panel.

So, no, I’ll not be detouring to Cleveland to stay at the Renaissance. (Though it does have the world’s greatest bartended, the only barkeep I’ve met in 56 years who knew what I wanted as soon as I nodded to him on entry.) The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Meh, but I’ve never been a rock and roll guy. (It doesn’t help that Dick Dale—King of the Surf Guitar—Tower of Power, and Tom Waits are not enshrined.) The row of restaurants of 6th Street was pretty cool.

What was very cool were the people. I’ve traveled quite a bit, to just about every corner of the country, to many places that pride themselves on their hospitality. I have never been treated nicer than I was by the people of Cleveland. From Eddie—waiter extraordinaire at the Hard Rock Café—to the hotel staff and the people at the Tower Deli, everyone we met was charming, good-natured, and genuinely helpful. (My favorite story was of a cop who gave a panelist a ride to a liquor store and offered to wait for her.) It took me a few days to figure out the deal. We were all wearing our conference badges, clearly from out of town.

They wanted us to take them with us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Bouchercon Dance Card

Bouchercon is much more than three-and-a-half days of panels. It’s also three-and-a half days and nights in close proximity to sixteen hundred people who care passionately about something I care passionately about. I didn’t get to see everyone I’d hoped to, but those I saw made the trip memorable and have me looking forward to Albany next year. (Even though there is no host hotel. Whose idea was that?) I took notes to remember key elements of the panels; no artificial mnemonics were necessary for the people.

I’ve written flash fiction in less time than it has taken me to write this blog post; you’re reading Draft Four. Each story that comes to mind conjures up half a dozen more. Previous drafts read more like testimonials than appreciations of renewing acquaintances and making new friends. So, before I wrap myself any more tightly around the axle, I’d like to thank all of the following for making Cleveland a pleasure, even for a Pittsburgh boy:

Mike Dennis, Tim O’Mara. Anne Emery, Karen Dionne, Cindy Phillips, Jack Bludis, the sartorially indescribable Dan O’Shea (the sparkly window treatment he wore almost deserves its own mention), Chris Holm, and Robin and Keith Spano made each day a little more fun than the last.

Special thanks to Peter Rozovsky, Tim Hallinan, and John McFetridge for being so generous with their time and good company, proving there are no better, or more entertaining, people to spend time than those in the crime fiction community.

And, no offense to the others, the greatest thank you goes to The Beloved Spouse. She won’t be able to go every year, but having her there and seeing her joy at getting to meet people she’s only heard me talk about took my week to another level.

Here’s hoping everyone can get to Albany next year. Wherever we stay.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bouchercon 2013: The Panels


I intended to blog about Bouchercon as soon as I got back, but that whole “life is what happens while you’re making other plans” thing bit me in the ass and I’ve done no writing at all since returning on Monday. We spent an extra day visiting the ancestral home, things have been a zoo at work, I brought back a bad case of the Crud that has kept me less than fully ambulatory; really, it’s not my fault: 

The original plan was to spice up the comments with some pithy interjections, but the window has closed for that kind of frolic. Below are the main takeaways from the panels I attended. (Apologies in advance for unattributed comments. Most notes were hastily written, and I couldn’t always see who said what.)

Several Canadian authors had their books turned back at the border and were left with nothing to sign. Most likely due to sympathetic descriptions of socialized medicine and short prison sentences. (A later panel indicated the Canadian government has stopped shipments of maple syrup and back bacon in retaliation.)

Dana Haynes sometimes casts an actor as a character, then posts a picture of said actor where he can see it while he writes and will look at it when he’s stuck for what that character would do or say next.

The difference between “blond” and “blonde” is not adjective vs. noun, as I had thought; it’s gender. It’s just that men are rarely referred to as “blonds.” (Thanks to Peter Rozovsky, a beacon for the diminishing number of people who still care about such things.)

Everyone on the “What Would Rockford Do?” panel has their PIs to do things they’d like to do, but don’t. Such as throw an unruly rider off a bus. (This put my mind at ease, as that’s pretty much all my PI does.)

What makes PI stories work: “Everyone is corrupt. They have done something they don’t want to see in the papers.”

The panel spoke of the allure and danger of falling into Self-Destructive Guy Syndrome, where the hero is unable to sustain relationships with women and sometimes even routine friendships with men. None of them use particularly damaged heroes, but essentially normal guys with the same issues anyone might have, who are routinely faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Cops don’t always make the best PIs because they aren’t always sure how to react when someone tells them to take a hike and they don’t have a badge to back them up. Actors and accountants might be preferable, depending on the circumstances.
When writing a morally challenged hero, find the line he will not cross and see what it will take to get him to cross it.

A morally challenged hero has to have some redeeming feature the reader can hang his empathy on.

If the main character is a bad guy, there have to be worse guys in the story to make him at least relatively sympathetic.

Some morally challenged heroes see the situation with a clarity that allows them to cut through the BS. This is something a reader can admire at some level.

The weakness in the psycho ex machina sidekick (Reed Farrell Coleman’s term) is he removes the difficult moral choice from the protagonist.

The difference between noir and crime fiction: in noir, everyone is dirty. (Attributed to Dennis Lehane.)

“Bollocks” signifies something bad, but “the dog’s bollocks” is high praise, similar to “the bee’s knees.”

“Wanker” is an insult, but “right wanker” is not.

There were only a few hundred other things deserving of mention; time and space prohibit describing them all in the detail they deserve.

No discussion of the panels I attended would be complete without mention of moderator Sandra Parshall,  and co-panelists Erika Chase and Brenda Chapman, who made my first experience facing the audience not just a pleasure, but damned easy on my blood pressure. Many thanks, ladies.

In our next exciting installment, we’ll discuss the social elements of this year’s conference.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Wild Bill and Worst Enemies on Sale for $0.99 Through October 10!

I am leaving for Bouchercon Tuesday around noon, with an overnight stopover at the ancestral home. To commemorate almost an entire week without bitching, whining, harping, carping, moaning, groaning, self-congratulatory, self-promoting, self-pleasuring blog posts—and to celebrate lucking into a panel (Friday at 11:30, be there to see living proof donkeys do, indeed, fly from time to time) both Wild Bill and Worst Enemies will be available for the discounted price of $0.99 through October 10 for both Kindle and Nook.

“How can he afford these prices?” you may wonder. “Is he the Crazy Eddie of e-books?” Maybe I am. Hustle on over to your favorite purveyor of e-books before I come to my senses. Remember, owning a $2.99 version of either book doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the hell out of a $0.99 cent copy.

See you next week with a full report.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Detectives Beyond Borders Mentions Wild Bill

Peter Rozovsky’s award-winning blog Detectives Beyond Borders doesn’t spend a lot of time on American crime fiction, so it’s doubly pleasing to see this mention today.

Many thanks to Peter, who has been a good friend, and is an expert panel moderator, as I am looking forward to seeing in person again at Bouchercon next week.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Making Story

When I was a graduate student at New England Conservatory, lessons were delayed by a couple of weeks one year because the Boston Symphony Orchestra was on tour. A freshman was heard to complain, considering what it was costing him to go to college, he expected a full-time teacher. A soon-to-be-friend of mine replied, “You want to learn to play like a college teacher, study with a college teacher. You want to learn to play like a symphony orchestra musician, you study with one.”

That’s the problem with most “how to write” books. Few are written by anyone you’ve ever heard of, and the reasons you’ve never heard of these people are often legitimate. Books by writers who actually earn their livings writing fiction are rare, because these people are busy writing the books that feed their families. That’s why Timothy Hallinan’s latest effort, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot is such a welcome addition to the literature.

Hallinan’s authors have published over one hundred books among them, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. They tackled one of the most debated aspects of fiction—plotting—and described how each of them does it. Rarely, if ever, has such a broad spectrum of techniques been solicited.

And guess what? It’s a mess. No one does it exactly the same. Few do it even mostly the same. The thread that runs through the book is every author—and, often, every book by the same author—requires their own approach. What worked last time won’t work this time, no matter how hard you try to shoehorn your raw material into the old mold.

The only thing close to a consensus in Making Story comes from showing it’s not just okay to experiment, it’s practically mandatory. Where the real help comes is in seeing the different things all these successful authors have tried, and cherry-picking which might work for you on the next project, or when you’re stuck. You may also smile when you discover someone whose work you enjoy, maybe even admire, does something much the way you do.

Another bonus of getting a group of fiction writers to talk about writing is, their comments will not be dry. They write entertaining prose fpor a living. This is no textbook full of rules. The primary thing most will take away is, there are no rules when it comes to plotting.

Making Story is a quick and entertaining read you’ll want to keep around for future reference, so the next time you’re stuck, you can refer back to how one of your favorites gets past such obstacles.

(Here are the writers who participated: Michael Stanley, Kelli Stanley, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jeffrey Siger, Zoe Sharp, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Mike Orenduff, Debbi Mack, Wendy Hornsby, Gar Anthony Haywood, Timothy Hallinan, Leighton Gage, Jeremy Duns, Bill Crider, Meredith Cole, Jeffrey Cohen, Rebecca Cantrell, Rachel Brady, Lisa Brackmann, Cara Black, and Brett Battles.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Frank Jr.

Patti Abbott has another flash fiction challenge on her blog, pattinase. Her mandate was succinct:
Write a story of 1000 words or less entitled Frank, Jr.

Here’s mine:


Frank, Jr.

Frank was a Junior. Hated it from the day he learned what “junior” meant. Frank Senior drove like he’d wrapped the car in eggs. Junior drove like Hell would close in ten minutes, the St. Christopher statue his ma gave him hanging on to the dashboard for dear life. The old man nibbled around the periphery of life; Junior headed straight to the top.

That’s how he met Marti—Martha, her mother called her, why Marti left when she was sixteen. She gave him the usual, “I don’t usually do this the first time I meet a guy.” He told her, “You close that door behind you and we’ll do a lot of things you don’t usually do.”

She had to work in the morning. “Please wake me up.”

Frank snorted. “Wake yourself up. I’ll be gone.”

He wasn’t, though. Marti woke up and he was there. Sleeping on his side, eyelids fluttering. Mumbling something she couldn’t make out. He opened his eyes and saw her looking at him.

“What?”

“Your face. It’s different when you sleep.”

“How?”

Marti thought a few seconds. “You were dreaming. You’re innocent when you dream.”

“I never dream,” Frank said. “I do.” Never dream. Do. Frank’s theme for life.

Frank drank. He smoked. He snorted. He sped. He walked into rooms full of people and made them wonder if they were about to regret things they’d forgotten they’d done. Yesterday is here. Pay up, bitch. Told Marti to call in sick, breakfast on him. He knew a place. She said the weather was bad. He said let’s go.

More than rain came in when Frank opened the door. Hail, sleet, whatever. Marti shrank back. Frank stepped into it. Shook his fist. “Come on, blow wind. Blow.” Speeding at eight in the morning.

Drove to Esther’s Diner soaking wet. Marti not wearing any more than last night, freezing. She had coffee. Frank had coffee. Frank ate eggs. Frank ate bacon. Frank ate toast. Dipped a piece in his coffee, slopped up his eggs with it. Marti watched him eat.

Everyone knew him. Everyone said hello. No one looked like they wanted to. Frank acknowledged them all. “Yeah.” “Sure.” “Uh-huh.” “Go fuck yourself.”

Marti said, “You live here long?”

Frank said, “Long enough.”

Marti said, “You like it?”

Frank said, “I’ll take New York.”

Frank stood. Pointed to the empty plate. “Take care of this. I’ll be right back.”

Marti said, “Where are you going?”

Frank turned for the men’s room. “I got an important telephone call. From Istanbul. Need some privacy.”

Marti paid the check. Frank did three lines off the lid of the toilet tank. Nine in the morning. Came out of the shitter wired. Took Marti by the elbow. “Let’s go.”

Marti said, “Where?”

Frank said, “Someplace else.”

Took her outside. The rain had stopped. The sun tried to come out, not hard enough. Frank opened the driver’s door. Marti held back.

Frank said, “What?”

Marti said, “I can get a cab.”

Frank said, “Get in,” like those might be the last two words she’d hear from him. Temptation won. Marti got in.

Frank started the car. Turned on the sound, all the way. Tom Waits. Frank’s Wild Years. Frank’s musical theme. Music too loud. Waits singing Cold Cold Ground. Where they put Frank when the Waits song drowned out the train song.

Marti came to the funeral. She made three. Esther was there. Some guy. No one said a word while two workmen put Frank way down in the hole.

Everyone left together, separately.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Outfoxing Censors for Fifty-Six years

When last we got together I was reviewing Lynn Kostoff’s A Choice of Nightmares. As usual, after posting the review to my blog and blurbing it at Facebook, I took it to Amazon, where it occurred to me this line might raise an eyebrow or two:
…a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his dick whichever way the wind blows.
Yesterday I received this email from Amazon:
“Thanks for submitting a customer review on Amazon. Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form.”
The email never says the review was rejected because I’m a potty mouth, but that was a good guess. Undeterred, I edited only the passage noted above to read:
…a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his (male sex organ - different word used in original) whichever way the wind blows.
The review was accepted this morning.
Anyone who wouldn’t know what word I used originally would never have read the interview. Or is like this guy:  









Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Choice of Nightmares

Every so often I’ll decide I have enough authors to read. Keeping up with their output is a full-time job, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m behind as I try to stay current with all the excellent writers out there. Not that I mean to limit myself, but I’ll never have time to read everything written by those I like best; why fall farther behind?

Right about then I’ll start tripping over references to someone I never heard of before. Comments from people whose opinions I trust. “You really ought to read this guy.” “This guy’s really good.” “You’d like him a lot.” (“Guy” is gender-neutral in this context.) I won’t do anything about it, mainly because I always have several books backed up, and don’t feel like adding one more.

Then somebody will catch me between books, wondering who to read next, and I’m on the Web already, anyhow, and Amazon’s just one click away so I take thirty seconds and buy Lynn Kostoff’s A Choice of Nightmares and it sits on the Kindle for a while till I read it because I got tired of looking at the title staring back at me and I remember how good people said he is and I read the damn book, okay, enough, now can I get on with my life, and then I start kicking myself because this book is really good and I’m wondering what the hell took me so long and how the book would make a great movie but is also a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his dick whichever way the wind blows.

Bad things happen to people like that. Boy, howdy, do they.

How bad? Don’t be cheap. Read the book. Kostofff writes believable characters, and, even though you don’t really like Robert Staples much, he doesn’t deserve what he’s headed for. The cast that leads Staples astray plays both sides of his personality, leveraging fear and desire to lead him down a path he knows better than to take. The plot points are unpredictable and plausible. As a writer, Kostoff is content to lay back and let his characters do the talking; the author’s hand is not noticeable.

I’ve heard great things about his newest, Late Rain. I guess now I’ll just have to add him to the list of writers who periodically lead me to decide I don’t need to look for new things to read, at least not as long as I’m still behind on him.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Blind Pig Finds Another Acorn

No one was more surprised than I when I was chosen for a panel at this year’s Bouchercon. Not a traditionally published book to my name, and the contract I signed in May won’t will have no physical manifestation for a year and a half. Still, there I was, listed with my betters on the “Murder In Small Town USA” panel set for Friday at 11:30. Moderated by Sandra Parshall, the other panelists are Brenda Chapman, Erika Chase, Jess Lourey, and Mary Saums. (Part of me suspects someone thought I was a woman. Are they in for a surprise.)

How did I get chosen? Beats me. I can think of other writers of mysteries set in small town with far better track records than mine, and much higher profiles. If I’m guessing, the major thing in my favor was I had already committed to attend, registering well in advance of June 30, the date they asked people to register by if they wanted a panel. I suspect it didn’t hurt when I responded to a broadcast email to help promote Bouchercon by posting about it, and adding a link to the blog. (Look up and to the right on this page.) Being mistaken for a woman probably didn’t hurt.

Whatever the criteria, I’m grateful for the opportunity and am already in the midst of reading a book by each of my co-panelists, so as not to come off as the clueless boob I too often prove to be in public. I’m looking forward to having some fun and meeting some new people, though it’s a tough time slot. (Other panels at the same time include Mark Billingham, Michael Connelly, Zoe Sharp, Andrew Grant, John Gilstrap, and Max Allan Collins.) If you’re coming to Bouchercon this year and have an opening Friday at 11:30, stop on by. Ask embarrassing questions, snicker at my answers, whatever. Have a good time. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ll be the one with the beard.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rough Riders

Charlie Stella made his bones writing mob stories. Now he’s the pre-eminent organized crime fiction writer in the country. No one gets inside the heads of low-level hoods better than Stella. Made guys were never his primary interest. He focused on the entry-level crooks who didn’t have both feet in the game and were still looking for viable options in their lives, or someone who took a gig because he needed the money and had no intention of being a criminal, just because he worked for some.

He expands his envelope a little in his newest novel, Rough Riders. Ten years after 2001’s Eddie’s World, Eddie Senta has gone on with his life, and James Singleton--the man who almost killed him and was in turn disfigured by Senta—has gone on to a new identity, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. Singleton—now known as Washington Stewart—now works for the government, in his way, setting up other potential candidates for WitSec, while pursuing an agenda of his own, sort of a black Sammy Gravano in North Dakota instead of Arizona.

Singleton/Stewart can’t forgive Senta for shooting him though the eye and almost killing him. His disfigurement leaves him too obvious to kill Senta himself, so he sends a couple of lackeys, who do half-assed job, leaving both Senta and his wife in the hospital, but alive. Mrs. Senta hires Alex Pavlik, one of the cops involved in the original incident, now working as a private investigator, to find Singleton and let the Sentas sleep with both eyes closed.

Pavlik tracks one of the would-be killers to North Dakota, where he learns Singleton is in the area, likely under government protection, which will hinder anything he tries to do. He also finds himself at the confluence of several crime enterprises operating around the Air Force base in Minot, at least one of which involves Singleton/Stewart.

Rough Riders resembles Mafiya, Stella’s look at the Russian mob, more than most of the rest of his books. Multiple points of view keep the reader better informed than any single character and do an excellent job of foreshadowing trouble without being heavy-handed about it. No amateurish, “If only he knew what Joe Schlabotnik had planned” bullshit here. The reader knows what Schlabotnik has planned, and we know our hero doesn’t know. There’s no need for Stella to spell it out, and he trusts his readers enough not to try.

As always in Stella’s writing, the dialog stands out among many strengths. No one this side of Elmore Leonard captures the flow of conversations better, though it may take a few pages to accustom yourself to the cadences of his characters’ speech. That’s more an indication of the failings of other writers than a fault of Stella’s, as too many are afraid to veer too far from “writing” when they write dialog, so their characters’ spoken words too closely resemble the surrounding narrative. Readers fall into the trap and expect it from everything they read. There’s no question who’s talking in Rough Riders, not even when the dialog moves back and forth rapid fire without attribution.

Rough Riders is the most complicated of Stella’s stories, and it takes some concentration to keep straight who is doing what to whom early on. Hang in there. Everything falls together, leading to a climax dispersed along several fronts, switching points of view every page or so to show simultaneous actions from multiple perspectives with a dexterity Leonard would be proud of. It’s a little different from Stella’s usual fare, but a welcome addition to his output. (If you’re looking for a more standard entry point into his oeuvre, try Shakedown or Johnny Porno.) Stella has been around, and is still willing to try out new things and stretch himself, as is shown by his enrollment in an MFA program in his fifties. Let’s hope he still dips his toe into the crime fiction pool at least once in a while. He’s a good one.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Coffee Break’s Over…Back On My Head

Labor Day has come and gone, and my now annual summer writing hiatus is over. I read a lot, and spent quite a bit of time on walks and in the car mulling over story ideas for the next novel, so the time wasn’t wasted. Far from it. I decided the reason last year’s novel idea didn’t pan out was because I tried to write a good story in the wrong setting. The decision was made to set aside private detective Nick Forte for the time being, and take the parts of that story I liked and move them to Penns River so my cops can deal with them. It will fold well into the evolving arc I have there, and allow me to find a better vehicle for Forte, who I still hope to get back to.

I’d like to thank Declan Burke for this gift. I was until a few years ago of the “a writer must write every day” school. I’ll admit, it allowed me to improve my writing quickly and kept me locked in. It was also in the process of burning me out, especially when coupled with an inability to sell anything. I was about to chuck it, and said so on this blog. Squire Burke not only made immediate efforts to set me straight, he recruited friends of his to drop by and lend some encouragement. This generosity will not be forgotten.

Just as important was Dec’s advice. To wit:

“…finish the WIP, take the summer off, watch the baseball. One of the best things I ever read was an interview with William Golding, in which he was asked about his writing routine. "Well, when I'm writing ..." he began, and that was the first time I realised you don't always have to be writing. In fact, all the time writing is like only breathing out. It can't be done - at least, it can be done, but not very well.”

As the Guinness ads used to say, “Brilliant!”

Time was I worked on an Anthony Trollope-like schedule: finish one book, type THE END, turn the page, and start the next. Trollope did well that way; I did not. The Golding quote and Dec’s breathing out analogy got me to see hard and consistent work is necessary, but so is time to recharge. Now I set aside the current project—whatever it is—on Memorial Day weekend, to resume after Labor Day. I read, I watch baseball, I take walks, I nap. I may write something short if the mood strikes me, but I make little or no effort to think about novels. By the end of June ideas come unbidden during walks or trips to the store. Sometimes it’s a solution to a problem, others it’s a whole new idea. Some I discard quickly, some are examined and discarded, and others have bits sliced off to be used while the rest is discarded. Little is written down. Summer is for letting things flow without the pressure of knowing a page needs to be written today.

This weekend I’ll write the ideas I have onto index cards and start sorting them. I have too much for one book, so a decent chunk of the next may also be laid out, subject to complete change if next summer’s walkabout leads me in a different direction. What matters is, I’m ready to write. I’m enthusiastic about getting back into the groove, and I have already adjusted my schedule to make it easier to sustain progress once I begin. I’ll not only be writing every day, I’m looking forward to it…now that I’m writing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Wild Bunch

I had a home alone day off yesterday, so I spend the early afternoon with The Wild Bunch. It’s a favorite of mine, and I hadn’t seen it in a few years. Now I’ve seen it recently, and it’s still a favorite. A few things are a little dated, but the whole holds up very well.

It’s odd to watch The Wild Bunch now and think back to the furor its violence caused when it was released in 1969. Not that it isn’t graphically violent, but years of action flicks have inured us to such things. What The Wild Bunch does better than most movies is make the violence hurt. The results are not quick and antiseptic; you see and hear the suffering.

Director Sam Peckinpah also did a wonderful job of setting the film in its time. My wife asked last night why they would go into the Battle of the Bloody Porch knowing they were going to die. She didn’t watch it with me yesterday and was relying on memory. Seeing it play out, knowing how it ends, they wouldn’t have it any other way. (Stealing a line from the movie.) Their time had ended. They were Wild West-style outlaws, living in a world of automobiles and, as Pike Bishop verifies, airplanes. The Mexican Civil War is going on, and a German officer is agitating against the United States as World War I approaches. The Bunch’s preferred handgun is the original M1911 Army Colt Pistol, which, as the German officer points out, is illegal to own; it’s for military use only. These are men holding a Nineteenth Century occupation in what is clearly the Twentieth Century. It’s only a matter of time for them, as is noted several times. To choose the manner of their exit may have been a blessing.

What I took away most this time is Peckinpah’s wonderful job of unapologetically describing his characters. These are vicious criminals and ruthless killers, not averse to using innocent bystanders as shields. They have internal rivalries, yet the loyalty to each other is unquestioned. The affection between Pike and Dutch Engstrom is touching in its coarse way. Even Deke Thornton, the former gang member who turned against them to stay out of prison and blames Pike’s inattention for his capture, wishes he were back with them. It’s a precursor to The Sopranos, laying out terribly flawed characters in their entirety, allowing the audience to decide about them.

The cast is, of course, superb. A Western with Warren Oates and Ben Johnson has a leg up on most others right off the bat. Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan could have had their parts written for them. It’s William Holden who stands out. I came to his work late in his career, so my defining memories of him are as a slacker who does only what he has to in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag-17, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Pike Bishop is as far away from Joe Gillis as can be imagined, yet it is Holden’s portrayal of Pike’s combination of ruthlessness and fairness that holds the movie together.

The American Film Institute ranks The Wild Bunch as the sixth greatest Western. That’s hardly faint praise, but it’s a far superior film to The Searchers (Number 1). That doesn’t make it Number One—Unforgiven, High Noon, and Shane are also ranked ahead of it—but a washcloth could be draped over all four in terms of excellence. To my thinking, The Wild Bunch ranks behind only Unforgiven. If Sam Peckinpah had made only this one film, he’d deserved to be ranked among the greats.