Wednesday, December 12, 2018

And So It (meaning the promotion) Begins; Ten-Seven Drops January 21

The relentless self-promotion for my next novel (Ten-Seven) begins now. Hide the children.

The promotion in general began last month with the able assistance of Debbi Mack, who kindly invited me to chat with her at her Crime Café podcast. Debbi’s good people and a fine writer her own self. We chatted for about 25 minutes and I had a ball. Many thanks to Debbi and I look forward to running into her again at the usual places.

Just a couple of weeks ago Nick Kolakowski had me for my first solo gig as part of the Authors on the Air network. I only met Nick in the run-up to the interview and found we have quite a bit in common. Exactly how much, and how entertaining we were in the discussion thereof, you can judge for yourself. As for me, the time flew by. Thanks to Nick for having me on and for being such a gracious host.

This is obviously not the sum total of Ten-Seven’s pre-launch. There will be guest blog posts, at least one other podcast interview, and (hopefully) a live event after the holidays. Stop by the website for updates.

Ten-Seven drops January 21 but if those holiday checks and gift cards start to burn holes in
Kudos, as always, to Eric Beetner for another kick-ass cover design.
your pockets, despair not: it’s available for pre-order RTFN. (That’s “right now” for the more sensitive among you.) For the lowdown on how to score a free digital copy with the purchase of a trade paperback, scoot on over to the
Ten-Seven page on the Down & Out Books web site.
It’s also available from the following retailers …
• Amazon — Trade Paperback | eBook
• Amazon UK — 
Trade Paperback | eBook
• Barnes & Noble — 
Trade Paperback | eBook
• IndieBound — 
Trade Paperback
• iTunes — 
• Kobo — 
• Play — 

Ten-Seven breaks things up a little in Penns River. Doc and Stush and Mike Mannarino and Wilver Faison are still there, but change is in the wind. A consent decree brings in three new cops no one is quite sure what to think of. Their entry is counterbalanced by the departure of two series regulars and a new tidbit of knowledge about a third. There’s a bridge jumper and some changes in the Dougherty family.
Here’s a sample:

Doug Stirnweiss hadn’t made much of an impression on the employees of Allegheny Casino. Some recognized him, coming in every couple-three weeks, seemed like a nice guy. Only two knew his name. One said, “So he was the guy got shot the other night.”
Judy Abramowicz tended bar four to one, Tuesday through Saturday, the steadiest shift of any employee. Five-foot-ten, frosted blonde hair and ice blue eyes, high cheekbones. Worked the large bar closest to the gaming tables. Men preferred table games to slots, and Judy Abramowicz behind the most convenient bar had to be good for business all around.
Doc had been at it for three hours, nineteen interviews. Any potential to be entertained by proximity to who was, without doubt, the most attractive person in the casino had left him at least forty-five minutes ago.
“Ms. Abramowicz, do you recognize this man?” Handed her Doug’s cropped DMV photo, showing wear at the edges.
“That’s Doug Stirnweiss.” Doc’s hopes rose. “I saw him on the news.” Doc’s hopes fell.
“You ever see him in here?”
“A time or two. That’s why I noticed him on TV. I knew the face, just never had a name to go with it.”
“Ever talk with him?”
“See him talking with anyone else?”
“Well, yeah, but nothing that sticks out. He’d talk to dealers, customers, whoever was around. Seemed friendly enough.”
“Ever hear anyone talk about him?”
“Not so it sticks in my mind. I know you’re trying to get some idea of who might’ve wanted to shoot him, but he was just a guy. There’s a hundred of them out there right now, just like him. Nice guys, no trouble. They come in once in a while and have a little fun. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but there’s nothing memorable about them.”
She did sound a little like a bitch, but she had a point. Doc handed her a business card. “Thanks for your time. Can you do me a favor and send…” scanned the list, “George Schaffer in?”
Judy would. Walked to the door—Doc not too tired to notice an ass with the rare combination of tightness and breadth—turned before she reached for the knob. “If I tell you something, can it stay just between us? No one else can ever know.”
“Depends what it is. If you’re about to tell me you saw who shot Doug Stirnweiss, then, no, almost certainly not. You’re going to have to testify, at least in front of a grand jury.”
Judy returned to the table. Doc gestured for her to sit. She rested her hands on the back of the chair, unsure, then swiveled around it and parked herself. “I could get fired for telling you this.”
Doc said, “Then why are you telling me?” in a voice calculated to convey trust.
“There’s a guy, drug dealer. He hangs around sometimes.”
There didn’t appear to be more. “Did you see him with Doug that night?”
Judy shook her head. “I don’t think I ever saw them both together. This guy—he’s nasty, you know what I mean?” Looked up at Doc like she wanted him to, so she wouldn’t have to explain it.
“Nasty how? Like he stinks? Or he’s dangerous?” Judy nodded. “You ever see him hurt anybody?”
“I heard stories. People owe him money, he hurts them. Bad temper. I saw him go off one night. Took three security guys to get him out.”
“Was he here the night Doug Stirnweiss was shot?”
“He’s banned from the casino since that other time. They found out he sold, so Rollison put him on the list.”
“What made you think to bring him up if he hasn’t been in?”
“He still hangs around. Does his business in the parking lot.”
“You’ve seen him?”
She nodded three times, quick. “I heard he was, and…I think it was him I saw one night.”
“You think?”
What little eye contact there had been disappeared. “There are some guys, you know, you don’t want them to notice you.”
“You know what he sells?”
“I ain’t had anything to do with him, you understand?”
Doc stuck out his lower lip, shook his head. “I’m not thinking anything like that. You work at the bar. What do you hear?”
“Coke. Some grass. Crystal, of course. I guess he can get about anything.”
“You have a name for him?” She shook her head. “Who else can I talk to? You can’t be the only person here knows about him.”
“No one else will talk to you. Not about this. They’re either afraid of him, or they’re afraid of the casino—you know, for bringing suspicion around the place—or they’re doing business with him.”
Doc leaned in, lowered his voice. “Why are you telling me?”
Judy looked away, then made eye contact for a second—damn, almost like Doc could see through the blue and there was white behind, they were so pale—swallowed once. “He scares me. I mean, really scares me. I kind of figured he could hurt someone bad. Now that someone’s been shot—right outside, where I know he hangs out—I wonder was it him, and what else he could do. I don’t want to sound like some conceited twat, but I know people notice me. I’m not complaining. I got the best job here, make the most tips, and I can go out with anybody I want to, pretty much. I know a lot of girls would trade with me. But, you know, people noticing you isn’t always a good thing. Not if it’s the wrong people. Or for the wrong reasons.”
She looked at Doc again. He saw it this time, behind the blue. The fear. “Okay. We’ll check him out.”
“You won’t let anyone know it was me that told?”
Doc shook his head. “Send Schaffer back. I won’t say or do anything that might bring any suspicion until after I talk to everybody. There’ll be no way to know where I got it.”
Her smile was gone before it could take root, as if she were embarrassed to have done it. Doc spoke when she reached the door. “Thank you.” She nodded and left.
Doc’s cell phone in hand before the door catch clicked. “Teresa? Do me a favor. Find some subtle way to work drugs into the conversation with Doug’s friends.”

Friday, December 7, 2018

S.A. Cosby, Author of My Darkest Prayer

S.A. Cosby is another one of those writers who hovered around the periphery of my consciousness for quite a while, then burst into my sphere of attention like the Kool-Aid pitcher through a wall at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. (I felt purple. Sue me.) We spent some quality time there, followed up by sharing a panel and more discussion at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity as month later. Best known for his short fiction, Shawn’s first novel in several years, My Darkest Prayer, ushers in the new year on January 1, courtesy of Intrigue Publishing. Reading what he has to say in an interview doesn’t do him justice, as there’s no way to capture the enthusiasm he brings to any conversation. Use this to whet your appetite and make a point to catch him at a conference or signing near you at your earliest opportunity.

One Bite at a Time: Your new novel is My Darkest Prayer. Give us a tease on what to expect.
S. A. Cosby: Well I think the main thing you can expect from My Darkest Prayer is a good time. I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel but I did my best to craft an exciting engaging detective story set in the rural South that is infused with a little down home flavor filtered through the prism of an African American viewpoint. The main character Nathan Waymaker is a flawed and damaged man but also intelligent, fiercely loyal with a quick wit and fast hands. He is trying his best to bring some semblance of order to his chaotic world as he seeks a bit of redemption for his own sins.

OBAAT: Nathan Waymaker works at a funeral home and as a bouncer. Is he based on anyone you know, or how did you come up with such a unique experience set? (Great name, by the way.)
SAC: Nathan is an amalgamation of a few people I grew up with and how I see myself in my pulp fantasies. His personality can be best described as if Elvis Cole Eazy Rawlins and Spenser created a fully formed clone using all of their DNA...

OBAAT: We both like to set our stories in small towns. My first panel ever discussed the possible limitation of setting stories in small towns, which I thought was odd because I don’t think of a small town setting as limiting a crime story. For every big-city possibility that doesn’t really work there are at least as many possibilities that just can’t happen in a big city. My Darkest Prayer is set in a small town. What attracted you to the location?
SAC: I've always been a fan of pastoral horror and mystery. Growing up in a small town I had an appreciation for the history and banality that exist in hamlets and rural communities. Setting a mystery story in such an environment gives me a chance to let the good guys win and overcome the machinations of local villains and sometimes the very nature of the town itself. That rarely happens in real life. Plus I'm a country boy at heart. So my work is as much a love letter to my upbringing as it is a condemnation of its flaws.

OBAAT: Let’s run with that a little. People tend to think of big city crime organizations as being powerful, but in a place like New York there’s so much going on there are limits to how much of the city they can run. To me the idea of a small town crime boss is scarier, as he can literally run the town.
SAC: I think the concept of the small town " boss" can carry a much more immediate threat for your characters. In a big city if the mob bosses want to whack you they have to get you to come to a sit down at a place they control but they still have to be wary of the police, random witnesses etc. In a small town a crime runs the cops. He runs the town council. He owns a farm with a pig trough and he has enough cousins and hired hands to make sure you disappear. Outside of the direct violence they also usually own the bank or the wetlands board. They have so many ways to completely destroy you.

OBAAT: My Darkest Prayer is your first book with Intrigue Publishing. How did you get together with Austin Camacho? He and I go way back and it’s a treat to see such good people find each other.
SAC: I was really lucky to meet Austin and everyone at Intrigue. I was attending a Noir at the Bar in DC hosted by Ed Aymar and Austin read an excerpt from his book. We struck up a conversation and I mentioned I had a mystery novel looking for a home and the rest like they say is history.

OBAAT: You and I are both Thuglit alumni with something in common there. I had a story in the last of the anthologies and you had one in the last edition. I don’t think that’s why he shut things down. At least not because of your story, which was outstanding. I can’t be 100% sure about my possible effect on the anthologies. I know the story of how you and Todd Robinson met, but it’s too good not to share.
SAC: So a few years ago when there wasn't as much gray in my bead I had a friend who was a belly dancer who was performing in New York. After her performance she went to bar with her troupe. That bar was Shade where Todd works. During the night she mentioned she had a friend who was a writer and Todd mentioned he published a magazine. He told her to tell her friend (me) and in that indomitable Todd Robinson style said, "If it ain't crap I might put it in my magazine.“

I'd written a few crime pieces but my main interest at that time was horror but no one was buying my horror stories so I thought what the heck? I'll write a hardboiled southern crime story. That story became “The Rat and The Cobra” ….a few weeks later I got a terse but exciting email from Todd:

“You're in issue #10 Bruddah.“

I owe a lot of who I am as a writer to Big Daddy Thug
OBAAT: Who are your major influences and how has each of them influenced you? Doesn’t have to be another writer. Could be film, TV, whatever.
SAC: As odd as it may sound my major influences on my style are movies. Hell or High Water, Gator, To Sleep With Anger, films that juxtapose growing up in a rural environment with existing in modern society. But if I had to vote an author or authors I wish I could emulate I'd have to say my two biggest influences are Walter Mosely and Jim Thompson. Walter for his lyrical exploration of the American dream as seen through black eyes and Jim Thompson for his fearless appreciation of the downtrodden and the dispossessed. They are the bar I'm trying to reach

OBAAT: Here it comes, the standard final question to an author interview: What’s next for you?
SAC: Well I'm currently working with Josh Getzler and the fine folks at the HSG Literary agency to bring my second full-length novel to life. Tentatively titled Blacktop Wasteland….in December my story “Sweet Baby Jesus” will be published in a Christmas anthology from Coffin Hop Press entitled Baby It’s Cold Outside. Other than that I'm working on a third novel that I think can be best described as The Defiant Ones meets Rolling Thunder. Other than that I'm reading a lot and trying every day to be a better writer. Or as I like to say telling lies to find the truth….

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Eryk Pruitt and The Long Dance

Eryk Pruitt is an impressive fellow. He’s rapidly gaining acclaim as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, does voice work for television and movies, and has won so much cutlery at DC-area Noirs at the Bar that Ka-Bar calls him when they’re short of inventory. I don’t spend a lot of time in the car, and I prefer to read things rather than listen to them, but hearing Eryk had a true crime podcast piqued my interest, especially after The Beloved Spouse™--a/k/a Eryk’s beloved Aunt Corky—heard a couple of episodes and suggested I make some time for it.

Well, now.

It was not what I expected at all. I ran some sections through again to make sure I heard that right. Eryk and Drew Adamek hit the right tone and the right medium; The Long Dance wouldn’t have been as good as either a documentary or a true crime book. I thought of writing a review but knew I didn’t have the chops to express what I thought of it, not knowing enough about the inner workings of podcasts, so I got Eryk to sit for an interview.

One Bite at a Time: Let me start with how impressed and moved I was by The Long Dance. I kept jotting down questions and I can’t decide which to ask first. When in doubt it’s always good to start at the beginning, so I’ll try that. You’re a Texas native—Dallas area, I think—now living in Durham, NC. When did you leave Texas and what was about Durham that got you to settle there?
Eryk Pruitt: After college, I moved around a bit (New Orleans, Ireland, etc) and discovered that not everybody in the world suffered Texas summers, so I found myself a bit spoiled. I moved to North Carolina in 2007 where I’ve since enjoyed four seasons per year and I don’t think I could handle anything else. I love the American South, and we discovered Durham by happy accident. It’s close enough to New York City, DC, and Atlanta that I can drive there if I’m needed, but far enough away that I don’t have to deal with any of their riff-raff.

OBAAT: How did you hear about the Mann/McBane murders? You weren’t in the Durham area when they took place—hell, you weren’t born yet—and you’re not native to the area. What brought this case to your attention and what drew you in to spend so much time and energy on it?
EP: We bought a house smack dab between the landmarks of that case. I can’t drive to town without passing where Pat and Jesse were abducted, nor can I go to the grocery store without passing by where their bodies were found. We’re out in the woods, so more “town” than Duke’s “gown,” and everyone can still remember this ghost story from their childhood. It’s almost become urban legend, because it faded so far into obscurity. But still, everybody had questions. I could hardly believe that something so tragic had happened and then disappeared from the collective consciousness with no answers. In the beginning, that was the question I wanted to answer: why was no one talking about it? It developed into much, much more.

OBAAT: You have a lot of irons in the fire and are constantly on the move. How long did it take to put The Long Dance together and how did you find the time?
EP: Two years and counting. Due to recent developments in the case as a result of our podcast, we are still working on it. But the initial eight episodes took two years to research, write, and produce. I did all this in my spare time because I was also writing a novel (What We Reckon), producing a short film (Going Down Slow), and managing a bar.

OBAAT: What were some of the logistics involved in getting the interviews? Things like setting them up, locations, getting there, how the recordings were done. Stuff like that.
EP: The hardest part was getting people to trust us enough to open up to us. It took six months to convince Captain Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office that we were serious about the case. Then we needed to talk to the family members and friends of Pat and Jesse. Each interview subject needed their own reassurances, but once we got there, the process took off. I never knew what to expect. No matter how much research I did, we always learned something new. We recorded off a Zoom recorder with a shotgun microphone. I would man the equipment and take notes while Drew Adamek would interview the subject. Once it was finished, I would transcribe the interviews and file those away for construction of the episodes.

OBAAT: Not to minimize the horrific nature of the murders, but what struck me most about The Long Dance was the lack of communication and coordination between the police departments. It was almost as if some of them didn’t want to see the case solved if they weren’t going to be the ones who solved it. What are your thoughts on that, and what was your biggest takeaway from spending so much time immersed in the project?
EP: It's very hard to measure law enforcement standards of 1971 against the standards of today. It's difficult to remember that communication was not as easy back then as it is today. I was told one story by Major Horne about Chapel Hill's "Coke bottle dispatch" system. Since CHPD didn't have radios yet, they would require all units to drive past the station every 30 minutes and if the window was propped open by a Coca Cola bottle, the responder was required to run inside the station and find out where they needed to go. That was in the late sixties. These days, as you can imagine, it's completely different. While I'd be on a ride with Horne, he'd field texts and phone calls from agencies across the state. A homicide investigator in Durham would ask him a question about a suspect who lived in Horne's jurisdiction, or a detective in Onslow County might need some further information about a case out there. Back in 1971, yes, there were a lot of communication and competition issues. Horne was the first to combine all the information from the six (six!) different LEOs who investigated the case, and only then did a complete answer present itself. Unfortunately, that was forty years after the murders. These days, I strongly believe the killer would have been caught much quicker. But like (former journalist) Cornelia Olive said in Episode Two: in 1971, everyone wanted to be the one to solve it, so they kept a lot of information to themselves. It would never have happened today.

OBAAT: I’ve read your stuff and heard you read at Noirs at the Bar. You’re the goods. What led you to decide to create The Long Dance as a podcast instead of writing a non-fiction book? This in no way disparages the podcast—more on that later—but I’m a printed word guy and I’m curious.
EP: After our first interviews with the friends and families of Pat and Jesse, I knew that I would never possess the vocabulary to articulate the pain and heartbreak I heard in their voices when they spoke of the tragedy that befell them in 1971. The fear when the nurses knew that one of their own was missing and they wondered if they might be next. How many times would I be able to describe a person breaking down into tears at a forty-seven year old memory? I am not the smartest man in the world, but I’m smart enough to delegate when a task gets to be too Sisyphean, like this one was. I decided to let the voices do the heavy lifting.

Lucky for me, I had Serial to lean on. The twelve-part investigative series from This American Life was a huge influence on me. I’d be hard pressed to think of a greater storytelling feat in our century. I always wanted to tackle something with the depth and narrative power that Serial had, but never thought I’d find a story worthy of it. Then along came the North Carolina Valentine’s Murders of 1971…

OBAAT: As I mentioned above, I’m a printed word guy. I’d almost always rather read transcripts of interviews because…well, because I’m busy and I read faster than I listen and can skip over things that don’t interest me. That said, The Long Dance had me riveted from early in the first episode. Your voice and skill as narrator was compelling and using clips from the actual interviews demanded my full attention in ways I hadn’t expected. What were some of the considerations that went into the editing and pacing?
EP: I knew Drew Adamek had to lead. He had a journalism background and no accent, so it’d be best to have him do most of the intro. We could lean on my Southern drawl for history and “color commenting.” It was my opinion that too much Southern would make it difficult for the LA and NYC types to comprehend. (I was shocked to find that my voice is what’s earned me the most money from the project, as I’ve gone on to be hired to narrate a documentary—Trouble Will Cause by Wreak Havoc Productions—and a voice role in an NBC sitcom, Trial & Error, as well as other roles.) We structured the episodes into eight subjects and we followed the typical rising and falling action arc, and tried to let each episode unfold, then wrap up into a cliffhanger at the end. We were lucky to have Piper Kessler of Velasquez Digital Media edit our sound and make us sound pretty, as well as Michael Rollin who developed our creepy score.

OBAAT: Have you heard from Dr. Britt since the podcast came out? For that matter, have you received feedback from any of the principals who listened to it?
EP: I have not heard from The Good Doctor. He does not return any of my letters or phone calls. I am anxious to hear what he thinks.

However, I remain close with some of the family members, who have given me a seal of approval. That was very, very important to me because a large part of what I wanted to do was tell the story of Pat and Jesse, because they cannot speak for themselves. What happened to them was so horrible and, behind all the sensationalist trappings that true crime offers the audience, I wanted that to remain at the forefront.

I teased it earlier, but there have been new developments, which could result in more than a follow-up episode, but hopefully an arrest. That would be the greatest success that anyone could possibly ask for.

Also, other people have reached out to me about cold cases in the Carolinas. I am anxious to discover where any of this might lead The Long Dance!

*  *  *

Hopefully this interview leads you to The Long Dance. It’s available at all the better podcast services and at its own site here. You won’t be sorry and it will haunt you, maybe forever.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

Following up on clearing out the backlog of movies I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The Constant Gardener (2005) I forget why this was on the Netflix queue but I’m glad it was. Ralph Fiennes was outstanding (as always) in this adaptation of a John leCarré novel on the effects of Big Pharma in the developing world. A seamless blending of love story and political statement, director Fernando Meirelles weaves the flashbacks in Jeffrey Caine’s script in such a manner that interest is heightened with no added confusion. Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have an odd chemistry that suits the two main characters perfectly. A film that deserves more attention than it receives.

Seven Days in May (1964) A good old-fashioned John Frankenheimer political thriller based on the blockbuster novel by Charles W. Bailey and Fletcher Knebel III as adapted by Rod Serling. An A-List cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March, Edmund O’Brien, Ava Gardner, and Martin Balsam give this oldie but goodie impact 54 years after its premier and is still a timely reminder of how fragile democracy can be.

Silent Movie (1976) Mel Brooks is a national treasure. Here he revisits every sight gag from the golden age of silent comedies and invents a few of his own. Brooks plays director Mel Funn, who drank his way out of the movie business. With his two goofy “associates” (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman), Funn proposes an idea to save the studio to magnate Sid Caesar: a silent movie with the world’s biggest stars. In 1976 there were no bigger gets than Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft, or Paul Newman, and that’s who Brooks got. (Bancroft was easy. She and Brooks were married.) Famed mime Marcel Marceau makes a cameo and has a nifty surprise. If you haven’t seen this one you should, even if you’re too young to remember what a big deal all these actors were.

The Nice Guys (2016) I don’t care if it died at the box office; I like this movie. A lot. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a chemistry that’s right for their roles even if most critics didn’t think so. They’re supposed to have rough edges that bump up against each other. A Shane Black film worthy of the name, and keep an eye open for young Australian actor Angourie Rice.

Ocean’s 8 (2017) So long as one doesn’t try to make too much of them, the Ocean movies are fun and this is no exception. The all-woman crew led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchette has a ball and the gags all work, so long as one isn’t dissecting them. (Which one can never do in any caper movie.) And it’s only fair after women got to see George and Brad that we men get to spend some quality time with Sandra and Cate.

The Hunt for Red October (1990) There’s something about submarine movies and this is a good one. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan the way Tom Clancy wrote him, as a young man in over his head making do with smarts and balls. Sean Connery conveys all the gravitas the Russian commander needs, and the supporting cast of Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Stellan Skaarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, and others plays off each other with aplomb. It’s a shame John McTiernan is such a shitgibbon because no one made better action movies (Die Hard and Predator come to mind right away).

Becket (1964) Edward Anhalt’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill’s play of the political and personal drama between English King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his best friend turned antagonist Thomas Becket (Richard Burton.) Two magnificent actors given a worthy script that resulted in Oscar nominations for both actors (plus a supporting nod for John Gielgud as the king of France) and an Oscar win for screenwriter Anhalt. Factually flawed, the film still captures the gist of the history and well within the confines of having only 2:28 in which to tell the story. Two hours 28 minutes may seem like a long movie when all that happens is talking, but Becket shows how propulsive “just talking” can be when done at this level. Highest marks.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Beau Johnson, Author of The Big Machine Eats

Beau Johnson is carving out a sweet niche for himself in a sometimes forgotten area of crime fiction: short stories. Crime fiction grew from short stories and just because I can’t write them worth a shit doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them. Beau was here last year to talk about his first collection, A Better Kind of Hate, so I looked forward to continuing the conversation as his new collection drops November 26.

One Bite at a Time: Before we even get to talking about the stories involved, where did you
get the title The Big Machine Eats and why can’t I think of titles like that?
Beau Johnson: Ha! Yup, soon as I wrote that line it stuck with me. It’s from a story in A Better Kind of Hate called Bobby Charles. In that story an eighteen-wheeler hits and obliterates another vehicle, and as it goes: the big machine did eat. The line stayed with me for quite some time too but morphed as this new collection came together. On one hand I see the title as a reference to life, as it is always hungry, starving in fact, and if we aren’t as careful as maybe we should be it can swallow us whole. On the flipside is Bishop Rider, and yup, he is just as hungry.

OBAAT: Tell us a little about the stories in The Big Machine Eats. (Man I love that title. I even like saying it. ”The Big Machine Eats.”)
BJ: Hmmm…let’s see. I wouldn’t want to give too much away so let’s maybe go with a cannibal or two. Add a couple of direct sequels to stories in A Better Kind of Hate and then perhaps we’ll finish with the continuing struggle of Bishop Rider and friends. Hell, there may even be cake!

OBAAT: Bishop Rider is back. Tell us a little about him and why you like to return to him in your stories.
BJ: Funny thing, that. I never thought he’d be back. Thought I was done with him in fact. Wasn’t until I broke a collarbone and my butt got put in a chair for roughly eight weeks that he returned. It’s nice he came back, even nicer he has remained, but man, I really hope to never go through that again.

OBAAT: You’ve established yourself as a short story writer. What is it about them that keeps bringing you back? Any plans to write a novel? I don’t say that to in any way give short stories short shrift. To me writing a good short story is the hardest things to do as a writer.
BJ: Great question, Dana. Excitement. That’s what it comes down to for me. I get such a rush when the idea I have comes together and gels on the page. As for a novel, I will never say never, but no, I still seem unable to crack that particular code. I am what I am: a short story writer.

OBAAT: When you were here last we took a brief digression into the inherent good of cheese. Knowing what a cheese aficionado you are, does it bother you when people use the term “cheesy” as a put-down?
BJ: I can’t say that it does. And hey, sometimes a little cheesy is good!

Beau Johnson, author, cheese aficionado, and Mark Harmon impersonator
OBAAT: Sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, or Colby Longhorn?
BJ: Havarti, m’man. The King of cheeses!

OBAAT: Does cheese figure strongly into your stories? If not, why not?
BJ: As of yet, no. And yes, I will admit that is weird. Lemme see what I can do.

OBAAT: Okay, enough about cheese. I hate it when interviewers ask me to “Pick your favorite” or “What are your top three” of anything, so here goes: Pick your favorite short story, with the understanding that by asking for one I know and fully accept that I’m going to get at least three. What is it about it (them) that resonates with you so strongly?
BJ: “Survivor Type” by Stephen King blew my mind when I read it all those years ago. First, it’s just f’in bonkers that someone could even think of something like that. Second, that the man could pull it off and ground it. Third, lady fingers! They taste just like lady fingers! In my best Chandler Bing voice: could there be a better last line? Anyway, I could go on and bore you with my love for Mr. King as well, but I believe that’s old hat by now. As for stories 2 and 3? Let’s go with “The Raft” by King as well and end things with “Tell Her” by Marietta Miles. She might not want to admit it, but that short piece of flash is a how-to of emotion. Everyone should give it a read.

OBAAT: What’s next, now that The Big Machine Eats is out there? (See how I found an excuse to use that title again?)
BJ: Ha! I’m working on a few things. Rider is involved in a couple of them and there are also a few stories slated for publication over at Story and Grit. Besides that, I live until the next idea hits. Ah, the life of a panster!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Tom Pitts, Author of 101

Tom Pitts became one of my favorite writes by stealth. He’s a nice guy, there was a download available of Knuckleball, I need something to read on a train ride back from Connecticut, what the hell. The end result was I was disappointed it didn’t last longer. Hustle was completely different yet just as good. Now 101 touches a whole nuther aspect of criminal activity and nails it.

It’s also always fun to have Tom on the blog. He’s an entertaining and thoughtful guy who always leaves me with something to think about.

One Bite at a Time: You sustain action through multiple POVs as well as anyone I’ve read. Do you plot it out first of just write from the perspective that seizes you at the moment?
Tom Pitts: I go by feel, scene by scene. I know the chapters are going to be eight to twelve pages, but beyond that, I just have to hope I’m getting a balance. I think that’s what I’m shooting for, a balance in the story. I’ve always liked that “meanwhile back at the ranch” portion of a novel. I feel like I have to remind the reader of what’s happening with the other plot threads so it’ll make sense when they tie together. With 101 it was a conscious decision to push the multi-POV as far as I could, so the effect would be cinematic, cutting from storyline to storyline.

OBAAT: I see from the acknowledgements you did quite a bit of research. How much of that was to make sure you got the things you wanted to do right, and how much of it was to help you decide what it was you were going to do?
TP: Mostly it was for details. Quite literally the flora and fauna. I’ve never been good at naming trees and plant life and that was one of the bigger challenges. I went up North a few times and got my hands dirty, but it was for the setting more than the plot. I needed the physical place firm in my mind. The cabin, the generators, the weird open-ended greenhouses they call hoopers, I had to see that stuff firsthand to really get it down.

OBAAT: What are the chances we see Vic in another book? The hook is set for a sequel but he also has the look of a character who can series on his own.
TP: Not very good because I wasn’t super happy with his name. I often come up with names phonetically, trying to give a tone for the kind of character I’m writing. Ollie, Ripper, those were names that were birthed with the character. With Vic I was a bit stuck. I wrote the first part of the novel with the name Victor, and it really wasn’t working for me. When I shortened it to Vic, I got back in the groove. Sounds silly, but the name means a lot. There’s a character in my next book, Coldwater, named Calper Dennings. I thought about writing another book featuring him just ‘cause I liked the name so damn much.

OBAAT: You wrote the story to take place specifically a couple of years ago when California was on the cusp of legalizing marijuana, which plays into the story. Was that the plan all along, or were you part way into writing the book and realized, “Oh, shit! They’re about to legalize the relevance right out of my story!”
TP: True, my present-day piece turned into a period piece right as I was wrapping it up. I was pretty sure it was coming, but not 100% positive. There were a lot of people you’d think would’ve voted yes, but were adamantly against it. Of course everyone in the outlaw weed business was voting against it. I’m sure if you broke it down, a lot of the northern counties went against legalization across the board. They knew they’d have the cash cow yanked from their hands. It’s now morphing into something no one saw coming. People thought it’d be big tobacco coming in and taking over, but it’s just big money. Tech money too. It takes a lot of capitol to stay in the game now. They’re making laws every day that’re designed to cut out the little guy. Who knows, if it keeps going this way, maybe the black market will open back up. It’s easy to grow good weed. It’ll be like bathtub gin. It’s tough to put that genie back in the bottle.

OBAAT: Barbara and Ghia are both thrust into impossible situations and handle them very well, though neither has a history of this kind of action the way the male characters clearly do. (Not that Barbara’s a virgin in this regard.) How they’re able to rise to the occasion without becoming stereotypical badasses is a key element of what makes the book work so well, its credibility. How much work was it to strike such an outstanding balance with them?
TP: Ghia’s character is based on a few women I’ve met. The “old hippie” type who has still got a bit of that frontier woman thing going. Tough as nails, but still a smartass. It’s not an easy life out there in the bush. There’s a lot of isolation and a lot of hard work to be done. Barbara on the other hand is a mother, and that’s what drives her. It makes her tough in some ways and blind in others. Barbra and Vic have a sort of PTSD from what they shared in their past and it’s calloused them both. Both women are decidedly independent, and I think that’s at the core of why they’re relatable.

OBAAT: The first book I read of yours was Knuckleball, which is pretty much a police procedural. A good procedural, but something in my reading wheelhouse. Then I read Hustle, which was anything but. 101 is something altogether different from either of them. Without asking where you get your ideas, how are you able to cultivate such a diverse range of stories? (I don’t mean to omit American Static. I just haven’t got around to reading it yet.)
TP: I know where I get that first idea. (Hustle’s impetus was a conversation between prostitutes I overheard while driving a cab. Knuckleball came from the vague wanted posters in a case where a Giants fan was assaulted. 101, oddly enough, came from a movie trailer that was about a young man visiting an old criminal—and, no, I’ve never seen the movie.) But where they go is beyond my ability to see when I start the book. I will say I try to show my own take on a subject, which is usually an attempt to add a Murphy’s Law flare. With Hustle, it was drug addiction, I wanted to show what drugs were really like, not how they’re portrayed in the movies. With 101 I wanted to show what I’d seen firsthand in the marijuana business, and I think that portion is accurate.  

Tom Pitts, looking severe
OBAAT: We got to hang out some at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, where I learned you’re a native Canadian, yet your affinity and affection for the Bay Area comes through every book. What is it about the place that appeals to you so much?
TP: It’s just the only place I’ve known as an adult. But it’s true, over the years I’ve come to love San Francisco and I’m always learning more about its history, its people. Most every job I’ve had has been on, or dealt directly with the streets. A messenger, dispatcher, drug courier, taxi driver. I think being out the street and having your ear to the ground gives you a special appreciation for a city. Sharing donuts with cops at four AM, giving hookers rides home to Oakland, driving bookies on their rounds, delivering heroin to artist junkies—I’ve had a good view of the underbelly of San Francisco. That said, I think if I were to live in anywhere else for a year, I’d write about it. In fact, for a few years, my wife and I were splitting our time between Sacramento and San Francisco and I ended up with a book set in Sac. (It’s called Coldwater and will probably be out in 2020.)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Favorite Reads: October

Mom is nearing the end of her rehab stint (“home” to assisted living on Thursday) and work has been six different kinds of goofy so my reading time has deteriorated. The good news is that most of what I did get to read was first-rate.

Where the Bullets Fly, Terrence McCauley. Hard to believe he’s my friend. Wide as his talents range, I should hate him. He’s such a nice guy I don’t, but such a good writer I’m still tempted. As with his Prohibition-era crime stories and his University techno thrillers, McCauley makes it all look easy. This is a Western that pays homage to the glory days of the horse opera while clearly written in the revisionist period we’re in now, with awareness that was lacking in the 50s and earlier. This is harder to pull off than it looks (I should know, or my Western would have been done a couple of years ago) and McCauley does more than pull it off; he succeeds.

The Hook, Donald Westlake. Speaking of writers who seem to be able to anything they want and make it look easy, there’ Donald Westlake. Not a Richard Stark/Parker novel, and certainly not a Dortmunder, The Hook is a twist on Strangers on a Train, where a writer who’s successful but blocked hooks up with a writer who’s fertile but can’t get a contract; together they put one over on the blocked writer’s publisher. There’s a catch, though, and given my reference to SOAT you can probably guess what it is, but the complication is completely original and Westlake’s set-up is so masterfully done it doesn’t matter that you’ll see the end coming a chapter or two ahead of time. By then you’ll be wondering less “what” than “how,” and the pace at which the “how” is revealed will fill you with dread.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

It’s been a while since I recapped the movies seen here at Castle Schadenfreude, long enough that I’m going to break this up into two bite-sized chunks. (Editor’s Note: It is not incidental that this also means two separate blog post slots filled.) (Author’s Note: Sue me, you persnickety prick.)

Black Mass (2015) I read the book so I knew the Whitey Bulger story and it’s a good thing, as this would have been hard to follow otherwise. Johnny Depp does his usual submersion into a character, this time as cold a gangster as has ever drawn breath, a man whose soul has no bottom. Part of the problem is that Joel Edgerton, tasked with playing corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, doesn’t measure up against Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, president of the Massachusetts State Senate and later president of the University of Massachusetts. It’s not all Edgerton’s fault. The writing is clunky in parts and the dialog doesn’t exactly sing. Even Kevin Bacon looks uncomfortable. Black Mass is a reasonably accurate depiction of Whitey Bulger’s story, but it’s not a particularly good movie.

Tombstone (1993) I need to watch this every couple of years or so. Not a great movie, and my Western research shows the depiction of Wyatt Earp and Josie Marcus isn’t quite kosher, but the portrayal of the relationships between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday is spot on, as are all the performances by Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton. Val Kilmer has had a fine career, if a little slow lately, but he’ll always be known as Doc Holliday, and he should be proud of that. It’s a career-making performance.

All the President’s Men (1976) Still compelling, even though we all know how it comes out. There are always little things I notice in this film that I missed before, often because of the different historical context. Among the things that struck me this time is how Bob Woodward is able to get people to talk to him the way they do, holding Mark Felt’s name private for over thirty years. His word is golden, as is this movie.

Legend (2015) We were going to watch Trumbo but saw this on the previews and shifted gears mid-stream. (Tonight’s entrée: Metaphor Gumbo.) Tom Hardy plays both of London’s infamous Kray brothers, 60s gangsters so nasty I’d even heard of them. A good rise and fall movie, with Hardy’s outstanding performances carrying the day.

Spotlight (2015) A film everyone should have to watch every few years, lest we forget, especially in light of recent news that the Catholic Church hasn’t cleaned up its act as much as they would have you believe. First rate cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel MacAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci, and nary a frame wasted. If you’re not mesmerized while watching and freshly outraged for several days afterward, there’s something wrong with you.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) I hope I never get too old to want to watch this, and to laugh at it. If I do, may I encounter the most foul-tempered rodent you ever laid eyes on, with big pointy teeth.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Yes, again. And immediately after Monty Python. This is the kind of thing that happens when you live in an anarcho-syndicalist commune where we take it in turns to be a sort of executive officer for the week but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs (Editor’s Note: Get on with it!) Right, then.

Absence of Malice (1981) A different perspective on investigative journalism, especially when it’s not done well, as reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) is duped into reporting a bogus federal investigation that ruins the life of Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) and leads to the suicide of Teresa Perrone (Melinda Dillon). The newspaper is careful to stay on the safe side of libel—hence the title—and Newman takes matters into his own hands. A fine film top to bottom,
capped off by Wilford Brimley’s Hall of Fame-caliber scene as the Deputy Attorney General sent down to find out “what in the good Christ…is goin' on around here.”

Friday, October 26, 2018

Fear and Loathing in Southern Gas Stations

I lived in Georgia when I defended our nation from the scourge of Soviet musical units during my three years in an Army band. I knew then that tings were different in The South™ but these differences have evolved in the 35 years since I took off the uniform and returned north. The drive to St. Petersburg for Bouchercon pointed one key change out to me, namely how much harder it has become to buy gas in the Deep South.

4 September 2018
Ocala FL
The Beloved Spouse™ goes into the convenience store while I pump gas. A trailer full of beef cattle stare at me from the next island. I insert my credit card and withdraw it. The screen flashes and this appears:

Enter your PIN to continue.

For those of you either too high-class or clueless to pump your own gas (and you know who you are), credit cards don’t have PINs; debit cards do. I figures this happens from time to time, so I press Cancel and try again.

 Enter your PIN to continue.

I clean off the chip and the strip on my credit card and try again.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Now I’m remembering that stopping here for gas was not nearly as urgent as the other reason I wanted to get off the road, so I clear the entire transaction and start over.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Glancing at the cow trailer I swear they’re nudging each other and mooing, “This guy’s the top of the food chain?” I try again.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Now I’m pissed. I jerk out the card and say at a more than conversational decibel level, “Motherfucker, this is not a debit card!”

Enter your Zip Code to continue.

Okay. So now we know what it takes.

10 September 2018
Manning SC

TBS and I pull off of I-95 and have two gas stations to choose from. I choose the one on the left because I won’t have to cross the highway we’re on to get back to 95 when we come out. She goes in to use the necessary and I get gas.

This pump doesn’t even screw around with that PIN business.

Card not read.

I try again.

Card not read.

The card worked at dinner last night and all through Bouchercon. I wipe it off and re-insert.

Card not read.

It’s not taking as much to piss me off this morning. I’m still over 450 miles from home and not in the mood. Not in the habit of accommodating inanimate objects, I go to a different pump.

Card not read.

Now I’m mad. I try another card.

Card not read.

All right. Enough of this shit. We’re leaving. I go into the store to round up TBS to tell her we’re not buying anything here and I hope she stunk up the bathroom. We drive directly across the street to the station that would have been easier to get to in the first place. She goes inside to buy road food and I try my original card in the pump.

Card not read.

I go straight to the second card this time.

Card not read.

Now it’s time to escalate. “Who do I have to blow to buy gas in this town?”


Enter your Zip Code to continue.

Okay, Florida and South Carolina. You had your fun with the Yankee liberal. Just don’t expect me to leave the light on for you when climate change puts your asses underwater.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Bonus Bouchercon Coverage

We went over my panel highlights at Bouchercon a few weeks ago but anyone who knows anything about Bouchercon knows the panels are just the appetizer; what happens later is the main course.

The Beloved Spouse™ and I checked in Tuesday afternoon and immediately caught a good vibe from the hotel when the bellman arranged for a refrigerator that arrived inside of five minutes and TBS was able to talk us into complimentary Internet in the room fifteen minutes later. (She didn’t lie. My mother did have a broken hip and it was a great help for us. Still, the hotel wasn’t required to comp us.) Kudos to Josh and Caitlin.

Not knowing the area or where to eat, we took a trolley ride on an impulse, as one was pulling up to the hotel as we stepped out looking for lunch on Wednesday. Terrence was better than a good tour guide, he was an entertainer who hooked us up with The Moon Under Water for lunch on Wednesday. And Thursday. Dinner on Saturday. Three meals in four days and not a disappointment in the bunch.

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel dining room on Wednesday with Terrence McCauley, his lovely wife Rita, and a “new” acquaintance we got to meet in person, Frank Zafiro.

Thursday was an event that will likely never be overshadowed no matter how many Bouchercons I attend. Terrence and Rita had about twenty of us for a private dinner to launch Terrence’s new Western, Where the Bullets Fly. A chance to spend quality time with old friends, make new, and enjoy an excellent meal. Nothing I write here can do it justice. Suffice to say I was humbled to know both of them thought so highly of my friendship.

Friday night was the annual Shamus Awards dinner with the Private Eye Writers of America. We shared a table with Renee Pickup, Danny Gardner, and his lovely daughter, and had the usual great time. Congratulations to all the winners, and the nominees. There are a metric shit tonne of books released each year. To be blessed with even a nomination is a supreme honor. (Said the man who has been twice nominated but never won.) The evening was enhanced by getting a ride to and from the festivities with Mike Pett of Express Taxi & Sedan, who chauffeured us (and John Shepphird on the way back) in a spotless black Town Car—yes, a Raylan Givens Special—and provided what amounted to a sit-down comic routine all the way. You need a ride in Tampa, call Express Taxi & Sedan. (Phone number available on request.)

The Shamus dinner was but the first half of Friday’s twi-night doubleheader. Down & Out Books commandeered Hops and Props, just a few blocks from the hotel, for festivities that went on well into the night. Another chance to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and get entertained by the guy who wasn’t the bartender, though he spent all night behind the bar.

Saturday had no special events but was still a special evening. I’m lucky enough to have been to nine Bouchercons now and people still speak to me. I’d hate to single anyone out because I saw and chatted with so many people on Saturday (and Friday and Thursday and Wednesday) but to start the evening at the bar by running into Peter Rozovsky, Pam Stack, and Terri Lynn Coop and to conclude on the veranda with Terrence and Rita, Jeff Hess and his lovely wife, and Tim O’Mara gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of evening it was. Long story short, I don’t think I spent an unpleasant minute the entire weekend. Kudos to the organizers, moderators, panelists, readers, writers, and hospitality industry workers for making the entire weekend special.

No weekend is perfect, and I do feel the need to make a few less than sterling comments in the hopes folks won’t make these mistakes in the future.

Sound systems were a bit of a problem throughout. Microphones all over the hotel popped Ps and had irregular tone quality. Such is life but it was at times disconcerting.

Note to moderators: never volunteer you haven’t read the author’s book, and if you’re going to mention a book, get the title right. And do at least a modicum of research. Don’t ask an author if he’s from Boston only so he can answer that he’s from New York. Another tidbit: don’t let the authors introduce themselves. It implies you haven’t taken the time to prepare and some will use the opportunity to tell their life stories, sucking up half your time.

Why do they put lemon in water pitchers? It makes the water feel not as wet when you’re dying for help with a dry throat. Water’s been perfect for a bajillion years. Let it be.

Enough quibbling. The 2018-2019 hiatus between conferences is 416 days, much longer than usual. Good thing the vibe from St. Petersburg will carry us through.