Thursday, April 18, 2024

Part Two of My Conversation With James D.F. Hannah

 Welcome back for the conclusion of my conversation with Shamus Award-winning author James D.F. Hannah. Latecomers can catch up with what happened last week here.

OBAAT: Interesting thing about your Lee Child “airport reads” comment. People tend to use that term as dismissive, but there’s a unique skill set to writing that kind of book and still have it hold the interest of people like us who expect more than a way to kill time. No less an authority than Leonard Bernstein, possibly the greatest musician this country ever produced, once said his greatest frustration was that he never wrote a hit song. He admired those who could crank them out and had nothing dismissive to say about their work. To me, if pure entertainment is something Bernstein held such respect for, I’m not going to knock it.

JDFH: What Bernstein did was obviously high art. It was important, and we assigned a particular value to it. But it was necessarily of greater value than a Top 40 song? The question becomes what do you value, doesn't it? Are we creating for the ages or are we filling the down time in other's lives? We study Shakespeare as a great artist, but we forget he wrote for the common man of his time, and filled his plays with not just monumental monologues and imagery, but also with dirty jokes and double entendres. Cornell Woolrich and Chester Himes were pulp novelists in their days, but now we discuss the themes and their importance to modern crime fiction.

As always, it goes back to Elmore Leonard, who wrote more effortlessly than almost any author. What's his quote? "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Leonard is one who straddles that line between pure entertainment and critical respect. Obviously no one's ever done this particular thing better than Leonard, though. No less than Martin Amis called Leonard "a literary genius," and I've always thought it was because he brought a great joy to the page. He loved entertaining people. He loved the way words could sing on a page. The rhythm of patter and the sudden burst of violence. There was never a greater message he was striving for than to keep you reading to the end of the page.

This could almost roll back to a conversation we've had, about politics inherent to various novel genres. There's the apocryphal quote by Samuel Goldwyn about movies and "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." What are your thoughts on the role of artistry and "messages"? 

OBAAT: Elmore Leonard was a genius at what he did so I’m going to set him aside here. I believe Goldwyn’s alleged comment is what someone would say who cared about the bottom line and nothing else; an MBA comment. We see it all the time in television. I’m old enough to remember when commercials fell between segments of programs; now it seems as though they drop in a little programming to fill the void between commercials. I’m sure it was always this way, but they’ve now dropped any pretense.

I turned off the movie Maestro half an hour in, in large part because it too overtly tried to be “artistic” to the detriment of telling a story. That doesn’t mean I don’t like a little art in my entertainment, but it needs to be subservient to the story. Clint Eastwood is a master at this. Unforgiven and Mystic River are great stories he tells with artistic directorial touches that never interfere with the enjoyment of those who aren’t interested in them.

Speaking of Mystic River, Dennis Lehane is the master of telling a story that has a message. In addition to Mystic River, The Given Day, and especially his newest, Small Mercies, there are definite messages that the reader can choose to ignore if all they care about is the story.

That’s the art of it: to send the message without writing a screed. My early Forte novels are entertainment built off premises I thought were worth exploring, even if the final product was different from the original intent; The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of was supposed to be about the memorabilia industry. Once I started writing Penns River I began to feel as though I needed to speak for towns like those I grew up in. I also knew that if the story alone wouldn’t hold readers’ attention, any point I wanted to make would be lost, so I tried to fit that aspect in between the lines as much as possible.

Now I’m more inclined to take a “message” and find a plot I can craft a story around to describe it. Bad Samaritan looks into misogyny and men’s rights activists; White Out deals with white supremacy; The Spread is built on the corrosive properties of the ever-increasing gambling culture; the new Forte, Off the Books, is largely about human trafficking. While not nearly as good as Lehane at this, I like to think if you asked someone what each of those books are about, most will describe the story, but some will mention the underlying message. That’s what I’m shooting for.

You’re no stranger to this. The Henry Malone books exist in a culture of poverty and institutional neglect that is often overlooked, and you do a wonderful job of creating imperfect yet empathetic characters. Is that what you set out to do, or do you find your just went to write a story and these qualities couldn’t help but come out?

JDFH: Eastwood is such a great reference point for this, because I've read a lot about his directorial style—basically keep the camera in focus and trust the actors to do their job—and his trust begins with the writers to deliver a story and strong characters. There are several anecdotes where he hired on to direct a movie and rather than film the script filtered through the notes of various executives, he went back to the writer's first draft, to the purest form of the vision, and that's what he made. 

As someone who just read Off the Books, I can see where there's a message in the book, but it never gets in the way of the story. I think that's important, because when creators in any medium forget the primary goal is to entertain, then you end up with something akin to those educational films from our youth, the ones that warned us about safe driving or the evils of drug use.

When I started work on Midnight Lullaby back in 2014 (Christ but has it actually been ten years?), what was important to me was putting on the page an Appalachian experience I understood. I was a journalist for many years in southern West Virginia, and I knew it was a complex region that couldn't be defined in broad strokes. Good, bad, or indifferent, Appalachia isn't just Hillbilly Elegy—a trash book that oversimplifies economic and cultural struggles in an area that has suffered at the hands of others while also being its own worst enemy. You're talking more than a century of complex factors that have played into Appalachia being what it is today, and I wanted whatever I put on the page to reflect that. Politics, economics, religion, all of these things have made Appalachia what it is today, and you have to be able to talk about that if you're going to talk about the region, the same way writers like S.A. Cosby or Eli Cranor or Attica Locke talk about the changing face of the rural south.

This said, yes, story is first and foremost in every book. But I never wanted the characters to be cookie-cutter; they're influenced by environment, but there's always more to people. Bobbi Fisher in Midnight Lullaby, the family of marijuana growers in Complicated Shadows, Crash in The Righteous Path and the later Malone books, the pregnant couple in Because the Night—they're all fighting to exist on their own terms, against a world that wants them to be nothing more than someone else's expectations.

Talking about not comparing yourself to other writers, but does anyone do this type of thing better than Daniel Woodrell? Books like Winter's Bone or Tomato Red are filled with heartbreaking characters trapped under generations of disadvantage, but they remain full-throated individuals with hopes and dreams and aspirations, who refuse to be explained away by others.

On a side note: If you haven't seen the movie American Fiction, I can't recommend it enough. It's very much about the tendency of culture to reduce people to stereotypes, and it tells this story while also exploring some fascinating family dynamics. Great, great stuff.

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That was a lot more fun than I expected, and I expected a lot. Look for more of these in the future.







Thursday, April 11, 2024

A Conversation with James D.F. Hannah, Author of the Shamus-Winning Henry Malone Novels

 I’ve known Shamus Award winning author James D.F. Hannah since before I knew he was James D.F. Hannah. We’ve had many long-form conversations at conferences, sometimes alcohol-fueled, sometimes not. When I heard a comment of his on a podcast a while back I knew I needed to get into it with him. Since we weren’t going to see each other for a while, I started an e-mail thread that became more wide-ranging than I expected, much as our in-person conversations typically do. This week’s blog begins the conversation, which will conclude next week.

One Bite at a Time: Jimmy, thanks for stopping by. A few weeks ago you appeared on Terrence McCauley’s podcast Spies, Lies, & Private Eyes. The entire event is well worth our readers’ time, but you made a comment that particularly resonated with me when you compared the current thriller concept of constantly raising the stakes to the relatively lower stakes in your Henry Malone novels. I don’t have the exact quote, so forgive me if I don’t phrase it well, but the gist was that the average person rarely has to break government codes to defuse a bomb that will ignite a nuclear holocaust, so you don’t deal with things like that. Your stories may have what seem to be lower stakes, but they’re still life and death for those involved. Do I have that essentially right, and would you care to elaborate?

James D.F. Hannah: That's basically spot on. The books that interest me are never that near-operatic storytelling where the whole world is at risk, where there are biological weapons or computer codes or a billion dollars at stake—because how do you relate to that? My ideal stakes are finding out what a character will do for a few thousand dollars and a used car. What pressures can you put someone under that they'll do the worst for the least? 

Plus, I grew up in eastern Kentucky, reading Lawrence Block and Ed McBain and Robert Parker and Sue Grafton, and just the idea of a city felt exotic. But those writers really wrote about comparatively small stakes: Saving Paul Giacomin (Early Autumn), find a missing daughter (B Is for Burglar), or just maintaining a semblance of civilized order (basically all of the 87th Precinct novels). Plus, the main characters were relatable and human and (at least for a while for Parker and Spenser) fallible. As an early reader that felt like something I could attach to more than whatever was going on in most Ludlum novels.

But I know in your own work, you lean toward the relatable protagonist and the smaller stories that nonetheless are huge and vital to the characters. Your Penns River novels combine the scope of McBain's 87th Precinct books or Joseph Wambaugh's various California cop novels with the rhythms of a small town, so something about those smaller stakes draws you also, doesn't it?

OBAAT: Absolutely. I don’t think of my books – your books, all the books we’re talking about here – as having “smaller” stakes; I think of the stakes not being as broad in scope. Ludlum or Brad Thor may place thousands/millions/billions of lives at stake, but none of that matters to Mitch Fisher if Henry can’t find Mitch’s sister Bobbi.

And the motives of the grand stakes novels are typically…what? Millions or billions of dollars? Megalomaniacal impulses? Eeee-vil? (Bwahaha.) Bad things typically are done for relatively small or personal reasons, what Hannah Arendt called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

You and I agree, but we are clearly outliers; the big bucks are in potentially apocalyptic thrillers. That’s what people prefer to read, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. Do you have any ideas?

JDFH: The easy answer is escape. Consider Reacher, for example. He's this outsized piece of fantasy fulfillment, for both men and women. He's intelligent, he's the size of a semi, he's attached to nothing and yet also fiercely loyal, he doesn't talk much, and wherever he goes, there's trouble, and he's there to fix it. He makes someone like Spenser—once the high-water mark for an infallible protagonist—look like Kramer from Seinfeld. Plus, you can read a Reacher novel and enjoy it and almost immediately forget it and move on to something else. Nothing lingers from a Reacher novel, nor it is intended to.

And if it sounds like I'm picking on the Child brothers and Jack Reacher, I'm not, and even if I was, I'm sure they've made more than enough money to salve those particular wounds. I've enjoyed several Reacher books, and other writers working in that genre. These are termed "airport reads" for a reason. They're the books you gift your dad at Christmas. The stakes are big, and they're entertainment, and not meant to be much more than that. I never feel a need or desire to return to these books, to relive passages I enjoyed, or to savor the closing pages.

I can't say the same for books where the stakes are merely life or death for a handful of characters I've come to love over a few hundred pages. Think about Scudder's final confrontation with James Leo Motley in A Ticket To the Boneyard, or the revelations at the end of Ross Macdonald's The Chill. For something more recent, consider the gorgeous poignancy of the last chapters of S. A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears, or the utter heartbreak at the end of Ivy Pochoda's Sing Her Down. These are endings which hang with you because you feel the immediacy of their lives, where you understand big-ticket heroism is easy; it's tougher in the smaller strokes.

But I think a larger answer is also the Marvel problem—where every Marvel movie seemed to be about saving the world, or saving the universe, and after a while, once you can't raise the stakes any further, do the stakes even matter? You know they're saving the world in the end, so then what? 

Whereas for me, some of the most successful Marvel properties were the series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage. Here you had those street-level stakes. Okay, sure, eventually there were ninjas, but you had flawed and vulnerable characters who were broken and made mistakes. No, they weren't your next-door neighbor, but they were more relatable than a six-five slab of muscle with a buzz cut.

Or what about the Nolan Batman movies, and The Dark Knight? That movie works for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the point toward the end where the two boats are rigged with explosives and you see these characters wrestling with a decision. Sure, there's plenty of points where Batman has to save the city—he's always saving the city—but for me, the best storytelling wrestles with these ethical quandaries, and that's tougher to do on the larger scale.

Now, storytelling seems to be expected to always be those bigger stakes, and it doesn't leave much room for the smaller questions to be asked, but oftentimes, those are the things which make the story worth telling to begin with.

#  #  #

Come back next Friday for the second half of my conversation with James D.F. Hannah.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Dix-Neuf Deux


The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently discovered the French-Canadian series 19-2 and watched all thirty episodes in a week. (Full disclosure: Bruce Robbert Coffin told us about this show last July. It took until January for us to get around to it. That’s entirely on me.)


19-2 is the story of two patrol officers in Montreal; they ride in Car 19-2. Nick Berrof (Réal Bossé) is a bit of a cowboy who lost his partner to a serious brain injury in a shooting that occurred under suspicious circumstances. The bosses don’t like Berrof; some think he’s dirty. They partner him with an officer transferring in from the Quebec Provincial Police, Benoît Chartier (Claude Legault). Their relationship is problematic for multiple reasons which I’ll not go into as knowing too much will spoil the fun. Suffice to say they come to an understanding and the relationship grows.


I was never a cop but everything I’ve heard and have learned about street patrol and internal politics indicates 19-2 is as realistic a show as you’re going to find and is a sterling example of how realism, applied properly, does not make fiction any less compelling. Season 2 opens with Berrof and Chartier as first on scene at an active shooter event in a high school. I have never seen a more compelling episode of television.


There is plenty else to like. Unlike most American shows, these cops’ first impulse when arriving at a scene that does not lay out as they expected is to call for backup.  The friction between cops who want to do things right and those who expect their failings to be ignored is expertly examined. The storylines that deal with personal lives never become soap opera-ish and always have the ring of truth to them.


19-2 is also a wonderful example of how to be artistic in service of the story rather than being artistic just because the director knows how to do it. The school shooting episode is full of little things that put you right there. A later episode shows Berrof and Chartier approaching a house. The camera shifts to their backups as they seek another entry point; the two leads then appear in the foreground, out of focus at first, in an elegant way to show multiple things are happening without a lot of distracting jump cuts.


The show is in French—well, Canadian French, which the Francophone Sole Heir will tell you is not “real” French—with English subtitles; the subtitles are not always easy to read. That said, we discovered early on there was a parallel English version using different actors and we chose to stick with the French, as we had already come to identify with the actors and their characters. I don’t feel as though I missed anything by having to read the subtitles, as the photography allows ample time to also read the actors’ faces.


The only TV show I can think of that is on a level with 19-2 is The Wire, and you all know how I feel about The Wire. Placing 19-2 a notch above NYPD Blue is no slam to David Milch’s brilliant show. 19-2  is that good.


(We have since watched the entire series again after learning it was leaving Netflix later this month. The second time I took notes.)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Winter's Favorite Reads

 Brown’s Requiem, James Ellroy. His first novel and a first-rate debut. Fritz Brown has enough resemblance to a traditional private eye for readers not to be made uncomfortable by some of his unorthodox activities. Ellroy’s style is not the staccato, scandal rag voice of his more recent work, but it ain’t Chandler, either. I’ve been thinking about going back to his earlier works for years, but my dissatisfaction with his last couple of books put some urgency to the idea. I’m glad I did. I’ll mine this vein for a while now.


The Delta Star, Joseph Wambaugh. I know I’ve said this about several writers, but here I go again: Not his best, but Wambaugh is so good even a pedestrian effort by his standards is still better than ninety percent of what else is out there. No one has ever conveyed how cops think and react better.


The Detective Up Late, Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy is back, and the world is a better place for it. A Catholic detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles, Duffy is assailed and mistrusted from all directions and has to fight to carve out his own niches of justice, or as close as he is allowed to get. McKinty’s writing is as good as ever and several years away has not diminished his ability to make Duffy’s saga compelling. The book reads as if it could be the end of the series, though the door is ajar for more should the author feel the impulse. Let’s hope he does.


Baseball Obscura 2024, David Fleming. Fleming wrote for the Bill James web site until James shut it down last fall. Fleming responded with the closest thing I’ve seen to James’s Baseball Abstracts since James wrote the Baseball Abstracts. The writing and analysis are predominant over the numbers and Fleming’s writing is up to the task. Early editions had too many typos, but my understanding is that corrections have been underway. Probably not of much interest to those who are not seamheads, but there’s a lot here for those who are.


And Every Man Has to Die, Frank Zafiro. Book Four of the River City series, and Zafiro keeps right on rolling. Each book so far has looked at different aspects of the police by using different characters, so the setting is truly paramount here. All the books read well as standalones, though I am enjoying going through them in order for the context provided.


Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, Elizabeth Bruce. I’ve been a fan of Bruce’s writing since we were in a workshop together in 2002. Her novel, And Silent Left the Place, is among my favorites through several re-reads. Every story in this collection begins with “One dollar,” but where she goes from there is unique each time. Bruce has a gift for dialog and capturing emotions without beating the reader over the head to make sure they get it. A delightful and insightful collection.


Mucho Mojo, Joe Lansdale. The second Hap and Leonard has all the things people like me enjoy in Lansdale’s writing: humorous dialog, tongue-in-cheek descriptions, and plenty of action. The middle of this one is a little slow and I can live without some of the philosophical discussions the boys engage in, but this is a solid series I’m sure to return to.


The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley. This book gets better every time I read it. The story meanders and what the case is about doesn’t become clear until late, so if you like instant gratification, keep reading for the exquisite writing, which never becomes self-indulgent. The reveal of what’s been going on is jaw-dropping. Ross Macdonald never wrote a sicker family dynamic more beautifully.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

 Last weekend marked the annual Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in the Suffolk Conference Center at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront in Suffolk, Virginia. You should be able to retain the “Suffolk” part by now, so I’m going to refer to it as SMAF from here on.


This was my fourth SMAF, though the first two were virtual, thanks to the pandemic our president at the time assured us would only affect fifteen people, tops. The Beloved Spouse™ joined me last year when we were first able to attend in person and we both looked forward to this year’s event.


The previous organizer left for another job around the first of the year, but the transition was seamless and this year’s festival didn’t miss a step. It’s always a remarkably well-organized event, and no one takes better care of authors than the folks at SMAF. They order your books for you and donate any that don’t sell to local organizations. The swag they provide is also exceptional. The hotel couldn’t be more convenient—it’s in the same building—and the staff go out of their way to be helpful.


This year’s Special Guest Headliner (SGH to insiders) was Donna Andrews, so you know the opening interview, conducted by Art Taylor, was a lot of fun. This was followed by three hour-long panels:

Woman of the People: Inspiring Female Characters.

Nerve Shredders: Crime Fiction to Keep You Up At Night.

Cozy Does It: The Quirky Small Town Detective.


All three were first rate and ably led by Shawn Reilly Simmons, E. A. Aymar, and Grace Topping, respectively, though Mr. Aymar appeared to be emotionally, physically, and (especially) intellectually drained after his effort.


SMAF is not a conference so much as a true festival, where readers have an opportunity to meet authors informally and chat as much as they want, as the schedule is not such that everyone is kept running. A reception before the SGH interview allows folks who paid a premium to nosh while chatting with the authors, and these readers deserve great credit for their ability to suppress their revulsion over most authors’ hygiene and eating practices.


Everything wraps up at 6:00, after which the authors and their personal guests are treated to a dinner better than what is typically considered a banquet at most hotels. The bar remains open, is in “free,” until nine..


SMAF is a treat for both authors and readers. Interested authors can check them out online and ask to be included when invitations go out, usually late in the fall of the previous year.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Off the Books Available Today

Today is the “official” release date for the sixth Nick Forte novel, Off the Books. I say “official” because I could have made the book available anytime I wanted, it being self-published and all. I picked a date not quite at random, as I’ve been rebranding the previous Forte novels at a rate of one per month, generally on the third Friday, and saw no reason to change.


It's been six years since Bad Samaritan and Forte has not mellowed. The things he’s seen, the things he’s had to do—and let’s be honest, some of the things he’s chosen to do—have worn on him. The hardness at his core has become harder and he’s quicker to go to it, with daughter Caroline serving as the sole leavening influence in his life.


His detective agency has fallen apart in the aftermath of the events in Bad Samaritan and Forte keeps the lights on and the mortgage paid doing background checks out of his home office. He pays for the finer things in life by taking cash gigs for which there are no contracts and nothing to tie him to the job. These activities aren’t necessarily illegal—he’s not breaking legs or accepting contracts—but he spends much more time in the gray areas than he did before.


What bothers him most in his new arrangement are the people he works for. Respectable businesses require contracts and don’t want him to do anything that might sully their reputations. People less accountable with their money have their own motives for hiring Forte and may prefer not to have anything linking them to whatever needs to be done.


Allan Worthington wants his missing daughter found, but on the down low because the girl might be an embarrassment to his business associates. Donald Bower’s wife witnessed a fender bender in a small town that ended with a drunk driver brandishing a handgun; Bower wonders why the local police seem uninterested.


Forte travels to Lundy, Illinois to look into Bower’s case and stumbles onto something he didn’t expect and can’t ignore. (I’d tell you what it is but that’s kind of the key plot point in the story and it would be a spoiler. Even though I am not a financially motivated person, I would like to sell some of these books.)


He finds himself on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to fix this situation and making those responsible pay for what they’re doing. Forte being Forte, he sometimes has trouble prioritizing. Mayhem ensues.


How much mayhem? More than Forte bargained for, and he doesn’t always come out on top. Witness this excerpt:


This time it was five guys in civilian clothes waiting for me in my room. One in each chair, one in the hallway that led to the bathroom, one leaning against the wall nearest the door, and one stretched out on the bed with his hands behind his head like he was watching a ball game Sunday afternoon.

The one on the bed took charge. “Shut the door.”

Running wasn’t an option. I closed the door and positioned myself with my back to the corner.

Jefe sat up on the edge of the bed. A big man with a round, hard belly. His hair had receded back even with his ears to leave his forehead with a pronounced hat line. His hands were rough and callused. He wore a denim shirt outside his jeans over a gray tee. “You were told to stay out of Lundy.”

We wouldn’t be talking if they’d come to kill me. I was about to catch a beating sure as the sun was coming up over Indianapolis about now. The trick was not to provoke them and still hide the fact my sphincter was up around my Adam’s apple. “I’m not in Lundy.”

Jefe laughed. Said, “Pete” and the one nearest the door hit me under the floating ribs like he wanted to see his fist come out the other side.

No point pretending it didn’t hurt. Best I could hope for was to let on I’d seen worse and wasn’t about to roll up in a ball and cry for mommy.

They gave me all the time I needed to be able to speak. I put as much resonance into my voice as I could. “We’re all working men. I know you’re just doing your job here. So was I, and I’m about finished. Came back to get my stuff and go home. How about you rough me up a little so you can tell your boss you did and we’ll call it even?”

Jefe smiled again. I appreciate a good-natured heavy. “The only part about that you got right was when you said you were finished.”

“I said about finished.”

Jefe shook his head. “Trust me. You’re altogether finished.”

A gnawing doubt grew in the back of my mind. Maybe in Lundy they did bullshit with people they were about to kill. I’d been wrong before. “You won’t respect me if I roll over too easy.”

Someone had to say it. “We don’t respect you now, asshole.”

Jefe stood. “Let’s go outside.”

Deal breaker. Whatever was going to happen had to happen here, where there was a chance someone might notice. “Uh-uh. Say your piece, do what you’re gonna do, and we’ll go our separate ways. I’m not leaving with you.”

Jefe nodded. His colleagues each took a step my direction. I drew the .45 from its holster at the small of my back. “Here’s my counteroffer: you five go outside and hit the fucking road. I see you’re gone, I’ll load up the car and drive home.”

Jefe shook his head maybe half an inch in each direction. Said, “Boys” and the other four had guns in their hands faster than a teenage girl can whip out a cell phone.

This had to become personal for someone other than myself. I thumbed the .45 to full cock. Took a step toward the boss. Leveled the old Army Colt square between his eyes. “I can’t take everybody, but I can take you. How sure are you I won’t kill you with a reflex even if they get me with a head shot?”

He must have been pretty sure. I only had time to hear the sap swish through the air on its way to the back of my head before it dropped me through a hole in the floor I hadn’t seen before.


Off the Books is available on Amazon. Paperbacks are $8.99 and the e-book is $2.99. That’s not a typo. An honest-to-Bantam paperback original, six inches by nine, for only $8.99. I’ll still make a few bucks and you don’t have to take out a mortgage to read a story.


Who loves you, baby?



Thursday, March 7, 2024

Off the Books Available for Pre-Order


Next Friday, March 15, marks the publication date of the sixth Nick Forte private eye novel, Off the Books. Here’s the short and sweet:

 Nick Forte has lost his detective agency and makes ends meet doing background checks and other paperwork. He pays for everything else through jobs he takes for cash and without any written contract. What starts out as a simple investigation into a traffic accident exposes Forte to people who have truly lost everything and have no viable hope of reclaiming their lives. That doesn’t sit well with Forte, leading him and his friend Goose Satterwhite to take action that ends more violently than anyone expected.

 Some luminaries weighed in with their opinions:

 “The return of Chicago private detective Nick Forte, the tough protagonist of two Shamus Award nominated novels, is well worth the wait. Nick’s latest escapade Off The Books—the first in nearly six years—will surely earn additional praise for the acclaimed series.”

-J.L .Abramo, Shamus Award-winning author of Chasing Charlie Chan.

 "Nick Forte reminds me of Robert B. Parker's Spenser: a PI with a finely tuned sense of justice who doesn't take anyone's s***. Any fan of hardboiled detective fiction is in for a helluva ride."

--Chris Rhatigan, former publisher of All Due Respect Books

 "Six years since his last appearance, the return of Dana King's no-nonsense Nick Forte is cause to celebrate for fans of Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Loren Estleman's Amos Walker. As tough and unsentimental as Forte himself, Off the Books delivers all the action, acute observations, and wise-cracks required to satisfy that old-school PI itch. Now we just need King to not make us wait so long for the next one!"

--James D.F. Hannah, Shamus-winning author of Because the Night and Behind the Wall Of Sleep

 That’s right, Jimmy, it’s been six years since Forte had his own book, though he did make a cameo in last year’s Penns River novel. I had so much fun writing his scenes in The Spread I started thinking about getting into his POV again; Off the Books  is the result, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

 Off the Books is available for $8.99 in paperback, $2.99 for Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The Kindle version is available for pre-order. The paperback drops March 15.

 Six years away has not softened Forte any, as this excerpt shows:

 The diner didn’t serve alcohol and a couple of beers would help me sleep. I didn’t keep beer around the house anymore and wouldn’t buy any for the motel room because people who drink alone are alcoholics and I had enough problems as it was. Rusty’s Lounge was only a small detour on my way to bed.

The inside would be right at home in a relatively decent local hotel. The bartender wore a white dress shirt, no tie, with striped garters. The tables were two- and four-seaters with candles, the ambient light forgiving without creating a trip and fall hazard. Several couples shared tables. The bar was about half full, with a two-to-one ratio of men to women.

No seats where I’d have room on both sides, so I slid in between a man on my left and a woman on my right, both already engaged in conversation with members of the opposite sex. I ordered a Leinenkugel’s draft and looked for a television set. The Cubs were on, but I watched it, anyway.

I’d sucked the foam off my second beer when the man talking to the woman on my right excused himself to go to the john. She moved away to make room for him just as I shifted forward to dislodge a knot in my boxers. We bumped. Her fresh drink spilled, but my shirt and pants kept most of it from ending up on the floor.

We went through the standard ritual of mutual apologies. I volunteered to make things right. “My drink is intact. Let me replace yours. It’s only fair.” Continued before she got the wrong idea. “You’re here with someone, and I’m only going to finish this before heading out.”

Her shields came down. I waved to the bartender, a guy who looked like he’d been here a while and still hadn’t got used to the idea of having to wear shirt garters. He brought her drink and I paid about half what I would expect to in Chicago.

The woman nodded in my direction. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure. I’m clumsy enough to make sure people don’t mind too much if it happens again, but not so clumsy it’ll bankrupt me.”

She gave as much of a laugh as that deserved. Middle thirties was my guess. Average build with dark hair pulled away from her face and down to her shoulders. She had a quick and happy smile, but the fatigue in her eyes implied she’d seen enough of nights and bars like this.

Her companion returned, passing behind me to get to his seat. She said, “And now it’s my turn” and adjusted her stool to stand. I made a show of giving her as much room as space allowed. She smiled and nodded in appreciation and went on her way.

I resumed my seat in time to see the man she was with jerk away from her glass. I pinned his other hand to the bar. “What did you put in her drink?”

His face gave him away. “What the hell are you talking about?”

I waved for the bartender. “Do me a favor. Keep this glass safe behind the bar and call the police.”

Took him only a couple of seconds to put it together. Eyed the other man with disgust and reached for the glass. Romeo darted his free hand to spill everything across the bar.

“Oops.” He half smiled.

I let go of his hand. Grabbed a handful of hair and slammed his face into the bar.

He turned toward me. Said, “Asshole.” Not the response I had in mind, so I did it again. Harder. Liquid sloshed from both our glasses. He put a hand to his face and stayed down. Blood dribbled from his nose to the bar.

The bartender engaged. “Enough of that or I’ll call the police.”

I raised my hands shoulder height, palms out. “Call them, anyway. It might be nice to have this jagov on file in case something like this comes up again.” The barman hesitated until I told him I would if he didn’t.

It happened so quickly no one else noticed until a woman three seats down looked over and saw Bleeding Man’s face. That prompted the inevitable gasp and pointing but no general tumult.

The bartender handed Bleeding Man a towel as the woman returned. She ran the last few steps. “What happened?”

I kept my voice low and even. “He put something in your drink.”

“Like hell I did. He wants to take you home himself.”

I raised an eyebrow. “So I…what? Broke your nose and called the police? How’s that supposed to work?”

The woman looked from me to him as if trying to decide which of us had evolved a spinal column. Started to speak, pulled it back. Glared at a spot between the bartender and me. “Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just have the damn thing sewn shut.” People made room on her way out.

Then I made another mistake. I waited for the cops. Again.