Friday, January 24, 2020

Jack Davis, Author of A Sense of Justice

Jack Davis is a retired Special Agent of the United States Secret Service, spending nine of his twenty-seven years working as a field agent, including three in the New York Field Office.

He did back to back permanent protective details (Former President Reagan and President Clinton) from 1993-1999, including two years on the Counter Assault Team (CAT).

After being assigned to Secret Service headquarters in late 1999, he was promoted and took over the agency’s multi-national Electronic Crimes Special Agent Program.  He served as the Secret Service representative to the G8 High-Tech Crimes Sub-Group and the APEC Cybercrime Subcommittee. 

After 9/11, he was detailed to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security and helped stand up the National Cyber Security Division. In that capacity he assisted in briefings to congress and the White House. 

In 2005 he came back to the Secret Service proper as an Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge for the Vice President’s Detail.

In 2006 he was selected to supervise the Counter Assault program. 

Finally, in 2008, he was again assigned to headquarters and served as the Chief Information Security Officer.

He retired in 2011. A Sense of Justice is his first novel. 

One Bite at a Time: Jack, welcome to the blog. We have shared origins, both self-publishing our first books, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s start by you telling everyone a little about A Sense of Justice.

Jack Davis: Dana, thanks for having me.

A Sense of Justice is a combination police procedural/thriller…I hope.  It revolves around three main characters.

PJ Morley, a Secret Service agent out of the New York Field Office who is in charge of the NY Electronic Crimes Task Force. The agents in his squad are responsible for tracking down criminals – domestic and foreign – through the anonymizing entrails of the internet.

Alvaro Lopez is a mid-level Latin Kings Gang leader from Mexico City. He is desperately trying to find a way out of gang life to protect his wife and young family.  

The third major character is a sadistic serial killer who has been using the internet to ply his grisly trade for over a decade. He is methodical and has developed a nearly flawless system to execute his macabre vocation.

The three stories intersect when Morley is contacted by a former lover and requested to unofficially “look into” the hacking of a pharmaceutical company. The case that could have significant negative consequences for a high-ranking congressperson if news of his association with the company were to get into the press.

So, with an emphasis on speed, and working outside the normal law enforcement and Secret Service channels, Morley and the NY ECTF set off in pursuit of a world class computer criminal, never realizing the true monster that awaits them on the other end of the line.

OBAAT: You’re a retired federal law enforcement agent. How much of your experience went inti the book?

JD: I spent 27 years as a Secret Service Agent and a tremendous amount of the book is based on incidents that either happened to me, or other agents that I worked with.

A portion of the main plot is based on a case I worked in 1992 out of San Jose, CA. I was investigating a case involving the use of false ID to pass counterfeit checks; both primary Secret Service jurisdictions.

The suspects, two guys and two girls, mid 20s, were traveling up the coast of California passing the checks at various malls and high-end stores. If memory serves, they started in Santa Barbara, then went to Monterey or Carmel, then Santa Cruz. That was where they stopped, and I lost track of them.

I had some good leads, and I was able to tie the guys to multiple false IDs and tens of thousands of dollars of fraud in the various cities. The problem was, I didn’t have real names for any of the group.

Once I’d gotten my case together, I went across the hall and talked with my local FBI counterpart. He called me back all excited later that day, he had a match. The primary suspect, was a hitman out of LA. The Bureau had a warrant out for the guy for attempted murder and a bunch of other violations.

Here I was looking at this crew, for false Id and passing counterfeit checks, generally perpetrated by non-violent criminals, and he was a murderer, and his buddy was wanted for assault with a deadly weapon. It was a stark reminder to me that no investigation is routine. 

The primary suspect was arrested by the Bureau for attempted murder et al. my charges were lumped into the charging document.

He eventually flipped on the guy in Vegas who had hired him and received I think 10 years in federal prison.   

OBAAT: This being your first book, I’m assuming it was also your first time working with an editor. What was that experience like? Don’t feel obligated to give the editor’s name, but by all means do so if you want to show some love.
JD: Yes it was my first experience with editors. Like most authors, I had multiple people look at the manuscript over the time that I was writing. From writing group members to beta readers to friends, yourself included, there were a ton of people who provided assistance. I won’t go into the names for fear of leaving someone out. They were of tremendous help in making the final product better.

In terms of a professional editor, I was fortunate enough to have Chris Rhatigan do my final edits. He was phenomenally helpful and easy to work with. I’d recommend him highly.

OBAAT: I was lucky to have Chris as the editor of several of my books for Down & Out. Was there anything in particular that he suggested, or caught, that made you sort of smack yourself upside the head and think, “Wow, thanks?” Or was it more of a general smoothing out of things?

JD: Chris has an eye for detail, and in numerous places showed where I had, for instance: changed a street name, used to vs too, or spelled a name differently in various places in the manuscript. In addition, he corrected tense, punctuation and other grammar errors too many times to count. So, while I can’t say there were any, “smack my forehead, Wow,” moments, Chris did give me dozens of, “Ohhhh yeah, I have to change that,” suggestions. Having him in the process made the book infinitely better.

OBAAT: What did you expect from the self-publishing process? Was it easier than you thought, harder, or about you expected?

JD: That’s a good question. While I was going through the process, I would have said it was incredibly painful. Now that I am on the other side, I can see that much of my pain was self-inflicted.

I used Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Like just about anything else, once you get used to the program it makes sense. All-in-all I am happy with the process and product.

OBAAT: And now for the classic final interview question: What’s next?

JD: That’s easy. Most of America, and the world for that matter, sees the Secret Service as the guys standing around the president with sunglasses and talking into our sleeves. So, while my first book discussed the investigative aspect of the Secret Service mission, my next book, also fiction, will address protection.

I was fortunate enough to have been on three permanent protective details (Former President Reagan, President Clinton and as a supervisor Vice President Cheney) and hundreds of temporary protective assignments/details, mostly foreign dignitaries or candidate nominee details. So my next book will draw on those experiences.   

Friday, January 17, 2020

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?

To mark the event of my completion of another year of getting up every day, let’s see where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Year 64
Not as much got done as usual, or as I’d hoped. There were good reasons—it’s not like I sat around jacking my thumbs all year—but it’s a shorter list than usual.
  • I finished no books, though one dropped in January. (Ten-Seven, average Amazon rating 4.7. Order yours today.)
  • Three short stories published in anthologies: “Tarentum Bridge” in Down to the River; “Stand-up Guy” in the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference 2020 Anthology; “Noir at the Bar Fight” in Dark Yonder.
  • No readings, though I was invited to the Northern Virginia Noir at the Bar but had to leave early due to illness.
  • A panel at Bouchercon and three panels at the aforementioned C3 conference.

Plan for Year 65
  • Penns River 6, “Pushing Water” drops in May. (Though it’s available for pre-order now, hint hint.)
  • The work-in-progress, volume 6 in the Penns River series, should be finished by the end of March.
  • Copious notes exist for Penns River 7, working title “Officer Involved.”
  • Return to a short story I had high hopes for early in the year and never had time to get back to.
  • Tactically retreat on the Western. I got about 20,000 words in and realized it’s a mess. What had started out as a relatively short and simple story keeps presenting other things to be considered. I need to take a step back and decide what this book is going to be about, what to include, what not to include, and if I envision it as the start of a series.
  • I have a start for a revenge-based Western short story I’m enthusiastic about.
  • I have an idea and notes for another departure for me: a straight up high-concept thriller, sort of a Six Days of the Condor meets Mission Impossible with possible bits of Atomic Blonde thrown in.
  • A couple of Nick Forte PI ideas are nagging at me. I need to do some development work to see which to proceed with, and how.
  • Bring into some kind of narrative form the notes I took from a series of lectures I found online by David Milch.

That last may be the most important, at least in terms of long-lasting significance. I have pages of typed notes from Milch’s talks and interviews that have led me to rethink my entire approach to writing. (More than that, but this is a writing blog so we’ll stick with that.) Not that anyone cares what I think I’ve learned from Milch but I need to better organize these ideas in my head and writing them down is the best way for me to do that, so I might as well share them to see if I can provoked a discussion from which I can learn even more.

That’s probably the big thing I’m hoping for from year 65: learn more. Get better. Improve. Not just as a writer. I’m closer to the end than to the beginning now and I’m more aware all the time of the things I wish I had been more thoughtful about. I want to work on those. Keep me honest.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Genesis of a Romantic Suspense Junkie By Deliah Lawrence

Deliah Lawrence is a Maryland-based attorney, author, blogger and workshop facilitator who writes romantic suspense novels as well as poetry and short stories. Her debut novel, Gotta Let It Go, set in Baltimore, won the 2011 Finalist Next Generation Indie Book Award in the multi-cultural fiction category.
Constantly on the go, Deliah is also an active member of the Maryland
Writers’ Association, Black Writers’ Guild of Maryland, and Sisters in Crime. And most recently, Joel Furches (reviewer, CBS Baltimore) named her as one of five Baltimore authors to put on readers 2018 summer reading list. Visit her at

I first met Dee at a Creatures, Crimes, and creativity Conference on Columbia MD (yet another reason to catch this nifty little gem of a con) and it’s always a treat to run into her, whether online or in person, though in person is better. She’s a hoot.

*  *  *

My love of words started at a very early age when my mother would read me bedtime stories in an animated style. I can vividly remember her voice changing for each character and her hands moving wildly in describing the action within the stories. I would close my eyes and imagine being swept away to another world. This led me to daydream quite a bit, but I also realized later on how much it helped shape my creative thinking and writing.

As a young girl, my library card was one of my prized possessions. I looked forward to hanging out at the library after school and on the weekends with my friends who were avid readers. We would read and trade mystery books like Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. As we got older, we would do the same with Harlequin romance novels. But sadly, the characters I was reading about didn’t look or sound like me.

Fast forward many years later as an adult and I’ve added thrillers by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and James Patterson to my reading list. While I enjoyed reading these books because they were exciting and adrenaline driven, I still yearned for books that delivered stories that represented more diverse characters. Stories about people of color that zinged with action, romance, drama, and spicy dialogue.

So, when I stumbled upon Eric Jerome Dickey (I’ve met him twice) I fell in love with his characters: strong, vulnerable, sexy, smart people of color who are multi-dimensional and complex. They love deeply, kick ass and take no prisoners. I love the rhythm of the dialogue and the intricacies of the storylines. EJD’s books are high octane and like a junkie I was hooked on the deliciousness of reading them. Finally, I’ve found an author who delivers stories with heart-pounding action and sexual tension that would keep me on the edge of my seat.

I’m excited that my reading list has now expanded to include Eric Jerome Dickey along with Walter Mosely, Brenda Jackson, Leslie Esdaile Banks and quite a few other authors. But I’m even more excited that I’ve taken the leap to write stories that deliver a thrill ride that are anchored in Baltimore. Without a doubt my love of words has come full circle from listening to my mother read me bedtime stories to reading mystery/suspense and romance books to writing romantic suspense novels.

I currently have two novels, Gotta Let It Go and Gotta Get It Back which are part of a trilogy (Gotta Have It All is forthcoming). My protagonist, Deidre Hunter, is a sexy, sassy, and smart headstrong former prosecutor on the quest for justice who unwittingly at times gets tangled up in romantic situations between the two men in her life: her ex-husband and her lover, the detective assigned to handle the criminal cases.

Sounds like something you could get into? Well, buckle up for a roller coaster ride from this romantic suspense junkie!

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Annual Pre-Bouchercon Post

(What follows is a lightly edited post from March of 2017 when the Anthony Award nominations went out and I got to thinking about Bouchercon. With this year’s conference on the rapidly approaching horizon I realized I don’t have anything more profound to say about the conference this year, but not everyone has read this, so here you go.)

Readers are, by and large, introverts. By definition, introverts expend energy around other people and recharge when alone. That doesn’t mean introverts don’t like other people, though we may be somewhat more discerning than extroverts when it comes to who we choose to be around. It’s not that we don’t like spending time around people who share an interest, but we’d have to leave the house to meet them and that cuts into our reading time.*

Bouchercon is the perfect place for such a person. True, it’s close to two thousand people in relatively confined quarters, but it’s not just that. It’s hundreds of people who are geeked up about the same thing you are, and are often hungry for others to talk to about it. Even better, it’s not just the thousand-plus like-minded readers you’ll see: you’ll also be tripping over the people who write the books you’re so revved up about. What could be better?

They’re glad to see you, too. I’ve been to eight Bouchercons in the ten years since I discovered them. I’ve made friends there, cemented acquaintances with people I came to know online, and have created enough of a footprint myself that some people actually recognize me. I have never once been treated other than civilly, and far more often than not people have gone out of their way to be friendly.**

It can be an expense, but it’s a bargain compared to many other conferences. The conference fee itself is always reasonable and I’m constantly surprised when I see the room rate the committee gets at the host hotel. The only complaint I’ve had is the hotels rarely appreciate how much readers and writers drink and fail to put enough additional staff on the bar. Doesn’t mean I don’t socialize; I just don’t drink as much. The hotel’s loss is my liver’s gain.

So, dear readers, if you’re curious to see what over a thousand readers and several hundred crime fiction writers look like in the wild, there’s no better place to find out than Bouchercon.

* -- The Sole Heir™ was pre-teen when my tenure at Castle Voldemort ended and I was the classic single divorced father again. We used to have this conversation fairly often:

TSH: Do you ever go out?
Me: Not much.
TSH: Why not?
Me: If I go out I’m going to see a lot of people I don’t know.
TSH: What’s wrong with that?
Me: I hate people I don’t know.
After a year or so she came up with the next logical question.
TSH: Why do you hate people you don’t know?
Me: It saves time.

** -- My favorite Bouchercon story. Baltimore, 2008. My virgin appearance. Standing on the walkway between hotels with Peter Rozovsky, one of about three people I actually knew then. He asked was I having a good time.

Me: Sort of.
PR: What’s wrong?
Me: I don’t really know anyone here. (See above statement about people I don’t know.)
PR: (Looks around) Do you know Scott Phillips?
Me: I know who he is….
PR: (Waving) Scott! Come here a second! (Scott Phillips comes over.) Scott, this is Dana King. Dana, this is Scott Phillips. He wrote The Ice Harvest. (Peter does not know I am head over heels for The Ice Harvest.)
SP: (Extends hand) Hi, Dana.
(We chat for five minutes and Scott has to go to a panel.)
PR: See? Now you know Scott Phillips.

One year later. Indianapolis. I’m on the periphery of the crowd at the bar looking for anyone I know. I see Scott with a group of people, but he’s someone I’ve met for five minutes a year ago, not someone I know. Scott notices me and waves me over.

SP: Dana, we’re going to get something to eat. You want to come?

That’s what Bouchercon is like. If in doubt, go. Look me up. Mention this post and your drink is on me. I’m not paying for it. I’m just clumsy when I get excited.

I’m not paying for it. I’m just clumsy when I get excited.

(Epilog: I reposted this a couple of weeks before last year’s conference in St. Petersburg. First day in St. Pete I spy my good friend and general purpose mensch Terrence McCauley talking to someone whose back is to me and I don’t recognize. I walk up, say hello to T-Mac, who then introduces me to Frank Zafiro. What makes this story memorable is not just that Frank is a great guy and we became instant friends, but that he had read this blog post before flying to St. Pete and had me on his list of people to keep an eye out for. It was my pleasure to do what I could to make Frank feel welcome at his first Bouchercon as a way to pay it forward for the kindness Scott Phillips showed me in Indianapolis. Look me up if you see this and are in Dallas next week. I’ll do what I can to introduce you around. I’m still clumsy with drinks.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Dietrich Kalteis, Author of Call Down the Thunder

One of the blogging highlights of any year is the launch of Dietrich Kalteis’s new book, which means another chance to interview him. Dieter is someone more writers should aspire to: not only an award-winning author but a mensch, a person I have never seen the bad side of, nor do I know anyone who has. His new book, Call Down the Thunder, launches next Tuesday and is a bit of a departure for him. I could tell you about it, but it’s going to be a lot more entertaining and enlightening if he does it.

One Bite at a Time: Dietrich, welcome back. It’s always a pleasure to have you here on One Bite at a Time. Let’s get started with the quick, 100 words or less, description of your new book, Call Down the Thunder.

Dietrich Kalteis: First off, thanks very much for having me back, Dana.

Sonny and Clara Myers struggle on their Kansas farm in the late 1930s, a time the Lord gave up on. The land’s gone dry, barren and worthless. And the bankers, greedy and hungry, make life even more impossible, squeezing farmers out of their homes. The couple can wither along with the land, or surrender to the bankers and hightail it to California like most of the other farmers. But Sonny comes up with a way for them to stay on their land and prosper while giving the banks a taste of their own misery.

OBAAT: Ninety-four words; very good. You go back to the 1930s for this story. Any particular reason for that time period?

DK: I chose the period because the hardships of the time added so much to the story. And there’s this feeling of isolation as they’re in the middle of nowhere with little money, no phone, and no electricity. The couple struggles with their marriage, trying to keep the farm from the bankers, dealing with other challenges that come along, all the while trying to survive the drought and dust storms that had been happening for nearly the past decade.

OBAAT: Interesting that you mention no phone or electricity. I’m working on a Western—sporadically—and find that the absence or things we take for granted now provides both opportunities and challenges. Were there times where you had to work around something because of the lack of a modern convenience like a phone? Or the flip side, where the absence of something provided you an opportunity that would have been difficult in a more contemporary story?

DK: Well, I had to work out a few details that we take for granted nowadays. Like when Clara wants to make a phone call to her mother living across the state. She has to get to the general store ten miles away, borrow the phone there, get connected through an operator, which at the time was very expensive.

I think the absence of modern conveniences like plumbing and electricity worked to get across that feeling of isolation, and made the characters more vulnerable to everything they have to deal with. 

OBAAT: What challenges did you find in writing a period novel? Anything unexpected?

DK: There’s always a lot of research that needs to be done in an historical novel, and I found it quite interesting. I think the hardest part for me was distilling it all down. Going through archived newspapers, historical as well as personal accounts, I came up with so much that I wanted to include, but I had to leave out a great deal of it. I was afraid it would start to sound more like a history lesson than a novel.

OBAAT: Does this mean there might be another book coming that set in this period? Not a sequel necessarily, but another book that spends time with something that interested you in your research but didn’t make it into Call Down the Thunder.

DK: Interesting you should say that, Dana. When I was doing the digging for this one I came across a true story about a couple of bank robbers, lesser known than Bonnie and Clyde, but they did top the FBIs most wanted list after robbing just one bank. So, I found out everything I could about them and wrote the story. It’s now been signed with my publisher, and I can’t say too much more about it at this point other than it should be out sometime after the next one, likely in 2021.

OBAAT: Interesting you should say that, as honking about this book put me a little in mind of when Elmore Leonard stepped back into the 1930s for The Hot Kid. We’re both Leonard devotees and I see a lot of potential for that one.

As you dug into the research, did you find the period foreign to you, or did you see similarities to what you learned about the Depression to how we live today?

DK: When I researched the story I surrounded myself with newspaper articles of the time, personal as well as historical accounts, and hundreds of old black and white photos, so I became immersed in that time, and no, it didn’t feel foreign at all.

There are similarities between then and now, and I guess we all feel we struggle in our lives at times so we can relate to the story, although the hardships they faced back then hit ten on the dial.

OBAAT: I remember newspapers. Mostly I remember them as great ways to get news from places other than Washington or the state capital. Nowadays it seems that most “local” papers are virtually volunteer operations that tell about upcoming scout and PTA activities, or some club putting out flowers for Mother’s Day. Did you see a lot of differences between the papers of the period and the news as it’s covered today?

DK: I guess newspapers of today have become second tier. And while news is delivered much faster these days, it seems people had more trust in the printed word back then, as in “They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true.”

There sure was a difference how news was received. In major centers, people read the morning paper over breakfast, or while sitting on a bus on the way to work. The radio was becoming a staple in many households and a source for what was going on in the world. And just imagine going to the movie theatre to watch the news. A long way from catching it on your smartphone and scrolling through your social media feed.

OBAAT: This has been great fun. I look forward to your new books almost as much for these interviews as I do reading the books. We know the bank robber story is on deck. What are you working on now?

DK: Before the story of the bank-robbing couple, I’ve got one coming out sometime next year that will take readers on a wild ride through northern British Columbia and into Alaska. It’s about the girlfriend of an aging gangster who wakes in the old guy’s bed, and above his rasping snores, she hears a burglar in the hall. Getting her handgun, she confronts him, recognizes him as the wrongly dismissed chauffeur looking for some payback, knowing the gangster stashes money in the house. She hesitates, considers a couple of ways she could go. And knowing where the money’s stashed, she says, “Take me with you.”

Right now, I’m working on a new one set in present-day Vancouver involving a retiree, a runaway, a couple of casino crooks, and one killer motor home.

And I’d like to say thanks, Dana, for taking the time to put together some great questions. It’s always fun to drop in.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Robert McCaw, Author of Off the Grid

Robert McCaw grew up in a military family traveling the world. After graduating from Georgetown University, he served as a lieutenant in the US Army before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia. Thereafter he practiced as a partner in a major international law firm in Washington, DC, and New York City—and maintained a home on the Big Island of Hawai’i. McCaw brings a unique authenticity to his Koa Kāne Hawaiian mystery novels in both his law enforcement expertise and his ability to portray the richness of Hawai’i’s history, culture, and people. McCaw lives in New York City and La Jolla, California, with his wife, Calli.

One Bite at a Time: You’re a first time visitor to OBAAT so not all our readers may be as familiar with your work as they are with some others. Give us the quick and dirty one hundred words or less rundown on Off the Grid.

Robert McCaw: In Off The Grid, Koa Kāne, Hilo Hawaii’s chief police detective, confronts two bizarre scenes—a woman killed in an exploding vehicle and a charred corpse dumped in an active lava field. Koa’s efforts to identify the two reveal only off-the-grid loners with multiple aliases. When the CIA and the DIA show up, Koa becomes enmeshed in a bizarre international intrigue. When his police chief becomes a suspect, Koa’s life and career are threatened. Relentless, Koa races against time to unlock the secrets of the victims’ identities, exposing a conspiracy so shocking it topples careers far outside of Hawaii.

OBAAT: Off the Grid has a broad scope, encompassing local police, the CIA, the DIA, and the Chinese government. How did you develop the level of familiarity needed to utilize such diverse entities effectively?

RM: The simple answer is research, but that word hides considerable complexity. To begin with, I believe that all of life is research for a novelist, and I am always looking for situations and characters, big and small in my life or in the news, that might fit into my current or future projects. While historical CIA scandals fit into this category, many of the military aspects of Off The Grid come from my own experience as a soldier and a lifetime of reading military news, non-fiction books, and novels. My understanding of the interrelationship between the CIA and the Chinese government as portrayed in Off The Grid grew out of my intense curiosity and exhaustive reading of domestic and foreign news articles and government statements about the bizarre, but real, international incident at the core of Off The Grid.

Regarding police procedures, I drew on many sources. As a lawyer not infrequently involved in criminal cases, I started with a strong background in the legal constraints within which the police are supposed to operate. From there, I talked to local policemen in Hawaii, followed local crime news, studied procedural and forensic texts, and reviewed physical and online catalogs of police equipment and crime scene supplies. I also found a tremendous resource in Lee Lofland’s Writers’ Police Academy, which I attended on multiple occasions, participating in seminars on fingerprinting, firearms, ballistics, blood splatter analysis, undercover operations, traffic stops, and many other police activities. As an attendee at the Writers’ Police Academy, I also took advantage of opportunities to discuss plot points with law enforcement officers who were remarkably generous with their knowledge and insights.

OBAAT: Writer’s craft question: How did you keep all those balls in the air? Do you outline? Craft each page before moving on or work through a draft before going back for revisions? How much did you know in advance as opposed to making up on the fly?

RM: For me, writing is an iterative process. Generally speaking, I mostly know where I am going to start, have a rough idea of the ending, and may outline small sections as I write. I don’t try to outline an entire book, nor do I polish each page before turning to the next one. I work through sections of a draft and often go back to make revisions as the story develops. I find that research on the particulars of a scene often generates ideas that need to be foreshadowed or incorporated in previous chapters.

OBAAT: You spent twenty years writing Death of a Messenger around your legal career. What was it about that book that kept you coming back?
RM: It was Hawaii itself that repeatedly pulled me back to write Death of a Messenger. I first visited the Big Island in 1986 and fell in love with its magic. For me, the island is actually a character in my novels, and the victim in Death of a Messenger is a kind of metaphor for Hawaii’s turbulent history. Each time I returned to the Big Island over the following 32 years, I explored new places, met new people, including many of the multicultural people who make up its population, and heard new stories. I felt compelled to capture and share aspects of those experiences.

OBAAT: We both write series. To me, the setting and cast are at least as important as the stories in keeping readers coming back. Do you agree?

RM: Absolutely. Settings, characters, plots, and language are the essential ingredients of good novels. Settings have the power to transport readers to places they’ve never imagined and are often critical to character development. People generally reflect where they grew up and live, and it says something about them when they don’t. Characters allow readers to see behind facades they only rarely get to pierce in real life, opening windows into the perspectives of people they would never have the opportunity to meet. Only in a fictional world do readers discover the true thoughts that people don’t or won’t express. The writer’s task is to get readers to form an emotional attachment (or revulsion) to a character. Only then will most readers really care about what happens to that character as the plot develops.

OBAAT: Side question: how did you develop the cast you have in the Kane novels? Was it organic or did you have a good idea of who you wanted around from the start?

RM: As indicated in response to your next question, the setting and outline of the plot usually come first, and the characters follow, fitting into the slots created by the narrative. That said, I’ve been “collecting” characters for a lifetime—soldiers I met in the military; one of my commanding officers; lawyers, prosecutors, and a few shady witnesses I met in my legal practice; judges I’ve appeared before; an auctioneer for a fish market in Hilo; merchants and artists from whom I’ve made purchases; friends; and even people I’ve seen in restaurants or on the street. On occasion, a character I’ve met is so compelling that he or she shapes the plot. The victims in Off The Grid are examples. Gwendolyn, the woman killed in the staged accident, and Arthur, the man half-buried in a lava field, are modeled on an artist and her husband who invited my wife and me to their mostly off-the-grid home to commission a Hawaiian silk painting. I think of them as characters in reverse. They are dead when the reader first encounters them, but come alive as Koa Kāne investigates their identities.

OBAAT: We both write books that could be described as police procedurals. What drew you to that element of solving mysteries, as opposed to private investigators, journalists, or lawyers?

RM: The concept and structure of my first novel, Death of a Messenger, required an official protagonist. I wanted to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of the ancient Hawaiian adze makers who mined a particularly hard stone for tools and weapons from ancient quarries atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest volcano. Geographically, the adze makers' story had to start in the mile-high saddle lands between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, an area now occupied by the Army’s Pōhakuloa Training Area. Thus, my protagonist needed the ability to enlist the military’s cooperation. I also wanted to highlight the contrast between the ancient Mauna Kea adze quarries and the current astronomical facilities atop Mauna Kea. That required a protagonist with easy access to the astronomy community and the resources to operate in the hostile winter environment atop the extinct volcano. A civilian police officer met those requirements, and his need to work with a military counterpart and a local prosecutor offered opportunities to leverage both my military and legal experience. Having chosen Chief Detective Koa Kāne as the protagonist for my first novel, he naturally became the central character in Off The Grid.

OBAAT: Cultural appropriation is a hot topic. As a Caucasian writing a native Hawai’ian protagonist, did that concern you? How did you address it?

RM: Too bad Tom Wolfe is no longer alive to write a book ridiculing the current hysteria called cultural appropriation. In its worst form, it’s pure tribalism. To suggest that people should not photograph, write about, or portray people who are different can only inhibit men and women from knowing, understanding, appreciating, and respecting other human beings who happen to have one or more different characteristics. The problem is not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural disrespect; it’s the near-universal human tendency to think we’re better than those who are different from us. We should applaud, not condemn, artists who try to bridge cultural barriers. We should also honor artistic freedom of expression, not attempt to restrict it.

One of my many goals in writing the Koa Kāne series was to share my appreciation for the unique qualities of Hawaii, its history, its culture, its beauty, its diversity, its language, and yes, some of its problems. I’ve sought to do so in a respectful manner, and choosing a Hawaiian protagonist helped me to do so. Take language for example. The Hawaiian language is beautiful and like all human tongues has its own unique proverbs and ways of capturing ideas. I was drawn to that beauty and wanted to share it with readers who’ve never been to Hawaii or heard the lyrical voices of the islands. It would have been difficult to put those Hawaiian words, proverbs, and sayings in the mouth of a haole (western) protagonist. Having chosen that path, I sought out a Hawaiian editor to help me get it right. That effort was recognized when the review committee at Nā Mea Hawaiʻi—“a community resource focused on distributing the best books, music, and DVDs on Hawaiʻi and the Pacific”—accepted Death of a Messenger for distribution. In short, there is a vast difference between cultural disrespect and cultural appreciation. The two should not be confused.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Mark Bergin, Author of Apprehension

It’s a treat to have Mark Bergin on the blog today.

Mark graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, then worked four years as a newspaper reporter, winning the Virginia Press Association Award for general news reporting. Joining the Alexandria VA Police Department seemed the next logical choice, in 1986. Twice named Police Officer of the Year for narcotics and robbery investigations, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. His debut novel, Apprehension, draws on many of those experiences.

Mark lives in Alexandria and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (Bi-i-i-ig fucking house) with his wife Ruth, an attorney and former public defender. They have two children. Write him at or follow his blog at

One Bite at a Time: Mark, thanks for stopping by for a chat. It’s a pleasure to have you here and I hope we can expose some readers to your new book. It’s titled Apprehension, and it drops this month from Inkshares. Tease us a little.

Mark Bergin: It’s the story of the four best and worst days of Detective
John Kelly’s life. He is prepping for a major trial of a pedophile father to protect his child victim, but the defense attorney is Kelly’s lover. She has an unexpected way to win the case but it will hurt Kelly. She also has a personal secret that will change their future. Kelly also has a secret, a terrible thing he did after his niece was murdered, and it’s about to be revealed. He may lose his career and go to jail. And he can’t stop it. But maybe his friends can.

OBAAT: The word “apprehension” can be taken more than one way. For our purposes here the two possible meanings that come to mind are “anticipation of adversity or misfortune” or “the act of arresting; seizure” come to mind. Was this ambiguousness in the title intentional?

MB: Absolutely. I’ve called it Apprehension since I began thinking about it. I actually started making notes for it thirty years ago. Police work is good and bad, terribly stressful and grinding, but fun as hell when you get going. The theme of the book is stress and police suicide, but the goal of law enforcement is stopping bad guys. So I get a double out of the title. I want folks to take it both ways. The follow-up novel is called “St. Michael’s Day,” maybe easier to grasp.

OBAAT: Not that I’m arguing your bona fides, but what’s your background in law enforcement?

MB: I joined the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department in 1986 after four years as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and in suburban Philadelphia, PA, where I grew up. I’d always liked cops and police work, but didn’t care for the cops at home. In the 60s and 70s, it seemed like you had to be a former MP who hated black people and took bribes to be a city cop. I hate to admit that, my own myopia, but it wasn’t till I got to Alexandria and began closely reporting on cops and detectives, riding along or sitting in trials with them, that I realized they were normal, decent, intelligent people. I thought I was, too, so I applied and got hired.

I spent 28 years on, as a patrol officer, street-level narcotics “jump-out,” field training officer, sergeant, and lieutenant. Twenty-seven years on the street, then I got command of the Records Section, and temporary command of Public Information. Desk jobs, heavy on administrative paperwork and computer entry. Where I had two heart attacks, died, actually, and had to retire. The desk jobs did it. But that gave me the chance to start writing, go back to the notes I’d made 30 years ago, that had a beginning and an end and some middle stuff, but that I hadn’t touched since then. Five years later, here we are.

OBAAT: As a career law enforcement officer you must be a tough audience for procedural writers. Who do you read, or do you stay away from the genre altogether, as I know many folks close to a profession tend to.

MB: Don Winslow is very good, very popular and gets it right. I like Bruce Coffin in Maine, and Brenda Buchanan, also in Maine, writes accurately about newspaper reporting. Some kind of Maine thing going, there. Michael Connelly writes cops, lawyers and reporters well and, since my wife is a lawyer I know he knows. Archer Meyer is an unappreciated police proceduralist, I enjoy his plots and he gets details right. Another strong police proceduralist is this guy Dana King – dead on in describing how cops think and work, and the details and humanity of small town Pennsylvania where I was bread and buttered. Penns River isn’t my hometown but I’ve sure spent a lot of time there. The god of this police procedural biz has to be Joseph Wambaugh, and I’ve read everything he wrote. When I knew I had to retire and I decided I wanted to write, I reread certain books by my favorite authors to stir up the creative brain. Alistair MacLean, Elmore Leonard, Adam Hall, John D. McDonald, George V. Higgins. I deliberately avoided rereading Wambaugh, because I knew my book would be similar to his and didn’t want to copy him. Alistair MacLean I’d copy till the cows come home. David Swinson, a former DC detective, has become a master of police noir, bad but redeemable cops who try to do good. Craig Johnson and C. J. Box are Western writers who make it seem effortless and clean, especially now that I’ve learned now just how hard it is to put the words down in the right order.

OBAAT: How much of your experience is in Apprehension? Not to say John Kelly stands in for you, but either direct or indirect experiences that affected the book.

MB: It’s all real but it may not be all true. I tried to write a book that my fellow officers could read and say, he got it right. That they could give to their families and say, this is how it is. I certainly took my experiences of how cops think and react to craft scenes and events. “Wart Lip” is a true story. The shotgun suicide happened. And we did have a witch doctor in Alexandria. The magnets are made up but we thought about using them. Most of the rest could have happened. I know the stress is real, and grinding and feels inescapable, so I’m giving half my book profits to programs that combat police suicide. Might be only seventy-five or eighty dollars. We’ll see.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?

MB: George V. Higgins, who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is definitely my muse. He could write whole chapters of his crime stories in dialogue, and only in the last paragraph insert whatever it is that moved the plot along. Elmore Leonard puts folks in normal places but sets off explosions around them. James Lee Burke puts naked souls on the page and they bleed on you. Alistair MacLean is my favorite writer, and his The Secret Ways is my favorite book, but I don’t write adventure. Yet.

OBAAT: We ran into each other a while back at a James Ellroy event. Ellroy doesn’t provide the most flattering depictions of cops. What’s the appeal to you, or do you like him in spite of how he writes law enforcement?

MB: I’ve carried around an original copy of his first book, Brown’s Requiem since it was published in 1981. Only just reread it prepping for that event. His hero is another flawed, former cop like Swinson’s. But the clarity of voice, the constant, subtle but strong emotional tone of challenge and despair, the picture of 80s Los Angeles, stayed with me all that time. I didn’t remember the details but I always felt the impact. Ellroy was gracious and signed it, though he was there to plug his newest. He wrote, “Did this move you?” What a great, laser beam question. Yes. In this and later books he clobbers cops, and I take that as the literary tool he needs to tell the story. C. J. Box always includes inept or evil cops in his Joe Pickett novels. I asked him why, and whether he had bad experiences with police. He paused a sec, like he was trying to come up with the right answer, then said, “It’s just for dramatic tension.” Okay.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

MB: “St. Michael’s Day.” It is another novel about police, but it’s also about faith. What if you survived a horrendous, nearly fatal machine gun attack, and the people around you decided you were blessed, protected, specifically saved and empowered by God? And what if you weren’t sure you believed in a God who did that, but tried to reckon out your feelings while investigating a case and looking for your own shooters? I have been thinking of this one, and themes of faith, almost as long as Apprehension. Apprehension started as an examination of what it was like to be a squad of white cops who arrested mostly black people, because that’s the reality of 1980s drug enforcement in big cities. It was for me, I was there, lived and worked it and wondered, was it racist or the real and unavoidable result of racial and economic splits in society? Those elements are still part of Apprehension but fell back in the examination of stress and suicide. I tried to use writing the book to come to grips with my own concerns. The next one, “St. Michael’s Day,” is my attempt to understand my own faith, or lack of strong and clear faith. It won’t be preachy. I put faithful and faithless Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindi, Muslims and atheists in a pot and turn the heat on. I won’t kill a cop in my books, that’s too easy a literary device, and too painful to write, though I do shoot one in book three. I hate serial killer books, but one just showed up in “St. Michael’s Day.” Popped up on the page. Funny how that happens.

(Editor’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this, as Mark will; be back. There’s lots more I have to talk with him about.)