Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Happy Holidays meme

Sandra Ruttan over at On Life and Other Inconveniences has posted a Happy Holidays meme and invited people to tag themselves, so here goes...

What's the most original Christmas gift you received?
The same as every year: my beloved Spousal Equivalent makes me a personalized desk calendar. This year's theme is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Previous years have included Deadwood and Blazing Saddles. Every year she come up with something new to make them fun.

What book did you get for Christmas?
Death was the Other Woman, by Linda L. Richards
The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

The best thing about the holidays...
Relaxing with my daughter and the Spousal Equivalent, with no one having anyplace else they needed to be, or any pending tasks.

The worst thing about the holidays...

Something you did this year for the first time, or first time in a long time.
Got Mono.

Do you have a New Year's resolution?
Don't get mono anymore.

I'll do the same as Sandra did: I won't tag anyone, but feel free to tag yourself. Just a leave a comment below to let me know you did, and where to find you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Best Reads of 2008

Not all of these books came out in 2008; I read them as I get to them. These were the ten (plus one)best books I read for first time this year, listed alphabetically by author. Books I reviewed contain links to the review, as do the names of authors I was able to interview.

Mark BillinghamIn the Dark
My first exposure to Billingham; I’ll be back. A compelling, multi-faceted story told with an economical style that never lapses into dryness. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the plot twists are unforeseen, yet inevitable. A reader can’t ask for more.

Jimmy Breslin – The Good Rat
The story of Burt Kaplan, the prime witness in the case against New York’s two hit man cops, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, told as only Breslin can. The arrogance and hubris of the mobsters, the matter-of-factness of their betrayal, and insights into the decline of a mob well past the glory days of Costello, Profaci, Gambino, et al. A must read for anyone with an interest in how New York’s Five Families have played out their strings, and a lot of fun.

Declan BurkeThe Big O
The most fun I’ve had reading a book all year, laugh out loud funny. Burke’s cast of characters are the love children of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. More than once I caught myself wondering, “What’s this asshole going to do now?” (Referring to a character, not Burke.) No one’s quite as sharp as they think they are, want to be, or need to be. The ending is a little more complicated than it needs to be, but that’s quibbling.

Sean Chercover – Trigger City
Chercover may be the next big deal in American PI fiction. Trigger City has its homage to Chandler in tone and style, but never feels retro; it’s Twenty-First Century all the way. A major plot twist halfway through is exquisitely set up to provide a true “Oh shit!” moment, and the ending is satisfying for being as good for the characters as can be expected. Nothing too Hollywood here, just top-rate hard-boiled fiction from a writer who bears watching. (Note: Schedules dictated the delay of my interview with Sean Chercover. It should be posted here in early January.)

John Connolly – The Reapers
Louis and Angel get their own book; Charlie Parker appears only as The Detective, who gets to try to repay some of the chits he’s rolled up in Connolly’s previous books. As formidable as Parker and Louis are, the book is stolen by everyman Willie Brew, who becomes the moral center of the book. As violent as anything Connolly has ever written, The Reapers always retains its humanity, in large part through Connolly’s artful descriptions. He’s probably the closest current writer to James Lee Burke in the poetic narrative department, and his skills are well used here.

Timothy HallinanThe Fourth Watcher
Maybe the best pure thriller I read this year, but reading it as just a thriller is cheating yourself. This is what thrillers should want to be when they grow up, a multi-layered story about people, with the suspense growing entirely from the reader’s empathy for the characters. Hallinan’s writing style is perfectly suited for such a tale: crisp, not dry; humor flows naturally from the characters’ personalities and relationships; and your emotions are evoked, not demanded. Not to be missed.

Declan HughesThe Price of Blood
The third book in Hughes’s Ed Loy series; let’s hope there are plenty more. Right up there with Connolly as a wordsmith, Hughes combines the atmospherics of Chandler with the family histories of Ross Macdonald, tying them together in aftermath of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom. Never apologetic, Hughes lays out flawed characters for the reader to decide who to root for. Loy fights his demons without becoming maudlin about it, and Tommy Owens may be the most well-rounded sidekick currently operating.

Laura Lippman – Hardly Knew Her
This collection of short stories puts a whole new sheen on Lippman’s work. Best known for her Tess Monahan novels, the Monahan short stories may be the least compelling of the bunch, as the writing there is the least adventurous. A wide-ranging list of subjects, covered by a writer equally at home in a variety of styles. Short story collections are sometimes good bathroom reads; take this one in there and the rest of your family may explode before you come out again.

David McCullough – The Great Bridge
Yes, I do read books other than crime. This story of how the Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge is a masterpiece on a par with the bridge itself. No detail is too small for McCullough’s eye, yet the tale is never bogged down in minutiae. A look into New York and Brooklyn life of the day as well as the story of the bridge, this book alone would cement McCullough’s reputation, even without the rest of his formidable oeuvre.

John McFetridge – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
A sequel of sorts to his first novel, Dirty Sweet, EKTIN uses the same Toronto settings and a handful of the characters to provide continuity. Dirty Sweet was good; EKTIN is a lot better than good. The writing is crisper, the humor flows better, and the plotlines spins themselves out effortlessly, yet unexpectedly. Contains maybe the best opening sequence of the year.

Richard Price – Freedomland
This one’s been around a while, but I only discovered Price through my immersion in The Wire. A crime story that isn’t, Freedomland uses a crime to show the dynamics of a situation that, once launched, communicates like a fire, not obeying the intent of any of its originators. Darker than Wolfe’s work, but Freedomland is not unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities for the underclass.

So, while 2008 may have been a shit year in a lot of ways, it was a good year for reading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Query Me This

Annette Dashofy, a contributor to the excellent collective blog Working Stiffs, has provided a link to a PW article by agent Stephen Barbara that arrived to me though Sisters in Crime via a friend. Barbara’s subject is “The Great American Query Letter,” and comments on what he clearly considers to be the Golden Age of the query letter.

According to Barbara, more good query letters are written now that ever before, and it’s driving him crazy. It used to be an agent could look at the query letter—maybe not even have to read it—and know immediately the book could be passed on. (See his article for an entertaining passage on how he’d just know.) Now, thanks to seminars, webinars, blogs, and a general understanding that a writer must get the agent’s attention before he can get a reading, all the query letters look great. Most of the writing samples still stink, but now he has to read them to separate the wheat from the chaff; the query doesn’t help with elimination. He ends his article by saying not to worry too much about queries you send him. (It’s another entertaining passage, well worth reading. The whole piece is fun.)

From a writer’s perspective, this is probably good news. I have friends who spend time and effort agonizing over queries when that time would have been better spent on another draft. At least now we know of one agent who isn’t going to use a white glove to see if your query is worthy of reading your book, so long as you avoid certain obvious errors.

It may make things a little harder for agents, and God knows they don’t need any more on their plates. (Just read one of their blogs for more than a week and see if that topic doesn’t get mentioned.) It can also free up some time and energy for writers, who can concentrate more on getting a better book out, which should work to everyone’s advantage.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

November Reading

A pretty slow month for several reasons, not the least of which was a family visit over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Some oldies but goodies got read, though, starting with

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
I'd read it before and thought it was okay, thought I'd read it again in light of my (hopefully) more discerning taste. Yep, it's all they said it was. Tightly written, and it moves along with the staccato rhythm of gunfire, of which there is plenty. Maybe the most filmed book of the genre, though never under its own name, Red Harvest is, indeed, a seminal piece of American crime fiction everyone interested in the form should be familiar with.

Hardly Knew Her, by Laura Lippman
My review for New Mystery Reader is here, but. more informally, this is an excellent, if a little schizophrenic, book. An anthology of stories written over an eight year period, some specifically for this book, it reads as if written by two people. The Tess Monaghan stories are good, but stylistically more bland; several others, notably "The Crack Cocaine Diet," sizzle with wit and unique writing. Personally, I think the style used for the Monaghan stories is weaker, their immense popularity notwithstanding, but that's probably just em being contrary again.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
This is another re-read, as research into next year's writing project. I savored it even more than the first time, when I loved it. Part of that is due to my increased knowledge and appreciation of what the cops are doing, and part is how artfully Simon weaves a year of unrelated events into a narrative that explains the Ten Rules of a Homicide Cop, as well as humanizing both cops and crooks. Having seen The Wire made this even more fun, as the parallels are so easy to see. My face lit up with recognition at the first mention of the tale of Snot Boogie. For anyone who hasn't read this and has an interest in learning about police procedure beyond investigative technique and into how the cops think about things, this is still the book to read.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The End

Just like the Paul Sheldon character in Stephen King's Misery, I have my own little ritual when I finish a manuscript. I'm sure many writers do. Much tedious work remains--finding a publisher, for starters--but with all the writing done I can take a few days off with a clear conscience.

Sheldon had one drink and one cigarette as his celebration. I wait until I've made every improvement I can; only them do I type THE END at the bottom.

What can I say? I'm a hedonist.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Too Deep to be Popular? Or Vice Versa?

Crimespace currently has a couple of enthusiastic debates (here and here) about the endless dispute between literary fiction and genre fiction. Sides tend to form pretty quickly in such engagements. The “literary” side goes on about the “limitations” of genre writing, while the genre folks complain about the snobbery of the lits. I’m inclined to come down on the genre side, not solely because I write what would be called genre fiction, were anyone ever to publish it.

I was a musician in a previous life. Played in all my high school’s bands (literally), got a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. Spent three years in an Army band before getting a Master’s in Performance from New England Conservatory. Free-lanced around for several years playing in small orchestras, brass quintets, concert bands, whatever needed a trumpet part. This has allowed me to play, and appreciate, a wide range of music, and verify first hand that the same discussion goes on between classical and popular musicians constantly. I can safely say there is a degree of snobbery toward more popular forms of the music from many of those who exist on the more exalted plane; the popular musicians are not imagining it. They have their own blind spots, often citing the inaccessibility of classical music. The musicians’ arguments are too similar to writers’ not to be analogous.

Classical musicians deride “jazzers” for their imprecision and simplicity of structure. Jazz advocates claim classical players don’t swing. This argument moves through musical genres: jazzers often look down on country music, and it’s unusual to hear a young rocker acknowledge his debt to R & B. All of them can improve their own work by paying attention to the other. Jazz players can create tighter ensembles by listening to orchestras; orchestral pops concerts would be much better if the orchestras actually could swing.

Writers who consider themselves either, neither, or both ignore the precepts of either at their peril. The genre writer who fails to appreciate the implications of a more literary approach will find himself describing a rainstorm, instead of, in John Gardner’s words, “evoking the sensation of being rained upon.” The literary writer who looks condescendingly upon genre fiction as having nothing to teach him can evoke plenty of rain, but may have trouble getting his characters to do anything practical or believable once they are wet.

It’s been credited to too many people to be anything other than apocryphal, but everyone benefits if we all accept there are only two kinds of music or writing: good and bad. Subject matter, genre, or style determines neither. Both sides need to learn from the other if each is to remain vital. Literary writers cannot afford to travel the road too many of their musical brethren have, eventually writing only for themselves and those who wish to be considered part of the cognoscenti. Messages and themes, no matter how profound, lose their vitality and importance if the audience that can appreciate them is too small to matter. Popular forms that appeal too often to the least common denominator will find themselves passed over as those fickle tastes inevitably change.

On the other hand, as John Connolly’s experience shows, “literary” writers aren’t always just snobs. Sometimes they’re assholes, too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Social Climbing

Patti Abbott has invited your humble correspondent to contribute to her regular Forgotten Books Friday at her blog. Stop by and see my response here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I don’t save all my rejections to use as wallpaper or memorabilia. I read them, remember what’s worth remembering, and pitch them. Saves a lot of space for the TBR pile.

Three stick with me, which is probably why I don’t get too worked up over any of them. The first two are related. Several years ago I wrote a short story about a man who constantly feuds with his wife. They have their argument du jour and she goes upstairs to take a bath. He hears a bump from upstairs while he’s eating dinner, hollers up to ask what happened. She doesn’t answer, he goes up, and she’s dead. Classic bathtub accident.

He doesn’t think anyone will believe it was an accident, so he takes action he thinks will make the time of death seem later than it was, then goes to the local pub for his regular Monday night of football. Makes sure he’s seen—especially seen leaving—goes home, “finds” her, and calls it in. Of course, he doesn’t think of everything and winds up essentially framing himself.

Or did he do it? All the reader knows is what he tells someone who doesn’t reply, the entire story told through the husband’s words, ending with, “and you don’t believe me either, do you, Father?” I sent it to Ellery Queen, whose rejection said the story was too self-contained, it needed someone else at the end for him to play off of.

Easily done. I added a guard to walk him down Death Row and exchange an innocuous comment; the priest actually speaks. I sent the revised story to Alfred Hitchcock, who also rejected it, saying the added characters detracted from the atmosphere. I should have left it all in the guy’s head.

As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”

My other fave is for a novel my agent is still shopping. We got the following reply from an editor who passed: “It’s too good to go straight to paperback, but not original enough for a hardcover series.”

My threshold for insult is pretty high; I would have swallowed my pride over even a paltry paperback offer.

So what’s the point? No one knows. No, not “no one knows the point;” no one knows what will sell and what won’t, or why. People have guesses. Thanks to experience and instinct, some are better guessers than others. J.K. Rowling took forever to get published. Elmore Leonard, already established as a top writer of Westerns, had something like a hundred rejections for his first crime story. James Lee Burke had two literary books published as a young man, then couldn’t get published again until he turned to crime. Meanwhile, every year high six-figure advances get paid to authors who will have more copies in recycling plants than on bookshelves.

So what is the point? Don’t take it personal, and don’t get discouraged. No one knows anything, not for a certainty. The only hard and fast rule to being published, observed by greats from Faulkner to Tolstoy to Dickens to Steinbeck, is to finish the book. Sure, lots of finished books don’t get published; no unfinished ones do.

Monday, November 3, 2008

October Reading

A lot of writers’ blogs have started recapping what that writer has read over the past month. (Okay, maybe not a lot; Tim Hallinan and Declan Burke, for sure. They’re both excellent writers whose opinions I respect, so I’m not averse to using their examples for a few cheap credibility points.) October was a great, if somewhat light, reading month for me, so here are the highlights.

Trigger City, by Sean Chercover
Chercover’s second Ray Dudgeon PI story is a step up from what was obviously an excellent first book, since Big City, Bad Blood was nominated for every debut novel prize I can think of, and won its share. Tightly written with a great plot twist to raise the stakes in a believable manner halfway through, Trigger City is a polished and well-paced look at what the oft-maligned PI story can be in the Twenty-first Century.

In the Dark, by Mark Billingham
A departure from Billingham’s successful Tom Thorne series (though Thorne makes a cameo appearance), In the Dark is also his first attempt to step away from his established serial killer milieu. A multi-POV story that peels back the onion from both the police and criminal perspectives, it has two significant plot twists, and another peripheral surprise that’s definitely creepy. Once again, all are properly prepared and still surprising, providing for a satisfyingly adult read. This trend was continued in…

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, by John McFetridge
Like Chercover’s Trigger City, this is McFetridge’s second novel in what is becoming more or less a series, following Dirty Sweet. That was a good book; EKTIN kicks ass. It’s the bad guys who are the connecting thread in McFetridge Toronto-based stories, cleaned-up bikers looking to take over as the pre-eminent organized crime operation in Canada. The stories unfold at their own paces, the dialog is spot on, and the humor is always organic. A couple more well placed plot twists combine with the best opening scene in recent memory to make this as entertaining a read as you’re likely to find.

The best thing about all three of these books is they’re written for adults. Not because the sex, language, and violence are over the top; these writers buck the trend not to make things too onerous for any eighth graders who might happen upon a copy. A bright eighth grader would probably enjoy all three, though Mom might not be too delighted at his discovery. What sets these books apart is the writers’ willingness to trust their readers to keep up without having everything explained to them. It’s easy to forget how well this can propel a story, as rarely as we see it today. (I hope to have more on this in a few days.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Don't Quote Me on This

As Lionel Shriver notes in the Wall Street Journal, "Literature is not very popular these days. Anyone who writes literary fiction is happy to tell you it's a bitch to get literary fiction published. The reason it's a bitch is because much of it doesn't sell, and, in fairness to publishers, there's only so altruistic even the most high-minded editor can afford to be before they start turning out the lights and repossessing office furniture.

There are several reasons for this lack of sales potential. It's most often laid at the feet of the unwashed masses who refuse to look beyond American Idol and 24 for entertainment, and who think enlightenment is what happens when the sun comes up. This is, not surprisingly, the literary community's preferred view. Ignored is that community's tendency to turn its collective nose up at any novel that dares to become too popular. The pathology of this condition can easily be guessed at, and could keep a trained psychologist busy for several thousand words.

A key reason for this relegation of literary fiction to the fringes of public consciousness may be that literary writers seem less interested every year in writing for the public they would have buy their books. Please feel free to comment below and call me a block headed, undereducated dilettante, but the literary fiction of the past few decades seems more interested in receiving good reviews from Michiko Kakutani and authors' acknowledged peers than in actually being read. Story is passé; the sentence beautiful is all that matters. ("The sentence beautiful" can alternate with "the sentence indecipherable" to weed out lowbrows as necessary.)

Shriver picks up on this in his discussion of quotation marks. The timing is fortuitous for me, as I recently waded my way through the bramble-laden thickets of arcane prose Cormac McCarthy titled Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old Men as cited by Shriver, Blood Meridian uses no quotation marks. It's up to you to figure out who is speaking, or if anyone is speaking at all. Given the weight of McCarthy's prose—much of which is, admittedly, beautiful in its nihilistic way—this can be a burden.

I read somewhere that a writer's first responsibility is to give the reader a fighting chance. (That's a paraphrase; I’d cite it properly if I could find it.) Conventional rules of punctuation evolved to do just that. Readers expect it, and use those little non-spoken marks to know where to pause, how long to pause, organize thoughts, and not insignificantly, who is speaking. And when. Readers see those marks and the mind responds accordingly. When missing, the reader's attention is diverted from the story while he figures out what's going on. Writers trifle with this at their peril.

Some may argue that readers fully equipped to appreciate McCarthy or others who dispense with quotation marks will have no trouble navigating the literary landscape without so many signs to clutter the scenery. To borrow the quote from Julie Myerson, "In my experience of the world, there are no marks separating out what I think and what I say, or what other people do." I don't have any trouble separating what I think from what I say, either, because I'm there when it happens. Leaving out quotations marks, or any other accepted punctuation, places the reader in a position where he must read the author's mind to know what’s going on.

Classical music has gone through the same evolution. Orchestras audiences are still primarily attracted to what’s referred to as the “standard repertoire.” Twentieth Century composers became increasingly less interested in appealing to the public than to the critics and other composers who might be able to adequately “understand” the depth and breadth of their musical vision. That’s their privilege, just as it’s okay for a writer to use, not use, or alter the meaning of punctuation—even words—if he wants to. Just don't be surprised when the lines don’t form at your signings.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bouchercon 2008

I'm back from Bouchercon and finally getting caught up on the rest of my life. I got some books to review, two interviews set up with authors, and a TBR pile exponentially larger than before the conference. A rousing success for someone who doesn't meet people easily and had only spoken to one person there before last week.

Much of the credit for that has to go to the crime fiction writing and reading community. I was told I would meet a nicer bunch of people, and I was still pleasantly surprised. The whole atmosphere was conducive to renewing acquaintances and starting new ones. My personal highlights:

Being recognized by John McFetridge, Peter Rozovsky, Sandra Ruttan, Brian Lindemuth, Angie Johnson-Schmit, and Zoe Sharp, based primarily on my comments to their blogs and Crimespace comments.

Meeting Declan Hughes while standing at a urinal. We each made a great show of washing up before shaking hands. A woman saw us coming out on her way to the ladies' room and said she never met anyone cool in the bathroom. I told her she was going to the wrong bathroom.

A enjoyable and wide-ranging chat with Austin Camacho between panels.

Learning not only that crime fiction writers are convincing liars (I was shocked! Shocked!) but that Laura Lippman can crank out fifty pushups on demand, Mark Billingham wore size 9 shoes and once played cricket with a frog, and that John Connolly found unexpected entertainment from the movie The Last of the Mohicans.

Sean Chercover, Bill Cameron, Libby Hellman, Harry Hunsicker, and Duane Swierczynski watched way too much television in their formative years. (And that the evil presence of John Boy Walton lurks behind everything Bill Cameron writes.)

Be very careful what you post online, because you should assume everyone reads everything you ever wrote.

It would be nice to allow Jack Reacher to deal with some of the nut jobs who sent Lee Child “reviews” of his latest book.

That listening to Declan Hughes talk about PI fiction can make a PI writer feel as though he’s answering a higher calling.

And, last but not least, it’s hard to imagine better company for a pleasant Saturday evening than (in alphabetical order) Declan Burke, Angie Johnson-Schmit, John McFetridge, Peter Rozovsky, and Gerald So, ably assisted at times by Donna Allen, Brian Lindemuth, Jeremy Trylch, and Greg from Philly, whose last name I would have caught had I know what a nice guy he was going to be.

You had to be there to get most—if any—of these references; you should have been there, anyway.

Next year: Indianapolis!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Food Noir

Restaurants aren’t just snow white tablecloths and smiling hostesses. While you’re out trying to have a good time, eat a nice meal, the owner is treading a thin line between giving you what you paid for and making a profit. Sometimes they cross that line. That’s where I come in. My name’s Sundae. I’m a health inspector.

It was hot the way only the Strip District can be hot. The seams in the pavement were as tacky as freshly chewed gum on the soles of my shoes. The smells of Restaurant Row were everywhere, Italian and Chinese, Indian and Mexican, burgers, ribs, and one joint advertising Cambodian hot dogs. No one ate there.

It was a little after two when I rolled up on Manella’s Ristorante at the corner of Grant and Warburton. Complaints had been made about the lettuce in the Caesar salad being old enough to have heard Antony’s speech. It was the kind of call I handle every day.

The place brought back memories. Guido and Sal Manella opened it almost thirty years ago and built it into the capo di tutti capi of Italian restaurants on the Strip. Sal went away a while ago to study large group catering for seven to fifteen years at state expense on a sauce dilution rap. Guido had his fingers in too many other pies to run the place himself, so he had to get a manager.

I pushed through the door and paused inside to let my eyes adjust to the light. It was always dim in Manella’s, but today it was two shades past romantic. Not even the dining room’s murk could disguise the dish standing at the hostess’ station.
She was tall enough without the three-inch pumps that were probably red. Her hair was black and lustrous, hanging past her shoulders and trailing behind her head whenever she moved it. Her almond-shaped eyes made every glance a seduction, even if you could ignore the dress that showed every contour of her body without revealing anything. She was hotter than the plates in a Mexican restaurant.

“Yes? How many in your party?” She had one of those Italian accents that are learned through years in the restaurant business. She’d never been closer to Italy than the bottomless salad bowl at Olive Garden.

“Just me, but I bring my party with me.” I flipped her my tin. “Sundae. Board of Health.” Her smile disappeared quicker than the “all you can eat” buffet at a Weight Watchers convention.

“I get the manager.” The accent was heavier now. She made sure I got a good look at the melon patch when she turned. It had been tried before, by women with more talent for it. Not many, though, and not for a long time.

“That’s all right, I know where to go. I’ll just follow the flies.” I pushed past her and walked toward the kitchen like I had a purpose in life. She was one step behind me all the way.

The kitchen wasn’t any brighter than the dining room and a lot less romantic. The lunch rush had been over for an hour, but any signs of clean-up were as miniscule as the nutrition in a wad of cotton candy. The stainless steel countertops were fighting a lonely battle to remain that way.

“You really should speak with the manager,” she said loud enough for everyone in the kitchen to hear. The accent was slipping. Jersey, maybe. Big surprise.

A busboy moved for a door across the room as soon as he heard her. “You! In the apron!” I called. He stopped with one hand on the swinging door. I crooked a finger for him to come to me. “Over here.”

“Me? Who are you to boss me around?” He had an accent, too, but it was as Italian as a jalapeno.

I got in his face and gave him the look the farmer gives the turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. “Just show me what I want to see, or your butt is lettuce and I’m the Cuisinart. Where’s the olive oil?”

He didn’t want to show me. It was as obvious as a piece of spinach stuck to a tooth at a formal dinner. He was straining himself to think of something to say when another voice cut through the murk like a Ginsu knife through rotisserie lamb.

“Show him the oil, Tino. We got nothing to hide.”

Eugene Coli had started out as a busboy in a hash joint on Newberry and moved up quickly. He earned a reputation as someone who wasn’t fussy about what went in the trash and what got recycled. We pulled him in a few times for sending garnishes out for a second or third go-round, but he always had enough juice to beat the rap. Contact with him was considered bad for your health. Everyone called him E.

The hostess drew in her breath and went from cantaloupes to watermelons. Tino looked at E. Coli, then at me, and smiled his smug little minion smile. “Right here,” he said. “Extra virgin, just like the sign says.”

I had lost interest in Tino as soon as Coli entered the room. “Hello, E. You still trying to pass off crayfish as petit lobster?”

“I heard you were checking the sneeze guards at Denny’s, Sundae.”

I’d heard them all before. “I got a promotion. Now I’m in charge of seeing that the fish aren’t rotting from the head down. That’s how I drew you.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, I was the one with the cheap star in my pocket. The hostess was watching me now, her tongue running over her lips like she had a bowl of spumoni no one else could see.

I looked at the bottle of oil Tino was holding out for me. “No. Not this one. Back there.” I jerked my head toward a barred door in the back.

That woke up Coli. “Just a minute, Sundae. I’ve been a good host so far, but you can’t have the run of my place without a warrant.”

“A warrant?” My laugh was genuine. “Sure, I got one here somewhere. Betty Crocker signed it.” I turned on him directly. “I’m not looking for criminal activity, just health violations. I don’t need a warrant.” I turned back to Tino. “Open the door.”

He didn’t want to open that door any more than Emeril Legasse wants the Number Four combo at Popeye’s. I didn’t have any friends in the room and a standoff was as imminent as flatulence at a chili contest.

The tension was thick as a Guinness draft when the hostess walked past me and opened the door. Coli gave her a look as hard as a year-old jawbreaker. “What are you doing, Cinnamon?” he asked.

“There’s no need for anyone to get hurt over this,” she said to him, but she was looking at me the way a gourmet eyes the menu at Spago.

I pushed past her before Coli could recover and scooped the first bottle of oil I found. I had my field testing kit with me, but I knew I wouldn’t need it as soon as I opened the bottle. I stuck a finger in and tasted the Pomace used to dilute the oil.

“This stuff’s as virgin as Madonna,” I said to no one in particular, staring straight at Coli. “Lock the doors. Everyone gets the rest of the day off.”

He was still staring at the hostess as the others filed out. “How could you do this to me, Cinnamon?”

I answered for her. “Some restaurateur you are. Everyone knows that cinnamon, when properly prepared, is an effective weapon against E. Coli.”

She and I walked out together. We stopped at the corner where I was parked. The sun gave her cheeks the glow of early-ripening apples. We waited a bit to see who would speak first. Our eyes were exchanging enough heat to broil a porterhouse. I looked at my watch. “I’m through here, and you have the rest of the day off. What say we get something to eat?”

“I’d like that. I seem to have developed quite a craving for dessert. A nice, big sundae, maybe. I just hope it won’t go soft on me if things get hot.”
Her heels made her almost as tall as I was, and I could feel my appetite rising as our gazes met. “Don’t worry, Sugar. I’ll bring the banana, you bring the split.”

(Food Noir was originally published in New Mystery Reader.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Everyone's a Critic. Or Should Be.

As the heading says, I am a humble writer, with much to be humble about. What accomplishment I can point to is largely due to the encouragement and support of Stephanie Padilla, the editor of New Mystery Reader. Through a series of questionable decisions probably attributable to sleep deprivation, Stephanie has seen fit to publish over eighty of my reviews, four short stories, four author interviews, and an appreciation of the late Ed McBain.

In addition to the much appreciated writing credits, producing reviews has definitely made me a better fiction writer. All writers must develop critical reading skills, both to learn what works and to unmask what doesn’t. That’s not news; everyone who read this far knows that. What writing reviews does—or should do—is force you to justify your opinions.

Declan Burke speaks a little of this at Crime Always Pays. To wit:

[Crime fiction as a genre] deserves more from me, certainly, than reviews that run along the lines of, “This is a great book because I liked it and I liked it because it’s a great book.”

No point asking how many of you have read reviews like the one he describes; we all have. Written by well-known reviewers for major publications, too. Maybe that’s enough for the casual reader who wants to be sure the body count meets his standard. Serious readers—and anyone wishing to call himself a writer must, of necessity, be a serious reader—need more. Speaking personally, I can forgive plot holes if I’m enjoying the trip; the more enjoyable the trip, the more holes I can tolerate. True, a point can be reached where there are so many holes the fabric of the story doesn’t hold together no matter how entertaining the reading, but a book that reads more like a chore than a pleasure had better be damn near perfect in its plot.

This is where proper criticism can step up. A bit of synopsis is needed; the reader may be able to eliminate a book from his potential To Be Read pile by that alone, and a reviewer’s first duty is to that reader and her twenty-five bucks. The synopsis alone is but a recitation of facts; a book report. At best, it can tell a reader whether a book is worth reading at all, when placed in conjunction with the reader’s tastes. The reviewer’s real value comes from explaining why, or why not, the reader should invest time and money.

It’s not enough to say you liked the characters; why did you like them? What is it makes them people you enjoyed spending several hours with in the already crowded confines of your head? Did the dialog help or hurt? How? Why? Justify everything. If you think the banter between Parker, Louis, and Angel brings John Connolly’s books alive in a similar manner to the interplay between Spenser and Hawk, then don’t settle for “I liked the dialog. It was good.” Make the comparison. Reversing the situation, if the author is writing in the style of someone else and doesn’t quite pull it off, say so. But tell where he falls short.

This is not an altruistic endeavor; it will improve your fiction. Having to justify your opinions in writing forces you to examine them. This constant re-evaluation can only deepen your comprehension of your strengths and weaknesses, and, hopefully, help you to understand whether to leverage a strength, improve a weakness, or find another way to write a troublesome passage.

Reviewing makes you read for a different level of comprehension, as well as to improve your expressiveness of that new level of appreciation. Opportunities are not scarce; the proliferation of online venues means you should be able to find an outlet. Too busy to add another obligation to your plate? Write them for yourself when you want to think more on a recently read book. Have fun with it. Write it up as a conversation. Compile comments on several books into a manifesto of your writing philosophy.

All writers, especially new ones, search for the voice that will tell their stories in their unique way. How do find that voice—or voices, as different stories may demand different methods—is always vexing. It may be impossible without a more complete knowledge of your own tastes and abilities than can be obtained by reading along. Law school has been said to sharpen the mind by narrowing it; reviewing may sharper your skills by examining them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Generation Kill

I finished my binge watching of HBO’s Generation Kill over the weekend. (Binge watching is a technique for watching serial programming the Spousal Equivalent and I perfected when catching up on Deadwood after missing the first season. Don’t watch the shows when they’re broadcast; record them, and watch them in chunks of two or three hours—or more—at a time. We spent New Year’s Eve 2007 watching five hours of The Wire and were pissed because we ran out of episodes.) Generation Kill is a worthy addition to the David Simon/Ed Burns oeuvre, not as dissimilar to The Wire as the setting suggests.

First, GK is a well-done drama. It’s scary and frustrating and laugh out loud funny, sometimes simultaneously. The major characters are multi-dimensional and well-rounded. Using real people helps, but we’ve all seen movies—books and television shows, too—where real people were made to look as one-dimensional as any comic book. Evan Wright—who wrote the original Rolling Stone articles—worked hand in glove with Simon and Burns to make sure they got it right. A military advisor made sure the equipment and tactics were accurate, and having an actual member of the 1st Marine Recon Battalion in the cast didn’t hurt. (Sergeant Rudy Reyes plays himself.)

In addition to being a thought-provoking look at our military in Iraq, Generation Kill is highly entertaining. I’ve not read the book, but I understand the miniseries to be a faithful reproduction. There are a few quibbles on the Internet about how faithful Wright’s articles and book are to the events portrayed, but it can be assumed he wrote the story from the perspective of the grunts in his platoon. Complaining about NCOs who are assholes and incompetent officers is a time-honored prerogative of the man whose boots are in the mud. (For a well reasoned and thoughtful second opinion of GK by someone in a position to know, click here.)

Simon and Burns leverage this perspective to make the same point they made so artfully in The Wire, and in their previous television effort, The Corner: the “system” won’t save. Doesn’t matter if it’s the military, law enforcement, or government, the only hope anyone has for redemption is in his or her own hands. The system is the system, and its primary task, almost by definition, is to perpetuate itself. That’s not necessarily bad thing—it depends on the system—but whatever system you’re involved with isn’t likely to save you.

The other great, and more hopeful, accomplishment of Generation Kill is to humanize the Marines, and, through them, all of the military. They’re not perfect. The language is foul, and some of them enjoy the act of killing a lot more than they ought to. Overall, though, their redemption comes in the form of the pride in completing their mission, and in their dedication to their peers. They get tired and scared and angry and profane and violent like anyone would in situations such as they’re exposed to, and consistently acquit themselves well. No one died in the 1st Marine Recon during their involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which shows, as Lt. Colonel Shoup points out in his excellent commentary referenced above, the leadership couldn’t have been as bad as perceived by the men in their positions of limited situational awareness.

Sergeant Major Sixta is a prime example. He’s shown as the biggest asshole in the battalion for most of the series, jerking men around over the grooming standard and the length of their mustaches. He’s missing through much of the middle part of the series, and reappears during a period of questionable morale to ask a junior officer whether it was time to enforce the grooming standard again. Far from being petty, it’s an indication that Sixta knows Marines are always bitching, and it’s better to direct that bitching away from something that would become counterproductive and potentially dangerous down the road.

Lt. Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, commander of 1st Recon, is shown as a hard-driving, career-oriented, tough, yet compassionate officer, torn between two sensibilities: one to his mission, and the other to his men. He’s not perfect, and he’s been given missions neither he nor his men appreciate, but he’ll do the best he can. We’d all do well to remember this about those who have fought in all our wars. They’re not saints, they’re not wholly selfless, and they’re not a bunch of baby-killing psychopaths. They get tired and cold and hungry and have to go to the bathroom and get horny just like everyone else. Teaching the rest of us how it all plays out day-to-day under the mix of tedium and terror that is military life may be Generation Kill’s greatest accomplishment.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Underpants Gnomes

South Park once did a wonderful story about Underpants Gnomes. Tweak, the boys' new friend, was constantly wired on caffeine from the coffee his coffee shop-owning parents kept pumping into him. (Yes, they would do that. This is South Park we're talking about. Besides, if you read past the Underpants Gnomes premise, what's the problem with a ten-year-old caffeine addict?) Since Tweak never slept, he was awake to see the Underpants Gnomes march into his bedroom every morning at 3:30 and steal his underpants. Everyone thought he was making it up, until he got Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and fat ass Cartman wired with him one night, and they saw the gnomes themselves.

South Park being South Park, the boys followed the gnomes back to their underground factory, where the master business plan was unveiled.

Step 1. Acquire underpants
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profits.

When one of the boys asked what Step Two was, the head gnome said they hadn't figured that part out yet. This struck me as hysterically funny, as I was currently working for a business with exactly that plan.

Unfortunately, that's how I plot stories. I get a good idea. Not just an idea I think is good; everyone I mention it to likes it. They immediately ask how it comes out, and I tell them. They like that, too. Then someone always asks how I get from the idea to the conclusion.


That's where I am now with the soon-to-be work in progress. I have the premise, and it's good. The ending needs to be tidied up, but it lays fine, too. The catch is in how I can get the cop to solve the crime without making the story too linear, or going to the opposite extreme and having to depend on divine intervention like a meteor or an earthquake or having the solution come to him in a dream. Letting the threads play out without letting them become so tangled I can't tie them together is the most vexing part of writing for me.

A couple of writers whom I respect recently told me to let it happen. Get to know the characters, find some event to kick off the story, and go wherever they take me. Sounds like a lot of fun. I swear on my stack of Raymond Chandler novels to try it sometime. It's just that nothing is more intimidating to me than sitting in front of a blank computer screen, not knowing what comes next. My first drafts aren't much fun. I enjoy the crafting, the refining, getting the tone and humor just right, adding little things that don't really move the story along as much as they make the story—I hope—worth reading.

So, once again, I'm plotting everything out in relatively detailed fashion. My problem is that my endings usually come to me, unbidden, as part of the premise. The writing of the book is how to get from A to Z. I never know how I'll describe getting from Point C to Point D until the time comes, but at least I'll know where Point D is. Maybe next time I'll try the Patricia Highsmith method, and plot only a few chapters ahead. Then, after that, I'll wing it and let the story comes as it may.

Really. I mean it. I'll try. I'm already getting short of breath just thinking about it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Priceless Resource

Crime fiction writers have resources available to us now our literary ancestors could not have imagined. The Internet. Citizen police academies, where writers can get a taste of police work from the inside. A couple of hundred cable channels competing to see who can show the down and dirtiest true crime stories. Another couple of hundred channels for movies, including some devoted entirely to crime flicks. TiVo and DVRs so you can watch whenever you want. NetFlix. All of these are great; we've all used them. Still, for anyone who wants to know what law enforcement is like, not cleaned up or sanitized, nor sensationalized, there are only two words you need to remember.

Connie Fletcher.

A journalism professor at Loyola of Chicago, Fletcher has written five books on police work and criminal investigations. So have a lot of people. Fletcher's gift is her willingness to step back and let the cops tell their stories. Literally. She gets groups of cops together in small groups in a restaurant or coffee shop and lets them talk. No one bullshits her; his peers will call him on it. Then Fletcher takes the best stories, the ones that give the most well-rounded picture of what it's like to be a cop in the cops' own words, and prints them up. It's so simple it's brilliant.

The first book, What Cops Know, covered the street, violent crimes, sex crimes, narcotics, property crimes, and organized crime from the perspective of 125 Chicago police officers. It's sequel, Pure Cop, stayed in Chicago and discussed the bomb squad, arson, prostitution, crime scene investigations (well before anyone thought of CSI), major accidents (which are treated as crime scenes in Chicago; remember that the next time you're wondering why it's taking so long to clear an intersection. They have to be sure it really was an accident), hostage/barricade incidents, and another look at the street.

Then she branched out to explore the challenges faced by female officers, rounding up cops nationally for Breaking and Entering. In 2006 Fletcher addressed the explosive growth in crime scene interest with Every Contact Leaves a Trace. This year's entry is Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs. All are presented with the same unvarnished truthfulness; all are full of fascinating vignettes that run from one paragraph to three pages, tales of things that really happened, told by a profession that ranks among America's leading raconteurs: cops.

You'll learn things you never realized you didn’t know, or that there was such an area of expertise. You'll read of horrible things, told so matter of factly they'll seem even more horrible once you realize what you've just been told, and that this person—you won't think of them as cops, they're people—sees and deals with every day. And you'll laugh. Some of the stories are genuinely funny, and some are the graveyard humor of someone coping with the unforgettable.

Probably the most intriguing thing I learned that I hadn't realized I didn't know came in What Cops Know. What television show best captures what it's like to be a cop? (This was 1990, so The Wire, Homicide, and NYPD Blue had yet to make appearances.) Hill Street Blues had just finished its award winning run. Dragnet was long since an icon. Adam-12 had shown life in a patrol car. What show did the cops pick as most accurately showing what their jobs were like?

Barney Miller.

You gotta love that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Welcome to One Bite at a Time. Credit for the title goes to my beloved Spousal Equivalent, who gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I've received a lot of good writing advice. (The doldrums in which my "career" currently resides are due entirely to my own failings; I have been singularly fortunate in getting the attention and good advice of many.)

One day a few years ago, The Spousal Equivalent caught me whining about how discouraging it was to know I had probably fifty thousand words left to write on the current project. The thirty thousand I already had on disk were of no consequence. As a writer, I'm not one of those "glass is half empty" guys; my glass is broken and the water is running onto valuable things that will be irretrievably damaged by the contact.

She recommended for me to stop looking at the enormity of the total task, and to "eat the elephant one bite at a time. Now there's rarely any more on my plate than I can accomplish in a day, or some other easily digested period of time, and I never have those slumps where I can't bear to sit down and write because I can only accomplish an infinitesimal amount of the work before me.

That's what I hope will happen here. This will be a place to work out ideas, theories, maybe even a scene or two. I hope others will stop by and agree or disagree, and that we can all learn something from each other, a little bit at a time. With luck, I can share something that works for me and may be of use for someone else.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you, and your comments, again.