Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Reads of 2009

I started keeping track of every book I read a few years ago. I never would have remembered all the great books I read this year if I hadn’t written them down; there were too many.

The following list contains the best books I read for the first time in 2009, regardless of when they were published. (Which is why The Big Sleep isn’t listed.) Last year I named five. This year I planned for ten and was able to pare it to a baker’s dozen only by creating a list of honorable mentions that would have probably made the list in any other year.

Here’s my list, in the order in which they were read.

A Darker Domain, Val McDermid – My first McDermid, it won’t be the last. Excellent cold case story with class differences at the crux. McDermid’s from caol people, and understands them, and their trials. There’s no overt social comment, but it’s rife between the lines, making this en excellent book on multiple levels. The understated writing style is a perfect fit.

The Given Day
, Dennis Lehane – Much anticipated, and even better than I’d hoped. Lehane has long written crime stories that were about something more; now he’s written a book about something more than happens to have crime in it. A wonderful book.

The Ice Harvest, Scott Phillips – I saw the movie and liked it. I met Scott at Bouchercon in Baltimore and liked him. Everyone who knew me and had read it said I’d like it, so I read it. Liked it even more than I expected. A noir story with humor, not gags, the narrator and reader laughing at what clueless bastards these guys are, and waiting to see how the crime gods will smite them next.

Hardcore Hardboiled
, edited by Todd Robinson – A collection of stories originally published by Robinson’s Thuglit website. As with any anthology, some stories are stronger than others, but this collection touches all the bases. Sean Chercover’s award-winning “A Sleep Not Unlike Death” is here, along with high octane stories from Tim Wohlforth, Ryan Oakley, Victor Gischler, B.H. Shepherd, Vincent Kovar, Duane Swierczynski, David Bareford, Charlie Stella, and several others all worth the time. (Full disclosure: I would have loved this book even if I didn’t have a story appearing in Thuglit’s next anthology. And gotten a free copy based on my detailed knowledge of Apocalypse Now. Honest to God.)

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman – I’m not much of fan of her Tess Monaghan stories, but Lippman’s shorts and standalones are as good as anyone’s. This book is everything a taut mystery should be.

Fifty Grand,
Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe has suffered enough in McKinty’s Dead series. This standalone about a Cuban cop looking for answers about how her father died in Colorado is as tightly written as one would expect from McKinty. He knows the territories, having lived in Colorado and spent time in Cuba, and leverages that knowledge with the right amount of cynicism and sardonic eye. Wherever he goes from here is worth watching.

Breathing Water
, Timothy Hallinan – Hallinan may be my favorite contemporary writer. No one writes believable thrillers like he does. He doesn’t just pay lip service to the importance of characters and relationships; his books are about them. The writing treads the line between hardboiled and poetic at times. No one writes more complete and engrossing thrillers. And he keep getting better.

All the Dead Voices
, Declan Hughes – Speaking of continuing to get better, the fourth Ed Loy novel picks a few scabs from the Irish Troubles that weren’t well received by some who were closer to them than I. The controversy’s a shame, as Hughes merges his usual Macdonald-esque family secrets story with the historical backdrop to go to another level.

Cottonwood, Scott Phillips – I loved The Ice Harvest, I like Westerns, so what the hell? The hell of it is, this might be an even better book than Ice Harvest. Phillips has shown interest in using Bill Ogden in a series. Let’s hope so. The voice here is as perfect as the one used for Ice Harvest, though different, as the stories are much different. Phillips nails them both.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – Technically this shouldn’t be here, as I’d read it quite a while ago, before I knew enough to get what Higgins was up to. Now I get it; this truly is a seminal work.

Chasing Darkness
, Robert Crais – Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are reading comfort food to me, among the reasons this book was in my hand when the plane took off for Bouchercon in Indianapolis. That’s not why I was still reading in my hotel room after midnight. Crais is now at the height of his skill; his comfort with these characters is evident on every page. In this familiarity does not breed contempt, but a willingness to take them wherever he wants.

Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy – My only previous Ellroy was The Cold Six Thousand, and I hated it. Blood’s a Rover hooked me in the first scene and held me, sometimes against my will, through to the end. Love it or hate it, there’s genius sprinkled throughout; you’ll always remember it.

London Boulevard
, Ken Bruen – An updated take on Sunset Boulevard, with William Holden’s Joe Gillis replaced by someone more like Richard Stark’s Parker. All the usual Bruen trademarks and a refreshing perspective on a familiar story. Cold-blooded fun.

Swan Peak, James Lee Burke – I wasn’t sure about this one at first, and I still don’t think his lush descriptions suit Montana as well as they do Louisiana, but multiple layers of story and character combine with a nifty twist at the ending to make this a first-class read.

And that still doesn’t cover it. Honorable mention goes to:
Priest, Ken Bruen
High Season, Jon Loomis
Soul Patch, Reed Farrel Coleman
Swag, Elmore Leonard
Slammer, Allan Guthrie
Family Secrets, Jeff Coen
Silent Edge, Michael Koryta
No More Heroes, Ray Banks
Shakedown, Charlie Stella

If 2010 reads as well as 2009, I’d better rest up.

December's Best Reads

My reading year ended with a bang.

Mischief, Ed McBain – A good, old-school, everyone gets into the act 87th Precinct story, featuring the Deaf Man. Meyer and Hawes get the mystery of abandoned Alzheimer’s patients, Parker and Kling have to work the killings of graffiti artists, and Carella and Brown have to figure out what the hell the Deaf Man is up to. All the stories end with less than perfect resolutions, and McBain is in fine form as the narrator.

Somebody Owes Me Money
, Donald Westlake –The Hunter, played for laughs. Chester Conway gets a tip on a horse and winds, then shows up to collect a few minutes after his bookie gets clipped. The bookie’s widow, his sister, two crime factions, and the cops all think Chet’s involved when all he wants is his $930. He’s going to get it, though. Laugh out loud funny in spots, especially when Chet is laid up and all the other players pass though his bedroom to advance their agendas. Great fun.

Swan Peak, James Lee Burke – His flowing descriptions seem better suited for the lush vegetation of Louisiana than to the sometimes stark beauty of Montana, but Dave Robicheaux always delivers. Clete’s more involved here than usual as a vacation goes sour when he accidentally camps on restricted property. Local law, the feds, organized crime, and a Texas escapee and his pursuer complicate things right up to the ending that doesn’t end quite how you expect.

Shakedown, Charlie Stella – A New York bookie quits the business three months before his old boss turns state’s evidence. Multiple plot lines interweave, and no one does anything out-of-character stupid just to advance the plot; it all makes sense when the decisions are made, no matter how badly things turn out. The mobsters are unapologetically, not caricatures, and the dialog is dead on.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Female Protagonists

Christa Faust recently linked her blog to an article she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine on the fetishization of beautiful female victims. (It’s well worth your time; I’ll wait until you finish.)

I don’t read as much crime fiction by women, or with female protagonists, as I might, or probably should. This has gotten better over the past couple of years, but not greatly so. I have my reasons:

Female protagonists are too often men with breasts and no Adam’s apples. They’re young, sexy, and kick ass. I have nothing against young, sexy, kickass women in principle, but they’re not exactly falling out of trees. (Neither are young, sexy, kickass men, either, but the genre isn’t afraid to have middle-aged, dumpy male heroes.) What’s the point of replacing one stereotype with another, even less realistic?

Female protagonists too often depend on men (or divine intervention) to solve their cases or save their asses. Stephanie Plum comes to mind. You can think of others without me.

Stories with female protagonists are too often cozies in hard-boiled clothing. A lot of people like cozies; generally, I don’t. Whether you do or don’t, a cozy masquerading as hard-boiled is either awkward or comes off as a parody, and parody is harder to pull off than it looks.

Authors—male and female—too often seem uncomfortable with a heroine’s, uh, personal life. How sexually aggressive, or even sexually active, should she be? Will she seem like a bitch if she’s Type A, or a pushover if she’s not? Awkwardness by the writer in this area can easily ruin a book. (Awkwardness in this area by the character can make a book. Many people have this issue, and I suspect women in traditionally male positions probably more than most.)

I’ve come across three female authors who handle all of the above well: Sara Paretzky, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and Christa Faust. (There are, I know, many more. I just haven’t got to them yet.) Christa’s Angel Dare in Money Shot could be a seminal character. (No pun intended.) It’s good to hear Christa has finished the sequel. Having gone that far, Christa is now looking at another breakthrough:

Would it be possible to create a female version of Bucky Bleichert, the obsessed detective in Ellroy’s Black Dahlia? Would a traditionally feminine woman ever fall for a murdered man? Would she moon over his handsome photo, promising his image that she would bring his killer to justice? Or is there something so inherently masculine about the archetype of the white knight avenging the dead maiden that its opposite just doesn’t work?

There’s some hard-wiring to be overcome. Men are the traditional hunters/protectors and women are the traditional gatherers/nurturers. We also know those are not hard and fast rules, especially not in the 21st Century where familial roles are often reversed and single parents are not uncommon. Why wouldn’t some of these characteristics bleed over into the other gender in a realistic way?

Why can’t a woman go “down these mean streets…who is not [her]self mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid?” The situations she could reasonably get herself out of might not get as dire as what a man might be expected to handle, but such a woman would have to be smart and resourceful enough to recognize them and plan exit strategies. She need be neither a nymphomaniac nor frigid; she’s more likely to handle a .32 than a .44, but the smaller gun is just as deadly if used expertly. She may prefer cooking over sports, or not; I know women of both persuasions, and neither precludes the smarts and toughness needed to carry such a story.

Personally, I’d love to read a book like the one Christa describes, so long as it’s not done as a novelty. (And she certainly wouldn’t do it that way.) Such a book might open the gates for a lot of writers. If Spenser can be so overtly masculine while loving to cook, why can’t a woman be solidly feminine and like to build cabinets?

There are two potential hurdles to be overcome. One is whether a woman such as we’re talking about could be reasonably written. I suspect so, but not by me. Part of that is, frankly, because I’m a man. I can relate to the “Laura” scenario; I have no idea if a woman would be so inclined to fall prey to a “Lawrence” obsession. There are a lot of excellent writers who don’t have that problem.

The second, and, I suspect, greater problem is how the public would take to it. We all know best-sellers aren’t created by challenging people’s notions. James Patterson didn’t get to be James Patterson by trying to expand his readers’ horizons. Even Lee Child, whose writing I like, gives pretty much the same Reacher conventions book after book. There may be a glass ceiling here of “cult phenomenon.” Nothing wrong with that. Hell, compared to what makes a best seller, much of what anyone who sees this might read probably qualifies as a cult book.

What such a book might best do is start a discussion. A sub-genre might spring up. A lot of those books would be shit—most of anything is shit—but good examples would grow like mushrooms through it. Enough of this and the female characters who support traditional male heroes might eventually become more diversified and multi-dimensional in a realistic way. There’s no down side to any of that.

I hope she follows through and finds a publisher. She’ll sell at least one copy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Year In Review

There’s not a lot has changed for us
Since last I sent a rhyme,
What has changed has been memorable,
And worth a little time.

So chronologically I’ll tell
The story of our year,
I’ll say my piece and then get out,
I’ll not long bend your ear.

A story Dana wrote will be
In print in twenty-ten,
We’ll give a date precise when we
Find out, and only then.

The spring is when it’s likely to
Be found in better stores,
As part of an anthology
Made up of crime and gore.

The Sole Heir donned a cap and gown
To graduate in June,
The family convened in droves;
Agoraphobes would swoon.

In summer Colorado Kings
Came east, and we northwest,
To spend a week with Mom and Dad,
And get a little rest.

‘Twas meant to be relaxing time
Back at the old homestead,
Instead, most time was taken up
In building me a shed.

Then Rachel took the center stage
When school came letting in
Matriculating at the U
Of M, a Terrapin.

A scholarship hard earned will pay
For most of what she owes,
Allowing her to save some cash
For where’er next she goes.

Then just when everyone was sure
The year would surely pass
With whimper in lieu of a bang,
Like many in the past

Beloved Spouse Equivalent
And I had one surprise:
Thanksgiving weekend, here at home,
For just the family’s eyes

We married in our living room,
A most informal wed,
Still, binding legally it is,
(At least, that’s what they said).

An honest man and woman we
Have made of her and me,
To bring this year to rousing end,
Another full of glee.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pink Panther and Ronin

Snowed like a bastard here this weekend, so I rested after the daily shoveling exercise to watch some hockey and a couple of movies.

The Return of the Pink Panther isn’t one of the better ones, but there are still quite a few laughs. Henry Mancini’s score holds up over thirty years later; it was nice to remember there was a time when segues and establishing shots were actually scored, instead of the current practice of using a pop tune. Herbert Lom manages to steal his scenes as the deranged Chief Inspector Dreyfus, no mean feat when sharing the camera with Peter Sellers. Given what we now know about Sellers, it’s easy to believe Lom wasn’t acting when describing how much he’d like to see Clouseau/Sellers dead.

Ronin is a thriller/caper/action flick that could easily have become stereotypical but for the understated bonding between Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno and the writing of David Mamet. (Mamet received no credit, but IMDB mentions him as a script doctor; little Mamet touches abound.) John Frankenheimer’s film is smart and holds together better than the usual Michael Bay explode-a-thon, even daring to make the audience think. That’s not to say it’s too cerebral; the car chases are riveting by any standards.

There are double-crosses on top of double-crosses; to say much about the plot would be to say too much. Suffice to say DeNiro is part of an international team pulled together on short notice to steal a case for an undisclosed organization; they don’t know what’s in it. The only face they see is of a young Irish woman. That’s not to say the organization is Irish; not to say, it isn’t, either. There are the usual friends with really good connections and sources to smooth out bumps in the plot, but not too many, and they’re not overly convenient. If you’re in the mood to watch an action movie that isn’t mind-numbing, you could do a lot worse than Ronin.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties wasn’t the movie I expected. Literally. I thought this was the one where James Cagney pushed the grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face. Halfway through I realized that happened in Public Enemy. So it goes.

The Roaring Twenties still wasn’t the movie I expected, even after I understood I was watching the wrong movie. Released in 1939, it’s not the typical gangster movie, showing how Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett was eased into becoming a bootlegger by not getting a square deal when he returned from World War I. He works his way to the top of his world (no, that’s another different Cagney movie) before the end of Prohibition sends his career, and him, into the gutter.

Two things stand out right away. First is the unflinching look at how quickly this country tired of welcoming home the returning soldiers. Part of this was, I’m sure, fears of the Spanish flu that led some troop ships to being quarantined before they could enter the country. That explains the lack of parades, but the disdain Cagney’s characters receives when he asks for his old job back goes well beyond that. The man who now has the job—and knows he’ll keep it—is overheard to say, “Yeah, those monkeys are gonna' find out what a picnic they had on Uncle Sam's dough while we stayed home and worked!”

There’s also a narrated montage showing how Prohibition and the Volstead act created the bootlegging industry overnight. It’s eerily similar to scenes that have since become common, with whiskey bottles serving the role in 1939 that cocaine, marijuana, and heroin have served for the past thirty years; even the packages resemble each other. Anyone who can watch this, see the similarities, and still not think we’re fighting the wrong war on drugs, isn’t paying attention.

The last half hour doesn’t hold up. Prohibition ends and bootleggers fall on hard times because drinking is legal again. Anyone into crime know that’s not how it worked, with rare exceptions. Bootleggers with a clue were so well fixed during Prohibition, the transition wasn’t that much of a problem. Eddie’s estranged partner, George Halley (Humphrey Bogart) seems to be doing fine; how is never explained. After doing a great—and what was probably at the time a daring—exploration so far, the film goes for a standard Hollywood ending.

The Roaring Twenties is worth watching just for the first hour, and to see Cagney and Bogart work together. Don’t be mad if you doze off toward the end.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shoeless Joe

Dan O'Shea has a flash fiction challenge going on at his blog, Going Ballistic. Check out the links for the premise and other stories. Mine is below.


Only in America do you take off your shoes. I was in Mexico last year, standing in line for a flight, and the guy comes running up to me, practically laughing. “SeƱor, por favor, there is no need to remove sus zapatas. That is only in America.” Made me feel like the only Protestant at Mass, standing or sitting when I wasn’t supposed to. Parents smacked small children for laughing at the ignorant gringo.

So this time I was getting on a plane in Miami and I do have to take off my shoes. I bent over to take them off and the woman in front of me was wearing an ankle bracelet. Those things are sexy, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because only women with nice ankles ever wear them, which I wish some of those who wear belly shirts would think of once in a while. My eye moved up to her calf, which was time well spent. She had knee dimples, which I also think are sexy as hell. By the time I took a peek at her thighs she had her shoes off and caught me. I looked away, though she didn’t seem to mind. A gentleman’s gotta show some class.

I hit the bar until they called for boarding. Southwest flight, no reserved seats, everyone lined up like we’re catching helicopters out of Saigon, and there she was, in my group. Shorts exactly long enough to hide her cheeks and one of those things I think they call a camisole that covered her belly but never touched it, not the way her rack held it out. No sign of a bra. No sign she needed one, either.

I showed my pass and took a seat on the aisle so I could stretch my legs and she stops at my row and asks do I mind if she sits in the seat next to me. Please do, I say. I offered to move into the aisle but she said there’s room and slid in facing me so the nipples poking through that silky top were close enough for a taste if I was so inclined. Which I’m not, this being a public place and me a gentleman like I am. But, still.

She said flying made her nervous and she talked when she was nervous and would I mind some conversation to keep her mind off it? Conversation was fine with me, but it wasn’t likely to keep my mind off of what I was nervous about, which was whether she’d notice the front of my pants getting as tight as the back of her shorts. She patted my hand and said I was a nice guy, which I am, as you may have noticed by now.

We talked the whole flight. About the friend she’d been visiting and her job, which was, believe it or not, hospitality. She had a couple of drinks and made a few comments that would have lent themselves to inappropriate rejoinders from a man less simpatico to women than me. Told me again what a nice guy I was and wrapped her hand around mine when things got bumpy. By that time my tray table was down and I was happy to let her hold my hand anywhere she wanted.

She stood well inside what might be classically defined as my personal space while we waited for our luggage. Hers came first and I picked it up for her, of course. She stayed until mine arrived, which I thought was real nice. Said how she couldn’t remember enjoying a flight so much.

She didn’t know where to get a cab and, since it was getting late, I asked where she needed to go. As luck would have it, her place was no more than forty miles from mine, so it was no inconvenience to give her a lift. She said she didn’t want to put me out and I said it was my pleasure, and she hooked the nail of her pinkie finger in the corner of her mouth and smiled at me and said okay, she’d make it up to me. She had one quick stop to make, but it was on the way.

We got to her stop and I waited in the car. She came out at a jog, slammed the door behind her and screamed about getting the fuck out of here now! There was a stop sign at the corner I figured I’d roll through even though it was a residential area, her being in a hurry. She reached her left foot over when I slowed down and stomped on the gas and asked did I hear those sirens or not?

She went quiet and damned if I didn’t hear sirens. Getting closer, too. We were moving pretty good—sixty-five or seventy in a twenty-five mile zone—me getting antsy because I’m a good driver and all but I’m no Jimmy Johnson. She’s the one looks like Danica Patrick, maybe she should drive. I don’t remember what happened next. One second I’m driving, then the air bag is in my lap, I’m staring at a tree through a broken windshield, the inside of my car smells like a shotgun went off, and the chick is gone. There were a lot of cops, though. One reached under the passenger seat and held up what looked like a brick wrapped in cellophane. Hard to make out what they were saying; “Miranda” and “asshole” stood out.

Now I’m bunking with this guy named Junior who says he can tell I’m cherry and he’ll take care of me, but it’s gonna cost. All because I had to take off my fucking shoes.

Valdez is Coming

I DVR’ed this 1970 Western in part because it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and in part because someone (George Pelecanos?) recommended it on his web site. It took a little to get used to Burt Lancaster as a Mexican, but he got the job done, and I’ve never been a huge Burt Lancaster fan, so that says something.

Lancaster plays Bob Valdez, the deputy for the Mexican part of an Arizona frontier town. Valdez is a low-key, obsequious sort until events force him to kill a man who was unjustly suspected of murder. The dead man—who was black, which also entered into the issue—left an Indian woman, and Valdez wants $200 to get her back to the reservation.

The town turns him down; too much money. They’ll come up with half if Valdez can convince Frank Tanner to pay half, since the whole episode was his fault to begin with. Bob has no luck with him, and things get progressively worse until Tanner has his hands dangerously humiliate Valdez by tying him to a cross and setting him loose to walk home.

He gets a little help and gets home, where we learn mild-mannered Valdez was a serious badass in his youth. (This is a Western; what did you expect?) he wants the hundred dollars and he’s going to get it, even after the woman goes to the reservation on her own.

The story and characters are better than the movie’s execution; credit Leonard’s book for that. There’s a lot of stereotypical Western stuff in there, though the use of the landscape to show distances is well done. (The film was shot in Spain.) Lancaster’s physical presence is enough to make Valdez’s transformation back to his former self believable, and you root for him even though he takes Tanner’s almost wife hostage to make an escape and to hold in exchange for the money.

There are little touches of Leonard’s writing all through the movie, if you know where to look. Valdez isn’t dressed up as anything romantic. He’s just doing what he thinks is right. He had to kidnap the white woman to make an escape, and he’s not apologizing to her or anyone else about it. The bad guys are just bad guys: they’re not psychos or caricatures, just guys doing a job. Their jobs just happen to include terrorizing and killing people. (Except for John Cypher’s Tanner an Richard Jordan’s Davis, both of whom had too much ham with their eggs from the location caterer.)

A scene near the end has some classic Leonard dialog. I can’t set it up too much without spoiling the ending, but Tanner’s right-hand man, El Segundo, is talking to Valdez after overtaking him:

El Segundo: [after pausing and nervously clearing his throat] Tell me something... Who are you?
Valdez: I told you once before - Bob Valdez.
El Segundo: [referring to Valdez's earlier marksmanship against his men] You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Valdez: [with certitude] Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo: What was it? Sharps?
Valdez: [nods] My own load.
El Segundo: You ever hunt buffalo?
Valdez: Apache.
El Segundo: I knew it. When?
Valdez: Before I know better.*
El Segundo: You know how many men you kill these last two days?
Valdez: Eleven.
El Segundo: You counted.
Valdez: You better.

Vintage Leonard. Made the whole movie, along with the final scene.

Valdez is Coming isn’t a Western classic, but it’s well worth the time.

* - Dialog down to this point taken from IMDB.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Tide Goes Out, The Tide Comes In

I was so proud of myself. Twenty books I knew I’d never read again, their only reason for existence in my office to take up shelf space that could be used for books I will read again, or at least want to keep. This afternoon I boxed up all that excess and took it to the local thrift store, where someone could at least get some value for them. My good deed for the day.

Then I got to wondering what kinds of books a thrift store carries. Parked the car and went in the front entrance. Turns out there are some pretty book books in thrift stores. First rate writers like George Pelecanos and Linwood Barkley and Harlan Coban and Lee Child and James Lee Burke. All of whom came home with me to overflow my TBR shelf. Again.

I’d look for a twelve-step plan, but I haven’t hit rock bottom yet. That’s the scary part.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Insidious Effects of British and Irish Crime Fiction

I read a lot of British and Irish crime fiction and enjoy it. Ray Banks, Mark Billingham, Ken Bruen, Declan Burke, John Connolly, Allan Guthrie, Declan Hughes, Simon Kernick, Val McDermid, and Adrian McKinty come to mind—alphabetically—off the top of my head; I’m sure I missed a couple. (Stuart Neville’s Ghosts of Belfast on my TBR pile, for example.) Right now there are probably more writers I would consider favourites of mine from across the pond than there are on my side.

That’s the problem. I enjoy their writing so much it’s threatening to creep into my everyday life before I realise it. Just this morning, after donning my anorak and making sure I had no flat tyres before leaving for work, it occurred to me how I must have sounded like an eejit when I told my wife a joke in a half-arsed Irish accent.

It was even worse when I commented on some blogs today. Reading these writers makes the tendency to think like them even more pronounced, though I run the risk of sounding like a real shitehawker if I try to pass myself off as something I’m clearly not, especially if I know fuck all about it. I might fool a few uninformed gobshites, but someone would grass on me sooner or later. Then even my mates would think of me as a pretentious tosser.

Oh, bloody hell. I’ve done it again.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Absence of Malice (And More)

Slowly but surely, we’re easing back into our weekly movie watching routine. This past weekend’s choice was Absence of Malice, a 1981 release starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.

Newman plays Michael Gallagher, a liquor distributor whose father was mobbed up; his uncle is head man in Miami. When the investigation into the disappearance of a union organizer goes nowhere, the Feds lean on Michael, hoping he’ll use his underworld contacts to help them out. To speed this along, knowledge of the investigation is leaked to an eager young reporter (Field). The resulting article essentially ruins Gallagher’s business, and the life of a close friend who tries to help.

The point of the movie is the balance of freedom of the press, its use and abuse by the government, and how people can be ground up by the interactions of institutions that are ostensibly there to serve them. Newman is excellent (his performance was nominated for an Oscar), playing Michael as a hands-on businessman who wants only to be left alone. He has nothing to do with the family’s other business, yet it’s clear he loves his uncle and wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, even if the threat of sleeping with the fishes wasn’t real. His decision to take action on his own makes sense, and the scheme he comes up with is clever and believable. He wants Field’s reporter to believe and trust him, but on his terms. It’s a better performance than The Color of Money, for which he won his lone Oscar. (For the record, Henry Fonda won that year for his farewell performance in On Golden Pond.)

Newman’s in good company. Sally Field was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role as Michael’s friend. Still, for all its strengths, the movie is stolen by a ten-minute performance at the end by Wilford Brimley as Assistant Attorney General James Wells. (The role was essentially reprised in his appearance as Postmaster General in Seinfeld.) Rarely can an actor make a movie his own in what is essentially a cameo performance; the best other example that comes to mind Donald Sutherland’s work as the arsonist in Backdraft.

Absence of Malice is worth watching just for Brimley alone, though it would still be worth it had he not appeared. Highly recommended.


My parents came to spend the holiday, so we watched several movies last week. Among them was Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I only caught the last 45 minutes, and we all know Hitchcock was a genius, but this movie stank on ice. There were enough unbelievable plot holes in what I saw to sink a battleship. I won’t go into detail here, but the whole conceit of the picture, that their kidnapped child can hear Doris Day singing, even though he appears to be about half a mile away in the embassy building, then be found because Jimmy Stewart pinpoints his whistling—portrayed as phantasmagoric echoes in the soundtrack—is enough to put one off of Hitchcock forever, or at least until Rear Window is on again.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

One Stop Shopping

Patti Abbott has issued another flash fiction challenge. This time the theme is, "Wal-Mart, I Love You." Links to all the stories can be found on Patti's blog.

My contribution is called, "One Stop Shopping."

Enid didn’t have enough make-up to hide the mouse under her eye. She had make-up, just not the kind she liked for the job. She daubed on her second choice, decided it was good enough. This was her day off. Shopping day. Wal-Mart would have more.

Enid loved Wal-Mart. Everything she needed was there. Said hello to Dean, the greeter. Retired fireman, Korean War vet, always pretended to flirt with her. She knew he saw the bruise. His eyes flickered, and he licked his lips like he might say something. Enid went on before he’d feel like he had to.

Got the make-up first, so she wouldn’t forget. She felt underdressed with Plan B on her face, knew it didn’t cover as well, and no one could mistake what was under her eye for anything but what it was. Jimbo’s miscalculation. He rarely hit her where it showed.

She picked up shampoo, coloring, and conditioner. New rubber gloves. She definitely needed Epsom salts. Put back her regular bubble bath, got the more expensive stuff. Went into the grocery section for Jimbo’s steak. He told her on his way out that morning, after the shit she pulled last night she might as well throw herself down the stairs this time if she didn’t have one for his supper, save him the trouble. Picked the baking potatoes individual, didn’t just buy the bag. Real sour cream. Bacon bits. Went back into the general merchandise part of the store for a couple of other things she needed. Jolene Starling checked her out, commented on how nice her blouse looked. Jolene was a sweetheart.

Enid got the potatoes in the oven and made a green salad with the Eye-talian dressing Jimbo liked. Lit the hibachi behind the house in time for his steak to be ready for his first beer. Cut in to make sure it was done enough as the front door opened.

Jimbo smelled the steak and kept whatever he almost said to himself. Enid got him a beer, set it on the table. Neither talked while they ate. She cleared the table after they finished; Jimbo went into the living room to watch SportsCenter with his second beer.

Enid washed the dishes, put everything away. Cleaned the grill. Sat on the back steps and smoked a cigarette while it got dark. Jimbo was snoring when she came back into the house, the beer can balanced on the arm of his chair, that guy who did all that yelling about college basketball on the television. She walked in front of the TV to pick up a magazine and got no notice from Jimbo. Went back into the kitchen and opened her large parcel from Wal-Mart. Then she went back into living room, placed the muzzle of the Winchester 12 gauge shotgun three inches from Jimbo’s right ear and blew the bastard’s head all over the wall. Almost dislocated her shoulder when it went off. Jacked in another round and shoved the muzzle inside his collarbone and shot him again. Practically blew what was left of him apart, knocked the shotgun clean out of her hands.

She went into the bathroom and shut the door. Ran the bath with plenty of bubbles and salts, water as hot as she could bear it. Slid herself into the tub and felt the hot water take hold of her. Didn’t bother washing. Sat in the tub, let the water soak into her and waited for the sirens.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good News in Publishing

The voices of doom make it too easy to overlook the positive things that are happening in writing and publishing today that can help all authors, as this article shows.

Friday, November 20, 2009

And They Don't Even Offer a Reach-Around

There’s been a lot of outrage over Harlequin’s recent announcement to launch their own self-publishing branch, Harlequin Horizons. (Here, here, and here, to list a few; other links included in these posts.) In short, Harlequin is encouraging rejected authors to pay them to publish their work, instead of Harlequin paying for it.

All the outrage is earned; this is detestable. There’s one other aspect no one I’ve read has picked up on: This will hurt those authors who would have qualified for Harlequin contracts before the new policy. It’s right there in the press release:

“While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.”

This essentially allows Harlequin to establish its own farm system, at the author’s expense. Never again need they take a chance on a new writer. Make her pay for the privilege of having to publicize and hand sell her own book. Harlequin can then cherry pick the few who are successful and have established a reputation for doing the publisher’s work for them, while pocketing the author’s publication fees from the vanity project.

This is worth watching, as it bodes well for no one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Trailers

This may be a sore subject, as I know a lot of folks who have produced trailers for their books, but this article in Slate got me to wondering about the key question regarding trailers:

Does anyone know if they work?

For me, personally, no. I can't imagine buying a book based on a video trailer. Part of this is because I can't imagine watching a video trailer, unless someone I knew asked me to check one out for him. If I wanted to spend my time watching television, I'd watch television. Books and TV/movies are completely different story-telling media. The video is a far more passive experience for the viewer than a book is for a reader. I have a suspicion those who watch a lot of videos don't read a lot.

It might be a cool thing for someone established in a certain kind of story (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling) to let fans know their new book is available, because their readers are looking for something of an extraordinary experience. (Using "extraordinary" to mean "beyond ordinary," not "great," as it is sometimes used. Not that their writing isn't great; their subjects are extraordinary.) Video might appeal to them. To me, not so much.

I'm a writer, so this might make me the oddball. (Okay, not just writing does that. I mean in this specific situation.)

What do you think? Do book trailers influence you? Has anyone ever seen any empirical evidence that implies they're wirth the time and effort?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why I Don't Watch Cop Shows

I haven’t watched a TV cop show since The Wire went off the air, except for a random viewing of Numb3rs when The Sole Heir is visiting. This excerpt from James Lee Burke’s In the Moon of Red Ponies explains why better than I could.

Most television cop shows make use of the following story line: A likeable individual is raped or assaulted, or a hardworking family loses one of its members to a serial killer, or a blue-collar stiff with a juvenile felony on his record gets jammed on a bad beef and is about to be sent to the pen. What happens? A half-dozen uniforms and five detectives with shields hanging from their necks show up at the crime scene and invest the entirety of their lives in seeing justice done. Every law officer in the script, male and female, seems to have an IQ of 180 and the altruism of St. Francis of Assisi. They verbally joust with the rich and powerful, walk into corporate board meetings where they hook up CEOs, and are immune to the invective flung at them by an unappreciative citizenry.

The federal agents who wander into the script are even more impressive. They have tanned skin, little-boy haircuts, and the anatomies of California surfers. Their psychoanalytical knowledge of the criminal mind is stunning. Without hesitation, they conclude for the viewer that serial rapists possess violent tendencies toward women and people who plant bombs on planes are antisocial.

But my thoughts on the subject are cheap in design and substance. It’s easy to be facile about law enforcement. The truth is the good guys are understaffed, overworked, underfunded, and outgunned. Most of the time the bad guys win, or if they do take a fall, it’s because a wrecking ball swings into their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with jurisprudence. If you have ever been the victim of a violent crime, or if you have been threatened by deviates or sadists—and by the latter I mean wakened by anonymous calls in the middle of the night, surveilled by people you’ve never seen before, forced to take public transportation because you’re afraid to start your car in the morning—then you know what I’m about to say is an absolute fact: You’re on your own.

Law enforcement agencies don’t prevent crimes. With good luck, they solve a few of them. In the meantime, if violent and dangerous people intend to do you injury, your own thoughts become your worst enemies. The morning might start with sunshine and birdsong, but by noon it’s usually filled with gargoyles.

Monday, November 9, 2009


University of Maryland Family Weekend, Bouchercon, and the World Series are over, so we're back into our Saturday night NetFlix routine. First up, after a six week stay on the shelf, was the Liam Neeson action flick, Taken.

Take it. Please.

Good concept, Liam Neeson is a fine and likeable actor, and the opening execution was good, setting up the interaction between Neeson's character, his ex-wife, daughter, and his former buds from a government agency that is not named. The scene where he "witnesses" his daughter's kidnapping over the phone is tense and suspenseful. Neeson carries it off well. You can just about see his face switch from Concerned Father to Professional Spook as he tells his daughter what to do that will help him find her.

It's downhill from there.

The movie is action without suspense. It was made for American release, which means you know going in he'll get the kid back; Americans hate sad endings. The only question is how much trouble he has doing it, and how much collateral damage there will be.

The collateral damage is France. At least, Paris.

How much trouble he has is, frankly, none. He has several inconveniences and kills a lot of people for vexing him so when he's in a hurry. Every clue leads directly to the next step, with no searching or drama on his part. He sees a face in a photograph from his daughter's cellphone, and makes a logical assumpotion this is the man she met at the airport. He finds him immediately. At Charles DeGaulle Airport, no less. A prostitute he has rescued tells him of a house with a red door on the Rue de Paradis. He goes straight to it. No inkling of how much time it took, or of how much he has left.

The tension would have been much more effective if we saw some of his frustration, and an occasional dead end. As it is, the 96-hour window he's told he has in which to find her is never mentioned again. We don't know how long anything takes. Daylight and night seem to have no meaning. He never eats nor sleeps. He's just a killing machine until (SPOILER ALERT) he finds and and they live happily ever after.

The whole thing plays out like Transformers, but without the childlike goofiness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

October's Best Reads

Recommended Reads from October, in the order I read them:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
, George V. Higgins – A seminal book. Few crime fiction writers since have been unaffected by Higgins’s work, and this is the book that got him noticed. Should be on a shelf with Chandler, Hammett, et al for crime fiction writers, and anyone else interested in how the gerne has evolved.

Chasing Darkness, Robert Crais – Possibly the best Elvis and Joe novel. The story sizzles, and Crais has a keen sense of how a PI can never really put things right, but has to be satisfied with explanations. Pike has been humanized by his solo turn in The Watchman, and all the other bit players in Crais’s repertory company are used to best advantage. This book kept me away from the bar the night before Bouchercon so I could finish it.

Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy – The final volume in his American Trilogy, after American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, and definitely not for everyone. Ellroy writes with a disdain for convention and good taste to pull the reader into his alternate universe of the Sixties and Seventies. Not as nihilistic as TC6K, and a slightly easier read. Oscar Levant once said there is a line between genius and insanity, and he had crossed it. Ellroy straddles it. You’ll love this book or hate it, or you won’t be sure which. You won’t be indifferent, and you’ll never forget it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Starting Over

I read the first chapter of the book I’m revising last night. (I have a strict and probably over-complicated regimen for edits such as this that I might describe some day, if I think it won’t make me look too geeky.) Tonight I’ll edit what I read last night.

My writing style has changed a lot. The previous book and the WIP are multi-POV stories that needed a much different voice from this first-person PI tale. I found myself wondering if it read too leisurely, though that hasn’t been a complaint before. I’m also reading James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover for a review right now, and falling out of an airplane seems leisurely compared to that. I’m keeping an open mind.

The real challenge I see is in revisiting a work that has been “finished” for so long. I like these characters, and this story. I’m pleased the writing itself holds up as well as it does in my eyes, considering how much my writing has changed since it was written. On the other hand, I’ve read this book more often, and more closely, than the pope has read the Bible. I was mentally and emotionally finished with it, and I can’t afford to let that make me sloppy.

This project is either going to be a lot of fun, or a real pain in the ass. Probably both.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Milestone, of Sorts

I finished the first draft of the work-in-progress last night. Took me almost three times as long as usual. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. There were a lot of plotting issues, including a misguided attempt to write this one by the seat of my pants. I won’t soon try that again. I have great regard for writers who can do that well, which includes most of my favorites, but I’m just not wired that way. I need to know what happens when I sit down to write it. My outlines are flexible, but I need some kind of map.

Enough of that. Events made this one take forever; so be it. That’s not the only unusual thing about this project. I usually get right back into the second draft, while some ideas are still fresh in my mind, but that’s not going to happen, either. Instead, this book will lie unattended for two or three months while I do a re-write on an older project that has come close a few times. I have an idea I hope will make the protagonist more compelling, and I’m changing the relationships he has with a couple of the primary supporting characters. I’m looking forward to doing it, and I’ve found an agent who said she’ll look at it when it’s done, so there’s no time like the present.

The book that’s being left on the hard drive will worry me a little. I’m not sure how much I like it, or how well it holds together. Friendly advice and personal experience tell me that’s as it should be; few books worth reading were written without any doubts during their creation. Still, I can usually get right back to work to address these doubts. Not this time.

What I am looking forward to is becoming re-acquainted with my PI. We haven’t had much to do with each other in over two years now, as I worked on other projects while the first book of his potential series circulated. As I’ve noted on the blog before, I think PI stories are potentially the highest form of crime fiction, and Nick Forte and his supporting cast are my favorites of all the characters I’ve come up with. It will be nice to see them again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Notes from Bouchercon 2009

I finally got my Bouchercon notes together. While debriefing myself, deciphering my handwriting, adding books to my Amazon wish list and movies to my NetFlix queue, several thoughts and questions came to mind. Please comment at will.

Do readers—other than those with a local connection—really care about where a story takes place as long as it’s appropriate and done well?

Interesting point from Peter Rozovsky’s Translation panel: it’s not just the language. Legal terminology and responsibilities also differ and have to be accounted for. Footnotes are frowned upon as taking the reader out of the story, but Tiina Nunnally and Steven T. Murray said later that a glossary can sometimes be used, which will accommodate those who need to know without hanging up those who already do.

Curious about the demographics of mystery readers. There are a few persons of color, but Bouchercon is basically as white as a Manitoba hockey tournament.

Why is it, the more irritating the ring of a cell phone, the longer it takes its owner to stifle it in a public place?

Among the coolest things about Bouchercon is spending time and listening to people who consider reading to be an important part of their lives.

I really have to read some Richard Stark/Parker novels. I’m tired of people telling me how good they are and not knowing first hand.

The overwhelming majority of crime fiction writers, regardless of status, are as refreshing and unpretentious as anyone you’ll ever meet. The bonhomie on almost every panel I went to was infectious.

Victor Gischler’s idea of noir is, not only are you screwed, but people are laughing at you.

Charlie Newton summed up the essence of noir as the protagonist is always hopeful things will turn out all right, even though you know they won’t.

Christa Faust said the difference between noir and hard-boiled is, in noir, you’re fucked. In hard-boiled, the situation may be fucked, but you have a chance to get through it.

Christa Faust’s sperm and egg theory of getting published. Some writers nurture a single project for years, editing, perfecting, accepting suggestions, hoping it will someday be good enough. This is the egg school. The sperm school believes in submitting a lot of stuff and hoping at least one gets lucky.

When asked about the reports of the death of the PI novel, Michael Koryta drew attention to the size of the room. The panel was given a small room, and the audience overflowed it out into the hall. PI fiction is in better shape than people want to give it credit for.

The Cozy Ladies with their extravagant hats remind me of Code Pink protestors. I’m never really sure how to take them.

The Telling Women’s Stories panel evoked a comment that serial killer stories are popular with women because justice always triumphs, so they feel safer. What about all the women the killer got to before justice prevailed? How safe were they? (This was one of several comments my genitalia prevented me from interpreting properly. It didn’t occur to me until the next day that choosing Hooters for dinner may have been an unconscious reaction to this panel.)

The Continuous Conversation was a great idea. The Book Bazaar was, too, though they could have used more room. It was like Filene’s Basement on the day after Thanksgiving.

As always, the best takeaways are the time spent with the other attendees. In my case the experience was enhanced by meeting, or re-acquainting myself with, Cara Black, Jack Bludis, Austin and Denise Camacho, Sean Chercover, Stacia Decker, John Desjarlais, Michael Dymmoch, J.T. Ellison, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Naomi Hirahara, Steve Hockensmith, Rick and Nancy Joyce, Con Lehane, Ed Lin, Jon Loomis, Barry Maitland, Stuart Neville, Scott Phillips, Peter Rozovsky, Mary Saums, Leon Shure, and a few others whose names were, unfortunately, lost in the commotion and lateness of the hour. I’m also grateful to Max Allan Collins, Steven T. Murray, Tiina Nunnally, and Tom Schreck for their graciousness and generosity when accosted by a large stranger with many questions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

September's Best Reads

My best reads from September, in the order in which they were read:

Silent Edge, by Michael Koryta. A cold case heats up in a hurry for Cleveland PI Lincoln Perry after he’s hired by an ex-con to find the woman who rehabilitated him. Koryta is a master at treading the line between just enough and too much in plot, characterization, dialog, and whatever other aspects of novels appeal to you. One of the top five I’ve read this year.

All the Dead Voices, by Declan Hughes. Ed Loy’s fourth adventure may be the best yet, as he grapples with a case that has roots in the Irish Troubles that no one really wants him to deal with. Hughes is the Irish mix of Chandler and Macdonald, a beautiful wordsmith with a knack for writing stories about how previously unknown histories can destroy the present. I would loved to have seen a little more of sidekick Tommy Owens, but that’s a personal problem. Another Top Five for the year to date.

Cottonwood, by Scott Phillips. About as different from Phillips’s better-known The Ice Harvest as you can get stylistically, but just as good, maybe better. Bill Ogden marches to his own drummer, and the beat takes him from the fictional town of Cottonwood, Kansas to Colorado and back, An epic story told on a small scale, Phillips’s writing keeps the reader so well in the scene you can just about smell the horseshit in the streets. The Top Five swells and may have to be adjusted to the Top Ten. It’s late enough in the year.

No More Heroes, by Ray Banks. My first Banks novel, and once again I wonder what took me so long. Callum Innes the ex-con PI is in his fourth adventure, and he gets beat up even worse than Ed Loy, which takes some doing. Banks is the master of the flawed protagonist, showing both sides of Inness’s character without sympathy or exaltation; he’s just getting through the day. Immigrants, neo-Nazis, students, and the media combine in a story calculated to make the reader question the truth of anything he hears or reads.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beware the Back Cover

I’m about halfway through Scott Phillips’s excellent novel, Cottonwood. I’ve liked everything about the book from Page 1, but for one thing: the back cover.

I rarely look at the back covers or jacket notes on books I’ve already decided I want to read. I don’t need any teasers or endorsements; I already know I want to read the book, either because of author recognition or through a trusted recommendation. All the back cover can do is give something away, like it does for Cottonwood.

To wit:
In 1872, Cottonwood, Kansas, is a one-horse speck on the map. Self-educated saloon owner Bill Ogden is looking to make a profit or get out. His ambition brings him to the attention of Marc Leval, a wealthy Chicago developer who plans to turn Cottonwood into a boom town. But as Ogden becomes dangerously obsessed with Leval’s wife, an apparently ordinary local family plies its sinister trade unnoticed, quietly butchering traveling salesmen and other weary wanderers.

Maliciously fun and full of surprises, Cottonwood brings to life actual crimes, carried out by a strange clan known as the Bloody Benders, that befell Kansas in the late 1800s…

The book is maliciously fun, but not quite as full of surprises as it was before I read the damn back cover. I didn’t read it until after Bill showed his attraction to Leval’s wife, so Phillips’s deft easing me into it wasn’t ruined.

The Bender reveal was seriously compromised. Phillips foreshadowed it well; I knew something was wrong, but not exactly what. It would have been nice to feel the scales fall from my eyes along with the townspeople’s when they realize what’s been going on.

I understand marketing people want to sell the book. They should be aware that’s only half the transaction. We read them to see what happens. There’s no need to tell us, except in the most vague terms. Maybe the marketing types could devote more of their time to determining which marketing techniques they increasingly leave to their authors actually work, and less to giving away large chunks of the story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?

I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have read three books that reminded me why I got interested in crime fiction and writing in the first place: first person private investigator stories.

Libby Fischer Hellmann’s Easy Innocence takes the attitudes of an affluent suburb and shows consequences not often considered. Her detective, Georgia Davis, avoids the pitfalls of many female protagonists. She is not a man in a skirt, ready and willing to kick ass as necessary; neither is she dependent on either a big, strong man or divine intervention to get her out of tough spots. Best of all, she’s smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.

The Silent Hour, by Michael Koryta, is a cold-case story. Lincoln Perry has many of the characteristics of a stereotypical PI—former cop who left under a cloud, bends and breaks his own rules, trouble maintaining relationships—though Koryta never lets him fall off that edge. His problems are the problems anyone in his situation could have, and he’s anything but omnipotent. Perry takes a beating and keeps on ticking, learning about himself as the books progress.

Declan Hughes’s detective, Ed Loy, takes beatings that make what Perry endures seem like air kisses from a friendly but distant aunt. In All the Dead Voices, Ed inadvertently finds himself cleaning up leftovers from the Irish Troubles, caught between republican terror groups, drug gangs, and government agencies whose interests do not include what most would call a classic sense of justice.

What all three have in common—aside from tight plots and uniformly exceptional writing—is what makes the PI series the highest form of crime fiction; they’re primarily character studies of the hero. (Or heroine, in Georgia’s case.) A good series—as all of these are—works even better, allowing the character to evolve. Attitudes change, as do relationships. Physical and emotional trauma accumulates. The character may grow emotionally, or become embittered. What he deems worthy of description, and how it is described, matures.

For all the talk of the decline of PI fiction, the quantity of expert practitioners isn’t hurting. James Lee Burke and Robert Crais still have hop on their fastballs after twenty years. (Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is actually a cop, but the length of leash he is provided in New Iberia and his personal journey through the series make his stories read more like PI fiction than police procedurals.) Relative newcomers like Sean Chercover and Reed Farrell Coleman prove the talent pool is deep as ever. Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Kenzie-Gennaro novel is much anticipated.

The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure.

PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. A cop’s job is to catch the bad guy. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge of his pre-ordained failure: no matter what he discovers, things can never be put right. The dead are still gone. The cop can catch the killer and exact a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the necessary standard of illegality.

It’s no surprise so many of the “genre” writers who receive acclaim from the “literary” community come from detective fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Burke are all accepted as great writers, not subject to the backhanded acclaim of “great genre writer.” No one thought Lehane presumptuous when The Given Day looked into issues well beyond crime; he’d been doing it for years. Gone, Baby, Gone is as thought-provoking a book as one is likely to read.

Declan Hughes may be the foremost advocate of the virtues of detective fiction, not just in his novels, but in his public statements. If I had a transcript of his comments from Bouchercon 2008, I would have printed them here and saved you the trouble of reading my interpretation; his is clearer and more impassioned. Few books—of any genre, or of no genre—are more likely to make you wonder, “What would I do here?” or, more hauntingly, “What would I have done differently?” When done well, what more can anyone ask from a book?

Friday, September 4, 2009

August Reads

August was a slow month for reading recommendations. Part of this was because my schedule was full and didn’t allow for as much reading time as I like. Another part was because I read several crappy books in August. Here are two worth following up on.

Crime Always Pays, by Declan Burke. Not available to the public yet, I was lucky enough to score an advance electronic copy. The sequel to last year’s acclaimed The Big O, Crime Always Pays picks up just a few hours later, while things are still getting sorted out. The cast is back but the scene changes to Europe, as Karen King tries to find a safe haven for her wolf-dog mix, Anna. Oh, and €200,000 she picked up at the end of The Big O. Reading as though Elmore Leonard worked from a Carl Hiaasen outline, this book isn’t for those who like cozies or by-the-number procedurals, but it’s a hell of a fun ride.

Easy Innocence
, by Libby Fischer Hellmann. A high school hazing incident gone bad and its too quick cover-up launches PI Georgia Davis into complications far afield from any scholastic issues. Hellmann writes a convincing female protagonist who can take care of herself without becoming a man in a skirt. The balance of Georgia’s cop experience and feminine nature is organic and works well, and all the plot twists are satisfying.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Catfather

(With apologies to Mario Puzo)

The old miller had not had much of a business, so when he died there was not much to divide among his three sons. The oldest got the mill itself, as was his birthright. The second son inherited the family donkey, as it was the only other thing the old man possessed of notable value. That left the youngest of the three with only the cat from the old man’s estate.

A few days later, after the funeral and disposition of the assets, the youngest son was sitting alone in his room with the cat. The cat was idly licking the back of one paw while the young man watched him with growing discomfort.

“What am I to do?” asked the young man of no one in particular. “I am not displeased with my lot, as my father had not much to give, but what shall I do with a cat as an inheritance? After I have eaten your meat and made a muff of your fur, what benefit will I be able to gain?”

The cat looked at the boy with his slit-like amber eyes and stopped licking its paw. It scratched the back of one paw under its jaw with a brief flicking motion, almost contemplative in an off-handed way.

“What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” asked the cat as it finished scratching. He spoke in a voice that, although having an edge, was as transparent as olive oil.

The miller’s youngest son was speechless, not so much because he had been spoken to by a cat as by what the cat had said. He watched the feline idly play with a small ball of string as it continued.

“Have you ever invited me to sit at your table like you would any other friend?” the cat said. “I have eaten your table scraps for many years now, but have you treated me as a friend? I see things, I understand. You had no need of a friend like me. That is fine. You had your human friends.”

“I didn’t want people to talk,” stammered the boy. “I didn’t know what they would say.”

The cat made a dismissive gesture with its paw. “That was your decision. I don’t begrudge you making your own choices about your friends. Let me tell you something, though.” The cat stopped playing with the string and looked directly at the boy. The vertical slits of its eyes narrowed with the intensity of the point it was about to make. “If you had been my friend, you would not now be in this situation. You would have everything you deserve, and other men would respect you, even fear you. You would not be thinking of eating me and making a muff of my remains.”

“I am sorry,” the boy said, abashed. “What can I do to make amends?”

The cat looked at him quietly, with an expression that said the boy already knew all he needed to know. Understanding the meaning of the cat’s silence, the boy did what was necessary.

“Be my friend,” he said quietly, “Catfather.”

The cat immediately got up and rubbed its back against the boy’s leg. “That’s good,” it purred. “Everything will be fine. You must do as I tell you to do now. Stay here in your home until I come for you. When I come, do as I say. Soon you will be a man of respect. I will take care of everything. All you need to do is to give me a sack, and some boots for my feet.”

“That I can do, but how will you do what you say?” asked the disbelieving boy.

“Your neighbors will be happy to give to you what should be yours,” replied the cat.

“My neighbors? They had little use for me when they needed my father to mill their grain. They will have no need of me at all now. How will you get them to do as you say?”

The cat looked at the boy. Without smiling, his face took on a placid character that spoke volumes. “I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

“I have no doubt that you can and will do all that you say,” said the boy. “I have no means of my own. How will I ever repay you?”

The cat looked at him benignly and scratched at its mouth again before speaking. “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call on you to do me a service. Until then, consider this a gift on the day of your inheritance.”

The next day the cat went to the palace of the king. In the sack the boy had given to him he carried three fine game fowl he had caught along the way. When he met the king, he presented him with the fowl as gifts from his master, Don Catleone. He continued this for several days, each day bearing more exotic game birds until the king requested to meet the great Don Catleone in person.

“Soon,” the cat said without coyness. “My master will come to you in good time.”

Later that week the cat learned that the king would be riding with his daughter in the royal carriage. The princess was renowned throughout the land for her beauty and grace and young noblemen from all corners of the realm had come forward to pledge their troth.

The cat instructed the boy to bathe in the river near the castle at the time the royal party would be passing by. He didn’t tell his young master of the schedule, or of his plan. There was no need to, and there is never any need to tell anyone else what you are thinking if there is no need for them to know.

The cat hid in the bushes near his master’s swimming place until the royal party was near. He carefully crept down to the bank and removed the youth’s humble clothes and hid them under a rock where they would not be seen. The cat then ran for the road, shouting at the top of his lungs that his master, Don Catleone, was drowning.

When the king heard that the drowning man was the same Don Catleone who had paid him so many courtesies of late he ordered his guards to save him immediately. The cat led them to the proper place in the river, where the lad did make an effort to thrash about to help to sell the cat’s story. When the guards dragged him out of the river at last, his clothing was nowhere to be found. The cat told the guards that as he was running in response to his master’s cries of dismay, he saw two men running away with the clothes. He did not go after them, as his master’s safety was his primary concern.

When the king heard of this, he instructed a fast rider to be dispatched to the castle to obtain suitable garments for his honored guest, the great Don Catleone. While the youth and his cat waited in the bushes for the clothes to be brought, the cat instructed the young man in what was to be done. Nodding silently, the youth assented to the cat’s plan. His trust has been well placed to this point and he saw no need to do other.

The clothes finally arrived and the lad was dressed. Attired in finery designed for the king, he looked every bit the young nobleman the king and the princess had expected. The king immediately requested that Don Catleone join him and his daughter for the rest of their ride. The youth looked toward his cat for advice. The cat only nodded and said softly, “You go with them. I have some work to do first. I will come to you later, when the time is right.”

As his master climbed into the royal coach, the cat took a shortcut through the forest until he came to two farmers working in a field. They were both large men, with skin and hands that bespoke of years of toil in the sun and on the land.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the cat said conversationally as he approached.

The two men paused in their labors to see what else a cat might have to say to them.

“Good afternoon, yourself,” said the larger of the two. His voice and attitude were of a man who would have little patience for any tomfoolery from a cat. “I see that you have time on your hands to roam the countryside and disturb good men in their work. What would you have so you can be off with yourself?”

The cat took no offense at the man’s rudeness. It was of no consequence and only served to display the man’s obvious ignorance of the situation in which he found himself.

“As you are clearly a busy man, I will get right to my business. I have no wish to waste your time.” The cat paused and pointed up the road back toward the palace. “In less than an hour’s time the royal coach will approach. The king will ask you whom this land belongs to. You will tell him that it belongs to my master, Don Catleone.”

“I will do no such thing!” said the farmer scornfully. “This is the land of the ogre who lives in yon castle. I’ll not attribute it to any other, as I have no desire to feel the wrath of the ogre. Now be gone with you before I call the dogs!”

The cat did not move. Instead, he weathered the farmer’s tirade with patience and sympathy. When the man had finished, he spoke quietly, much as he had to his master before.

“I take no offense. I understand that you speak from your heart and not from your head because you do not understand why I am here. I come here today to take nothing from you. I come here to ask you a small favor, a favor for which I will remain in your debt. You may find it better to have me in your debt than the other way around.”

“Is that a threat?” said the farmer as he began to approach the cat.

“I have made no threats to you today. Your friend can vouch for that,” the cat said, indicating the other farmer as he did so. That man had remained on the periphery of the conversation, uncertain as to where it would take him. “Life takes many turns. This one has brought us all to a point where we may be able to do each other a service.” He dropped his bag to the ground and gestured toward it with his head. “Take a look in the bag.”

The angry farmer opened the bag and looked quizzically into it. Finally he withdrew an old oaken bucket with a pair of farmer’s work overalls neatly folded inside.

“What’s this, a joke?” he fumed. “Why are Farmer Brown’s overalls in the old well bucket?”

The cat continued to look at him placidly. The other farmer’s reaction was much different. The color drained from his face as water runs through a sieve. He took a step backward from the cat and said to his friend in a small, airless voice, “Do what he says and do it now!”

“What’s wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?” the angry farmer demanded. “What’s the meaning of this?”

The cat said nothing, merely looked to the frightened farmer and smiled in his feline way. It was the farmer who spoke to his friend of the implications of what they had been shown.

“It’s an old cat custom. It means that Farmer Brown sleeps at the bottom of the well tonight.”

The angry farmer looked at his friend in shock, then turned his attention to the cat.

“That’s a nice big well,” the cat said in his smoothest and quietest voice. “Lots of room down there.”

After having reached an agreement with the farmers and receiving their assurances that they would pass the word to their neighbors in turn, the cat turned to the most important task of the day. Continuing down the path, he soon found himself in front of the castle of the great ogre. This ogre ruled the surrounding area with an iron hand and a flair for imaginative punishment. The cat requested entry.

The ogre was preparing for a great feast, which was being laid on as the cat rang for admittance. His festivities at hand, the ogre was in an expansive mood and welcomed a visit from the Catfather, as he had heard of him.

Since the great hall was being decorated for the feast, the ogre took the Catfather to a smaller, more private room. There they shared a drink and spoke of their respective interests. Finally it was time for the cat to take care of his business.

“I have heard from many respected sources that you have powers,” he said to the ogre. “It is said that you can change your shape into whatever you wish at any time. I am curious to see how this is done.”

The ogre smiled and before the cat could prepare himself changed instantly into a fierce lion. The Catfather was afraid at the closeness and apparent foul humor of the great beast, but did not betray his emotions, as your emotions are your enemy if you allow them to use you, but your friend if you can use them.

“Very impressive,” he said to the ogre-lion, sipping from his cup again. “I had no doubt that you could enlarge yourself. It would seem to me to be much more difficult to change your size to be smaller. I don’t see how you could do away with the extra mass.”

Just as quickly as he had changed into a lion, the ogre changed himself into a small field mouse. Even quicker than that was the cat’s motion as he snatched the mouse up in his jaws and ate it.

Having done the job on the ogre, the cat went to the great hall where the guests were already assembling. As soon as they understood that this was, indeed, the Catfather before them, they were easily persuaded to take their evening’s amusement elsewhere.

The Catfather reached the front of the castle just as the King’s coach arrived. His young master had done his job well. The King and his daughter were very taken with this enchanting and dashing young nobleman. That a man so young could accumulate such lands and a castle, and inspire the loyalty of such a diligent servant as this cat had greatly impressed the king. The princess was taken with the boy’s charming ways and handsome countenance. That a great feast had been so quickly prepared only served to seal their opinions of Don Catleone.

And so Don Catleone and the princess were married and lived happily ever after, their wealth and power assured for generations to come. As for the Catfather, he asked for nothing more than the proceeds from loan sharking and numbers, and the labor rackets as far as the western end of the docks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I was pre-disposed not to like Valkyrie. Laid up with mono last winter, I watched more television in three weeks than I usually watch in six months, and couldn’t get through an hour without seeing an ad for it, even after it was released. Word of mouth and reviews have kicked in by then; no point spending big dough on ads when free advertising has taken over. They must be desperate to recoup whatever they can, so it must be a real lizard, right?

This is why my first impressions aren’t reliable. This is a good movie. Not great, but solid. Christopher MacQuarrie and Bryan Singer, the writer and director who teamed up for The Usual Suspects, worked together on Valkyrie as well, and it shows.

Tom Cruise is, of course, miscast. He portrays Colonel von Stauffenberg as the shortest German count in history in a one-note performance. It’s the supporting cast who carry the movie. Kenneth Branagh as the general who recruits Stauffenberg but is sent to the Russian front before plans come to fruition. Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army guarding Berlin, who refuses to come down either for or against the plotters until events have played themselves out. Terrence Stamp as General Beck, who will assume a large role in the new government if they can pull this off. Also included is a solid cast of lesser known British and German actors, all of whom are believable. David Bamber is a convincingly creepy Hitler.

I was familiar with the plot, thwarted by chance when a briefing is moved and the bomb explodes under a table sturdy enough to defect the blast away from Hitler. What I didn’t know was the extent of the conspiracy. The German Reserve Army actually arrested SS officers and was in the process of taking Berlin, thinking all the while they were under orders established in the event of a coup attempt, not realizing until later they were the coup.

Suspense movies where the end result is known ahead of time have a tough row to hoe. (I’m assuming everyone except Birthers and Death Panel believers knows this wasn’t how Hitler died.) Valkyrie is no Day of the Jackal in this regard, but it’s well worth watching.

I’m not one for “important” messages in movies, but there’s one worth noting. It has become popular recently to blame all of Germany for the Nazi excesses, and it cannot be denied many otherwise decent Germans were at least tacitly complicit. Valkyrie shows there were Germans, at all levels and with everything to lose, whose consciences demanded they do what was best for humanity at great personal risk. There were over a dozen attempts on Hitler’s life. Each failure was responded to with vicious retribution, but new recruits were always to be found. This, too, should not be forgotten.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Random weekends over the past few years have been given over to increasing The Sole Heir's cultural awareness by showing her old movies. Old to her, at least; I was shocked--shocked!--to realize Pulp Fiction is fifteen years old, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is forty.

Last weekend's movie was David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. I hadn't seen it since the restored version was released in the late 80s, and it was shown i an old-fashioned wide-screen theater. I couldn't get that for her at home, but the fifty-inch TV with surround sound did a decent job.

I had forgotten what it's like to watch a truly great movie. It's hard to believe Hollywood would make such a film today. There would have to be a woman in there somewhere. Nothing against women in movies, but we recently saw The Caine Mutiny, and everything stops dead when they showhorn the romantic sub-plot, which goes nowhere and adds nothing.

Lawrence is an epic, unlike the biopics that dominate today. T.E. Lawrence was a larger than life figure, and the film makers were content to tell his story without adding any sisues he may have had with parental concerns, love affairs, drug or alcohol abuse, or whatever else might "humanize" him. The story of Lawrence's accomplishments and failures is more than enough, and Lean let the story play out in such a manner one can watch for three hours and forty-five minutes without looking at your watch.

It's hard to go wrong with a cast of Peter O'Toole, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, and Alec Guinness. Even Omar Sharif came through, not having to play the debonair international playboy.

Has any director ever done a better job of making the setting a character than Lean did with the desert? (lade Runner comes to mind, but on the other extreme.) The desert provides the perfect palette for the events of Lawrence's life, and Lean used it to perfection.

It's a wonderful feeling to be watching a film--doing anything, actually--and realizing, in the moment, that you're in the presence of greatness. Lawrence of Arabia was a perfect reminder.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Print Runs

Interesting post on exaggerated print runs over at Editorial Ass.


Saturday's mail brought my first (and hopefully not last) earnings as a fiction writer: a check from Todd Robinson at Thuglit for my story "Green Gables," which will be included in his next anthology. Many thanks to Big Daddy Thug and Lady Detroit for their editorial advice (too rarely found these days), and support.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July's Good Reads

Swag, Elmore Leonard - John McFetridge cites this book almost as often as Toronto is colder than Miami. Since John is mistaken about such things even less frequently than that, I finally got around to reading it, and he's right again. Classic Leonard, with two criminals who aren't as smart as they think they are. The dialog is spot on, and the story is a little more tightly plotted than is Leonard's usual policy. The ending could have come right out of Donald Westlake, though with Westlake it wouldn't have been the ending.

Slammer, Allan Guthrie - A strange book that will leave you wondering what the hell is going on in places. A young prison guard finds himself in over his head dealing with the inmates, peers, and family life. Intimidated into to muling drugs for a powerful prisoner, the stress undoes him and soon he's no more sure than the reader about what's real and what isn't. Guthrie will keep you confused, but not so baffled you give up, and provides a denouement appropriate to the climax, which not all writers, thriller or otherwise, are willing--or able--to do.

Family Secrets, Jeff Coen - Non-fiction account of one of the largest and most important organized crime trials in American history. Murders unsolved for twenty years or more became public record when Frank Calabrese, Jr. and his Uncle Nick turned on Frank Sr. and testified for the Feds. By the time the investigation and trial were over, much of the upper levels of the Chicago Outfit were behind bars, and the workings of the Chicago mob were brought out into the light as never before. Coen's writing is straightforward and journalistic and appropriate to the material. No "creative non-fiction" is needed to enhance this story. Required reading for anyone with an interest in organized crime.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Prices

Interesting article in Slate magazine this week by Jack Shafer, about e-book pricing. The entire article is worth reading, but something he brings up in the first paragraph interests me more than the rest.

According to Shafer, publishers routinely sell books to retail booksellers for half the cover price. This is true of both hardcover version and e-books, so a publisher is charging the bookseller $12.50 (more or less) for a license of electronic content. The money saved by not having to produce a physical copy, ship it, and pay for returns is not passed along.

Another good question is why Amazon charges the same for the new Dan Brown as for a reprint of The Maltese Falcon. (We’ll leave the relative merits of the books for another discussion. Or not.) Does it make sense to charge more for an e-book, which costs them virtually nothing to ship and warehouse, than for the equivalent paperback?

Part of the problem with the book industry is that books, especially new hardcovers, are expensive. The new Michael Bay explode-a-thon at the multiplex is $9; the new Elmore Leonard is $25. While readers and writers will argue (correctly) the Leonard provides more hours of entertainment and more actively engages its audience, most consumers just see the price tags. They aren’t all that interested in how actively engaged they are, or they wouldn’t be going to see Michael Bay movies in the first place.

The publishing industry is hurting, no question, largely through its refusal to adapt its outdated business models. E-books may be this year’s Big Thing Of The Future, but they still have to face the hurdle of getting people who enjoy the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning pages (people like me) to convert to e-readers. Given the choice of going to the local library, waiting a year for a paperback at $7.99, or paying $25 for the new hardcover, the new hardcover is Choice #3. If I’m willing to wait the year for the paperback, the e-book has nothing to interest me at all.

I like to support working authors and local booksellers all I can, but I read about 65 books a year. That many new hardcovers at $25 each, plus 6% Maryland sales tax is $1,722.50 that has to compete with my mortgage company, the University of Maryland, my doctor, the oil cartel, State Farm, groceries, clothing, and the taxes of various jurisdictions. The full-price book purchase comes pretty far down that list, and reading is an integral part of my life. I don’t read as much as many of the people who will read this, but I probably read more than 95% of the population at large. It might be time for publishers to start looking for ways to get more books into the hands of more people, instead of trying to bleed every last penny out of a stagnant or shrinking existing sales pool.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Industry Salaries

I recently discovered the Editorial Ass blog; lots of good stuff there.

This post is a few weeks old, but interesting.

Any thoughts?

Monday, July 13, 2009


The Western is the archetypal American story, the progenitor of the hard-boiled and noir schools. Few genres can get away with running the same tropes past an audience over and over again as well as the Western, when it’s done right.

Appaloosa is based on a novel written by Robert B. Parker as a break in the routine of writing Spenser novels. Any movie starring Ed Harris (who also directed), Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, and Renee Zellweger has to be good, right? (Well, maybe not Renee Zellweger. More on her later.)

Harris and Mortensen play the standard wandering lawmen, moving across the West to clean up towns as needed. Irons is the ruthless cattle baron. We know as soon as Irons shoots the old marshal down in cold blood two minutes into the movie that there’s going to be a final confrontation. The fun is watching the twists and turns of getting them there. And there’s a lot of it, and of them.

The laconic dialog Parker has made almost an affectation in his recent Spenser novels serves the characters well here. Harris’s Virgil Cole and Mortensen’s Everett Hitch are classic Western sidekicks; you can imagine Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in these roles fifty years ago. They understand each other without having to say a word, and both are good enough actors to make sure the audience understands, too.

As director, Harris was fanatical about authenticity. The window glass is period quality, and Harris makes several subtle references to it. (Having a horse and rider pass by the window while filming Cole indoors, to let an attentive viewer see the distortions caused by flaws in the glass is one example.) A tan line on Martensen’s forehead when he removes his hat. Nothing too obvious, set out like Easter eggs for those with their heads wholly in the movie.

Irons is his usual excellent self as the heavy, menacing and greasy at the same time. Lance Henriksen makes a brief appearance in the role Richard Boone would have played in the Lancaster-Douglas version and does his usual yeoman service.

It’s Renee Zellweger who’s the fly in Appaloosa’s ointment. The character is obviously there as a plot device, to cause friction down the road. It’s to everyone’s credit she doesn’t cause the overly predictable plot complications, save one, which actually works well for advancing the story. The problem is, there was no reason for her character to be in the town of Appaloosa in the first place, and there’s certainly no reason for the hard-bitten Virgil Cole to fall for her so quickly.

Let’s face it, Renee Zellweger is not an attractive woman. Maybe if you saw her in the mall she’d look okay compared to the overweight, belly shirt-wearing trailer trash coming out of the NASCAR Store, but not by movie standards. Even for a movie that works so diligently for authenticity, a woman who looks like her is not going to land a man like Virgil Cole with so little effort, even if she’s the local gold standard. Salma Hayek, okay. Even dirtied up after a long train ride, she’d make a man accept a lot of life complications. Not Renee Zellweger. (IMDB research shows Diane Lane was the original choice for the part. She could let a man agree to some complications, too. It still would have been nice to know why the character came to town at all.)

Still, a movie well worth seeing. The acting is superb, and the story goes in directions that aren’t always expected, with twists to make the less than unexpected palatable. A lot about Appaloosa deserves more than the 6.9 IMDB gives it. It’s a solid 7.5 without Zellweger.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Building the Reader's Trust (And How Not To Do It)

I’m not a nit-picker when I read. I don’t care if there’s not really a door that opens directly onto Penn Avenue from Heinz Hall. Minor mistakes or changes can be lived with, so long as they don’t mess with historical facts (Germany can’t win the war, unless that’s the premise of the book), the author doesn’t get too specific (if you need a gun to have a safety, don’t specify it’s a Glock), or a key plot point hinges on it (don’t coerce a confession out of a guy by threatening the death penalty for marijuana possession.)

Still, some mistakes rankle so much you have to doubt what else the author got wrong, and where the hell those persnickety copy editors went to. I recently read a book (which shall remain nameless) where two such incidents came so close together I had to doubt the research and accuracy of some historical facts that were key to the story.

The hero has driven a couple of hours out of town as part of the investigation. There he sees the man who’s been following/threatening/bribing him for most of the book. The bad guy takes off; the good guy follows. The chapter ends with the hero driving sixty miles-per-hour down a country road, ostensibly in hot pursuit.

The next chapter opens with the hero stopping half way back to town to call his pregnant wife from a pay phone. (The story takes place pre-cell phone.) The bad guy is already there, posing as a cop to menace her. The hero hot foots it home where, of course, the bad guy gets the drop on him.

Additional menacing and threatening ensue. Finally pregnant wife gets permission to go to the bathroom, so long as she leaves the door open so the bad guy can hear what she’s up to. While he’s putting The Fear of God into the hero, wife comes out with the family shotgun.

So far, so good. (Well, maybe not, but not wholly inaccurate.) The weapon is then called a rifle. The bad guy raises his gun to fire. Wife blows his hand off and knocks herself over with the recoil. (Sounds like a shotgun again.) The hero grabs the gun and pump another bullet into the chamber (shotguns have pump actions, rifles have bullets) then shoots the bad guy in the shoulder to knock him down (apparently still in rifle mode; a shotgun strong enough to blow off a hand would do some serious damage at that range).

They take the bad guy to a hospital in the rough part of town, where gunshot wounds are commonly treated and often not reported. This guy’s unconscious, missing a hand, has a shoulder that should look like hamburger, and hospital’s just going to patch him up and get his insurance information?

Makes you wonder what else they got wrong. Since this is a socially-conscious book with an ax or two to grind, these doubts are something to be avoided at all costs. Why should the reader take the author’s word on social and racial conditions of almost thirty years ago when easily verified stuff like this is wrong? I’m not saying the racial facts aren’t accurate; I don’t know. And that’s the point. The author clearly wants me to feel a certain way, but I have to accept her facts to do it, and, as the above shows, her facts have shaky foundations.

These are things, along with a few others, that would have been easy to fix, and would have raised the empathy felt for the major characters by increasing the book’s overall believability. Something to think about when a bit of information doesn’t seem important enough to check out while you’re writing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recommendations for May and June

Late May and early June were hectic, with family visits and my daughter’s high school graduation, so my best reads from May didn’t get posted. (Yes, I know, you were all bitterly disappointed.) Below are my recommendations from the books I read in May and June.

High Season, by Jon Loomis. Loomis walks the fine line between humor and murder with the sureness of Karl Wallenda crossing Tallulah Gorge. Choosing Provincetown, Massachusetts as his setting was inspired; there might not be a truly zanier place to live in the United States. The characters are fun, the plot is complex but not confounding. The humor never dilutes the seriousness of the violence, and the violence doesn’t take the fun away from the humor. A very entertaining read.

Soul Patch, by Reed Farrell Coleman. This book had been on my “I should read this” list since last year’s Bouchercon, but something always seemed to come up. My bad. Moe Prager is close to the perfect hero for Farrell’s dreary but not dismal world. He has the issues a lot of people have, and is smart enough to recognize his limitations. I’m not sure what I expected from Soul Patch, but I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would, and won’t wait so long before giving Coleman another read.

Breathing Water, by Timothy Hallinan. I’d say his third Poke Rafferty book hits the jackpot, but he just keeps getting better, so I have no reason to believe the next installment won’t be even better; I just don’t know how he’d do it. The early leader in the clubhouse for the best book I’ve read this year. (I read an ARC. The release date is, I think, in September.)