Friday, May 28, 2010

Even More Justified Than before

Justified is becoming Wire-esque in its storyline and character development. Early in the season it was a cool show, with offbeat plots, sharp dialog, and fresh, well-defined characters. Now the end of Season One approaches, and we can see how everything that seemed merely episodic three months ago is showing how interrelated it was. It’s a thing of beauty, and can’t be an accident.

The show’s worth watching to see what happens with Boyd Crowder alone. Is he legitimate about his “church,” though in a twisted way? Is he bughouse nuts? Is there some criminal enterprise here we still haven’t seen? No one—including the other characters—has a clue. It’s fascinating to watch everyone else act on incomplete knowledge, knowing how what appears to be a reasonable action by a character isn’t going to work out like he expects, but wondering how bad the eventual miscalculation is going to be.

Best of all, it makes sense. No supernatural aspects. No wild chases with gunfights to let God sort ‘em out. Solid writing and performances by excellent character actors, run with rare vision by Graham Yost. It’s enough to get me watching television again.

(Editor’s Note: Speaking of watching television, The Bridge will premiere on CBS July 10. Written in part by friend John McFetridge, this Canadian show has received good reviews and word of mouth from north of the border. I’m familiar enough with John’s work and standards to look forward to it with anticipation, and recommend everyone giving it a shot.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sexy Beast

I don’t want to sound like some terrorist-loving, socialist, Karl Marx butt boy because I’m bashing America, where everything is superior to anything else found anywhere in the world, but the Brits do crime movies much better than we do. This week’s example is Sexy Beast.

The story is simple: Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) wants his old running mate Gal (Ray Winstone) to leave his cushy retirement in Spain to pull one more job for Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal doesn’t want to go. Don doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer, in a childish psycho prick kind of way. The tension is generated from the war of wills between Gal and Don, and Teddy’s response to how it is decided, which I won’t go into because it’s a bit of a spoiler, innit? (Damn, there I go again.)

The acting is first rate, as would be expected from the cast. Kingsley’s Don is made even creepier when he goes off on a rant because you can’t help but think in the back of your mind, “This is Gandhi!” Winstone conveys Gal’s world-weariness and desire to be left alone while still showing this is a man who can only be screwed with so far, and, retired or not, knows how to take care of himself. Ian McShane’s face now serves as the official definition of “malevolent” in online dictionaries; no one does menace better.

What distinguishes Sexy Beast from most American crime films is its willingness to let the writing and situation carry the story. The robbery itself is almost a throw-away; it’s there to bind Teddy’s response to what has transpired between Don and Gal. The ending would be an anti-climax by American standards, but when it’s over, you’ll think, “This is exactly what he would do,” and be right about everyone.

They apparently tried to get the band back together for last year’s 44 Inch Chest, but it didn’t fare nearly as well. If you saw that one—I didn’t—and think you don’t need to see another similar film by many of the same blokes, think again. Sexy Beast is a good one.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Humble Man, With Good Reason

I have made a conscientious effort to adjust my expectations as a writer as I learned about the field. First I recalibrated my assumptions about how much promotion a publisher would provide, and how effective it might be. Okay, I’ll have to do a lot of that myself.

Then I learned how few writers can make a living from it, even though they appear “successful” to the public at large. That’s fine, too. I never planned to get rich, I can live with writing as tip money. Maybe it will pay for the annual Bouchercon trip. It’s all good.

Of course, getting an agent is an enormous pain in the ass. I know they’re busy, but the advent of e-mail should make the “if you don’t hear from us, we’re not interested” answer a thing of the past. It takes ten seconds to hit Reply and drop some Auto text into a message and send it back. Still, I hung with it and actually found two agents the old-fashioned way, through cold queries. The first relationship dissolved amicably, the second not as much, though I’ve since learned I may have been a little hasty, so I’ll eat that one.

A few bits of encouragement got me to thinking I might be getting closer to a deal, so I stepped up my study of what happens after you get a contract, and learned that, no matter how much bullshit has to be endured to get an agent and a contract, it probably increases after you get a deal. Edits, copy edits, marketing, all compete with trying to write the next book, and there doesn’t seem to be much consideration for the fact you’ll be balancing this against a full-time job while you’re at it.

That’s a writer’s life: lots of bullshit, no money. If you have some success and cop a contract, the money goes up a little; the bullshit goes up a lot. The only reason to fool with it at all is the joy of losing yourself in the actual writing.

Except now that’s not so much fun, either.

Adrian McKinty has a book trailer from comedian Lewis Black near the bottom of his blog. (Take a minute to check it out. Black is, as always, a riot, and Adrian’s blog is always worth checking out. I’ll wait here for you.) Black sums up exactly how I’ve come to feel about writing: it’s like having homework every night.

I’ve treated writing as essentially a second job for almost ten years now. Two agents thought enough of my writing to hire on. Writers I respect have said kind things, and I’m proud of being included in Todd Robinson’s newest Thuglit anthology. I’ve written five novels in that time, with a sixth just a polishing draft away from completion, with nary a sniff from an editor. (With one exception, which doesn’t count.)

I have a concept called the “Income to Bullshit Curve” I like to use when making career decisions. Picture a standard graph, with a line running diagonally from the lower left corner up and to the right. The vertical axis is Money; the horizontal axis is bullshit. For any job to be worth the effort, the point where you are needs to be above the line. It may dip below for brief periods; all jobs do that. It can’t live there.

The point occupied by my writing on the Income to Bullshit Curve is 0.0001 inches up the income axis; right now it’s pretty far to the right on bullshit. It’s a bad deal. The weather’s nice, I have a couple of family trips planned, it’s baseball season, and I’m too old for homework every fucking night. It’s time for a break.

I’ll finish the WIP; it’s too close not to. I’ll send it out. It would be stupid to spend almost two years on it and not make the effort. Other than that, I’ll write what I want, when I want. Blog posts as the spirit moves me. (I’m having fun with the new sports blog.) Flash fiction. Maybe a novel, though I’m more likely to update those already on the disc, maybe post them via Smashwords or something. If it gets to be fun again, I’ll dig in. If not, I’ll look forward to having more time for recreational reading.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Blood, Guts, and Whiskey Launches May 25

Thuglit’s third anthology, Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, will be available to the public on May 25th, two weeks from today. Todd Robinson’s first two collections (Hardcore Hardboiled, and Sex, Thugs, and Rock and Roll) were widely acclaimed, each containing award-winning stories. The newest arrival promises to be just as good, as the appearance of several writers of renown (Sean Doolittle, Craig MacDonald, Stuart Neville, Dave Zeltserman, to name a few alphabetically) figures to balance out any damage done by my humble contribution.

Blood, Guts, and Whiskey is available for pre-order online at Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, Powells, and in person at any reputable bookstore.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sheila O'Donoghue

I couldn't be happier about the kinds words left in the comments to this week's story, "Lily in Blue." Thanks to all who stopped by.

I tried something new by using something old, and it appears to have worked. The Lily in the story first appeared in an as-yet unpublished novel I wrote several years ago, part of what I still hope will be a series of Nick Forte stories. Lily's mother, Sheila, provided the inciting incident for the book, and is the primary supporting character. Since folks seemed to like Forte, and wanted to know more about Lily and Sheila, I'm posted below the first chapter from the story they both appear in, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.


A Handsome Woman

There was a time when Sheila O'Donoghue would have been described as a handsome woman. The vestiges of the beauty she must once have considered her birthright were visible, but that's all that was left. She guarded them the way a drunk protects his last bottle of gin.

Her methods were paying off. I couldn't guess how many hours on the Stair Master kept her legs in the condition she managed to show at every opportunity. Her eyes were aquamarine and barely possible to avoid staring at. She had a disconcerting habit of making eye contact without looking at me straight on, always showing a slight left profile. Must have been her good side.

She sat in the chair across the desk not looking any more comfortable than anyone else who sat there. It's wasn't a bad chair. Getting comfortable shouldn't be a problem. Maybe it was me. Good thing I'm not insecure.

"Are you familiar with the name Russell Arbuthnot, Mr. Forte?" she asked in a resonant voice that must have given great phone.

"No, sorry. Are you familiar with the name Larry Conway?"


"We're even."

I got a hard look for a few seconds before a smile snuck up on her. She let it have its way and I got a tease of what she might have looked like twenty years ago. Anyone would fight to keep looks like that.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That was business-like to the point of coldness, wasn't it? May we start over?"

"No apology necessary. I understand that no one really wants to come here to see me, so I never hold first impressions against anyone. I didn't help matters by being a smartass. Now that we really are even, why don't you tell me why you're here?"

She smiled a mouthful of even white teeth and let her posture relax. "Thank you, I suppose I am a little nervous. I'm a theatrical agent. Russell Arbuthnot is one of my clients. I thought a man in your profession would be familiar with his one-man show. It opens at the Goodman Theater the day after tomorrow."

"Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell. Isn't he doing that Maltese falcon show, what's it called, The Black Bird? Is that him?"

"Yes. He lives in Chicago. The Goodman performances are the beginning of a national tour."

"I know. I read good things about it. I'm hoping to get tickets for next week."

"Would backstage passes be all right? Of course you'd be working, but you could see every performance." She sat forward, smoothing the skirt of her suit as she did it, directing my attention to her legs without seeming to.

"What's the gig?"

"Threats have been made." She waited until she had eye contact before continuing. "Nothing specific, just some notes and a couple of phone calls."

"Death threats?"

"As I said, they're very vague. 'Don't sleep too soundly' was one. 'I want what's mine.' Things like that."

"Do you know of anyone who'd want to hurt him?"

She shifted in the chair and I got to see how well her suit fit her. It matched her eyes perfectly. Sheila O'Donoghue didn't just throw on any old thing when she left the house.

"Russell has quite a taste for women, and his position and charm allow him to indulge himself regularly. He is not always as discrete as he might be."

"Anyone in particular?"

"I'm his agent. We're close, but I'm not privy to his extracurricular trysts," she said in a disapproving tone. I couldn't tell if she disapproved of the trysts or of not knowing the details.

"Have you seen any of the notes?"

"No. Russell destroyed them as soon as he read them."

"Why? They could be useful to the police."

"He doesn't seem to take the threats seriously."

"He took them seriously enough to tell you."

"We've been together for over twenty years. There's very little either of us doesn't know about the other."

"Except for his extracurricular trysts." She gave me a look I should have expected. Someday I'll learn to think of that before I say whatever it is I shouldn't have said to prompt that reaction. "You took the threats seriously enough to come to me. Why?"

"Because I'm worried, and because I know Russell wants me to." I gestured with my hand for her to continue. "Russell's self-image won't let him show any concern over something like this, even if he has some. By telling me, he's tacitly admitting he's worried enough to allow something to be done."

I didn't answer right away and made myself look away from her eyes. My attention wound up on her knees, crossed demurely enough to deny any other purpose, even if we both knew better.

"What do you want done?"

"I want you to be Russell's bodyguard. Make sure no one carries out any threats until he leaves for his national tour in two weeks."

"Then what?"

"We're making arrangements with a national firm to provide security while he travels. We want someone local until then."

"Why me? I'm just a one-man operation. A firm that could handle him on tour could just as easily do it locally."

"Don't you want the job?"

"I didn't say that. I'm just curious. What can I offer that they can't? I can't give him twenty-four by seven protection. I have to sleep and go to the bathroom once in a while."

"Russell isn't comfortable with the idea of a bodyguard. I'm hoping you'll hit it off and get him used to having someone with him every waking minute. That should make everything more bearable for the four months he'll be on the road."

"What makes you think we'll bond?"

She smiled without separating her lips. The victory of showing yet another man he had underestimated her was in her eyes. "I've done my homework. Your background as a musician should make you better able to deal with an artistic temperament. At least that's what I'm hoping."

"He wants a pansy for a bodyguard?"

She looked at me intently. Her eyes were going to be a problem, she knew exactly how to use them. "Your adventure with Frankie Calabra was hardly the work of a pansy."

"Ah," I said, like it meant something. We played coy with each other for a few seconds. She let me go first.

"He's on the road for four months. Then what?"

"Then nothing, I hope. The threats can't last forever."

"Depends on whether you're dealing with a crank or someone with an obsession."

"You don't seem very enthusiastic about this."

"I don't like to disappoint clients. I'm not sure I can deliver what you're looking for."

"Would ten thousand dollars make you any more sure?"

It took considerable self-control to keep from sitting up too quickly and breaking a knee on the desk. "For two weeks' work?" I don't like protection work. It's as tedious as a stakeout and you have to put up with the subject, but my fifteen minutes of fame from saving Frankie Calabra were over and bills had to be paid. Five grand a week relieves a lot of tedium.

"Yes." She showed the same smile, but less of it. The full treatment would have looked smug. "I asked around and then talked to Russell. We think you'd be uniquely suited to ease his discomfort about having what he refers to as a 'strong-arm man' at his side."

"Is that another fruity musician reference? You don't think I can do strong-arm?"

There were teeth in this smile. "Not at all. From what I can see, you seem admirably suited for it." A lesser man would have blushed.

"When do I start?"

"You have to meet Russell first."

"When and where?"

"Right now, at his home." She stood and pretended to smooth her skirt again. That appeared to be her move, the way Michael Jordan liked to go right. When she turned for the door I saw a small lift scar under her jaw on the side she kept turned away. "He has a condo on Michigan Avenue near the theater. We're expected."

Confidence is an attractive trait in a woman. I gave Sharon a few calls to return, some reports to file, and the usual instructions bosses leave with secretaries. Then Sheila and I left to meet my new client and his ten thousand dollars.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lily in Blue

Patti Abbott has another flash fiction challenge over at her blog. Click here for the rules and links to all the participants, starting Monday, May 3.

My contribution is below.

Lily in Blue

Eldrick's had a nice crowd for Tuesday night. About half full of the usual clientele, people with more money than was good for them, looking for peers to indulge what would be called perversion if practiced by a lower socioeconomic caste.

The sound system calibrated so you could hear everything your target partner said and still be able to plead ignorance if necessary. She came in halfway through the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams." A redhead now, wearing an electric blue sheath. I almost didn't recognize her, just the sensation of seeing a person who reminded me of someone else until I glimpsed her aquamarine eyes and I knew it couldn't be anyone else.

She sat at a table only big enough for two drinks and maybe a small bowl of nuts, had Eldrick's been that kind of place. I waited until her drink arrived and walked over, sat down without being invited.

"Hello, Lily."

She looked at me without recognition for a couple of beats, then blushed to the roots of what used to be blond hair. "Nick Forte? Oh my God! What are you doing here?"

"Working," I said. "I hope you aren't."

Her eyes flickered to the table, then back. "I don't do that anymore. Not since you came to see me after my mother died."

"I'm glad. Really. Look, I won't stay, don't want to limit your availability. I'm sorry. That didn't come out right. You know what I mean. Like I said, I'm working. A cheating husband job. Lots of pre-nup money at stake. It really is good to see you. You look great."

"Can you stay a minute?" It popped out like she'd been holding it back.

"Sure, if you want. I can watch for this guy just as well from here. I'll get my drink."

"I'm in trouble."

I left the drink. I didn't owe Lily O'Donoghue a thing; I'd always owe Sheila. "What kind of trouble?"

"That money you gave me—"

"Your mother gave you. I just delivered it."

"Okay, my mother gave me. I didn't waste it. I got a Masters at DePaul and used another piece to buy into a psychology practice. We're doing very well."

"I knew you would."

She went on like I hadn't spoken. "Someone recognized me. From before. Said he'd ruin me if I didn't pay him."

"You're a shrink, right? Does that kind of leverage work?"

"Not usually. A lot of psychologists have pasts they'd rather not talk about. It's why we get into the field. The videos he has are the kinds of things you can't live down. I'd have to leave the practice, leave Chicago. I worked hard for this, Nick. I don't want to give it up. But I know it won't stop with just once. He'll be back for more and more and more. What money I make is tied up in the practice. He can ruin me."

"What was the plan before I showed up?"

She blushed. "Work out a deal for less money…"

I raised a hand. "I'll do what I can. Point him out to me when he comes. Give him what you have, tell him you need more time, and make sure he leaves without you. Wait ten minutes, then go straight home. Now act like you're shooting me down, in case he's watching."

He must have been, moved in before my seat was warm. Almost handsome, early forties, in good shape, nice suit. They talked for five minutes. She laid an envelope on the table. He opened it and counted the money—an amateur, counting it in public—then took her wrist in his hand so I knew it had to hurt even though I couldn't hear anything. I stayed put. He wouldn't do something dramatic here, and she'd only scare so much, knowing I was around.

He stood and I left before he had a chance to notice me, waited outside by the valet station. He led me to an unlighted house in Oak Brook, pulled into an attached garage while I killed the headlights and drifted to a stop in front. A light came on inside. I took what I needed from my car and rang the bell.

He answered the door with a look between confused and irritated. I opened the switchblade I kept in my car's console and sliced his tie off right below the knot. His mouth fell open and I stuffed the tie in it.

"I want the money you picked up in Eldrick's and all the videos."

He made a sound. Could have been, "What videos?" Hard to tell with the tie in his mouth.

I stuck a leg behind his knee and took him down hard. Pried his jaws apart and started feeding the tie down his throat. "I want everything," I said. "Slap the floor when you're ready. Don't wait too long. You pass out and I'll leave you for the coroner." He gave the sign before I start again.

I pulled out the tie. "The money first."

"On the island. In the kitchen." I nodded that way and he led me to it. "Now the movies."

We went into a den near the front door. He handed me a jewel box with a disc in it. "That's the only copy."

I nodded toward his computer monitor. "There's a file in there, though. Isn't there?" He didn't say, but he might as well have.

Neither of us spoke while the computer booted. When it finished he moved for the chair.

"I got it," I said. Brought up a command prompt, typed "format c:" and hit Enter.

"Jesus Christ, that's my business computer. You'll ruin me. Who are you?"

"I'm the guy who's coming back here if she ever even sees you crossing the street again. We good on that?"

I mailed the money to Lily and broke the disc before curiosity got the better of me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

April's Reads

April found me in a bit of a literary funk. Little writing or reading was done while I went into the man-cave to recharge my batteries. I'm feeling better now, and have made myself a promise that should help to fend off future episodes.

I'm not reading any more shitty books.

I always prided myself on reading a book all the through to the end, whether I was asked to review it or not. Bad books can teach, if only to show what not to do, or how not to do it. I was like the little kid with the pile of horseshit under the Christmas tree, looking for the pony.

No more.

Life's too short for that. I blew off two books in April alone. One was a "innocent man caught up in an international conspiracy" thriller, where the innocent man did so many stupid things in the first fifty pages, each blatantly calculated to make the situation worse, I was rooting for the bad guys to kill him and get it over with; I was willing to suffer a little world domination just to get rid of this guy.

The other was by a writer whose books I've enjoyed in the past. (No one likely to ever see this blog, so rest easy, friends.) A hundred pages in and I was still waiting for something interesting to happen when my review editor said someone else had reviewed it and I didn't have to. Possibly the highlight of my month.

So, April has two recommended reads; only one is literary.

The Fourth Protocol, Frederick Forsythe - An oldie but goody. I hadn't read any Forsythe in years and wanted to see if he still held up in my eyes. Aside from the whole Cold War thing, a few things are a little dated, but in general everything holds up. The characters are believable, the plot holds together, and the twists are understandable only in retrospect; he consistently surprises, never cheats. A master.

Baseball Prospectus 2010 - By seamheads for seamheads, but a lot of fun to read if you qualify. It's long, and we all have lives, but if you're geeked up on baseball (like I am), this is a good read to keep around the viewing chair for commercials and rain delays, as it can be read in bite-sized chunks.