Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Re-Read?

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

So goes what is sometimes called the greatest opening sentence in crime fiction, the beginning of James Crumley’s masterpiece The Last Good Kiss. The book is full of lines that good or better, beautifully crafted. When I read it in December 2008 I liked it, but didn’t see what all the fuss was about. The whole didn’t seem to equal the sum of its parts. My memories of it weren’t good as time passed.

Crumley’s name comes up a lot in the blogs and web sites I frequent, and he presented as someone I’d like in interviews. A couple of years ago I took a chance on Dancing Bear and loved it.

Confusion ensued. Dancing Bear is good, but Crumley’s magnum opus is universally considered to be The Last Good Kiss. How was I off by so much?

Leave it to The Beloved Spouse to set me straight. “You read that when you were sick, didn’t you? Maybe that clouded your judgment.”

Oh, yeah. I spent most of December 2008 and the early part of January 2009 on the couch with a nasty case of mononucleosis. That’s when I read The Last Good Kiss, followed immediately by Ken Bruen’s The Guards, which had also been highly recommended and I failed to see what all the fuss was about . The more I thought about it, I remembered reading more Bruen, too, and liked them both. (Priest and London Boulevard.) Maybe TBS was on to something. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) So this week, I got around to reading The Last Good Kiss again.

God damn, that’s a good book.

I haven’t read much PI fiction lately, which could be why I’m having so much trouble putting together the PI novel I’ve trying to work on since September. Crumley reminded me why I love PI fiction, things that work better in first person POV, and how to work around some of its limitations. Wonderful book.

Most people have favorites they’ll re-read from time to time, comfort food for the mind. Try reading an occasional book you didn’t care for, too. The book won’t have changed, but you may have, even if you only just feel better than the first time you read it.

I already have The Guards queued up.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The First Rule

Robert Crais honed his craft in television, notably Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey,  and Miami Vice. It shows in his writing. He sets his scenes quickly and without preamble, gets in and out, and his action flows as though Sam Peckinpaugh has blocked the scenes. Crais is one of my fallback writers, someone I’ll go to when I’m in a reading rut, or have tried something different and didn’t like it.

My reading for the past year or so has been anything but ruttish; this has led to my neglect of several favorites. I made a list of those writers I’d like to keep up with, but had fallen behind on. (James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Adrian McKinty—though American publishers’ lack of taste is primarily to blame for my falling behind on his books—Joe Wambaugh, and Scott Phillips, to name a handful.) Hard to believe it had been over two years since my last Crais, when I was so engrossed in Chasing Darkness I spent my arrival night at Bouchercon holed up in my room so i could finish before the conference started.

The First Rule is a Joe Pike novel. For those unaware, Crais’s recurring hero is private investigator Elvis Cole, who can be thought of as Sonny Crockett after a trip to Disneyland. Elvis has a Pinocchio clock, wears Hawaiian shirts, and generally plays the laid-back SoCal boy until someone riles him or a harder edge is needed.

Pike is Cole’s sidekick. He’s more like a white Hawk with advanced military training Jack Reacher would be proud of. Several years ago Crais gave him his own book (The Watchman), which was excellent.

The First Rule opens with the home invasion slaying of a family. The father, who runs an import business, was a close friend of Pike’s from his soldier-for-hire days. You see where this is going already, so I’ll leave the plot alone. Suffice to say, Crais takes you along a not wholly unexpected trip using detours you would not have guessed.

Personally, I like the Cole books a little better. The tone is more varied, the touch a little lighter. Cole plays an important part here, but Pike’s voice dominates the storytelling. The situation and Pike’s background bring him perilously close to killing machine territory. It’s to Crais’s credit he’s able to keep Pike as dominant as he is without making him a Brad Thor-like caricature.

Crais also does something a lot of writers could learn from. He’s been writing Cole and Pike books for 25 years. They were Vietnam veterans when the series began. The normal aging process would put them into their 60s now, too old to be believable. Crais keeps them the same indeterminate age by showing their backstories through cheesecloth. Vietnam participation is mentioned less often as the series progresses, until it disappears. Pike has now learned his killing skills in hot spots that were in the news fifteen years ago or thereabouts. Enough detail is provided for his history to seem real, but not enough to pin him down too definitely.

Crais has said repeatedly he’ll never allow Cole and Pike to become movies. he has an image of them in his head, his readers have their own images, and he doesn’t want casting and directorial choices to alter those images. (Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, anyone?) I suspect Crais also doesn’t need the money. Still, it’s nice to see a master craftsman continue to write at the expected level, and to keep it up for as long as he has.

Is Crais a great writer? Does his prose rise to the level of Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, McBain, or Leonard? Not really. He tells great stories very well, with never a seam or missed stitch, and does it all without seeming too slick. His acclaim and continued sales are well deserved.

(The Beloved Spouse notes I left out something. He’s also smoking hot.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Betty Hyland

The Writers of Chantilly is a phenomenon in the context of writers’ groups. Where most have the longevity of tubercular mayflies, the Writers of Chantilly gets together twice a month, just as it has for at least thirteen years, which was when I joined; it was already a going concern then.

No one did more to make Chantilly a successful group than Betty Hyland. Not an original member, she came in a few years before the founder moved away and assumed responsibility for keeping a disparate group of writers moving forward. The group turned over its entire membership a couple of times since I started going, and probably once more since the commute required by working in Washington and living halfway to Baltimore made semi-monthly after work trips to Chantilly more of a chore than the pleasure they had been. Betty was the constant.

We pretended to argue on a weekly basis. Betty the grammar Nazi, and me the hard-boiled writer who cared more about how it read than how it diagrammed. The descriptions and foul language of my writing sometimes dismayed her, but she never let that interfere with the encouragement she provided every time she saw me.

A better person would be ashamed of how I picked on her. No better person being available, Betty accepted it all in good spirit and gave as good as she got. We sometimes disagreed—occasionally even got rowdy about it—yet never so it endangered the goodwill that bound us.

She was instrumental in getting half a dozen anthologies published, short works by group members who need encouragement to write. I’d get frustrated, seeing stories from people who wouldn’t write a word unless they were guaranteed to see it in print. Betty always stuck up for them. Her patience with such things was endless.

She wrote a young adult book, The Girl With the Crazy Brother, a fictionalized account of what it had been like to raise a schizophrenic son. It garnered good reviews and enough attention to be made into a CBS Schoolbreak Special, directed by Diane Keaton and starring Patricia Arquette. A Thousand Cloudy Days explored the topic again, then she turned to writing cozy mysteries with darker undersides than most, and always a clever twist that surprised, then seemed to have been inevitable.

Betty looked frail when i saw her last, about a year ago. She gave me as much hell as ever, and I her, though it was sad to carry her things while she was helped to the car and driven home. She was still Betty, and this was a speed bump for her, or so I assumed.

I was shocked when I heard she died yesterday, less at her passing—she’d been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for months—than to learn she’d been three days shy of her 85th birthday. I would have guessed she was at least ten years younger, living proof feistiness is the true Fountain of Youth.

Part of me wants to go through every sentence written here with Strunk and White to ensure the grammar would meet her standards. I won’t, because she would have preferred to do that herself, even if she’d have to put up with me telling her I’d split that infinitive deliberately to see if she’d catch it. My prose flows better than it would have without her. I still break her rules, but with a better understanding of what they are, and why they’re there, so I know what I can get away with. Or, with what I can get away.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Interview and Review at New Mystery Reader

My review of Tumblin’ Dice, as well as an interview with author John McFetridge (The Crime King of Canuckistan) can be found on the New Mystery Reader web site.

Tumblin’ Dice is all we’ve come to expect from McFetridge, so hustle yourself over and get a copy to read over your Timbits, eh.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Devil’s Right Hand

I first came across J.D. Rhoades when I was asked to review Good Day in Hell for the New Mystery Reader web site. Bounty hunter Jack Keller was a good character, Rhoades maintained a well-balanced pace, and everything fit together nicely. Why I didn’t add Rhoades to my list of writers to keep an eye on for new books was easy: I didn’t have that list then.

I do now. And he’s on it.

I picked up The Devil’s Right Hand for my Kindle because JD mentioned it on his blog (What Fresh Hell is This?), and I still had good feelings from last year’s Lawyers, Guns, and Money, which made my Best Reads list for 2011. The book reads as though Stephen Hunter wrote an episode of Justified, redneck noir balls to the wall, with a brief lull to gather momentum for the ending.

This is another Keller book, where the bounty hunter finds himself racing to catch his quarry before a son set on revenge can get to him for killing his father. Keller follows up on a lead too late to catch his man, but just in time to walk in on a shootout where the two story lines collide. After that it’s every man for himself.

There aren’t a lot of writers with a better sense of place than Rhoades. Everything about the book keeps you in rural North Carolina: the names, the towns, and speech, and the attitudes. He knows not to push too hard, but just hard enough, with ups and downs that keep the book from becoming just another high octane bloodbath. He gets you to understand his good guys and his bad guys and to see neither side is all one or the other.

The Devil’s Right Hand is great fun without being mindless entertainment. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Interview With Jochem vanderSteen

Jochem vanderSteen is a Dutch writer with an acute interest and insight into American private detective fiction. His blog, Sons of Spade, explores and promotes the genre as well as any I have come across.

Jochem’s contribution to the literature is Noah Milano, the son of a Mafia boss who became a PI as part of a pledge to his dying mother. Now he uses the skills learned as a criminal to solve problems rather than create them. Noah’s background makes police uneasy to work with him, and his new career keeps him somewhat distant from previous associates. It’s common for PIs to have to tread lines, but Noah’s line is distinctly his own.

Jochem took some time from his schedule of promoting his current Noah Milano novella, Redemption, to answer a few questions.

DK: You earn your living writing about rock music in the Netherlands. What is it about American PI fiction that appeals to you?

JVS: Actually, I don’t exactly make a living writing about music. It’s more of a hobby. To pay the bills I work in IT.

DK: The concept of Noah Milano is fascinating. He’s a man who must walk a line, but can lean to either side as needed. What gave you the idea for him?

JVS: I was looking for a unique background for my PI character. All the law enforcement backgrounds were taken (ex-cop, ex-MP, etc) so I decided to go for ex-criminal. While I was writing my first Noah Milano story Xena, Warrior Princess was playing on TV which gave me the idea to make him a character really looking for redemption. Also, a really good hardboiled character should wear a grey hat, not a white one.

DK: English is not your native language. Please describe some of the challenges when writing in a second language, even one in which you are fluent.

JVS: Dialogue comes pretty naturally. Sometimes I get into trouble with a sentence. All in all, I‘ve gotten comments that make me believe I make a lot of the same errors the real English do.

DK: Irish, Scottish, and Scandinavian crime writers have made an impression on Americans’ notoriously parochial tastes in recent years. Are there any Dutch writers ready to make the leap across the Atlantic and remind Americans we are not the only game in town for crime fiction?

JVS: There’s some successful ones who did, Baantjer (very popular here, but really a very crappy author), Esther Verhoef and Saskia Noort (good looking women writing thrillers for women). There’s very few writers in the Netherlands I really like. Lieneke Dijkzeul writes some good thrillers with inspector Paul Vegter. They should be translated.

DK: What do you look for in a PI story to make it succeed, or fail, in your opinion?

JVS: I look for a good mystery that surprises me. I like a bit of sex and violence. But what I really like in a PI story is a tough protagonist with a cynical worldview and a two-fisted attitude written in a straight forward, non-flowery style.

DK: Who are your favorite writers, and what are your favorite books? Is there someone you like a lot but think has not received his or her due?

JVS: I like most PI writers. Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone stands out. I love Parker, Vachss, Connelly, Connolly, Lee Child. Jeffery Deaver knows how to pile on the plot twist. I’ve got a soft side for Jonathan Kellerman, reading his Delaware novels always make me feel like I’m visiting an old friend. David Levien has been blowing me away as has Timothy Hallinan. David Housewright is really, really underrated. More people should be reading Wayne Dundee, Kent Westmoreland and Philip T. Duck.

DK: What are you working on now?

JVS: I’m finishing up a Milano short story that will be going to a few webzines. After that I’m going to work on a Milano novella that’s about Hollywood prostitution.

DK: Thank you, Jochum, and good luck with the Noah Milano stories.

Redemption can be purchased in the United States on for $0.99.

Friday, April 6, 2012

I Left It All On the Page For You

Some writers--I'm not naming names--inundate their potential readers with unceasing barrages of self-promotion. I have more respect for my dozens of readers than to do that. Worst Enemies has received flattering notices from both Leighton Gage (Vine in the Blood) and Benjamin Sobieck (Cleansing Eden); those have been duly noted without beating anyone over the head with them.

Wild Bill was pimped at least once a week when it came out. (And is still available here for a paltry $2.99.) My efforts on behalf of Worst Enemies have not been so substantial. Why is that? The Great Computer Meltdown of 2012 has something to do with it. All my writing and online efforts have suffered a production dip the past couple of weeks.

Do I not feel as strongly about Worst Enemies? Au contraire. (As The Sole Heir can point out, that's French for "Are you shitting me?") I think Worst Enemies is even better than Wild Bill. Sure, every author says that. "You thought my last book was good! Ha! This new book can kick its ass in the dark. On a skating rink. With a plastic bag over its head. It's that good." Don't take my word for it;. read what Messers Gage and Sobieck have to say.

The truth is, I'm spent. Every bit of creativity I had on the subjects covered in Worst Enemies went into the book. There's nothing left. I'm drained. Everything I have is on the (virtual) page, waiting for you to take it all in for the minimal investment of $2.99. That's less than three bucks for a peek into--not a year of my boring life--but the lives of fictional people far more interesting than I. My boring life I give away for free on Facebook. These people actually do things, like kill people and have sex and engage in witty banter. And it's all yours for three bucks.

Okay. I've done what I can. See you next week.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cleansing Eden

I don’t like serial killer stories. Read them only if there is some other compelling reason to. (Like maybe because it was written by Declan Hughes.) Serial killer stories are the lazy writer’s way to build tension, creating a villain with the conscience of a shark and a psyche that is screwed up in some inexplicable manner no one would believe, but the author gets away with because the killers actions and motivations don’t have to make sense, he’s clearly completely nuts or he wouldn’t be a serial killer! Serial killers most often prey on women, almost always relatively young and attractive women, which is another cheat.

I could go on, but my bona fides have been established: I don’t like serial killer stories. I probably would not have read Ben Sobieck’s Cleansing Eden had I paid enough attention to know it was a serial killer story. I read it because people whose taste I trust kept recommending it, and I’d recently finished a collection of his Maynard Soloman stories, which I enjoyed a great deal. So I got a few pages in and realized, “Bugger. This is a serial killer story.” The quality of the writing was good, and Sobieck had earned a little patience on my part, so I hung with it. Got to wondering what happened next. Pretty soon I was hooked.

Cleansing Eden is not your basic John Sanford serial killer story.

First, this guy doesn’t have some bizarre compulsion to kill. He has a plan, and killing is the means to his desired end. Yes, it’s a crazy plan, but, let’s face it, he’s a serial killer. He’s entitled.

He’s also rational enough not to dirty his hands. He acts as Svengali to a much younger man, who does his killing for him. Don’t think Charles Manson; this DC sniper territory. The victims aren’t tortured to death. No murder is pretty, but the purpose here is to kill them, not gratify himself sexually. Remember, the deaths are only means to an end.

What is that end? Read the book. Sobieck makes it easy for you. His prose reads easily, and amount of disbelief you have to suspend never becomes a burden. The juxtaposition of points of view from the killer to a cop to a TV paparazzi journalist keeps the reader half a step ahead of the action without knowing for sure what the action will be. Cleansing Eden is a fine first novel from a writer whose take on a hackneyed genre is fresh and will leave you looking forward to what he comes up with next.

Cleansing Eden is available for Kindle for only $3.99, or free for Amazon Prime members.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More Love for Worst Enemies

The reviews are starting to trickle in for Worst Enemies, and the news is good. Author Ben Sobieck (Cleansing Eden) has this to say: 

That King can put the many pieces together in such a compelling way speaks to the character management he displayed in his debut, Wild Bill....The cast is large, but it never feels that way. king keeps the story grounded in police detective Ben Dougherty, a military veteran trying to shed his hard bark.

By the end, Worst Enemies was miles from Strangers On a Train...When a crime novel goes above and beyond a mere interpretation of a classic, the reader is left as satisfied as the author.

Read the entire review here.

Worst Enemies is available for Kindle for a paltry $2.99, the same as it costs to upgrade from beef to bison on your Silver Diner burger. The burger will be gone in ten minutes. the book will last.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Session

Mike Dennis is best known (to me, at least) as the writer of hard-boiled crime fiction. His two novels set in Key West (Setup on Front Street and Ghosts of Havana) both have a 50s-ish, Mickey Spillane feel to them, though set in the present day, and are well worth your time. (I found Setup on Front Street particularly appealing.)

Mike hasn't always been focused on writing tight, hard-hitting fiction. Like me, he was a free-lance musician in a previous life. (Mike was far better and more successful than was I.) It's this previous incarnation he draws on for his recently released story, "The Session."

Since I don't do that whole giving away the plot thing in reviews, suffice to say "The Session" is about a first call studio guitarist in LA whose paranoia about who might be coming up to usurp his status reaches unhealthy levels. It's easy to succumb to melodrama in a story like this; Dennis resists. Told through the eyes of the guitarist, the story shows all the hidden insecurities too many successful musicians are prone to, and the debilitating affects they can have on professional and personal lives. All of this is told in an understated, thoroughly believable style that lends gravitas to the message. Dennis doesn't need to make the reader feel any particular way. Read the story and you'll get it, or you're not paying attention.

As a recovering musician myself, I highly recommend "The Session" to musicians, as well as to anyone with a musician in their life. It will help either understand what being a free-lance musician is like as well as anything I've read or seen. It's available on Amazon for $0.99. It might be the most insightful dollar you ever spend.