Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Lost and the Blind

Few people would confuse Declan Burke’s writing with Scott Phillips’s, though they have one critical element in common: no matter how many of their books you’ve read in the past, you’re never quite sure what this one’s going to be like.

So it is with Burke’s The Lost and the Blind.  A German U-boat surfaces near a small island in neutral Ireland during World War II, in search of an English spy. Before the night is over a church full of children will be burned to the ground. The submarine might have been be sunk, its cargo of gold intended for the IRA at the bottom of the lough. Seventy years later, a rich Irish expatriate returns to purge the guilt he feels in the matter through philanthropy. Less sure is whether he should feel guilty at all. Through it all runs a thread of uncertainty: how much of this really happened?

Burke has written a tribute to Raymond Chandler and pulp-era private eyes (Eightball Boogie), and a sequel darker than anything Chandler dreamed of (Slaughter’s Hound); an Elmore Leonard-esque “screwball noir” (The Big O) and its sequel, an even screwier road trip (Crime Always Pays); and a darkly funny and disturbing bit of metafiction where a discarded character comes back to haunt the author (Absolute Zero Cool). In The Lost and the Blind, he uses his considerable talents to channel Alistair MacLean, weaving plot twists over plot twists until you’re not necessarily sure who the characters are, and don’t know how much one in particular should be trusted, even at the denouement.
All the things Burke’s previous readers have come to know are there. He’s as deft with his dialog and use of language as ever. The humor is, as always, well placed and well done, though this is not by any means a funny book in the way The Big O and Crime Always Pays are. The interplay between the characters rings true, which serves to make the plot twists both surprising when they happen and reasonable when you think about them. No mean feat, that.

The Lost and the Blind is a bit of a departure for Burke, with its historical elements and labyrinthine plotting. That he pulls it off at all speaks highly of his talent and diversity. That he pulls it off so well leads one to hope he’ll mine this vein again. But, remember, he’s Declan Burke. He may write a sequel along those lines—he’s done that with Crime Always Pays—or write a sequel with a different tone—as he did in Slaughter’s Hound—or, being Burke, he may do something completely different. There’s only one prediction that can be made about Burke’s next book: it will keep you up late, and you’ll be happy it did.

(The Lost and the Blind is available now in Ireland and the UK. Here in the colonies—where fine literature always seems to come late to the party—it releases in April, and can be pre-ordered via Amazon.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

I Hear Voice(s)

Tim Hallinan raked me over the coals pretty good in an interview at The Blog Cabin a couple of weeks ago. Among the questions was how I would rank five key elements of fiction, in order of importance. Here’s the exchange:

Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?

I ranked Tone second, just above story/plot. My reasoning: Raymond Chandler once said, “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” It’s been said that Elmore Leonard—and he pretty much admitted it—wrote essentially the same book with essentially the same characters over and over again, and I still read and re-read them all, because his tone is so perfect, and tone and style and voice are inextricable. I’ve ditched story ideas I liked because I couldn’t get the tone I wanted, and the tone was what I was less willing to change.

As luck would have it, the next day I made an appearance with the gentlemen who comprise
Meet Myster Write (Austin Camacho, D.B. Corey, and Larry Matthews). The question came from the audience about what we looked for in our own reading. The woman seemed surprised when I noted voice or style above the plot, and an enjoyable exchange ensued. The core of the discussion came down to, “Why?”

Good question. Reading for voice has become so ingrained in me, I honest to God don’t remember why. It’s part of who I am now, like brown eyes and Size 12 shoes. I pondered this for almost an hour just now before it dawned on me it was less a conscious decision than an evaluation of my reading habits. Which authors did I come back to time after time? Who do I re-read? What do they have in common?

Each of them has a distinctive voice. There may be little or no similarity between them—I read Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Ellroy, John McFetridge, and other disparate stylists with great anticipation—but they all have their own unique voices, such that I can likely open an unfamiliar book by any of them (if I can find one) to a random page and tell who wrote it damn near every time. That’s what stays with me, and may well turn me off when the voice is not to my taste, or is absent. (This is why I don’t often read bestsellers, which often have such a bland voice there can be said they have none at all, I suppose in the interest of turning off as few readers as possible.)

What’s interesting is, this is one area where I—as a writer—am not the outlier. Many, possibly most, readers read for voice. (Tone, style, whatever. They aren’t identical, but I defy you to separate them.) They might not admit it, or even realize it, but they do. Don’t believe me? How many people have you heard say they open the book and read the first page to see if it grabs them? This is usually used as an excuse reason to begin with a body or action or some other kind of plot hook. Listen closer. Just as many people, often the same ones, will open the book to a random page and read it for the same reason, to see if it grabs them. That’s not going to find them a plot-related hook. What can a reader discover from a random page that will inform his or her purchasing decision?

“Is this a tone/style/voice I’m going to want to invest several hours and up to $30 in?”

People have to read the whole book before they can decide whether they like your plots enough to come back for more. They’ll know right away if they like your style. Take a stand.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays / The Year in Review

The darkness, falling rapidly, implies
The nearness of the holidays to come.
A paradox, for in the winter’s bleak
Remonstrances is found occasion to
Enjoy the celebrations of those things
That matter most: the family, and shared
Anticipation of the year to come
Amid the mixed remembrance of the one
About to pass into the vault of our
Experience, to be exhumed for laugh
Or tear, as need, or situation doth
Require. For now, a brief recap of all
That’s passed—and past—with us, the Kings, throughout
The twelvemonth that will draw to close anon.

The biggest news, and best, belongs to The
Beloved Spouse, a grandmother again,
With Alexander James appearing in
October, which did prompt a visit west
To Oakland, where she reveled in the joys
Transferred from babies to the grown-ups who
Are helpless to do aught but strive to find
The imps’ next need before he knows himself.
The stress and deprivation of true sleep
Both pale in competition weak when held
Within the glow that shines from infant’s light.
She’s riding still upon the high bestowed
By young A.J. those few days in
November, and we vow to get her back
To visit him again before do dim the
Memories of such a joyous trip.

Began the year, did Rachel, pen in hand
Transcribing medical events of dire
(And other) nature in a hospital’s
Emergency facility, where ailments’
True severity did span the gamut,
Both of trauma and imagination.
Returning whence to school again, for work
Toward a Master’s in the hallowed halls
Of Georgetown, physiology to claim
Attention and her energy through June
Of year to come. Good news though that may be,
The best, from selfish context of this scribe,
Logistics’ argument did win the day,
And here, at Castle Schadenfreude, with us,
Her weeks she spends, an unexpected treat.

My year had scant accomplishment, and yet
A recognition I received, unique
In my experience: a nomination
Of award from national and well-
Respected group for mysteries, which rules
Demand a private eye to crack the case
Described. That other won the highest prize
Did not in any way remove the thrill
Of gaining brief admittance to such lofty
Company. Three conferences I did
Attend, from Philly in the east, to Long
Beach in the west. Both educational
And fun, to spur new work, and talents to
Improve. The day job goes as has before:
Employer still the same, and project, too.
The lack of long commute provides more time
To read and follow both the Pirates and
The Pens in more than adequate detail.

Yes, each of us had something new with cause
To celebrate. We hope the same was true
For you, that milestones passed contained within
Them reasons to exalt, with no regret.
We wish for you the coming year to bring
Whate’er it is you want, but, barring that,
At least to get whate’er it is you need.

Monday, December 22, 2014

They Call Me Mr. Sunshine

Every month I bore you with post a list of the best books I read the previous month, with brief, usually one-paragraph, reviews. At the beginning of every year, not satisfied that the first promulgation of my personal literary prejudices was sufficiently irritating, I publish the best books I read that year. Not the best books launched in that year; the best books I read. My wheels grind exceeding slow at times, and I am rarely a slave to fashion or cultural pacing. I read what I want, when I want.

What I don’t do is tell you what books I didn’t like. Some question this. (Actually, no one has had the nerve to ask me directly, but I’ve seen it done.) “Don’t readers have a right to know about the books you don’t like, so they know what to avoid?”

No, they don’t. Not from me specifically, anyway.

There are plenty of assholes willing to post a one-star review of books they haven’t finished because they didn’t like the foul language or the cat getting run over or the graphic violence. I never have a one-star review to post, because books that appear to be moving into One Star Land don’t get finished, and I don’t feel it’s fair to review—or even rate—a book I didn’t finish. Call me fussy, but there is always the chance the book could redeem itself. That chance might not be sufficient for me to continue, but my lack of patience should not be construed as an absolute and accurate arbiter of taste. I only rate books I finish.

I also only review and rate books I can comfortably give at least four stars. Part of the reason is, I finish between 60 and 70 books in an average year, and I don’t have time to do justice to all of them. I’d rather do fewer reviews than do them half-assed. There are so many deserving books that don’t get the marketing support to let them peek above the dreck for even a few minutes that I want to spend my reviewing time providing whatever miniscule assistance I can where it’s most warranted. In addition, every minute I’d spend ripping a book is a minute I could have spent reading or reviewing something I could be enthusiastic about, and life’s too short to read books you don’t like.

(As has been noted, I am willing to rip movies I don’t like. Why the double standard? Because even a relatively small movie has more marketing support and money behind it than most novels released in a year combined. I have no problem with pointing out those naked emperors because my voice is a mouse squeaking in a hurricane compared to the volume of bloviated bullshit any studio can pump up about this year’s Batman/Spiderman/Avengers reboot. So movies are on their own.)

As a writer, I can’t afford to read solely for entertainment anymore. (A post on that is coming.) That doesn’t mean every book I read shouldn’t entertain me at some level. (“Engage” can be substituted for “entertain.” The entertainment level of Max Hastings’s brilliant history of World War II, Inferno, could never be described as entertaining, but it was fascinating from cover to cover.) Now that I read as both a reader and a writer, the book has to interest both. If I choose to do a review, I owe the prospective reader my honest opinion about whether this book meets the $25 test. As a writer, I owe my peers an honest appraisal. I owe it to myself to spend as little time on shitty books as possible.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ed McBain

Work on the web site continues, with the soft deadline I set for myself of January 1 looking eminently doable. (The text and graphics are ready, with a few updates required. All that remains is to get the colors to match on all 34 pages.) Included in the pre-planning work were inspections of other writers’ web sites. I wasn’t interested in making mine as elaborate as some. What I cared about were what kinds of things were included elsewhere. I was able to find a consensus, and lost several hours wandering the halls of various writers’ sites.

Among those I enjoyed most was Ed McBain’s. He’s been dead almost ten years, so I’m not sure why I checked. Maybe to see what a more or less bare bones site looked like, if anything was there at all. Turned out he did (does?) have a site, though it has not been updated since 2010, when he was made an honorary citizen of Ruvo, Italy.

The site consists of what you might expect from the web presence of an author with his background. The navigation bar links to pages titled Home, Newsdesk, Booked, Bios, etc., Forum, Links, and Contacts. It’s the “Newsdesk” page that caught my eye. In it is a page called Articles by the Author. These are essays—blog posts, essentially—written by McBain between May 23, 2002, and March 18, 2004. (He died July 6, 2005.)

The posts are priceless. (For those of you who are unaware, “Ed McBain” is a pen name of Evan Hunter, who was born Salvatore Lombino.) Evan Hunter a Ed McBain. He writes of growing up in “the big, bad city” in such a way even a country boy such as myself gets it. Why an author should never fake it. His contract with the reader. Books he abandoned, and why. Altogether there are nine. I read them all, and can’t pick a favorite.

What I like best is how they work so well as vehicles for McBain to speak candidly and directly to the reader. The wit found in his books is present, as are the little bits of whimsy. Phrasings just different enough to let you know this came out exactly how he wanted it, if not quite how you expected. In “Trials and Errors,” he writes of four novels he began as Evan Hunter, never to finish any of them; one only got three paragraphs written. This essay concludes with, “I've never started an 87th Precinct novel I didn't finish,” which, to me, spoke volumes about how he felt about his seminal, and most successful, series.

In “About That Novel,” Evan Hunter explains how he writes a novel, in the guise of explaining to you how to write one. All writers should read this, regardless of your level of experience. That’s not to say you should then follow his advice to the letter, but everyone who has made the effort will appreciate what he’s talking about.

“Coming Along Happy” describes growing up in New York. Here’s how it ends:

My father was a postman. During the Depression, he never earned more than eight bucks a week. But he always found enough money to take me to the Apollo Theater to hear the big bands on Saturday nights.

After the show, we would walk down 125th Street together, hand in hand, chattering about what we'd just seen and heard, chattering, chattering, all the way back to the apartment on East 120th Street.

Years later, when I was living in a luxury high rise on 72nd and the East River, I thought Gee, it's taken me only fifty years to move fifty blocks downtown.

“The Nature of the Beast” is billed as “McBain’s contract with his readers.” It’s a brief list (nine paragraphs) of things he promises always to do. Its conclusion:

I promise to keep you awake all night.

I promise to keep writing till the day I die.

I will sign this contract in blood if you like.

I have not done these priceless little essays justice, and cannot in such a space. Read them. They are full of the little, non-intrusive flourishes that made every Eight-Seven novel a pleasure to read. The bon mots are too many for me to pick favorites. The picture that emerges is of a man in love with his calling, and the craft involved. In them, he speaks to his readers as the friends we wish we could be with favorite authors.

To me, McBain is the most underappreciated great writer of crime. “How can he be unappreciated?” you ask. “MWA named him a Grand Master in 1986. He was the first American to receive a Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association. The 87th Precinct novels were nominated for an Anthony Award as Best Series of the Century in 2000.” All this is true. However, his name seems to have dropped out of the conversation since his death. He’s mentioned in the discussion of the greats, but too often as an afterthought. (“But what about McBain?” “Oh, of course, McBain. That goes without saying.”) He was so good for so long he, more than any other writer, became taken for granted. His books were still getting better fifty years into the series. Even after all the awards and the luxury high rise on 72nd and the East River, he never mailed it in.

This post is almost twice as long as I originally intended. That should give you an idea of how strongly I feel about this subject. Go to the website yourself for some small insight into why I’m so worked up. Check out the “Newsdesk/Articles by the Author” page. Make sure you have time to spend.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tour Update

I’ve been doing interviews and guest blogs for the past week to help with the release of The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. This has kept me busy enough that I haven’t had time to work on a decent blog post for today that isn’t a complete rip-off of at least one of the guest posts I’ve done. So, in the interest of keeping the word out on Stuff, here’s a compendium of my blog tour, including a couple of upcoming events. (Many thanks to the Internet for making the past events still available.)

December 10: Iinterviewed live on the BSW Show, hosted by B. Swangin Webster. (My section begins just past the 30:00 mark.)

December 11: Flash fiction, “Bad Samaritan” posted on the Katherine Hepcat web site. (“Bad Samaritan” will also serve as the first chapter of soon-to-be-in-progress Nick Forte book, aptly titled Bad Samaritan.)

December 11: Guest post on Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island blog.

December 16: Live appearance at Asbury Village, 301 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg MD with Meet Myster Write (Austin Camacho, D.B. Corey, Larry Matthews) to discuss books, writing, reading, and whatever else comes up. While the primary purpose is to get to know readers and not necessarily to sell books, we will not refuse to sell a book, if requested. It wouldn’t be polite.

December 15: Interviewed by Timothy Hallinan (author of the Poke Rafferty series, as well as the Junior Bender series) at The Blog Cabin.

December 16: Guest post on the award-winning blog Do Some Damage.

TBA – Guest post on Austin Camacho’s blog Life of a Writing Publisher

Anyone who attends the December 16 gig at Asbury Village and mentions this blog will receive a free, personalized copy of Grind Joint. Why Grind Joint and not the new book? Because:

1. The author’s copies for the new book aren’t here yet; and

2. I’m up to my ears in copies of Grind Joint, after buying up the inventory to retrieve the rights. The giveaway will be one of the original Stark House copies, which, if all goes well, could be worth something after I die. Not that it’s imminent. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

For the Dead

Timothy Hallinan’s literary gifts are many, but the one that might serve him best in his series novels is an ability to use the same characters and settings and still create something unlike any of the stories that came before. The sixth Poke Rafferty book, For the Dead, is a prime example.

For the Dead is, at its core, a thriller wrapped around a story of evolving family dynamics. Poke’s wife, Rose, is pregnant. Their “adopted” daughter, Miaow, is moving into adolescence and all that entails, with the added burden of feeling a need to keep her origins as a street child hidden from her schoolmates and teachers. When Miaow’s maybe boyfriend, Andrew (the son of a Vietnamese diplomat) loses his cell phone, Miaow leverages her street skills to find him what they hope is a suitable replacement, unwittingly picking up a phone used in an ongoing murder for hire plot.

The early part of the book is actually four stories. Four-and-a-half, really, as the murder plot also brings into focus the estrangement between Poke and his policeman friend, Arthit, still my favorite series sidekick. Each of the seemingly independent stories will fold into a larger whole, but it takes a little while. Fortunately, Hallinan makes each story interesting enough on its own to make it easy to keep reading. The process reminded me a little of William Goldman’s classic Marathon Man, where the reader has no idea the stories of Babe and Scylla are related until Scylla falls, bleeding, into Babe’s apartment. Hallinan’s reveal is not as abrupt, as the book’s momentum up as hints of where things are going start to emerge. It’s virtuoso stuff.

What struck me as the book’s greatest accomplishment of craft lies in how Hallinan, whose refusal to outline or plot anything in advance is well documented, is able to reach back into previous stories to pluck bits that make this story come together plausibly, when many writers—even those who outline—will allow the seams to show where they shoved the deus into their machinae. It’s like watching an artist take whatever he has lying around the studio to make a good piece great with bits no one else would have thought had anything to contribute to the project at hand.

At a more micro level, no one matches Hallinan’s ability to find ways to describe everyday things and thoughts. Andrew’s father has a tree up his ass. Poke finds Rose in “a sleep so deep [he] believes he could change the sheets and not wake her.” A man “who has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” Clever, never cute, descriptions that would slip into clichés in less expert hands.

As always, the characters rule. Regular readers already are well acquainted with Poke and Rose and Miaow and Arthit. For the Dead mixes in a few from previous books (Boo, Treasure, Anna); adds Andrew’s father, a diplomat who is more than meets the eye; and Thanom, Arthit’s boss, a/k/a “The Dancer” for his ability to navigate the political rapids of the Bangkok police force until he stumbles onto proof he’s been playing in The Show with AAA skills.

The characters’ full development isn’t just a box that Hallinan feels the need to check. All that work serves the larger purpose of all the Rafferty books, which is to display the redemptive power of love. Rafferty loves Miaow “with a love that seems to flow through him rather than from him, because, he thinks, he couldn’t possibly hold so much. He’d have run dry years ago.” The same could describe his feelings for Rose, who cannot likely love her impending baby any more than she has come to love Miaow. Even Andrew’s father, officious prick that he is, is driven to extraordinary action in aiding Rafferty because of his love for the boy. For the Dead, like all its predecessors, is about the lengths people will extend themselves for those they truly love, and the strength to be drawn from that undiminished reservoir. It’s not always pretty—Poke is not above retribution—but whatever action may be taken is sanctified by the pureness of the love that drove it.

All that and a great thriller plot. Hallinan holds a unique place in his niche, and there aren’t a lot of challengers.

Monday, December 8, 2014


I’m not much for banquets, preferring smaller, more conversational dinners with a handful of friends. (Bouchercon Saturday’s dinner with The Beloved Spouse, Jacques Fillippi, John McFetridge, Peter Rozovsky, and Kenneth Wishnia was about as close to a perfect situation as I could ask for.) Still, I had been told the Private Eye Writers of America shindig was big fun, and, I’d been nominated for an award (free food!), so I figured, what the hell?

Good call, even though I didn’t win.

Bob Randisi was unable to attend due to recent surgery, so Max Allan Collins stood in for him as the Master of Ceremonies and did a rousing job. Not only was he entertaining as hell, it was touching to see his genuine emotion when a piece he co-wrote with Mickey Spillane won the short story award. I spoke with Max about working with Mickey several years ago, and the affection and admiration he feels is obvious. To see how he responded to this award would have been reason enough to go.

There was, of course, more. The presentations were handled with the right amount of fun and respect, and all the winners were gracious in their acceptances. The camaraderie among the group was obvious, a microcosm of Bouchercon: a group of writers who feel strongly about a chosen genre, aren’t bashful about expressing it, and were delighted to be in the company of other like-minded aficionados. Declan Hughes has said PI stories are the highest form of crime fiction, and, when well done, I agree with him. This gathering recaptured, for me, a bit of what I felt when I heard him make those comments in Baltimore, 2008: I was proud to write in the PI genre, and doubly so that one of my contributions had been recognized.

This brings us to the primary reason for this post. (Yeah, I know. I buried the lede.) PWA appreciates what many other organizations do not: there is independently published fiction that is worth not only reading, but celebrating. These books and authors may not have been deemed worthy by the traditional gatekeepers—A Small Sacrifice was passed over by all the major houses—possibly for reasons other than quality. (Too small a niche, not easily marketable, too much of a “guy’s book,” whatever. If I have learned one thing about this business, it’s that few editors or agents can tell you what will sell, but they can all tell you what won’t.) There is a fertile cadre of conscientious and talented writers who may never break into prominence, but who take their work as seriously as more renowned authors, and may, at times, produce books worthy of mention in the same breath with their more celebrated peers.

So, thank you to Bob Randisi and everyone connected with PWA for making me feel as though I was involved in something worthwhile. This is no small part of the reason I’ve decided to get the Nick Forte stories that have lingered on my hard drive for years out into the public over the next year. Last week’s release of The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of was a little rushed, as my enthusiasm got ahead of my logistics, but I’ll be sure to do the other two right, while I spend most of 2015 working on Forte’s fifth adventure. I’m as jazzed about this project as for anything I’ve ever worked on.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

BREAKING NEWS!! and Coming Attractions

Nick Forte’s second adventure, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, is available in paper now. (There are some issues to be worked out with the Kindle version, but it's coming.) In Stuff, Forte is asked to babysit ham actor and Maltese Falcon “expert” Russell Arbuthnot, who has parlayed a resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet and what he claims is the actual falcon from the movie into a one-man shows, the shelf-life of which is running out. Ticket sales are slow and everyone assumes Forte’s hiring is a publicity stunt until Arbuthnot turns up dead, which is taking a stunt too far even for him, and creates publicity Forte could live without. Since the statue has gone missing, Forte uses the insurance fee as a lever to get himself into the investigation, where he runs into an alluring (slightly) older woman, a beautiful call girl, a Mexican gang, and the IRA. More shamless self-promotion as time goes on.

The Shamus-nominated novel, A Small Sacrifice, is now available in both paper and Kindle formats. Paper retail is $13.95; last I looked Amazon was selling it for $12.65. (Kindle version is still $2.99.)

Now that I have the hang of the whole CreateSpace thing, my other e-books will also be available in print. Look for news on Wild Bill and Worst Enemies in the coming weeks. (Grind Joint still has a few Stark House copies available via Amazon.)

Those who read both Grind Joint and A Small Sacrifice may have noticed Nick Forte is considerably more badass in Grind Joint. That’s no accident. His character became darker and more violent as his series moved on. The problem was, all of those books were on my hard drive, written when it looked as if Forte might have a chance at a deal. Well, not even a Shamus nomination has prompted the publishing industry to take another look, so fuck ‘em. The subsequent Forte books are coming out, anyway. Look for The Man in the Window in May of 2015, to be followed by A Dangerous Lesson in October. This will clear up the Forte constipation in time for the new book, Bad Samaritan, for which the outline has begun, and is hoped to be ready by late winter of 2016.

Speaking of Worst Enemies and Grind Joint, what’s going on in Penns River? Book Three of the series, Resurrection Mall, has been finished for some time, and the agent has been working to find it a home. (“Guy books aren’t selling,” seems to be the current refrain.) The fourth volume—currently titled PR4 (still)—will be finished in early February.

A web site will launch around the first of the year, as well. I’m working on content now, and will have more news as the date draws closer.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I don’t have a lot of readers, but those I do have are consistently encouraging and flattering and all the things someone who works in a vacuum needs to reassure himself that he’s not just some jagov one step removed from a gamer living in his mother’s basement. Thanks to everyone. It doesn’t get said every day, but you’re all appreciated. Every day.

Monday, December 1, 2014

November's Best Reads

Lots of good stuff read since last time, and more news on the way, but work still needs to be done. So, without further ad, my favorite November reads:

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage. Leighton Gage’ death a couple of years ago was a great loss. His series featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian federal police has many of the best elements of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, writ large across a nation. The rapport—not always without edge—between his cadre of cops is spot on, and the political reactions to the cases ring true. This is the first in the too-short series I’m re-reading from the start. After refreshing my memory here, I can’t wait to get to the next. If you haven’t read any of these books, you’re missing out. First rate stuff, right down the line.

The Drop, Dennis Lehane. Read this in two days during free time at NoirCon, which gives you an idea of how I blew through it. True, it’s not a long book, but it’s damn near perfect. Lehane is a master at making narrative flow like dialog, while writing dialog George V. Higgins would be proud of. Appropriately funny in spots, dark in spots, and with a twist that made me want to see the movie even more. Highest marks.

Cottonwood, Scott Phillips. Phillips never disappoints. Asking which of his books is my favorite will return a different answer, depending on whether I’ve most recently read: The Ice Harvest, The Walkaway, or Cottonwood. Right now it’s Cottonwood. I toy with the idea of writing a Western someday. If I do, this is exactly the tone I want to take. Scott can start lining up his legal team now. (The book appears to be out of print. Amazon has several links. The one provided is not a recommendation, just the first one listed.)

Queenpin, Megan Abbott. Great period read. It’s easy to see how this put her on the map. Her females are as tough as any man without being caricatures and their predicaments are realistic, as are the resolutions. Reminded me of The Grifters in the mentor-protégé relationship, though is derivative in no way. Sets up well for a sequel, if she ever chooses to. The period patter was a bit much, at times.

Black Rock, John McFetridge. I read a pre-release e-book and had trouble getting it onto my Kindle; the formatting didn’t come out right. I read it again in paper to have a little more of a pure reading experience and liked it even more. Kindles are great, but they can get between the author and reader in ways books do not, and this is a book you want nothing to be in the way of. (That’s called license, when a writer makes up grammar on the fly like I just did. Look it up.) McFetridge never received the public acclaim his Toronto series deserved. Let’s hope Constable Eddie Dougherty does, and that he doesn’t have to get old and cranky to do so.

Sucker Punch, Ray Banks. Working my way through the entire Cal Innes series, happened to read this one on the plane to Bouchercon, completely unaware Innes spends most of this story in LA making a mess of chaperoning a young boxer. Banks is as pitch-perfect a writer as I can name. Uses no more words than necessary, but no fewer, and exactly the right ones. His plots are as complex as they need to be, and his characters are alive the instant you first meet them. Grade A stuff.

Kill Clock, Allan Guthrie. An author/agent/editor/publisher polymath of a writer, Guthrie knows how to leverage the flexibility available in e-books to write stories only as long as they need to be. Pearce is the perfect anti-hero here, not looking for shit, but not going to put up with any, either. When he finds himself in a bad situation he had nothing to do with—and wants nothing to do with even more—he’s more than capable of bringing it to a head on his own. Guthrie doesn’t back away from his ending, which some won’t like, but is exactly what the story needed. The wry little coda at the end is a nice touch.

Breaking Point, Gerard Brennan. Another novella. Brennan, along with Guthrie and Banks, may have the best understanding of the benefits of the form. A sequel to The Point, Breaking Point picks up the story with some scores settled, but some still outstanding. Brian Morgan only wanted to buy some grass, but his dealer’s unrealistic ambitions suck him in a classic “wrong place/wrong time” scenario. Brennan isn’t as dark or hard edged as Guthrie, but his anti-hero is someone you can root for, while Kill Clock’s Pearce is someone who causes you to fear for the other guys.

TheLincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly. I read for style as much as for anything else. This is why best-sellers rarely appeal to me: too bland. I live for books where I can read a particularly nice bit to The Beloved Spouse, or pause and sit back with the ultimate compliment: I wish I’d written that. Connelly rarely does that, so it’s a tribute to how well his plots and characters are drawn that his books envelope me as they do. His research is so well done, I use his books as research for my own. And I can’t put them down. I didn’t think I’d like the premise for The Lincoln Lawyer, but found it in a discount bin for six bucks. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bouchercon 2014 - The Weekend

And now, the thrilling conclusion of my Bouchercon adventure.

They Blinded Me With Science – Technology, Science, and Crime
Ray Daniel noted that not all your research should go into the book, but it can be useful for a non-fiction article, allowing you to get paid twice for the same work. Since authors so often don’t get paid at all, this is worth looking into.

We’ve Got Grit – Traditional to Thriller to True Crime
John McFetridge: “Noir” has style, it has class; it’s from France. “Grit” is North American.

David Swinson’s cop has Bell’s Palsy, which he is able to use for his own purposes. This is worth remembering.

Crime stories can be gritty without murder. Charles Salzberg’s detective, Swan, does not investigate murders.

Cops can use all kinds of help. Swinson told the story of a legendary Washington DC detective who closed cold cases by bringing in college students as interns to help him go through the old case files.

The Lure of Secret Work – Talking Spies, Espionage, and Special Ops
Marc Cameron spoke of “the invisible wake,” a technique for following a person when not in direct eye contact by observing the people and things around him as he moves.

John Gilstrap once caught hell from a government operative for describing a system used to identify and kill people. When Gilstrap told the guy he’d made that all up, it was, oh, er, um, never mind.

Ian Fleming’s job in World War II was to plan the meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt, including the Tehran conference, where Stalin was included for the first time. Roosevelt snubbed Churchill by changing plans and staying in the Soviet embassy, where Stalin had him bugged 24x7.

A KGB agent once told Gilstrap Americans “value politeness over victory.” Said he considered it our greatest weakness. (Based on what we know about our methods now, makes you wonder how far those guys were willing to go.)

Gilstrap told the story from his days as an EMT, answering a call to find a woman badly cut up, bleeding on the floor. He and his partner went to work, only to have a man come out of the kitchen with a bloody knife. The man said, “If I wanted her to live, I wouldn’t have cut her.” The two EMTs retreated to the ambulance. The lesson: Always look for the knife.

Marc Cameron: a woman was shot in the head by her husband. (He used a .22, which deflected around inside her scalp and came out the other side.) The police got her to call him and set up a meeting, which he attended. Their conversation went like this:
Husband: Why did you set me up like this?
Wife: You shot me in the head.
Husband: I said I was sorry.
(Yet more proof, you can’t make this shit up.)

A Conversation with Michael Connelly and Sebastian Rotella
This was great to watch, if only to see the genuine respect and affection these two have for each other. Connelly kept trying to get Rotella to talk about his own books, and Rotella would adroitly make a comment—tacitly acknowledging the gesture—then turn the conversation right back onto Connelly. The class shown by both men was a highlight of the conference.

As might be expected, the upcoming Bosch series figured prominently in the conversation. Connelly has no veto power, but the writers seem to want to keep him happy. (I wonder if this is a reflection on the success of Justified, after Graham Yost went to such measures to keep things true to Elmore Leonard’s vision.) Connelly did, however, appear to have a great deal of sway in getting Titus Welliver cast as Harry Bosch.

Two of the best stories of the conference came from this interview, both related to translators.

Connelly’s books did not sell well in Italy, even though he did quite well in Europe as a whole. One day he got an email from his Italian translator with several questions, at the end of which the translator showed his grasp of modern American vernacular by signing off with—instead of “cheers” or “best wishes”—“give me five.” A new translator was found, and Italian sales improved.

Connelly once received an email from his Russian translator, asking for definitions of some LAPD acronyms. A very few seconds’ thought reminded Connelly his rights had not been sold in Russia. Not only was the guy ripping him off, he tried to get Connelly in on it.

Yes, there were panels an Sunday, but with packing and picking up unsold books and getting to the airport, I didn’t get to any of them. Here are a few highlights, with apologies to anyone I missed.
                Getting to meet in the flesh Gerard Brennan and Jay Stringer, two gentlemen who are as good company as they are talented. I hope both of you can make it to Raleigh. First pint’s on me.
                Getting to not only meet, but to work with Les Edgerton.
                I mentioned it before, but the reward I felt from getting Les, Tim Hallinan, and John McFetridge to read at my event meant more to me than winning the Shamus would have, and I’d say that even if I had won the Shamus.
                Spending time with the always passionate Tim O’Mara. I know of no one who bears truer conviction than he.
                Watching—and, later, aiding—John McFetridge get Jack Getze worked up. Our discussion at the bar on Saturday showed why writers are the best: a rowdy exchange of different viewpoints, with no hard feelings afterward. The way things should be.
                Bumping into Sue Grafton the morning after the Shamus awards, and greeting her with, “Congratulations on the Hammer, Ms. Grafton.” Her reply: “Thank you, and it’s Sue.”
                Discussing the ever-present problems of Bouchercon bars—among other things—with Peter Rozovsky.
                Todd Robinson. Just because. (He has a great story about how his “Men of Mystery” Facebook controversy worked out, but I’ll let him tell it. He’ll do it better, anyway.)
                Seeing Max Allan Collins’s genuine emotion when he and Mickey Spillane shared the Shamus short story award.
                Saturday’s perfect dinner with The Beloved Spouse (who always comes first), and Jacques Fillippi, John McFetridge, Peter Rozovsky, and Ken Wishnia. Great conversation, great fun, and great company.

Not all memories are as entertaining. There was the manager at Gladstone’s, site of the PWA banquet, who clearly did not care if two Shamus nominees and a Beloved Spouse died because she couldn’t be bothered to point out which items in the buffet had shellfish. And last—literally—the Marcellus Wallace-looking motherfucker who decided his seat included two inches on my side of the armrest from Chicago to Baltimore.

I know I forgot some people and some stuff, but it’s hard to take notes at the bar. (Not to mention a good way to get one’s ass kicked.) Apologies to anyone I omitted. No malice should be inferred. Try to be more memorable at Raleigh. I’m already registered.

One last thing: Fuck Peter Rozovsky.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bouchercon 2014 - Friday

Noir at the (Breakfast) Bar
My Author Focus slot was 9:00 AM, when most Bouchercon attendees can’t focus at all. With eight other concurrent events, I had as much chance of drawing a crowd as Mel Gibson has of becoming B'nai B'rith’s Man of the Year. So, I cheated. (Anyone who calls himself a crime writer and isn’t willing to cheat is engaged in false advertising.) I, personally, might not draw a crowd—okay, would not—but I was willing to bet Les Edgerton, Tim Hallinan, and John McFetridge all together would, and they did. The room was packed, remaining so even after they had finished and the only reader remaining was me, which shows what a courteous bunch crime readers are. (Editor’s Note: The “packed room” held about a dozen people, four of whom were the authors, one was The Beloved Spouse, and one was Jack Getze, who has a special relationship with Les Edgerton we’re not going to get into here.) Still, it was packed, and a good time was had by all. Especially me, which is what I really cared about. Many thanks to Les, Tim, John, and all those who attended when there were plenty of others things they could have been doing. (Such as soaking their heads in ice.)

When Your Sleuth is a Crook – Criminal Protagonists
Moderator Josh Stallings got things rolling with an observation that he didn’t understand the term “page turner.” Said he turns pages in every book he reads.

Jodi Compton lamented the stereotypical treatment of gang members, what she called “gangbanger catch and release.” Bring them in, they act tough for three minutes, then they fold, get turned loose, and nothing happens to them.

Stallings is most interested in what happens after the robbery or murder or whatever, when things have returned to “normal.” Most people have wondered at times, “What would happen if I took that bike? Or car?”

Tim Hallinan noted that setting is the interaction between location and character. Crooks see the same locations differently than straights.

Seth Harwood said life is like a cake. Straights live on the frosting, while crooks are boring through the inside. Sometimes a crook breaks through the frosting and has to be noticed. Still, everyone is somewhat in the cake. People may think someone lives on the frosting, but go into their houses, look deeper. They’re all in the cake in some way.

Jamie Mason thinks of all her POV characters as protagonists, that it’s all a matter of “screen time.” Backing this up, Jodi Compton says Jamie’s novels remind her of Coen Brothers movies.

Hallinan: Everyone thinks he’s a good guy. As more people come to realize the game is rigged, there is more willingness to go outside the rules and accept the consequences. People think about crooks differently, as people who show great rectitude are actually crooks. (Jamie Dimon’s name got mentioned.)

Favorite anti-heroes:
John Stallings: The Wild Bunch.
John Morgan Wilson: Vito and Michael Corelone
Jodi Compton: Jonah (Old Testament God tends to choose bad guys to do things. Jonah showed no fear of God, before or after that whole getting swallowed business.)
Tim Hallinan: Macbeth. (Basically a good man whose life was twisted around.)

To show the levels of corruption available, Hallinan told the story of Sidney Korshak, who effectively represented both the movie studios and the unions while working for the Chicago Outfit. “When there was a labor dispute in Hollywood, Sidney Korshak went into a room by himself and made a decision.” He also did a lot of good.

Wilson told a story from his days as a journalist, catching some gang members on another gang’s turf, asking if they were concerned. Turned out there was a truce on weekends, so the bangers could shop for their girlfriends.

Hallinan told a story of a cop calling him to ask how he knew of a scheme to use refrigerator boxes to break and enter houses. He’d made it up himself, not knowing it was a thing in LA.

The topic of redemption came up. A consensus formed around the ideas, “What level of redemption, and what kind?” Justice doesn’t have to be served. It’s not in real life.

Harwood wrapped up by saying the key is to establish the moral code of each character.

Another great panel.

Crime Novel as Social Novel – Dealing With Issues and Problems of Our Time
Moderator Hilary Davidson opened with a Dennis Lehane quote: “This is where the social novel went. It went into crime fiction.”

Joe Clifford: If gentrification can happen in Reno, it’s happening everywhere.

Les Edgerton decides what his “theme” is after the first draft, then goes back and cuts the irrelevant passages.

Bill Loehfelm noted that any social commentary has to be woven in. If the reader hears the author and not the characters, you’ve gone too far.

Tim O’Mara believes if a novel doesn’t have any social issues, the author is not doing justice to the setting.

When discussing arguments over the minimum wage and how it will price fast food out of its market, Loehfelm said, “If they can afford to sell it to you for a dollar, you don’t want to eat it.”

People in the service industry can size others up quickly: who tips, who’s trouble, who has a drinking problem, how they treat women. They have to learn this if they want to succeed.

When someone who doesn’t smoke picks up an ashtray, he’s looking for a weapon.

Edgerton believes in the Jack London school of writing. Taking jobs at the bottom of the pile to gain experience. When it was noted that Flannery O’Connor once said living in the same house for 17 years should provide enough material for a lifetime, he said he wished to hell he’d heard that earlier.

Tim O’Mara now teaches on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said the saddest thing he’s seen there is a black nanny pushing a baby in a stroller while the mother walks beside them, talking on her cell. This is a kid who’s going to be telling his stories on a couch one day.

Joe Clifford noted that empathy can’t be taught; it has to be experienced. Everyone wants a better life. Everyone has dreams. Loehfelm followed up with a Steve Earle quote: If you’re a storyteller, you’re only job is to create empathy.

To write characters who aren’t similar to you, grab onto whatever similarities you can and use them.

Edgerton hates the idea of heroes and villains. It creates two-dimensional characters.

When asked about balancing commentary and entertainment:
O’Mara: Social commentary works best when it comes from characters not based on yourself. The context is the key.
Loehfelm: Beware the crusader. He comes across as heavy-handed. Humor can go a long ways. He didn’t enjoy The Corner nearly as much as The Wire because The Corner had no humor.
Edgerton: Criminals, like cops, are always joking. It’s a stress management technique.

A brief exchange:
Edgerton: My publisher didn’t want to use The Bitch or The Rapist as titles, but fuck him.
Loehfelm: That’s the next book.

O’Mara noted a Special Ed class on the Upper West Side, all the kids are black or Hispanic. The white kids have money and health insurance. “I’m putting my kid on medication because the insurance will pay for it.”

Recommendations for crime writers who tackle social issues well:
Clifford: Ben Whitmer, Tom Pitts.
Edgerton: Ray Banks.
Loehfelm: Richard Price, Laura Lippman.
Sara J. Henry: John D. MacDonald
O’Mara: Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets.)

Beyond Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane – Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras
Yet another example of a panel I probably would not have attended had not Peter Rozovsky been the moderator. If you’re ever in doubt about a panel at Bouchercon, go to his, even if you don’t think you care about the topic. No one prepares better, or plays as well to the strengths of his panel. The nature of this session didn’t lend itself to the kind of comments of the others I attended—mostly talking about underappreciated authors, including why they were sometimes underappreciated—but I did come away with some writers to check into, notably Ennis Willey and Roy Huggins. Oh, and why do I always have to be reminded to read more Chester Himes? It’s a serious weakness on my part.

Similar, But Different - Cops and PIs Sleuthing Around
Kenneth Wishnia made a telling comment that all writers would do well to remember: Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Cops who want to come across the table during an interrogation are a problem in too much fiction. The way to do it is to sympathize; that’s why interviews take so long. You have to let them know you know they’re lying without breaking trust.

PIs can screw up the chain of evidence if they’re not careful. Same rules would apply as if they were cops, but they may have no witness to the original collection, thus queering the deal.

Cops may have to do something they don’t think is “right” because it’s the law.

PWA Banquet and Shamus Awards
Unfortunately, Bob Randisi was unable to attend, but Max Allen Collins did yeoman’s work in his stead.

Congratulations to all the well-deserved winners:
The Hammer Award, for best PI series character: Kinsey Millhone, accepted by Sue Grafton.
Best Hardcover PI novel: The Good Cop, by Brad Parks.
Best First PI Novel: Bear is Broken, by Lachlan Smith.
Best Original Paperback PI Novel: Heart of Ice, by P.J. Parrish.
Best PI Short Story: “So Long, Chief,” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane.
Best Indie PI Novel: Don’t Dare a Dame, by M. Ruth Myers.
St. Martins/PWA Award: The Red Storm, by Grant Bywaters.

This was my first PWA banquet. I’d heard much good about them, and my expectations were fully realized. The support and affection for the members of this community was obvious.

On Wednesday, how the weekend went.