Monday, March 30, 2015

The Lost and the Blind US Release

I posted this review of Declan Burke’s latest back in December, on its UK release. It goes live here in the States on April 1, and a reminder may be in order, as this is one you’re going to want to miss, from one
of the handful of authors who move directly to the top of my queue with any new work.

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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Even More Thoughts on Writing

Among the many benefits of writing crime fiction is interacting with other crime fiction authors, who are, as a group, as entertaining and generous a bunch of professionals as you’re going to find. Never was this more obvious to me than when I was asked to participate in a group of four writers called Meet Myster Write, pulled together as a promotional device to give presentations on our approaches to crime writing, and, hey, if you want to buy a book, ain’t no one stopping you.

That’s where I met Larry Matthews, creator of the Dave Haggard series. (It’s not hard to see why Dave is haggard, all the shit he has to go through.) Larry has a thirty-five year career in broadcast journalism, working in radio and television as a street reporter, investigative reporter, anchor, news director, editor, and producer. He’s worked at some of the nation's premier radio stations, including WMAL in Washington when it was the market leader and one of the most respected stations in the country. He also reported and anchored newscasts for ABC and National Public Radio.

He also taught broadcasting and writing for radio and television at The George Washington University, where he conducted media workshops and training, and has produced programs and reported for Maryland Public Television. His awards include The George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, The DuPont/Columbia Citation, The National Headliner Award, and other national and regional awards for journalism and excellence in broadcasting.

Larry is the author of nine published books, including his acclaimed memoir, I Used to be in Radio. His newest Dave Haggard thriller is Detonator, where Dave uncovers competing terrorist cells that have turned on each other. At least as important as all of the above, he’s a gentleman in the best sense of the word, always ready to provide thoughtful and honest answers to any question. That’s why I was delighted when he volunteered to help me out with this guest post.

Enough from me. Take it away, Larry.

As a writer I often find myself comparing my work against the works of others. I write thrillers at the moment and so I read thrillers written by other, more famous authors. People like John Grisham and Jeffery Deaver, to name only two out of many. How do my opens compare to theirs? My characters? My pace? Things like that. I won’t bother to tell you the score.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my publisher suggested that the authors published by W&B Publishers, a unit of Argus International, read and review each other’s books. W&B publishes dozens of authors in all genres. Take your pick, we were told. The company has best-sellers, newbies, wannabees, you name it. It was eye-opening.

The first author I chose to review was David O’Neil, a best-selling British author who favors swashbuckling tales of the sea set in the early 19th Century. The book was Quarterdeck, part of a series. Now swashbuckling tales of the sea are not a regular part of my reading but I was impressed by how much research O’Neil had put into the book and how alive the action was. The story had all the elements, of course. Beautiful women, spies, handsome heroes, bravery, battles at sea. Five stars.

The next book I read and reviewed was a tough read. It’s called Daddy, Don’t. Mommy, Why? by Jaqueline Aaron. It’s a book about horrendous child abuse said to be based on a real story. Unless you’re researching such abuse I suggest you leave this one on the shelf. Frankly, this is a book about a monster.

Finally, Bryce Baker’s Ghosts of Time. This is a book for folks who like creepy stories about weird people.

The real lesson for me was experiencing the work of authors who do not write in my genre nor do they write in a style I am comfortable with. For authors who are curious about other writers such an exercise can be valuable and fun.

Writers are often bombarded with advice about how to do it “right” or how to follow “the rules.” As W. Somerset Maugham famously said, there are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one know what they are. Reading different authors across different genres can remind us that there are no rules and no proper way. It’s all about the story.

I’ve read books that were, frankly, insults to proper English. Here, I suppose, I should refer you to Dave Barry’s review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But some badly written books have compelling stories that make the books work. I won’t comment about Fifty Shades… but other books tell a good yarn and keep you turning the pages even though you might wince at the language from time to time.

A best-selling author friend offered some sound advice after he read my latest Dave Haggard thriller, called Detonator. I use a bit of Spanish in the dialogue, which I translate for the reader. “Don’t use that much foreign language,” he said. “It gives the reader a chance to go to the bathroom. Never give the reader an opportunity to put the book down.” His advice is sound. Foreign language breaks the mental state the reader is in and lets him/her take a break from the story the author has so carefully created.

In this case the reader of my book wasn’t trolling for ways to improve his own writing. He was finding ways to improve mine. It’s often said that the way to become a better writer is to read. There’s truth in that, although I also believe a key to becoming a better writer is to write. Often. Every day.

If you chance to read any of my books I would love to hear from you, pro or con. I’m at

Monday, March 23, 2015

What's My Motivation?

I know, I know. I promised you last Friday I’d be away for a while, and here I am, back again. I had this post just about ready to go, and a weekend loomed, so I decided to finish it. Get over it. At least it points you to something actually worth reading.

John McFetridge is a pain in the ass. Just last month he got me riled up about the legitimacy of writing in the voice of someone who belongs to a demographic different from the writer’s. Now he’s gone and posted a blog about motive in crime fiction, and whether it’s more important to care about why a crime was committed than who did it, or how.

As usual, I agree with John pretty much down the line. (I’ve learned this from experience. Agreeing with John makes me right about 80% of the time.) While it may be nice from a “literary” perspective to examine the deep-seated motivations for an illegal or immoral act, anyone who’s looked at it much knows two kinds of people commit the vast majority of crimes:
  • Young men
  • Professional criminals

Young men commit a disproportionate number of crimes because they’re young men, who do a disproportionate number of dumbass things, mainly because they don’t have enough blood to operate their brains and penises both, and, at that age, the penis wins. Most of those who survive, learn—the crime rate goes down as men age—but this is why there are about 105 boy babies born for every 100 girls: boys do stupid shit and die.

That leaves professional criminals. As a good liberal, this is where I’m supposed to talk about parenting and environment and poverty, and I’m not going to insult your intelligence by saying those have nothing to do with it. (If you want your intelligence insulted, Fox News is on 24 hours a day. Check your cable provider for the channel in your area.) The problem with being too quick with that answer is, a much higher percentage of people who grow up in those conditions do not become criminals.

For many non-violent (and some violent) crimes, the motive is usually "I want money and this is the quickest way I can get it." This is often more a personality trait than anything else: the criminal lacks impulse control, seeks instant gratification, has no patience, or needs money quicker than he can legally acquire it. (Drug addicts come to mind for that last one.)

Crimes of violence are somewhat the same in general, even if we leave out crimes of passion. (Lack of impulse control often factors in here, as well.) Read enough cop-based crime non-fiction—where a cross-section of criminals are discussed instead of a single, sensational case—and you'll find the motive for most crime has at least something to do with the criminal being an asshole who acts out, whether he's a rapist, unnecessarily violent mugger, or a murderer.

Another type is the adrenaline junkie, who gets off on the thrill of getting away with something. This doesn’t have to be a car chase or a shoot-out; the rich jewel thief counts, too. (Think Steve McQueen or Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair, or David Niven and Christopher Plummer in the Pink Panther movies.) Cat burglars—identified as those who go into houses when they’re pretty sure someone is home, as opposed to regular burglars, who go to great length to ensure no one is home—fall into this category, as well as some armed bank robbers.

What I’m getting at is, most crimes don’t have “motives” the way Perry Mason meant it. Crime shows like to say the prosecution needs means, motive, and opportunity to get a conviction. Means and opportunity have to be there; motive can be as little as “he was in the way,” or “he had something I wanted.” Is that the kind of motive the high-minded types are talking about? Probably not. Still, that’s as good as it usually gets. That might not be enough to satisfy those who have loftier expectations of fiction than from fact, but that’s where realism rears its head. It might be nice for there to be a motive for a crime, but more often we have to settle for reasons.