Monday, August 29, 2016

Twenty Questions With John Shepphird

John Shepphird won the 2013 Shamus Award for Best PI Short Story for “Ghost Negligence.” A writer/director of TV movies, John also serves as the Creative Director of On-Air Promotions for TVG, America’s horse racing network. Noir master James M. Cain inspired John’s three “Shill” novellas, a terse, tense, and twist-filled trilogy with a cast of characters immersed in the art of deception, depravity, and murder. The trilogy’s final volume, Beware the Shill, launched August 1 from Down & Out Books. (To celebrate, Book One, The Shill, is currently free for Kindle.) The trailer for Beware the Shill is also available for viewing.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Beware the Shill.

John Shepphird: The title refers to my character Jane Innes that transforms from a pawn to a rook. In The Shill (book #1) she's naïve, sacrificed, but we like her. But Jane won't be wronged. She's talented and determined. In Beware the Shill (book #3) she relies on smarts and skill to take down the deadly deceivers that ruined her life. It's about rooting for an underdog.                

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
JS: I was drawn to writing a caper and what sparked me was the idea of a girl from the other side of the tracks that uses her skills as an actress to deceive an elite mark. She knows better, but she fell in love with a persuasive con man, and since love it blind…. That was the seed, and it grew from there. The Shill is the caper, Kill the Shill a detective story, and Beware the Shill a thriller.         

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Beware the Shill, start to finish?
JS:  I’d estimate seven months not including other projects that distracted me. I struggled with Beware the Shill more than the others because I had to wrap up my characters and it all had to make sense. I wanted to bring it back to where it had started, California, but not necessarily Los Angeles because I’d already explored that in book #1.

Then I came across a story of California Gold Rush history that lit the pilot light--the shipwreck of the steamship Yankee Blade. This was an incredible tragedy fueled by greed and cowardice. Weaving in elements of that story into contemporary time gave me everything I needed--the setting, motivation, and the basic structure. Once I had that figured out I blazed forward. I’d already touched on Caribbean pirate history in book #2, Kill the Shill, so a dash of historical was not completely foreign. It made sense.                         

OBAAT: Where did Jane Innes come from? Is she based on people you know? Does she have parts of you in her? (Note to readers: Not that way. Get your minds out of the gutter.)
JS: I work in television and Jane is a hybrid of actresses I’ve known over the years that tie their self-worth into their career. Making it becomes all or nothing and this ultimately this makes them miserable and yet another casualty on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Jane is talented and capable, but also flawed. She hangs on her acting coaches every word hoping for just a little bit of praise. Ultimately she just wants love in her life and dreams a successful career will get her there, but her perspective is skewed. Although I was a writer/director as opposed to an actor in my 20s and 30s I was guilty of that too. In retrospect I wish I would have written more and barked up less trees.              

OBAAT: In what time and place is Beware the Shill set and why was this time and place chosen?
JS: The series is a contemporary noir set in Los Angeles, Sarasota Florida, and the Caribbean. Beware the Shill explores Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and California’s coast in the proximity of Vandenberg Air Force Base.       

OBAAT: How did Beware the Shill come to be published?
JS: I was at Bouchercon in Albany and author Robert J. Randisi introduced me to Eric Campbell from Down & Out Books. This was before The Shill was finished as a novella and shortly thereafter it was picked up by an eBook publisher Stark Raving Press but they folded rather quickly. I reached out to Eric, hat in hand, and he graciously picked it up. I’m fortunate to be with Down & Out and honored to be among their stable of great authors.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JS: I’m a fan of vintage noir and continue to re-read James M. Cain. It’s his economy and fractured love stories that resonate with me most. I’ drawn to capers and can’t get enough of Lionel White and Donald E. Westlake. Contemporary authors I read are Steve Hamilton, Jason Starr, Wallace Stroby, and Megan Abbott.     

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JS: A love for suspenseful stories. I’m not necessarily a fan of fantasy and science fiction because, for me, the best stories are grounded in reality. I have to believe they could actually happen. There’s always been a lot of storytelling going on in my large Catholic family so maybe that has something to do with it.      

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JS: The theme of most of my fiction is the art of deception so studying and performing magic was a big factor because it’s all about the twist. Working as a filmmaker in a variety of genres has also contributed.         

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JS: I actually enjoy the process of writing, and re-writing, playing with ideas and seeing if you can make them work. It’s also great to hang around other writers, especially crime writers, and swap notes. We’re all, in one way or another, ne’er-do-wells that share a dark and often humorous sensibility. The community is extremely supportive.     

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JS: Cinema and 70s crime television has had a major impact--a spectrum from Jack Webb to Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve always been drawn to antiheroes. My first film as a co-writer and director was titled Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde.     

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
JS: Writing fiction I’ll often write the later part of a story first, the final culmination, and then go back and start at the beginning. By the time I get to that chapter it will need a major rewrite but this process helps me to know where I’m going. In screenplays outlines and synopses are vital to establish structure.  

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JS: I’ll write (compose) and then go back and rewrite the chapter or scene immediately. Then I’ll move on to the end and then rewrite it all again from the beginning. I’m amazed by authors that can compose from scratch with only minor rewrites, but that’s not me. It’s a process of rehash.  

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
JS: An ending doesn’t have to be happy but it does have to make sense. There are a lot of James Cagney movies without happy endings, but they make complete sense and there’s closure. It’s about the journey and the decisions a protagonist makes along the way should define that ending. Crime and mystery readers expect closure. I think it’s inherent.’         

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JS: Readers that enjoy page-turning crime fiction, both male and female--same that read Gillian Flynn or Lee Child.     

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JS: Carve out time every day to write. A little bit of progress over time adds up. Write what you enjoy. Study structure. Keep it lean and mean. 

OBAAT: 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?
JS: Escalation (story/plot) is important to me because my aesthetic is structure and not just in fiction and film but music too. If I played an instrument it would be the bass. Then character (the melody) which should drive the structure through his or her wants and needs. Tone and setting tie in third place.                  

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JS: Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t count because that was written over a hundred years ago, so it’s either James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. These three novels were written in the 1930s, the Great Depression. All embrace working-class characters seeking to advance themselves.             

OBAAT: Coming from Western Pennsylvania, I have a fascination with the origins of names. “Shepphird” is an unusual spelling of a not uncommon name. What’s the family background there?
JS: My father, when he was alive, did a detailed search of our name. There are no “Shepphirds” in the UK but there are in North America. I’m convinced it was originally “Sheppherd” with an “e” but through bad penmanship somehow that “e” became an “I”.  But the mystery writer in me imagines the change was intentional. Maybe my relation purposefully tried to hide identity. More likely it was a combination of an old, leaky quill dotting the “e” and probably bad light.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JS: A whodunit thriller set among the cast-and-crew of a low budget TV movie. It’s titled Bottom Feeders.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Dangerous Lesson: Jan Rusiewicz

Jan Rusiewicz (rue-SEV-ich) is a Violent Crimes detective for the Chicago PD. Works for Nick Forte’s best friend, Sonny Ng. Jan and Nick were romantically involved for a while until one of them broke it off. Neither was exactly sure whose idea it was to split. Things were touchy for a while, but the original friendship survived the demise of the more elevated relationship and moved into a place where it would be hard to say which actually had been the more elevated relationship.

Jan is working on a task force led by Sonny to catch the Thursday Night Slasher, who has been terrorizing women in Chicago for six months. It’s starting to wear on her.

Jan stood no more than a foot away from me. Impeccably dressed, as always. Nothing expensive. Money never sat idle in Jan Rusiewicz’s bank account. She got more mileage out of Filene’s Basement, consignment shops, and one special thrift store on Fullerton than a hybrid car going downhill with the wind at its back.
Getting called out of bed was nothing new to her, even before she got involved with the Slasher task force. She always had tomorrow’s clothes laid out the night before. Cleaned up and stepped right into them to hit the ground running. Said it gave her an advantage with a suspect, always looking ready to go even if she’d only had time to shower and change clothes in the Area Four station.
Today she showed wear. Blouse not tucked in evenly. A button missed. The suit wasn’t so rumpled anyone but I, and maybe Sonny Ng, could see it, but it didn’t meet Jan’s standards.
I touched her elbow. “Are you all right with this Slasher business?”
“No.” The finality of her answer combined with its tone to set my alarms off. “Do you know I’ve worked over a hundred homicides? I’ve seen shootings and stabbings, family crimes, gang executions, drive-bys, and a baby with its head forced between radiator grates. I worked midnights in a squad, and sat in alleys full of rats to decoy some asshole into robbing me. I’ve been shot at, almost stabbed, and called names I had to ask what they meant. I put up with it because it’s all part of the job.
“Not this guy. See, I’ve been thinking about it, and all my homicides fall into two groups. Either the killer needed to make someone dead, or things got out of hand. This one lives to make these women suffer. I wish something would happen and he’d leave a survivor. I wouldn’t even mind if she couldn’t identify him. I just want to know what he says, how he acts. Does he tell them anything. I really don’t think he does this to kill them. He just wants to see how much they can endure. And that makes it even worse.”
“Are you sleeping?”
“If you can call it that. I stay up reading and looking at photos until my eyes close in the middle of a sentence. Then I lay in bed and pretend to sleep. I dozed off at the kitchen table a couple of nights ago and thought if I just stayed like that, holding my head up with my hand, I might sleep. It wasn’t bad for about ten minutes. Then my arm got stiff and I got up to go to bed and a picture caught my attention like maybe I saw something I missed before and I was there for another hour.” She rubbed her hands together as she spoke. “I promise myself five more minutes, I’ll quit at midnight, then I look up and it’s twelve-twenty-five and I think twelve-thirty, then it’s one-fifteen and I say the hell with it and stay till three. Then I pass out more than sleep and still see the sun come up.”
“Do you want off the case?”
“Goddamn right I want off the case! This is ruining my life. My periods are even fucked up.”
“Then talk to Sonny. He’ll understand.”
“I almost did a couple of times. Then I look at a crime scene shot. I can’t imagine how horrible it must’ve been for them, and I’m feeling sorry for myself because I can’t sleep?” She chewed on her lower lip and I noticed how frayed it was. “This bastard owes me. I want the satisfaction of bringing him in. It doesn’t have to be me personally, but I want to be able to say I had a hand in it.”
“You do already. You know that.”
“And you know it’s not the same.”
Sure, I knew. A little piece of Jan died this morning when she saw what happened to Carol Blessing. A little piece of any cop dies when he sees something horrible, and every cop deals with it in his own way. Some act hard. Some drink hard. The pieces of Jan that died with each of the Slasher’s victims were getting bigger. She usually maintained her balance by talking with her father the retired cop. Mike Rusiewicz had never seen anything like this.

A Dangerous Lesson is available in both paperback and e-book at all finer Amazons. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Movies Since Last Time

The Princess Bride (1987). Sometimes you just want to spend a pleasant evening being entertained with the person you most enjoy sending time with. There’s no better way to spend that time than with The Princess Bride. An adorable and damn near perfect little movie.

Ghostbusters (2016). It rained on the vacation day The Beloved Spouse™ and I were to go to the Kentucky Horse park, so we found a theater and saw the Ghostbusters remake that unfortunately made most of its pre-release news because of how men dissed it in online reviews. A shame, too, because the movie is funny and well done. Not as funny as the
original, but that was brand new and this time we knew what to expect. Kristin Wiig never disappoints, Kate MacKinnon and Leslie Jones are going to be around for a long time, and even Melissa McCarthy—whom I can generally live without as the female Jim Carrey—was good. The movie paid just enough homage to its predecessor and was great fun. Now we’ll see if the sequel can avoid the pitfalls of Ghostbusters 2.

L.A. Confidential (1997). Maybe the most perfectly constructed crime story ever, or at least
since Chinatown. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson cobble together a fascinating story from a glorious mess of a book to create a completely satisfying experience; their shared Oscar for  Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published was richly deserved. Their efforts are helped greatly by an all-star cast at the top of their games, including Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger (Oscar for best Supporting Actress), Danny DeVito, David Straithairn, and—a true revelation right after his turn as a farmer in Babe—James Cromwell as the gleefully evil Dudley Smith.

The Insider (1999). A wonderful film in the expose vein mined so well by All the Presidents Men, Spotlight, and Quiz Show. Russell Crowe plays a tobacco executive overcome with conscience and Al Pacino the 60 Minutes producer who brings him both in from and out into the cold at the same time. Michael Mann is the director Quentin Tarantino should want to be, always leaving his mark on movie without being a hack about it. His turn as Mike Wallace is my favorite Christopher Plummer performance. Highly recommended.

A Rather English Marriage (1998). I have no idea what prompted my father to add this to his Netflix queue. Neither did he. A quirky little BBC adaptation of an Angela Lambert novel featuring outstanding performances by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay as a bit of a British odd couple thrust together after their wives die on the same day in the same hospital. Watching the two of them take different routes in coping with their losses is never cliché, even when a reluctant gold digger (Joanna Lumley) complicates matters. Understated, offbeat, and thoroughly enjoyable.

A Walk in the Woods (2015). This has been our week to watch laid-back movies, and we picked two winners. Robert Redford stars as travel writer Bill Bryson, who gets a bug up his ass late in life to hike the Appalachian Trail. Everyone thinks he’s nuts except for an old friend he’s lost contact with who’s up for the challenge. (Nick Nolte, looking like his character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills thirty years later.) Dry humor abounds to keep a sweet movie from becoming sappy. An excellent supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, and Kristin Schaal (from The Daily Show) provides for no wasted scenes. L.A. Confidential and The Insider will keep you on the edge of your seat. A Walk in the Woods allows you to settle back and enjoy two old friends rediscovering their friendship.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My Day at the Dentist

I made my decennial visit to the dentist today. It didn’t go well. They rarely do, which is why I go so often.

Dentists don’t understand why people hate to go there. It’s not the oral pain. I can’t remember the last time a dentist actually hurt me. It’s because dentists—and their hygienists—are pains in the ass. First the hygienist harangues you about proper dental practices while she’s flossing your teeth, leaving you no opportunity to engage except to bite her, which is stupid when dealing with a person who has access to sharp instruments and the inside of your mouth simultaneously. So you suck it up and let her treat you like a ten-year-old.

The dentist I saw today—we’ll call him Dr. M______--requires six pages of paperwork before the initial appointment. I didn’t need that much for cataract surgery.

New patients to Dr. M______'s practice get a tour of the entire facility, including a chance to meet the other dentist while he has his hands in someone’s mouth. “These are Operative Rooms One and Two. This is Dr. M______’s office. Here are the restrooms.” And on and on. I wanted to tell her I was just here for a cleaning, not to buy the place.

With that we reach the crux of the issue: Dr. M_____ doesn’t do cleanings on first visits. He needs to check you out “to see what kind of cleaning you need.” (Honest to God.) I copped to being the source of the confusion, assuming I probably didn’t specifically ask for a cleaning because they automatically came with the checkup in every other dentist’s office I’ve ever been to.

What happens at Dr. M______’s practice before he actually comes in is a gauntlet of new dental technology. First I stood strapped to a gadget with rests for my forehead and chin while a machine rotated slowly around me. The technician told me several times to stand as still as possible. A sign in my line of sight read DO NOT MOVE. This was their way to make up for the hygienist nagging I missed because I failed to specify a cleaning.

Then came the X-rays. At least seven. Whatever she did last may or may not have been an actual X-ray, though the gadgetry was similar. The peace of mind gained from confirming I have no cavities was somewhat offset by new fears of radiation poisoning. Storms are due to pass through the area tonight, but should the power go out I’m pretty sure I can just open my mouth and have all the reading light I need.

After that came the intraoral camera. The technician apologized in advance for this. “It’s a new piece of equipment and it displays the image backward. I’m having a little trouble getting used to that.” Well, then, hold it in the other hand until the company devises software that can flip the image. Jeez. Must I think of everything?

The jovial Dr. M______ came next. He spent five minutes with his hands in my mouth talking dentist while the tech took notes and I closed my eyes and thought of England. He said my teeth are in excellent condition, though there’s a bunch of stuff that’s going to happen unless I drop $1300 on him and another who knows how much on another dentist for a root canal on a tooth that A.) doesn’t hurt, and 2.) already had a rootie twenty years ago.

That was my day at the dentist. I went in for a cleaning and came out with a clean bill of health, $2000-plus in preventive dental work, and no cleaning.

And dentists wonder why people don’t like them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Gender Bias in Literary Awards

Peggy Blair created a mild furor a couple of months ago with a blog piece titled “Gender Bias in Canadian Crime Writing Awards.” Ms. Blair—who I do not know and I hope she takes no offense at me using her article as a starting point—lists the past seven years of Arthur Ellis nominees, broken out by gender, along with the gender of the winner.

It’s not pretty. Men wrote 28 of the 35 shortlisted books, and all seven winners. Women had only one nomination each year, except for 2014, when there were two, which made up for 2013 when there were none. Eighty percent male nominees is a damning figure. There’s clearly gender bias in just about everything else, so why not writing? Acknowledging this and doing something about it are two different things.

Two paragraphs of Ms. Blair’s piece stuck out to me:

How widespread is the problem of gender inequality? Well, I saw a picture on Facebook yesterday of the mystery panel at Prose in the Park, a new literary festival in Ottawa. There were five panelists: four men, one woman. I’m sure the organizers never even thought about it, but that’s the problem with systemic discrimination. No one notices, because they assume it’s okay for there to be more men than women on a crime writers panel. Or that it’s okay for there to be more male than female police officers. Or fire fighters. Or Cabinet ministers. Or judges.

I’ve decided that from now on, I’m not going to sit on a panel at any writers’ festivals where an attempt has not been made at gender parity. We have a problem; we need to fix it. It starts with us.

Not to put words into Ms. Blair’s mouth, but I sense a strong implication from her piece that she perceives the problem to be an imbalance in judges. She may be right, but the method she uses is more anecdote and gut then evidence, flawed by what seamheads would call a “small statistical sample.” This idea has held onto me for two months because I see this all the time, especially in political discussions, where such samples are too often used to support a feeling arrived at before the evidence was consulted.

Let’s begin with the assumption that there is gender bias in writing awards, a position I have no quarrel with. What I’d really like to know is how to fix it, and to fix it we need to know the root causes. To say “80% of the nominees and 100% of the winners were men, so the fault lies in the composition of the judging panels” is too superficial to have meaning.

Full disclosure: I do not know the answers to these questions, nor do I have a good way to get at them. I am also not suggesting a solution. (Which is good, since I just said I don’t know the answers.) If it is indeed true that intelligence is knowing the right answers and wisdom is knowing the right questions, let’s look for the right questions.

In the seven years cited, male authors accounted for 80% of the Arthur Ellis nominees. What was the percentage by gender (PBG) of the books submitted for consideration? I have no idea, though I doubt 80% were written by men. It would still be good to know. If 80% (or near to it) of the books submitted were by men, the next logical question is, “Why don’t publishers submit more books by women for consideration?”

That immediately suggests, “What is the PBG of all books published that qualify for the award?” If that number is near 80% one might immediately wonder, “Are women published less often than men?” which prompts “Do women submit fewer manuscripts than men?” If the number of manuscripts submitted to publishers is roughly equal—or at least not near an 80-20 split—are men disproportionately represented in the positions that decide which manuscripts to buy?

If so, might that be a sales issue? “What is the PBG of sales relative to books published?” (Normalized to account for discrepancies in publication PBG.) If books by women don’t sell as well on average as books by men, why not? This leads to the last question: Who buys most books and why don’t they buy more books by women?

I’m pretty sure about the answer to one of the above questions, have suspicions about another one or two, and have no idea about the rest. Somewhere there is an organization with the juice to find out. (This strikes me as a great idea for a graduate school study, were I in an appropriate field and not 60 years old.)

The answer is there somewhere. How to fix it will likely be harder to figure. I don’t know much, but what I do know is that we’re not going to fix it by making sure the same numbers of men and women sit on judging panels, as this can lead to thinking that produces a system that resembles quotas. I can’t imagine anyone wants us to ever come to a situation where any part of the consideration comes down to, “Well, a man/woman has won three years in a row so we need to give this one to a woman/man.”

Having said that, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence that something is wrong and that something should probably be done, or at least attempted. We may or may not be smart enough to figure out the answer, but we sure as hell aren’t going to figure it out if we lack the wisdom to ask the right questions.

(Apologies here to Ms. Blair, who I have never met and may well be appalled that I have extrapolated too much from the thoughts expressed in her piece. I mean no disrespect. She just got me to thinking, and, as those who know me well can attest, that’s often a risky proposition.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Great Adventure

I went off the radar (and pretty much off the grid) the last two weeks of July for what The Beloved Spouse and I hope is the first of many not dissimilar vacations. I highly recommend the trip we took, so I’m taking a break from writing and related subjects to give a capsule description of how we spent what TBS described as our Great Adventure.

Saturday, July 15
States Traversed: MD, WV, PA, WV (again), OH, IN, IL
Major Routes Taken: I-70, I-68, I-80, I-294, I-88
Highlights: Saw signs for the Triple XXX Family Restaurant. Place used to be an adult bookstore and the new owners didn’t have the cash to completely replace the sign.
Pendleton IN, former home of Les Edgerton.
Dinner: Portillo’s in Lombard IL. Best Italian beefs in the world, though Lou Malnati’s gets the most pub. (Not that Lou’s aren’t worthy.)
End Point: Lombard IL

Sunday, July 16
States Traversed: IL, WI, MN, SD
Major Routes Taken: I-290, I-90
Highlights: Crossed the Mississippi River.
Terrain changing by the mile.
Dinner: Anchor Grille.
End Point: Chamberlain SD, a block from the Missouri River

Monday, July 17
States Traversed: SD
Major Routes Taken: I-90, US-16
Highlights: Badlands, where we saw three Bighorn sheep.
Custer State Park, where we saw at least a hundred buffalo (they blocked the road and a pair damn near blundered into the side of the car), and fed donkeys from our hands.
Mount Rushmore. Once inside the Visitors’ Center it rained so hard we couldn’t see the top of the mountain.
Dinner: Slate Creek Grille. Good, reasonably priced food and excellent service in a not-touristy Western atmosphere.
End Point: The Iron Horse Cottage at the Whispering Winds Lodge, Hill City SD

Tuesday, July 18
States Traversed: SD, WY
Major Routes Taken: US-85, I-90, US-14
Highlights: Deadwood. (A bit of a disappointment. The history is name only; it’s now a biker casino town.)
Crossed the Bighorn Mountains. (Elevation 9600 feet.) Saw a moose.
Dinner: Bubba’s Barbecue. Outstanding pulled pork. Laid-back Western atmosphere.
End Point: Cody Cowboy Village, Cody WY. (Log cabins)

Wednesday, July 19
States Traversed: WY, MT
Major Routes Taken: US-14
Highlights: Yellowstone Park, including at least a thousand buffalo. (Honest to God.) I could list all the great things we saw, but it’s a waste of time. Go.
TBS was disappointed she didn’t get to see an elk until we pulled into the hotel and saw one grazing in front of the office.
Dinner: Two-Bit Saloon. Under new management and not as I remembered it. Still good, but not like it was.
End Point: Gardiner MT

Thursday, July 20
States Traversed: MT, WY, CO
Major Routes Taken: US-26, US-287, I-80, I-25
Highlights: A second pass through Yellowstone. Saw two more elk and TBS spotted a wolf. Roaring Mountain had one small steam vent yesterday when we stopped. Today it had at least fifty. Quite a sight.
Grant Tetons National Park and a spectacular view of the Tetons.
Forest fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Dinner: Skipped
End Point: Lakewood CO

Friday, July 21 – Sunday, July 23
States Traversed: None
Major Routes Taken: None
Highlights: Relaxing weekend with my brother’s family. Salt of the earth people. No way not to have fun with them.
Took my now legal nieces out for a drink.
Dinner: Friday: Great Frontier Brewing Company. Excellent beer and good food truck.
Saturday: Cookout
Sunday: The 49th. Alaskan restaurant. The beef/elk burger was outstanding.
End Point: Lakewood CO

Monday, July 24
States Traversed: CO, KS
Major Routes Taken: I-70, KS-23, US-400
Highlights: Boot Hill Museum. Up close look of a replica of the old Main Street. Extremely well laid out.
Dinner: Central Station. Another non-touristy winner. Always ask the locals where to eat when traveling.
End Point: Dodge City KS

Tuesday, July 25
States Traversed: KS
Major Routes Taken: US-400, I-35
Highlights: Old Cowtown Museum, Wichita KS. Boot Hill was just the main street with more detailed exhibits. This was the whole town. The two combined gave a good feel for what things much have been like then.
Dinner: Applebee’s. We tend to stay away from chains for dinner when on the road but we were exhausted and it was right next door. They treated us right.
End Point: Ottawa KS

Wednesday, July 26
States Traversed: KS, MO, IL, IN, KY
Major Routes Taken: I-70, I-64
Highlights: Discovered I’d left my credit card at Applebee’s. (They were more than cooperative and helpful in getting it returned.)
Dinner: A&W. Long day, worn out, and it was across the street.
End Point: Lexington KY

Thursday, July 27
States Traversed: None
Major Routes Taken: None
Highlights: Rained too hard to go to the Kentucky Horse Park; saw Ghostbuster. Liked it a lot.
Dinner: The Pasta Garage. Outstanding.
End Point: Lexington. Same hotel two nights in a row was a treat.

Friday, July 28
States Traversed: KY, WV, VA, MD
Major Routes Taken: I-64, I-81, I-66, I-495, I-95
Highlights: Getting home.
Dinner: Chick Fil-A
End Point: Our own bed.

Total States Traversed: 16
Total Miles Travelled: 5,010

Sure, it was good to be home, but we could have happily stayed out another week.

Next week, back to writing topics.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Twenty Questions With John McFetridge

I have a soft spot for authors I feel write much better than most best-sellers but garner a small fraction of the recognition. Best sellers too often have to seek the lowest common denominator of reader. That’s how to become a best seller, not how to write the best book.

My taste leans toward those who put in the work to make their books as good as they can write them without pretense. They tell good stories with fleshed-out characters who speak realistic yet entertaining dialog and manage to surprise you while never breaking the compact to remain believable.

No one does that better than John McFetridge. I became familiar with John’s initial crime novel (Dirty Sweet) and blew through the remainder of his Toronto series about the Saints of Hell motorcycle gang as fast as he could write them. (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Let it Ride, Tumblin’ Dice.) The Saints were no literary version of Sons of Anarchy. (Which would have been tough, since Dirty Sweet pre-dates Sam Crow by two years.) John’s bikers are all about dressing in suits and moving away from the road and the tensions such a change provokes. They’re as much character studies—with the Saints as the protagonist—as they are crime stories.

John has since moved on. (Though I’d love to find out what happened to Nugs.) His current series shows the evolution of young Montreal policeman Eddie Dougherty as he grows from recruit constable to detective through the 70s. The series works its way through such pivotal Montreal events as the Quebecois separatist bombings (Black Rock) and the Canada-USSR hockey series (A Little More Free). Volume Three, One or the Other, drops tomorrow and looks at the 1976 Olympics. John was kind enough to drop by and talk with OBAAT about it.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about One or the Other.
John McFetridge: One or the Other is Number Three in the “Eddie Dougherty series.” It takes place in 1976 in Montreal with Dougherty teaming up with a cop from a suburban police force, Francine Legault, to investigate the deaths of two teenagers whose bodies were found in the St. Lawrence River. Suicide? Murder-suicide? Murder?

OBAAT: Black Rock was the story of a serial killer during the time of French Canadian nationalist bombings; A Little More Free looks at American draft evaders against a backdrop of the Canada-USSR hockey series. One or the Other tells of a $3 million armored—sorry, “armoured”—car robbery during the lead up to the 1976 Olympics. How do you decide which events to use in conjunction?
JM: For each book I do a lot of research and make up a timeline of events. I usually start with a big event – the October Crisis, the fire at the Blue Bird Café, and in this case the summer Olympics. Then I see what kind of a theme emerges from the events in the timeline. I use the Francis Ford Coppola theory that says the idea, or the theme, is the question and the book is trying to find the answer. These are pretty basic themes. For Black Rock it was what is the value of a life? A Little More Free was what are the consequences of trying to be yourself? And I like to have historical events as the beginning and the end.

OBAAT: One or the Other is the third Eddie Dougherty book, all of which take place during times of broader events in Montreal during the 70s. Is the research getting easier to do, or harder?
JM: Nothing ever seems to get any easier. But I will say it’s not getting any harder. I do enjoy the research.

OBAAT: It’s not like the 70s are ancient history. You were around during the events described. What have you learned you didn’t already know and what has surprised you the most?
JM: Sometimes it seems like ancient history, sometimes pictures from the 70s look very old. But you’re right, of course, it’s really not that long ago. I think the biggest surprise for me has been perspective. I looked at events in the 70s as a teenager and a young adult and now looking back at them as a guy in his mid-50s very different things seem important. I guess I’m mostly surprised by how people adapt and life goes on and we get by. All those news stories that were huge events just got dealt with and new ones came along.

OBAAT: Last time we spoke you said Eddie became a cop “because he didn’t like school and thought being in an office looked like being in a classroom. And he got to drive fast.” You went on to say he came to realize a lot of his job takes place when people are at their most vulnerable. Has that changed him since Black Rock?
JM: Yes, it has. In Black Rock Eddie was 23 years old. In One or the Other he’s turning 30. So, some of it is just the natural maturing that happens through your twenties, and some of it is what he sees and deals with on the job. Eddie didn’t consider himself a real deep thinker, he wasn’t a guy who thought much about a moral code or justice or victims or much of that – the things that often show up in crime fiction – but he is starting to now. I hope this series shows some of that development.

OBAAT: Let’s say One or the Other is going to made into a movie and you have creative control. Who directs it? Who’s Eddie? Even better, who’s Rozovsky, the crime photographer?
JM: My favourite director is John Sayles and I think a movie like City of Hope, the way one event bleeds into another and the characters’ actions are effected by events is a pretty good model for what I was after, so I’d say him. But a movie set in Montreal might need a Canadian director, someone like Denis Villeneuve who directed Sicario. Also, I worked on a TV show last year and one of the episodes I wrote was directed by April Mullen and she did a great job, so I’d say her. Rozovsky is tough to cast. If it was 1976 it would be Richard Dreyfuss – he has the Montreal connections from Duddy Kravitz, after all, but today, I don’t know, probably a Brit doing a Canadian accent.

OBAAT: No offense, but your books don’t sell at quite Lee Child or Michael Connelly levels, yet you’ve been with ECW Press since Dirty Sweet came out in 2006. That’s just about unheard of in the current publishing world. Describe that arrangement a little.
JM: None taken. Like most things in life, I think it was mostly timing. ECW have been around 40 years, but it’s really only been a commercial press for maybe 15 or 20 years (before that it was very academic) so I got in on the ground floor. And I think we all still have the hope that one of these days these book sales will take off. ECW now distribute in the USA as well as Canada and as long as we don’t lose our minds here and have some kind of Brexit and pull out of North America, ECW and I can continue to grow together.

OBAAT: You base much of Eddie Dougherty’s life on your brother, who joined the Mounties about the time Eddie joined in Montreal. Your Toronto series (Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Swap (Let is Ride in the US), and Tumblin’ Dice) feature criminals and they’re just as convincing as characters. So now the obvious question: what’s up with that?
JM: Thanks. I think a lot has to do with the KISS rule, keep it simple, stupid. I’m more interested in the day-to-day activities of the characters and I do like ‘regular guys’ (guy is gender neutral) more than quirky or really unusual characters. I don’t know why, really. I like the grinders. Sure, Sidney Crosby is a star but you need a few Matt Cullens to win the Cup.

OBAAT: Who is your favorite character of all you’ve written?
JM: I do like Eddie Dougherty. And Judy McIntyre, there’s more to come from her, for sure. I spend very little time in my writing with creepy bad guys. Some writers do that really well and I don’t mind reading it but I like to spend time with people I like so I do like most of the characters in my books.

OBAAT: When asked what you liked best about being a writer, you said, “When it works.” What do you like least?
JM: I guess the obvious answer is when it isn’t working. But I’ve been doing this a while now and I’m getting a little more confident and feeling that it can be worked out. I really like this, it’s a dream come true to be able to do this so there isn’t much about it I don’t like.

OBAAT: How often do you write?
JM: Every day. I have the really lucky position that when my kids were little I was a stay-at-home dad so I was out for the workforce long enough to really lower expectations going back in. And then I made some money writing for TV so that took some pressure off, too, so now even though I don’t make much money from my books it’s enough to justify my doing it every day.

OBAAT: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
JM: When the movie Bull Durham came out I read an interview with the writer-director, Ron Shelton and he said, “If you give people their dignity they’ll never let you down,” and I liked that so I think I’m trying to show people in vulnerable situations still have their dignity. That would be my take-away. Dougherty is going to go through a lot but he isn’t going to get too cynical and certainly not misanthropic. 

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
JM: I do like to see some resolution to the question posed by the book. That’s probably why I tend to ask easy, obvious questions ;).

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JM: I am. I write the books for myself so that I can feel after putting in all that work at least one person really likes it.

That's a badass answer, so I used a badass picture
OBAAT: What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?
JM: I’d like to meet Stephen King, maybe watch a baseball game with him but he could never get me to like the Red Sox. I’d also like to meet Alice Munro and find out if after she won the Nobel Prize there was a non-Canadian moment when she said, “Fuck you,” to all those old English profs who called her writing, “housewife stories.”

OBAAT: Do you have a specific writing style?
JM: Just the keep it simple style.

OBAAT: You said before you liked to read “crime stories and noir and all that but they don’t often have a lot of insight into how relationships work.” Why do you think that is, and to you think is a natural weakness in the genre? Who do you think writes crime and does that well, if anyone?
JM: I think in much of the crime fiction the roles are set early on and then the characters play them out. Anti-heroes and femme fatales tend to be a little predictable.

OBAAT: What book are you reading now?
JM: I just finished Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers and now I’m reading Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, the first novel in Sarah Weinman’s Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50s collection. I’m looking forward to all of them.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JM: The next Eddie Dougherty, set in 1980. American hostages in Iran and the first Quebec referendum on separation – referendums seem to be in the news these days, everything old really is new again. Also, spies.

OBAAT: You and I both write series, which means there are multiple thigns happening with multiple books all the time. For example, you’re promoting One or the Other. I expect Dougherty Number 4 is done, or damn near, and you’re already thinking about ED5. Do you ever have trouble remembering which anecdotes happened in which books? (I’m asking for a friend.)
JM: Yes, I do. I’ve started to keep a lot of crib notes. And my excellent editor has found mistakes I’ve made. In this series there are some big changes in the characters’ lives; Eddie and Judy get married and they might have kids, Eddie does move up to detective and Judy settles into being a high school teacher so I hope the same things don’t keep coming up, but I know some will sneak in. I just used one of my uncle’s stories, a little life advice he had about social drinking and how to not become an alcoholic and I realized I’d used the story once before. But it wasn’t in a Dougherty novel (it was in Tumblin’ Dice) and I like it so I used it again.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

July's Best Reads

July was a bit of an odd reading month, with half of it taken up by a vacation that didn’t lend itself much to reading. Having said that, what reading time I had was well spent.

World Gone By, Dennis Lehane. No one combines as many key elements of good writing and storytelling as Lehane. He’s the best when he’s on his game, writing with style and grace without overtly making you so aware of it you’re distracted from the story, which is always good. I wasn’t a huge fan of Live By Night—at least not by the standards I set for Lehane’s work after such gems as The Given Day and The Drop—but World Gone By more than makes up for it. Enough so that I wonder if I should give Live By Night another chance.

King Maybe, Timothy Hallinan. As good as Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series is—and that series is damned good---the Junior Bender saga might have eclipsed it. Hallinan is able to take a caper Donald Westlake would have been proud to involve John Dortmunder in and wraps it in a story of psychological control of another person that rises to a pathological level. Those who enjoy the break-ins that launched the series will have more than enough to entertain them, and those who fell under the spell of the more personal elements that turned up in Herbie’s Game and The Fame Thief will get plenty of that. In short, there’s something for everyone here, and, as always with Hallinan, seamlessly delivered.

Crime Scene, Connie Fletcher. The queen of oral police histories. Her books never get stale, no matter how often I read them.

400 Things Cops Know, Adam Plantinga. Another re-read (I’m researching the next Penns River book) that has already earned a place next to Fletcher on my shelf and in my esteem.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Dangerous Lesson: Sharon Summers

Sharon Summers began her relationship with Nick Forte as his receptionist and secretary. Moved up to general manager of Forte Investigations with a private investigator’s license of her own. Now she’s a large part of Forte’s conscience, the person—along with his daughter, Caroline—most responsible for keeping him tethered to the man he was and not drifting away into the man he sometimes threatens to become. Forte once described their relationship as occupying “the places where the relationships of friends, lovers, and families left seams. In the few years I’d known her, we had become the mortar that held the bricks of our lives together.”

Here an abused wife has just left Forte’s office.

I stared at the open door like she might come back. Sharon paused at the threshold. She knew I’d tell her if I wanted to talk about it, and wouldn’t take it personally if I didn’t. I filled her in on the other night, and the relevant parts of today’s conversation.
“I don’t get it,” I said when she was caught up. “Why would she stay? It doesn’t matter how much she loves him, or he says he loves her. He’s going to beat her again, probably soon. Maybe even worse than he might have because I interrupted him last time. She knows that. I saw it in her face. But she’s not ready to leave. Have you ever known anyone in a situation like that?”
“Better than you think.” I rolled my eyes up to look at her. She stayed in the threshold between our offices. The infamous pile of summonses behind her partially obscured my view of her beloved ficus. Her voice sounded much farther away. “Pete used to get rough when he drank. I tried to stand up to him and hit him back a few times. That just made him madder, and he was too big for me to handle. All I did was make it worse.”
This was news to me. Sharon always struck me as the most bullshit-intolerant woman I’d ever known. Finding out she’d been through something like this was almost like finding out Henry Aaron corked his bat. Almost. Questions ran through my mind faster than I could ask them. What I said was, “How long?”
Sharon’s expression never changed. Her voice never wavered, maintained that far-away timbre. “Five hundred and forty-two days from the first time he hit me until I told him I’d kill him if he ever put a hand to me again. I told him as I was leaving to pick up the boys from daycare. I never went back.”
“Why didn’t I go back? Or why’d he hit me?”
“Why’d you wait so long?”
She gave me a look I couldn’t have identified if I hadn’t seen it twenty minutes earlier. “I guess I was embarrassed. I know how she feels.” Turned her head to indicate the door Josie had just left through. “Everyone says hitting a woman’s a terrible thing. No one wants to admit she married a man who’d do such a terrible thing, right? So I figured I must have driven him to do it.”
“So it’s your fault?”
“You don’t think that way for a while. You think it must be something you’re doing wrong, or something you should know about. Then you start thinking maybe you deserve it, because there’s something wrong with you. You know you should leave, but you’re afraid to trust your judgment because trusting your judgment’s what got you here in the first place.” The words ran out of her like blood from a picked scab. Just a little at first, then the momentum built like the early departures were sucking the others out to join them. “I heard more than you think. I never listen in with your visitors, but I knew why she was here.”
“How? I didn’t tell you about Sunday night until just now.”
“She had that look.”
“What look?”
Sharon shook her head. “You can’t see it. Only someone who’s been through it can recognize it. Junkies probably see it in other junkies. Gays, too, maybe.” She looked down and away from me and blushed. I’d known her seven years and couldn’t remember ever seeing her do that. “So I listened. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Tell me what you think.”
“Her parents are immigrants with crappy jobs, right? Her brothers and sisters do okay, but they’re worker bees. She gets her associate’s degree and this rich, practically famous doctor marries her. She lives in a great house, has all kinds of money to spend on her family, nice clothes, someone to clean her house for her. She must feel like a princess.
“So he beats up her sometimes. I think he probably does worse than that. It doesn’t matter, ’cause she’s thinking, ‘What do I have to complain about?’ She knows nothing’s free. Her parents worked two jobs each. Her brothers and sisters pitched in for all the weddings. She figures, this is what a nice house costs. She’ll put up with it even if she doesn’t care about the money and the car because she’s ashamed to go to her family and ruin their fantasy, too. She’s living a lie, and she’s Catholic and it’s a mortal sin to –”
 “Sharon.” She never got like this. Sharon didn’t cover things up; she handled them. The altercation after WhirlyBall had passed over her like a humid breeze: mildly uncomfortable, immediately forgotten. I honest to God didn’t know if she was about to get violent, hysterical, or calm down and walk away. And I didn’t want to find out. “It’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Is she a client?”

“Not yet.” Sharon cocked her head, brow furrowed with doubt. “I can’t spot some of things you can, but I can tell when someone’s about ready to do something. She’ll be back. And don’t worry. I’m not going to have two Eloise Marshalls on my conscience.”