Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

It’s been a while since I recapped the movies seen here at Castle Schadenfreude, long enough that I’m going to break this up into two bite-sized chunks. (Editor’s Note: It is not incidental that this also means two separate blog post slots filled.) (Author’s Note: Sue me, you persnickety prick.)

Black Mass (2015) I read the book so I knew the Whitey Bulger story and it’s a good thing, as this would have been hard to follow otherwise. Johnny Depp does his usual submersion into a character, this time as cold a gangster as has ever drawn breath, a man whose soul has no bottom. Part of the problem is that Joel Edgerton, tasked with playing corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, doesn’t measure up against Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, president of the Massachusetts State Senate and later president of the University of Massachusetts. It’s not all Edgerton’s fault. The writing is clunky in parts and the dialog doesn’t exactly sing. Even Kevin Bacon looks uncomfortable. Black Mass is a reasonably accurate depiction of Whitey Bulger’s story, but it’s not a particularly good movie.

Tombstone (1993) I need to watch this every couple of years or so. Not a great movie, and my Western research shows the depiction of Wyatt Earp and Josie Marcus isn’t quite kosher, but the portrayal of the relationships between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday is spot on, as are all the performances by Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton. Val Kilmer has had a fine career, if a little slow lately, but he’ll always be known as Doc Holliday, and he should be proud of that. It’s a career-making performance.

All the President’s Men (1976) Still compelling, even though we all know how it comes out. There are always little things I notice in this film that I missed before, often because of the different historical context. Among the things that struck me this time is how Bob Woodward is able to get people to talk to him the way they do, holding Mark Felt’s name private for over thirty years. His word is golden, as is this movie.

Legend (2015) We were going to watch Trumbo but saw this on the previews and shifted gears mid-stream. (Tonight’s entrĂ©e: Metaphor Gumbo.) Tom Hardy plays both of London’s infamous Kray brothers, 60s gangsters so nasty I’d even heard of them. A good rise and fall movie, with Hardy’s outstanding performances carrying the day.

Spotlight (2015) A film everyone should have to watch every few years, lest we forget, especially in light of recent news that the Catholic Church hasn’t cleaned up its act as much as they would have you believe. First rate cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel MacAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci, and nary a frame wasted. If you’re not mesmerized while watching and freshly outraged for several days afterward, there’s something wrong with you.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) I hope I never get too old to want to watch this, and to laugh at it. If I do, may I encounter the most foul-tempered rodent you ever laid eyes on, with big pointy teeth.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Yes, again. And immediately after Monty Python. This is the kind of thing that happens when you live in an anarcho-syndicalist commune where we take it in turns to be a sort of executive officer for the week but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs (Editor’s Note: Get on with it!) Right, then.

Absence of Malice (1981) A different perspective on investigative journalism, especially when it’s not done well, as reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) is duped into reporting a bogus federal investigation that ruins the life of Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) and leads to the suicide of Teresa Perrone (Melinda Dillon). The newspaper is careful to stay on the safe side of libel—hence the title—and Newman takes matters into his own hands. A fine film top to bottom,
capped off by Wilford Brimley’s Hall of Fame-caliber scene as the Deputy Attorney General sent down to find out “what in the good Christ…is goin' on around here.”

Friday, October 26, 2018

Fear and Loathing in Southern Gas Stations

I lived in Georgia when I defended our nation from the scourge of Soviet musical units during my three years in an Army band. I knew then that tings were different in The South™ but these differences have evolved in the 35 years since I took off the uniform and returned north. The drive to St. Petersburg for Bouchercon pointed one key change out to me, namely how much harder it has become to buy gas in the Deep South.

4 September 2018
Ocala FL
The Beloved Spouse™ goes into the convenience store while I pump gas. A trailer full of beef cattle stare at me from the next island. I insert my credit card and withdraw it. The screen flashes and this appears:

Enter your PIN to continue.

For those of you either too high-class or clueless to pump your own gas (and you know who you are), credit cards don’t have PINs; debit cards do. I figures this happens from time to time, so I press Cancel and try again.

 Enter your PIN to continue.

I clean off the chip and the strip on my credit card and try again.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Now I’m remembering that stopping here for gas was not nearly as urgent as the other reason I wanted to get off the road, so I clear the entire transaction and start over.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Glancing at the cow trailer I swear they’re nudging each other and mooing, “This guy’s the top of the food chain?” I try again.

Enter your PIN to continue.

Now I’m pissed. I jerk out the card and say at a more than conversational decibel level, “Motherfucker, this is not a debit card!”

Enter your Zip Code to continue.

Okay. So now we know what it takes.

10 September 2018
Manning SC

TBS and I pull off of I-95 and have two gas stations to choose from. I choose the one on the left because I won’t have to cross the highway we’re on to get back to 95 when we come out. She goes in to use the necessary and I get gas.

This pump doesn’t even screw around with that PIN business.

Card not read.

I try again.

Card not read.

The card worked at dinner last night and all through Bouchercon. I wipe it off and re-insert.

Card not read.

It’s not taking as much to piss me off this morning. I’m still over 450 miles from home and not in the mood. Not in the habit of accommodating inanimate objects, I go to a different pump.

Card not read.

Now I’m mad. I try another card.

Card not read.

All right. Enough of this shit. We’re leaving. I go into the store to round up TBS to tell her we’re not buying anything here and I hope she stunk up the bathroom. We drive directly across the street to the station that would have been easier to get to in the first place. She goes inside to buy road food and I try my original card in the pump.

Card not read.

I go straight to the second card this time.

Card not read.

Now it’s time to escalate. “Who do I have to blow to buy gas in this town?”


Enter your Zip Code to continue.

Okay, Florida and South Carolina. You had your fun with the Yankee liberal. Just don’t expect me to leave the light on for you when climate change puts your asses underwater.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Bonus Bouchercon Coverage

We went over my panel highlights at Bouchercon a few weeks ago but anyone who knows anything about Bouchercon knows the panels are just the appetizer; what happens later is the main course.

The Beloved Spouse™ and I checked in Tuesday afternoon and immediately caught a good vibe from the hotel when the bellman arranged for a refrigerator that arrived inside of five minutes and TBS was able to talk us into complimentary Internet in the room fifteen minutes later. (She didn’t lie. My mother did have a broken hip and it was a great help for us. Still, the hotel wasn’t required to comp us.) Kudos to Josh and Caitlin.

Not knowing the area or where to eat, we took a trolley ride on an impulse, as one was pulling up to the hotel as we stepped out looking for lunch on Wednesday. Terrence was better than a good tour guide, he was an entertainer who hooked us up with The Moon Under Water for lunch on Wednesday. And Thursday. Dinner on Saturday. Three meals in four days and not a disappointment in the bunch.

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel dining room on Wednesday with Terrence McCauley, his lovely wife Rita, and a “new” acquaintance we got to meet in person, Frank Zafiro.

Thursday was an event that will likely never be overshadowed no matter how many Bouchercons I attend. Terrence and Rita had about twenty of us for a private dinner to launch Terrence’s new Western, Where the Bullets Fly. A chance to spend quality time with old friends, make new, and enjoy an excellent meal. Nothing I write here can do it justice. Suffice to say I was humbled to know both of them thought so highly of my friendship.

Friday night was the annual Shamus Awards dinner with the Private Eye Writers of America. We shared a table with Renee Pickup, Danny Gardner, and his lovely daughter, and had the usual great time. Congratulations to all the winners, and the nominees. There are a metric shit tonne of books released each year. To be blessed with even a nomination is a supreme honor. (Said the man who has been twice nominated but never won.) The evening was enhanced by getting a ride to and from the festivities with Mike Pett of Express Taxi & Sedan, who chauffeured us (and John Shepphird on the way back) in a spotless black Town Car—yes, a Raylan Givens Special—and provided what amounted to a sit-down comic routine all the way. You need a ride in Tampa, call Express Taxi & Sedan. (Phone number available on request.)

The Shamus dinner was but the first half of Friday’s twi-night doubleheader. Down & Out Books commandeered Hops and Props, just a few blocks from the hotel, for festivities that went on well into the night. Another chance to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and get entertained by the guy who wasn’t the bartender, though he spent all night behind the bar.

Saturday had no special events but was still a special evening. I’m lucky enough to have been to nine Bouchercons now and people still speak to me. I’d hate to single anyone out because I saw and chatted with so many people on Saturday (and Friday and Thursday and Wednesday) but to start the evening at the bar by running into Peter Rozovsky, Pam Stack, and Terri Lynn Coop and to conclude on the veranda with Terrence and Rita, Jeff Hess and his lovely wife, and Tim O’Mara gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of evening it was. Long story short, I don’t think I spent an unpleasant minute the entire weekend. Kudos to the organizers, moderators, panelists, readers, writers, and hospitality industry workers for making the entire weekend special.

No weekend is perfect, and I do feel the need to make a few less than sterling comments in the hopes folks won’t make these mistakes in the future.

Sound systems were a bit of a problem throughout. Microphones all over the hotel popped Ps and had irregular tone quality. Such is life but it was at times disconcerting.

Note to moderators: never volunteer you haven’t read the author’s book, and if you’re going to mention a book, get the title right. And do at least a modicum of research. Don’t ask an author if he’s from Boston only so he can answer that he’s from New York. Another tidbit: don’t let the authors introduce themselves. It implies you haven’t taken the time to prepare and some will use the opportunity to tell their life stories, sucking up half your time.

Why do they put lemon in water pitchers? It makes the water feel not as wet when you’re dying for help with a dry throat. Water’s been perfect for a bajillion years. Let it be.

Enough quibbling. The 2018-2019 hiatus between conferences is 416 days, much longer than usual. Good thing the vibe from St. Petersburg will carry us through.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

August and September's Favorite Reads

It’s been busy here, so much so that I was unable to get my favorite August reads posted, Now I’m late for the September and both were banner months. No offense intended toward the authors noted here. Your books kicked ass, but I need to condense the comments in the interest of time. I owe you one, if only because of how much I enjoyed your books. (Except for those of you who are dead. You’re on your own.)

Bye, Bye, Baby, Alan Guthrie. Guthrie is one of the writers who compels me to keep an OCD-quality list of authors to keep up with. His name doesn’t pass before as often as some others, but I’ve never read one of his books that didn’t knock me on my ass. This is no exception.

Sick Puppy, Carl Hiaasen. This is the book that introduced me to Hiaasen over fifteen years ago and it was just as good this time. Maybe even better, as I’m better able to get into Hiaasen’s state of mind.

The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis. No one is better able to make arcane topics relatable. Here he examines the inherent flaws in how humans think. Got me so interested I bought a book by one of the guys this book is about. We’ll see how that goes. The subject is fascinating, but few can make the complex as understandable as Lewis.

Good Behavior, Donald Westlake. A Dortmunder caper that begins when Westlake’s smart yet unlucky thief falls into a convent during an escape. Hilarity ensures. Literally. The Beloved Spouse™ kept asking me to read to her whatever it was that had me breaking up in the hotel room. (Read on the road to and from Bouchercon.)

Tricks, Ed McBain. Nothing extraordinary by McBain’s standards. Just a good, solid 87th Precinct story. There isn’t much higher praise than that.

101, Tom Pitts. I used to have a policy of holding off on noting which ARCs made this list on the premise the books weren’t available yet. That’s a stupid policy. Often I forgot to make a fuss when the book did finally come out. I’m not making this mistake again, and I apologize to all those I may have slighted in the past. Few can keep disparate story lines all moving in the same direction with perfect pacing as well as Pitts. This is a good one, even by his high standards.

The Backlist, Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner. Dueling—competing?—hitters written by two writers with similar enough styles to make the book read seamlessly. I’ve been in the bag for Beetner for a long time and just met Zafiro at Bouchercon, so I figured this had sat on my TBR stack long enough. Now I’m going to have to read the whole goddamn series.

Plaster City, Johnny Shaw. Shaw is a master of one of the hardest things to do: write a serious book with laugh out loud comedy in it that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the violence or drama. It’s not like he got lucky, either. Dove Season is just as good.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity 2018

The sixth annual Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference happened last weekend in Columbia. There are bigger conferences, better known conferences, but I’ve never attended a conference that is more fun or has a better vibe than C3. I missed the first due to a scheduling conflict; now I schedule around it.

It’s much more compact than Bouchercon so my review won’t be as sprawling, but it’s definitely worth recapping. The panels are a little shorter, the schedule is condensed, and the meals are communal to allow writers of different levels to mingle with readers before heading off to the bar. I’m not going to break things out by panel, but by days.

John DeDakis’s current work of fiction has the working title of “Fake.” It’s about the concept of fake news. He has to keep rewriting large sections as he can’t stay ahead of actual events. 

David Swinson has great faith in his agent. He once showed her a book. She read it and asked, “Are you sure you’re done?” He said yes. She sent it out. No sale. He has not again questioned her judgment.

No matter what you see on TV, cops shooting at moving vehicles is frowned upon unless the danger is greater to let the car go.

David Swinson was taken for a ride in a paddy wagon as a kid to put the fear of God into him after he was caught placing cherry bombs in trees. He later became a decorated cop himself. Chauffeuring a miscreant like that today is a firing offense.

Swinson and Bernard Schaffer agree that Internal Affairs cops are just doing a job and are not as vilified as fiction often depicts them. True, some are pricks. But cops like dirty cops even less than the public does, so the job is necessary.

Jamie Freveletti thinks the Netflix concept of binge-watching is trickling down to reading. If you’re thinking of releasing a series of short stories or novellas in sequence, get them out quick.

Friday’s after-dinner speaker was Keith R.A. DeCandido, writer of comic books, novels, role-playing video games, and tie-in books for properties ranging from Supernatural to Star Trek and Dr. Who to X-Men to…I was going to insert something really off-the-wall here but I can’t be sure Keith didn’t write something for it while I was busy elsewhere. The theme of his talk was “You are responsible for your career,” and he made sure everyone understood he wasn’t just running his mouth. I can’t do his points justice, but Keith was kind enough to post his remarks on his blog for everyone to read.

Keith was a tough act to follow, but E.A. “Call me Ed” Aymar put together the first (hopefully annual) C3 Noir at the Bar. Ten readers in a venue where everyone could actually every nuance of the stories brought out the best in the competitors. That’s right. Competitors. the audience favorite won an engraved buck knife to commemorate the occasion, and John Gilstrap’s epic poem and dramatic reading richly deserved the award. Note to anyone thinking of reading at a subsequent C3 event: Bring your A game. The bar has been set.

The only down side to participating in a panel is I can’t take notes for these recaps. Saturday morning’s discussion of villains had several lines worth repeating but I was too in the moment to memorialize them properly. The one that stuck out was when I asked Michael A. Black for the ultimate villain and he said, “Maybe Satan.” That’s badass, people, when someone will only go as far as saying Satan “might” be the ultimate villain.

Lunch dessert was an interview with the aforementioned Ed Aymar who gave us many insights under skillful prodding from Austin Camacho. We learned how long it took Ed to become an overnight success, the other writing-related ventures he’s involved in, and mostly, that he needs either adult supervision or medication. Both, to be safe.

Jamie Freveletti reminded us there are no INTERPOL agents who run around the world chasing criminals. INTERPOL issues warrants, usually for war criminals, It’s up to the participating governments to make the arrests.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are overrated. They can’t be enforced when the signer is answering a subpoena and whistleblowers statutes likely protect…uh,,,whistleblowers.

John DeDakis condensed a class he teaches to fit the time allotted and squeezed in enough worthwhile information for me to come away with several pages of notes even after having half a dozen novels published. Among the prime morsels:
Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Rumination is part of the process.
Some sort of organization system is important, but don’t let it be the tail that wags the dog.
“Go all the way through your first draft without your internal editor. You’ve written a book! It sucks, but it’s a book!” Then the real work of re-writing begins.
Cowardice is fearful inaction. You know what you have to do and don’t do it. Courage is action in the face of fear

Shawn A. Cosby referred to what are commonly referred to as “psycho sidekicks” as “benevolent sociopaths.”

Ed Aymar, pretentious as ever, quoted de Maupassant with, “Everyone leads three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” He then tried to claim credit for himself when the audience made approving noises.

The after-dinner speaker was Jamie Freveletti, who went over her career, and, like most of the successful writers I’ve heard speak, was quick to credit good fortune in her success, not that she hasn’t earned it. Her talk covered a range of topics from her own career and included her new venture, a publishing imprint of her own.

We had breakfast dessert on Sunday, as Austin interviewed John DeDakis about his career at CNN and his subsequent work as a novelist. I frankly wasn’t as aware of John as I should have been before last weekend, but after seeing him on a couple of panels, sitting in on his class, and soaking up his interview, that is an oversight quickly rectified.

If you’ve never seen John Gilstrap give a talk, make time to do so. John spoke for 45 minutes on POV in writing and not only gave everyone plenty to think of when writing their own stuff, kept them in stitches throughout.

There was one more thing for The Beloved Spouse™ and I to take care of before heading out: signing up for next year. September 13 – 15, 2019 at the Sheraton Columbia (MD). We’ll keep an eye out for you.

Monday, October 8, 2018

J. L. Abramo, Author of American History

While I was, of course, acquainted with the name, I first met J. L. Abramo at the Shamus banquet in New Orleans a couple of years ago when we both sat at the Down & Out Books table, where we were both nominated for the same award; he won. While I am in full agreement with those who say there is no nicer or more welcoming group of people than crime fiction writers, even in that group there is a small cadre who stick out as true gentlemen in the traditional sense of the word. Joe is one of them. It’s always a treat when he stops by the blog because I know he’ll give thoughtful, well-reasoned, and honest answers to anything I ask.

One Bite at a Time: Your new book is titled American History. It’s the story of a feud between two Sicilian families that is carried to the United States prior to the First World War and ultimately spans the American continent. Give us a little taste of what to expect.

J.L. Abramo: The families of Salvatore Leone and Luigi Agnello had already been long-time bitter enemies in Sicily by the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1913, Vincenzo Leone, Salvatore’s oldest son, emigrates to Philadelphia to start a new life for himself and his family in the promised land. Several years later, Giuseppe Agnello, Luigi’s eldest, secretly marries Francesca Leone, Vincenzo’s sister, and the couple escape to New York City. Giuseppe leaves to serve his new country during the First World War.  Francesca, alone and in need of support for herself and their infant son, Louis, travels to Philadelphia to live with her brother, his wife, and his two daughters. The Spanish Flu takes the lives of Vincenzo’s wife and sister in 1918, and Leone moves with his daughters and Francesca’s son to San Francisco. Vincenzo decides to raise his nephew, Louis Agnello, as his own child.

When Giuseppe returns from the war, he finds his wife and son gone. It takes more than five years for Agnello to learn the whereabouts of his family. Giuseppe travels to San Francisco with hopes of a reunion with Francesca and Louis, and becomes a victim of the animosity between the two families—hatred recently transplanted in America by Vincenzo Leone’s younger brother, Roberto. 

American History is the epic, generational saga of the Agnellos and the Leones (in the Italian language, lambs and lions)—a one-hundred-year conflict between Giuseppe’s descendants in New York, law enforcers, and Vincenzo’s descendants in San Francisco, lawbreakers.

OBAAT: You’re best known for your Jake Diamond PI series—Circling the Runway won the Shamus Award in 2016 for Best Paperback Original. (I’ll always remember that because you beat me. Not that I’m bitter.) You built a solid reputation on the Diamond books and contemporary Brooklyn-based police procedurals Coney Island Avenue and Gravesend. American History is a much different book, with a far broader scope. What drew you to the idea?

JLA:  I am a first generation American.  My mother and her family emigrated to New York from Stalinist Russia in the 1920s.

My paternal grandfather, Giuseppe, emigrated from Naro, Sicily in 1909.  He left behind a pregnant wife and two children.  After five years of manual labor, he had earned enough to send for his family.  My father turned five years old on his ocean journey to America in 1914, and upon arrival in New York met his father for the first time. 

Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue were personal journeys back to my native land, Brooklyn.  American History was, in the writing, a trip further back in my heritage—an exploration of the immigrant experience.  I have always considered the courage of those who came to America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—facing alien customs, a foreign language and, in many cases, ethnic prejudice and persecution—to be remarkable. I recognized that adapting to these new circumstances took different paths, some outside the law, although the motivations were the same—to insure the safety and honor of the family. With those thoughts in mind, the idea for a generational family saga took hold.

OBAAT: How long does it take you to write, say, a Jake Diamond novel, and how long did it take to write American History?

JLA:  That is a question with no clear answer.  There are many mitigating circumstances.

I wrote Catching Water in a Net in less than a month, to satisfy a submission deadline.  The book miraculously captured the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel. Working with my editor to clean up a very convoluted plot took longer than writing the book did originally.

Gravesend, from inception through many transformations and ultimate publication, was a twelve-year process.

Brooklyn Justice came out of the gate full-speed and quickly raced to the finish line.

American History was started and then set aside for some time before it dawned on me what the novel was meant to be about.

OBAAT: American History takes place over a period of a hundred years across a significant geographic expanse. What kinds of research did you do?

JLA:  Research is always an important element of my work, particularly with respect to setting.  I consider the location of a story, cities in particular, to be a critical component—and I work diligently to get even the basics like street intersections correct.

Time period also requires accuracy and adequate research.  Chasing Charlie Chan is set in 1994—which was nearly twenty years before I wrote the book—and also deals with events from the 40s.  A great deal of research was necessary and, at the same time, enjoyable.
American History, because of the period of time it covers, was even more demanding.  It was important to me to follow the generations of these two families within the context of some of the major events in America during those ninety years.  I wanted the history of the Agnellos and the Leones to be worthy of the designation American history.

OBAAT: Looking back through your two previous visits here to OBAAT, I see what became American History had at least bits of your attention while you worked on multiple other projects. You also mentioned you start with a situation and go where it takes you. Was it hard to hold that together through periods of working on something else?

JLA:  This book also began with a situation, a visualized scene, almost cinematic, involving a man being released from prison with the strong sense that he may have been safer inside than out.  The question then became why.  It took a while (during which I worked on other projects) before I saw his situation as a result of a conflict that went back to his great-grandparents a century earlier—and decided the novel would, in the end, concern family honor and survival and the assimilation to new environments and changing times.

OBAAT: Who are your primary influences on your writing? Not necessarily writers. Could be filmmakers or musicians. Have those influencers changed over time?

JLA:  Although I am considered a crime novelist, my work is most often concerned with how people deal with adversity—positively or negatively. And family—its importance, and the constant incentive for family respectability and loyalty, are also common themes in my novels. These themes are inspired by personal experiences and everything I see and hear about such concerns and store away to be tapped later, consciously or otherwise. I often create characters who are as courageous and as loyal as I would hope to be.  An artistic work which illuminate these sorts of themes—be a John Irving novel, a Sidney Lumet film, or a Bruce Springsteen song—influence me in that direction.

OBAAT: Writers are great readers. What do you look for in a book that makes it rise above the rest? On the flip side, is there anything that will cause you to put a book down? I’m asking not so much about the absence of what you like, but the presence of something you actively dislike.

JLA:  Of late, I have been reading more non-fiction.  At this stage of my life, I feel it is a better use of my time to examine the events of the near and distant past because it helps me better understand how we’ve arrived where we are and inspires me to write more informed and hopefully more relevant work. 

For example, I have very recently read The Fifties by David Halberstam.  It was enlightening and has provided me with a great deal of solid information which is assisting me in writing about a series of events which occurred during that period.  I am presently reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Its depiction of Berlin in 1933, all of the clear warnings ignored, illuminates those dangerously ignored today.
In regard to the flip side there is a lot out there that I find derivative, gratuitously dark—as evidenced, for example, by the recent preponderance of noir by writers who, in many cases, seem to pay more attention to the level of depravity than to an adherence to the strict qualifications of the sub-genre.
It has almost become a fad.  It feels too much like noir for noir’s sake. I have participated in several Noir at the Bar events where very little that was read, including my own work, was what I would consider noir fiction.  When James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, considered a definitive example of the genre, I don’t believe he set out with the goal of writing noir. Rather—when as a journalist covering the Snyder-Gray murder trial in 1927, where Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Gray were accused of killing Snyder’s husband for the insurance money—I suggest he simply came up with a good idea from people who had a bad idea.

If I get the impression that an artistic endeavor is motivated by what is the flavor of the day—rather than by the need to set free authentic feelings and desires—I tend to pass.

There is so much excellent writing out there, particularly in television, it is humbling. The only way I can personally justify my efforts is if the work is a journey that is surprising and revealing to me and—subsequently, perhaps—for a fellow traveler, a.k.a. the reader.

OBAAT: The inevitable final question: What are you working on now?

JLA:  I have just completed a new Jake Diamond novel which, if meant to be, could hit the streets in 2019.

Ironically, I have been invited to contribute a short story for a noir anthology and I have a decision to make.  Pass, with the justification that it’s just not my thing—or give it a shot as an intellectual exercise.  Que sera, sera.

I am working on a few other projects, both quite different from any of my previous efforts.  Once I figure out what they are supposed to be, I will be able to tell you more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Conversation with Frank Zafiro

Frank Zafiro is a name I’ve been familiar with for a while, tied into the crime fiction community as I am, but I’d never met him until this year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. Raconteur, bon vivant, man about town, former military and retired cop, Frank’s the good when looking for an authentic voice in crime. Unlike many with that pedigree, Frank’s writing is highly entertaining and reads like butter.

Frank has written at least half of 26 novels and contributed to many short story collections. For a complete listing, head on over to his web site, which also contains lots of other educational and entertaining stuff. Bonus info: “Zafiro” is a pen name. I’m not going to tell what his real name is, but “Azfori” is an anagram. Draw your own conclusions.

One Bite at a Time: First off, it was a real treat, one of my personal Bouchercon highlights in St. Petersburg, to get to meet and spend some time with you. I write police procedurals and have received comments about how I get most things right, but you write police procedurals drawing on your history as a cop. Fill us in on your law enforcement background.
Frank Zafiro: It was a definite highlight of Bouchercon to meet you and get to hang out. It was a blog post that you wrote that really made me feel more comfortable about going to the conference in the first place, and then as serendipity would have it, you were one of the first people I met, so that was cool.

I spent twenty years and a day as a cop in Spokane, Washington (River City is a thinly veiled version of this burg), retiring in 2013 as a captain. I was fortunate enough in my career to do a lot of different jobs and see many different aspects of the department, whether as an officer or detective, or later as a leader. As a result, I experienced Patrol, Investigations, K-9, SWAT, Hostage, volunteers, Dispatch…pretty much every part of the agency. In my leadership role, I got to see beyond even the PD, interacting with other agencies, other departments within the city, and various elements within the community. I had good experiences and bad ones, and (although I didn’t look at this way at the time) all of those were valuable to me as a writer.

OBAAT: I was familiar with your name more than your work when we met and my ears perked right up when I learned you write a series of police procedurals set in River City, as one might expect for an author who writes a series of police procedurals set in a town called Penns River. What’s the scoop on River City?
FZ: Well, as I mentioned, it’s a thinly veiled Spokane. In fact, the more I write in River City, the less I change about geography or other aspects from the real city it is based upon. The series itself is a police procedural with an ensemble cast. The first book, Under a Raging Moon, was purely patrol level (which is fairly uncommon in the genre), but the net has since widened as the series has progressed, first to include detectives and some mid-level brass, and now the entire breadth and width of the agency from the chief’s office on down.

That said, there are a few characters that have primacy, and the core character of the series for me has become Officer Katie MacLeod. She definitely has a supporting cast who play large secondary roles, but since book #3 she’s definitely who I’d say is the main character. Other big players include the veteran patrol officer Thomas Chisolm, Detective John Tower, and Lieutenant (spoiler alert:  he is promoted in book #5) Robert Saylor, among a host of others.

Since these are written in third person with multiple viewpoints, the reader gets to see what is happening from a variety of perspectives. As the series progresses, the reader also gets to see the development and changes these characters go through, and to share their history.

Essentially, I want the reader to feel like s/he has had a career at RCPD, and has seen all that has happened around them.

OBAAT: There definitely ain’t no flies on you. Your web site lists 26 novels and 18 anthologies contributed to. In the past three weeks alone, Book 5 of the River City series (The Menace of the Years) dropped, Book 3 of your Ania series was re-released (Closing the Circle) and a new series of novella was announced. Plus you do monthly podcasts. How do you balance all of this?
FZ: Meth.

No, not really. Coffee, though.

After I retired from law enforcement, I spent about four years teaching leadership in a national program that took me all over the US and Canada (including your old stomping grounds). This was great for both personal and professional reasons, but it did take its toll on my productivity. I hung up my PowerPoint clicker for good back in December of 2017, which allowed me to write full time. With that being my primary focus, I’ve been able to get a lot more work done.

Also, my first novel was published in 2006, so some of those numbers have been accomplished more though longevity than rapid writing.

Sometimes I do have to take a step back, however. I put my podcast on hiatus during the summer months in order to spend more time with my wife (she’s a teacher).

I guess the simplest answer to your question about balance is simply to be aware, and to manage my time.

OBAAT: You’ve worked on several collaborations with other authors, so you must enjoy the process. Tell us a little of how that works, how the process differs from partner to partner, and what you like best about it.
FZ: You’ve exposed another reason for the number of books I’ve written – I cheated. Eleven of my books are co-authored, and a twelfth will be published by Down & Out Books next year. When you only have to write half a book to take credit for having a whole book published, it sorta skews your numbers!

My first collaboration was with my friend and colleague, Colin Conway. We wrote Some Degree of Murder together, and set it in River City. At the time, we set the book ten years ahead of the most recent RC book I’d released (Heroes Often Fail, set in 1995). The format was a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. In other words, I wrote one character (a police detective) and Colin wrote the other (a mob enforcer). We both wrote in the first person. I wrote a chapter with my guy, then he wrote one with his. As such, the reader gets the intimacy of the first person, but a wider viewpoint than in traditional first person books.

This format has actually served me well. Jim Wilsky did the same thing in our Ania novels. Eric Beetner and I went this route with our Bricks & Cam Job series, and Bonnie Paulson and I stuck with it for The Trade Off.

But Lawrence Kelter wanted to go with a single POV in The Last Collar, so I gave it a go, though not without some apprehension. I was concerned that two writers penning a single first person voice would end up sounding schizophrenic. In the end, though, our styles blended well to create a singular voice. We went the same route in Fallen City, though with multiple, third person viewpoints. That worked so well that I was happy to use that same format with Colin in our newest book, Charlie-316 (due in 2019).

To date, I’ve collaborated with five different authors on twelve books. Four men, one woman. They hail from New York, California, Texas, Idaho, and Washington. Pretty varied group, but they all have one thing in common… great people. And that made the process an absolute joy. In each case, it was akin to those writer meetings over coffee that always have you coming away jazzed up and full of positive writer energy. I enjoyed the entire process, from the planning, to the writing, to the revisions. All of us were very good about putting egos aside, or at least subordinating ego to story, so I don’t recall a single argument. Disagreements and discussions, sure, but all of it focused on bettering the book.

I wrote about become a collaborator in a D&O blog post, if people find that process interesting. I also interviewed all of my collaborators in an episode of Wrong Place, Write Crime, if readers want to get their take on how it all went down.

OBAAT: I came across the Ania series while researching this interview. It sounds fascinating, a main series character who moves through stories that are the schemes of others, carving out her own niche. How did you come up with the idea?
FZ:  Actually, I’m pretty sure Jim Wilsky came up with the idea for the first book, Blood on Blood, once we decided to write a novel together. We put some meat on his bare bones idea, but the initial story wasn’t about Ania. It focused on two half-brothers who were cooperating and competing to find the loot from their father’s last heist. Jim invented Ania in an early scene with his character, and as the story grew, so did her role. It was a classic case of a character refusing to be ignored and ultimately hijacking the book, or at least part of it.

Once we finished the first book and started talking about our next one, we realized that she was the thread that would connect the series, even though she wouldn’t be the one actually telling the tales. Her POV is only shown a scant few times throughout all four books. Instead, we see her through the eyes of the two protagonists, and in each book, those two protagonists are different – Mick and Jerzy in Blood on Blood, Cord and Casey in Queen of Diamonds, John and Andros in Closing the Circle, and Boyd and Hicks in Harbinger (due December 2018). This keeps the air of mystery around the character of Ania, and allowed us a lot of freedom in setting up each new locale and story.

OBAAT: You and I share several things as writers. We collaborate with the James Brown of crime fiction, Eric Beetner (he does all my covers); we both contributed to Lawrence Keltner’s Back Car Business anthologies (me in Volume 1, you in Volume 2); we both were selected for Thuglit anthologies (you in Hardcore Hardboiled, me in Blood, Guts, and Whiskey), we both write for Down & Out Books, and we both revere Ed McBain and Joe Wambaugh. (I just finished reading McBain’s Tricks) last night. What sets those two apart from the rest for you?
FZ: Well, Wambaugh for a couple of reasons. One, he really pioneered the cop-to-writer persona. He made it something legitimate, and if someone looks at my series and gives it some credibility because of my background, that’s because Wambaugh forged the way. Secondly, he wrote about cops the way they really are (I mean, a little dramatized, but still accurate), and he made that okay, too. In my River City books, I strive to show the reality of being a cop to the reader. Sure, it is amped up and all of the exciting things seem to be happening to a small cast of characters, but outside of that, it is very realistic. Wambaugh not only made that okay, but attractive. He essentially created a sub-genre of the police procedural – former cops writing realistic police fiction.

I think McBain’s ability to build a department with recurring characters and take the reader on the long journey with those characters really stands out. It has definitely inspired me to try to do the same thing with River City.

Right up there with McBain and Wambaugh, I have to say Lawrence Block is an inspiration when it comes to recurring characters. The lessons from his Scudder novels are valuable for me in my Stefan Kopriva mysteries, but good writing like his applies across the boards.