Friday, March 29, 2019

Diversity Fridays

Full disclosure: I am a cisgender white male who can only be referred to as “middle-aged” by exercising more charity than Andrew Carnegie and J.K. Rowling combined. (Even fuller disclosure: I’m 63.) I have always tried to treat others as I would like to be treated and I think I succeed more often than not. Cisgender white men have a lot to answer for in this country. I try not to add to the pile, and to chip away it at when I can.

My reading tastes, as are those of most everyone, were shaped by my background. I grew up in a working class family in a working class town; the first writer to capture my imagination as I moved past adolescence was Mickey Spillane. Anyone who reads this blog or my books knows my reading tastes run toward procedurals and private investigators. That’s a polite way of saying my reading is not as diverse as it might be.

I’ve made efforts to rectify this with limited success. Personal taste and knows and cares little or nothing about the background of the artist who created a work; we know what we like. The reasons may be no more than what I told The Beloved Spouse™ once when she asked why I didn’t like broccoli: “Because I think it tastes like ass.” That’s too harsh for (most) books, but still true at its core; we like what we like. I have a post dedicated to this topic that I’ll publish as soon as I polish it to my satisfaction and have the nerve to make it public.

It occurred to me a while back that just because my reading tastes run strongly toward white males doesn’t mean I can’t do some little thing in the interest of diversity. I don’t have a big enough footprint in the industry for anyone to care if I stage a protest. I’m not in a position to demand Bouchercon have at least one woman and one person of color on any panel they assign me; they’ll just put someone else there and not give me a panel. (Which is as they should. Who the fuck do I think I am?) I am proud of my affiliation and support of the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, which is as diverse as any I am aware of.

What I can do is provide a forum. This blog isn’t exactly HuffPo or TMZ, but people do see it and share links. The word gets out. I post three times every two weeks, on alternate Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I can devote some of that time to women and writers of color, preferably in the crime fiction community but if I’m to be diverse in one regard I should be so across the board, so I’m not locking anyone out.

Here’s my offer: Fridays are diversity days here at One Bite at a Time. If you are a woman or a writer of color and would like to provide a guest post or submit to an interview, please let me know by sending an email to danakingcrime (at) Let me know if you have a general time preference, the title of your book, your web site address if you have one and anything else you’d like me to know at first blush. I will do my best to schedule you as close to your preferred date as I can, and if you request an interview will gin up an admittedly generic version for you, though the more information I can get about you and your book the less generic it will be.

Please understand, my time and space is limited, but I will do the best I can to accommodate as many folks as I can, though I can’t guarantee space for everyone who asks. (Assuming anyone does. See above: “Who the fuck do I think I am?”)

If you’re interested, let me know. If you’re not but know someone who might be, let them know. I’ll keep it up as long as interest is shown.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Homicide: Life on the Street

My birthday fell during the government shutdown so The Beloved Spouse™ gave me one of my gifts early, seeing as how I’d have time to properly appreciate it: the boxed set of Barry Levinson’s groundbreaking series Homicide: Life on the Streets.

I discovered Homicide late in its run; TBS had never seen it. Only heard
of it because I liked to talk it up based on what I remembered and because I’d read her excerpts from David Simon’s book during my periodic re-readings. I had high hopes and she figured she was along for the ride. We were both pleasantly surprised.

Homicide was a show that exemplified Joseph Wambaugh’s dictum of how a good cop story is less about how the cops work on the case than it is about how the case works on the cops. Each character is unique and each responds differently to the demands of the job. Members of Al Giardello’s squad come and go and not always on the best of circumstances. The egos are large—these are, after all, murder police, the cream of the crop—and so is the pressure.

Fans of The Wire who have not seen Homicide need to. Not only does it capture the essence of the book that so much of The Wire was based on, you’ll see countless characters who later showed up in the later series. You won’t know the names of a lot of them, but you’ll recognize them. “Hey, that’s the medical examiner from The Wire!” “That’s the councilman in the wheelchair!” The vibe is also similar, or at least as similar to HBO as a 90s TV show could get.

As with all great TV, the writing is superb. Showrunner Tom Fontana pulled together a crew of writers (eventually to include David Simon himself, still working at the Baltimore Sun when the show premiered) that looked at the life of a homicide cop from every angle. They not only weren’t afraid to go against the standard car chase and shootout cop show, they became the anti. There are shows early on where almost the entire episode takes place in The Box, where cops take their turns looking to work confessions form people who wouldn’t even talk to them if they had a clue. One episode takes place almost entirely on a subway platform, a commuter crushed between a train and the platform, talking to one of the detectives while the rest of the squad investigates whether this is an accident or a crime and others search for the victim’s girlfriend so they can say good-bye.

As important as the writing is, no scenes so confined could work without superb acting and Homicide had no shortage of talent. The show is at its best when Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) are tag-teaming suspects in the box. Early seasons make more of the partnership dynamic than later seasons and the show is better for it. Bolander (Ned Beatty) and Munch (Richard Belzer), Howard (Melissa Leo) and Felton (Stephen Baldwin), Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito) all establish and maintain their own rhythms. Yaphet Kotto’s performances are subtle masterpieces as he plays a half-black, half-Italian unit commander who contains bits of Father Knows Best, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, and Vito Corleone.

The first two or three seasons are consistently the best, but even a relatively weak episode in the later seasons is as good as anything else you’ll see on television. Episodes that take your breath away pop up put of the blue with unnerving regularity. Just as you feel the show is settling into a formula something will happen that leaves you slumped in your chair when it’s over. Not all the major events will be to your liking. None of the characters is completely good, and the rivalries and ego clashes that erupt keep the squad room from being anything but a “business as usual” environment, but that’s part of what makes the show special: you’re never comfortable watching it.

I’ve become much more interested in interviews than forensics over the past couple of years and Homicide came along for me at the perfect time. Crime scene details, fibers, ballistics, and DNA reside in their proper roles of supporting the cops who gathering witness statements and work people in the box. In other words, actual drama.

No show that has to produce 22 episodes a year can be uniformly special, but few, if any, pulled it off as well as Homicide. If you haven’t seen it, you should. And if you have, you should watch it again, if only to catch the really special episodes. They’re masterclasses in pacing, dialog, and suspence.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

An Interview With Patricia Abbott, Author of Monkey Justice

No one is more responsible for the writer I have become (in a good way) than Patricia Abbott. The flash fiction challenges she used to run from her blog taught me to make every word count and how much so few words could tell. The lesson was driven home so well I now find it difficult to write a chapter more than 1700 or 1800 words. Too long for flash, but after that much time in the same scene I get antsy. Patti’s thought-provoking prompts and constant encouragement are among my fondest memories as a writer.

She’s here to today to talk about Down & Out Books’ reissue of her first e-book release, Monkey Justice. Patti’s not the kind of person I dare use canned questions for and her answers here show why. Enjoy and learn.

One Bite at a Time: Tell the uninitiated a little about Monkey Justice.

Patricia Abbott: Monkey Justice collects twenty or so of my earliest published stories. They appeared online or in print collections and then were collected under this title in 2011 by Snubnose Press. In putting together the collection, I tried to choose a diverse group of stories. Most of them center on crime, victimhood, the difficulty of survival, transgression, domestic strife. The criminal element is often muted or part of the background rather than the primary element.

OBAAT: Monkey Justice took a circuitous route before it ended up with Down & Out Books. Describe how that went down.

PA: Brian Lindenmuth, editor of what was then a new ebook press (Snubnose Press), and a fan of the short story form, asked me if I was interested in having him publish an ebook. I was enthusiastic about the idea. I was not at all sure how attractive an ebook would be. I didn't have an ereader myself and knew few people that did. But even if it was sparsely read, it would be available for future readers. Wrong! Snubnose Press closed up shop last year and the ebooks they'd shepherded into existence disappeared with them. Kindly, Brian asked Down and Out Books if they had interest in publishing some of his inventory. Eric Campbell, the publisher, contacted me not long after that and I was delighted. Both of my books would now be on sale in both in print and ebook.  

OBAAT: Did you know you were working on an anthology as you were working on the stories or did you have a bunch of stories and decide to bundle them together one day?

PA: I probably had seventy-five stories at that time. Thematically, they were similar although the plots, characters, time period, and location differed. They were written from both the male and female point of view. I tried to choose stories as diverse as possible, although loosely tied together under the umbrella of crime.

OBAAT: Why did you choose “Monkey Justice” to be the title story? It’s a great title, a grabber. Is that why you chose it, or is there something else you wanted to get across?

PA: I liked both the story and the title, so I went with it. I was a fly on the wall on a city bus where a man told a woman most of this story. The bus ride was 60 minutes and it took him the whole hour to tell it. He really deserves a co-authorship credit. But in thinking about the collection, justice comes up often in these stories-- as you might expect.

OBAAT: You’ve been active as both a short story writer and as a novelist. Do you think of yourself as primarily one or the other, or just as writer and whatever comes out comes out? I’ll confess, I think of myself as a novelist. I pretty much have to have a reason to write a short story.
PA: I'm very much a short story writer. My two novels were stories first. I tend to write about the same sort of characters, if not the exact character, so it wasn't hard to pull characters or incidents from several stories to form the basis of a novel.

I love taking stuff out of a manuscript, which you get to do with short stories. With a novel, you have to keep putting more in. I only have so much stuff. My novels are sparsely populated if you notice. I can't deal with too many people in one place. Each character takes up so much space in my brain that I run out of room.

OBAAT: As a writer, I have what The Beloved Spouse™ calls “comfort food:” movies, books, authors I come back to over and over again when I need some inspiration or just want to be reminded how to tell stories. The movie L.A. Confidential, Elmore Leonard’s books, things like that. Do you have an equivalent cadre? I so, who are they?

PA: I just watched Wildfire, a movie based on a Richard Ford novel. Except it felt more like a short story. It was Paul Dano's first directing stint and it was a nearly perfect movie. Stories or movies like this inspire me to write succinctly and simply. He was clearly stimulated by the Montana setting, the starkness of their house and the town. The simplicity yet pathos of their lives.

I am inspired by the people you might expect: Alice Munro, Richard Yates, Walter Mosley, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, Lorrie Moore, Andre Dubus II, Ann Hood, William Trevor, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and so many more. I think if you like plot-driven narratives, you probably don't care for short stories all that much. I recently wrote a short story for an anthology that was plot-heavy. I didn't enjoy writing it even though I think it came out okay. What I like best is mood. I don't need any plot to stick with a story as a reader, but I think that is unusual. When people tell me that the movie, Roma, was slow, I am amazed. Not a single minute of it was dull for me. I like reading/seeing how people live. I can watch someone brush their teeth for longer than it takes to brush your teeth.

OBAAT: I find my answer has evolved when I’m asked about how other writers have influenced my writing. Some, like Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard, remain while Chandler has fallen away to be replaced by Joe Wambaugh. Have your influences changed over time?

PA: I have certainly added writers, but I can't think of too many I've discarded. I don't reread much so maybe I would find some of my early favorites were bad choices. Is Barbara Pym too twee now? What about Elizabeth Taylor or Mary Lavin? I now find Dorothy L. Sayers unreadable though. So too Christie. Their love for the aristocracy puts me off as well as their reliance on lengthy expositions at the end of the book. If it's going to be a whodunit, find a way to tell me without a long accounting.   

If I read Edward P. Jones' collection, Lost In the City, and it didn't still take my breath away, I'd be surprised. If "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (Oates) didn't drive a spike through my forehead, I'd be stunned. Interpreter of Maladies (Lahira), a debut collection, is magnificent. I still enjoy Peter Robinson as much as I did 25 years ago. So too Sjowal and Wahloo, Nicholas Freeling. More recent favorites are Ken Bruen, Reed Coleman, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Elizabeth Strout, Lisa Lutz. I've begun to lose some of my admiration for Patricia Highsmith though. She can be too misanthropic for the more elderly me.

OBAAT: You can invite three living authors to your home to talk about craft over some adult beverages. They’re compelled to come—we have ways here at OBAAT—but the condition is none of them can be anyone you’ve met beyond maybe saying hello once. Who are they?
PA: Kate Atkinson, Walter Mosley, Alice Munro. And as you might expect, I would hide behind the curtains and listen.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Gone Fishin'

The blog takes the day off today for a family event. Around noon The Sole Heir™ will learn where she’s going for her medical residency, so The Beloved Spouse™ and I are on the road. OBAAT resumes its regularly scheduled programming Wednesday with an interview with Patricia Abbott, author of Monkey Justice. It’s a good one you’re not going to want to miss.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Amazon Conundrum

It is fashionable for writers to bash Amazon as the destroyer of all things good and noble, especially independent bookstores. The title of David Nemeth’s January 17 post in Do Some Damage implies the level of Amazon’s depravity and our own complicity: The Evil We All Do.

The post is primarily about the culture at Amazon, and I am not going to defend much of it. They treat their workers like shit—though they pay a lot better than Walmart and others—and the management attitude seems to be survival of the fittest. As a writer, the part of the post that sticks in my mind is this:

Most of us look the other way when it comes to Amazon. I know I do. Hell, over at Unlawful Acts, I have purchase links to Amazon. I'm a Prime subscriber and I even subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. And that's something I need to address, something I think we all need to address.

This is the standard “Amazon is evil and we all need to shun them or we are ourselves evil” comment. This school of thought argues—not without justification—that Amazon makes life difficult, if not impossible, for local independent booksellers to thrive. I don’t have the data and that’s okay as it’s not the point I’m going to argue today.

I am the quintessential indie writer. All my books not yet published by Down & Out are self-published through CreateSpace and Kindle. Therein lies my problem. The two closest things I have to a local independent bookseller are 45 minutes away (in no traffic) and won’t carry my books because
a)    My self-pubs are with CreateSpace
b)    Down & Out does not accept returns, as do few, if any, small publishers.

I hold neither of these policies against the booksellers. I understand their business model includes tight margins. They’re just trying to stay in business.

So am I.

If indie booksellers won’t carry my books, where else am I supposed to go? Is the test of my purity to either give away all my writing for free on the website or quit altogether? I work a day job forty-plus hours a week so the option of going full Joe Konrath and becoming my own sales channel is not an option even if I had the personality for it.

This is not to say I’m on anyone’s “side” here. If a local bookseller is willing to do something that would be of mutual interest, I’d be all over it. What I’m not going to do is to bite the hand of the only bookseller that’s ever fed me. If we are to boycott all companies with business practices we object to we’d better prepare for lives as subsistence farmers while we’re at it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019


I haven’t watched a TV sitcom episode-by-episode since 30 Rock but people I trusted wore me down to check out Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It had two strikes against it going in:
  1. It was on Fox, so it was likely to be stupid.
  2. It was going to get the police stuff wrong and I’m a snob about that, even though I am not, nor was I ever, a cop.
But the word was good and I like Andy Samberg and I was interested to see how Andre Braugher did comedy and I was off work for the shutdown and was eager for anything to distract me and The Beloved Spouse™ had a Hulu subscription so I figured what the hell. It’s been on the air for five years so it wasn’t like I was watching something new and untested (Heaven forfend!) so we gave it a try.

This is one of the funniest shows I have ever seen.

True, it’s not the erudite comedy of a Frazier or the layers seen in Seinfeld. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is out of what I call The Simpsons school of comedy: We’re just here to make you laugh. Don’t worry about the plot or the timeline of the verisimilitude. Just go with it and enjoy yourself.

The show does have more to it than just screwball humor. The cast is uniformly excellent and the writers take care to create real relationships between them, which makes the goofiness more than just a string of jokes without context. It’s a string of jokes that are funny because Peralta said it to Santiago or Charles was intimidated by Diaz. The actors’ timing is spot on. There are a surprising number of stunts for a sitcom, and they unfailingly pull them off.

Those who know me are probably wondering by now how I get past the lack of police procedure verisimilitude when I spent half my waking hours bitching about that topic in other television shows. (And books and movies and short stories and casual conversations and…) Here’s the deal: Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t present itself as anything other than an exercise in getting you to laugh. CSI and NCIS and their ilk present themselves as investigations when they bear as much resemblance to real police work as James Bond does to the CIA.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets a pass from me for the same reason I don’t care that Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Carl Hiaasen’s novels sometimes strain credulity. Once you get me laughing, I don’t much care how you keep the laughter going. I’m in. The harder and more often you can get me to laugh, the more you can get away with. (Mel Brooks is the prime example here.)

I mentioned the cast. While no one except Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher were known to me before I started watching, and everyone is excellent (even the guest stars hit every note), it’s Braugher who was the revelation. I’ve been a fan since he was on Homicide and wondering how Frank Pembleton was going to pull off a comedy could have been a subconscious reservation that kept me away from the show. If you, too, have that wonder, wonder no more. The man is hilarious and perfectly cast. The Beloved Spouse™ bought me the full boxed set of all seven seasons of Homicide for my birthday, which let to us watching several Brooklyn Nine-Nines followed by a disk worth of Homicide, which had us switching from Captain Raymond Holt to Detective Frank Pembleton and back every day. Acting studios could use these performances as primers.

Five weeks of bingeing reduced us to watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine the same way as everyone else: a week at a time. Well, not really. We came to enjoy the binge sessions so much we now DVR it and watch four or five episodes once a month, all at once. Once they get us laughing, 22 minutes is too soon to stop.

Friday, March 1, 2019

February's Favorite Reads

Happy birthdays to the two women in my life: The Beloved Spouse™ and The Sole Heir™. You two make every day worth looking forward to.

Split Images, Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s best remembered for his hip dialog and organic humor but his early crime books are darker and harder than those that came after. This story of a Detroit cop who falls in love with a freelance journalist, both of whom have involvement with a rich sadist, shows all the elements Leonard became known for in a harsher light and has what I think is the most surprising scene he ever wrote. We can only re-read him now, but few hold up as well to repeated examination.

Trigger, David Swinson. Book Three of the Frank Marr shows Marr getting straight—at least he’s off drugs; okay, he’s off illegal drugs—but he still goes through liquor like it’s oxygen. His old partner Al Luna is jammed up over what looks like a bad shooting of an African American kid and Marr is working as part of the defense team. Swinson’s writing is as sparse and hard as ever, a style all his own. The plot has sufficient turns to hold the interest of the casual reader, but the good stuff is the writing and the exposure of Frank Marr’s soul.

November Road, Lou Berney. Few tell stories as well and no one combines storytelling chops with writing skill as well. An alternative history story based on the premise the New Orleans mob killed John Kennedy and now Carlos Marcello is looking to erase anyone who played any part in the plot, however unknowingly. Frank Guidry wises up in time and takes off, happening across an Oklahoma housewife fleeing a dead-end marriage with her two daughters. The woman’s chapters aren’t as intense in the first half of the book as are Guidry’s and his pursuer’s and there’s a bit of a Hollywood element to how things shake out near the end, but the story runs like a bat out of hell without ever sacrificing the quality of the writing. Berney is the whole package.