Thursday, November 19, 2020

John A. Hoda, Private Investigator and Author of Odessa on the Delaware

 I first met John Hoda at the Dallas Bouchercon. We sat near to each other at a panel on cops and procedurals. John and I came to quick agreement that selecting between realism and entertainment was a false choice. The best were able to make realism entertaining, mainly by knowing how to describe it, and in what detail.


We’ve since kept in touch, and John was kind enough to give me a slot on his podcast, between (wait for it) Michael Koryta and Joseph Wambaugh, which are pretty lofty surroundings for one such as me. I have been too slow to reciprocate in my invitation but will correct that today. John’s a great guy, fine writer, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of his visit here today.


(Personal note: In the “small world” category, John and I went to the same undergraduate school, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Alas, our years there were adjacent, not concurrent, so our paths never crossed.)


One Bite at a Time: John, welcome to One Bite at a Time. You’ve been a cop, an insurance fraud investigator, and spent the past twenty-plus years not only running a successful private investigator agency but coaching other PIs on how to make their practices more successful. What attracted you to investigations in the first place?

John Hoda: When I was a teenager, I worked at a gas station pumping gas. The local police department got their fill-ups there and I was enthralled by the stories they told me. A couple of times, they got hot calls and had to race off with lights and sirens. I was hooked. I went to IUP for Criminology and upon graduating become the first college graduate to work for that same PD. A short time later, I had the opportunity to become an insurance fraud investigator and I jumped at it.


OBAAT: You’ve been involved with law enforcement and investigations since the mid-1970s. What do you find most different how compared to when you started?

JH: The data is now at your fingertips. Doing a simple locate that costs me 75 cents today would take hours of shoe leather back then. Some things have not changed. You had guys coming home from Vietnam and just trading uniforms. You still have vets of Iraq or Afghanistan doing the same things. With tons of Homeland Security grant money, there is an unhealthy militarization of police departments now. They have to walk that back and put a greater emphasis on community policing and not acting like an occupying force.


OBAAT: Where do you feel the greatest improvements have come, so far as results are concerned? Are there any aspects you don’t feel are as good as they used to be?

JH: Actually, the hardening of job classifications and union rules have caused the
solve rates to plummet. I am hopeful that big data put in the hands of the first cops on the scene will allow them to work more effectively at solving crimes within the first 24 hours. Patrol functions as we knew them are archaic. Better use of time can be spent on crime interdiction and crime prevention. Don’t get me started on interrogation techniques meant to skirt around the Miranda warning. Cognitive interview methods such as PEACE which originated in the UK is much more effective and totally ethical. False statements and false confessions are still a bane of good policing.


OBAAT: On to writing. Your first book was a memoir of sorts, Mugshots: My Favorite Detective Stories. What put the bug in you to write them down and publish? (Note: I have a copy. John should expect to see several “homages” to his work in the next Nick Forte novel.)

JH: For years, I had been a storyteller with my family and friends, who always said that I should write them down, so I did. I didn’t realize at the time, it allowed me to create a voice that seemed natural for fiction.


OBAAT: What made you turn your attention to fiction?

JH: I wrote a story that had been kicking around in my head for twenty years of a little league coach who threw a magical pitch in batting practice. He was discovered by the Philadelphia Phillies, later in life. The book is titled Phantasy Baseball: It’s About a Second Chance. In that book, the protagonist meets a sorority sister at a mixer. She is an accounting major that wanted to become an FBI agent. Fast forward twenty years and they meet again. She married and divorced but kept her married name, O’Shea.


OBAAT: You’re four books into the Marsha O’Shea series. Tell us a little about her, and the books.

JH: Post 9/11, the FBI became the lead domestic intelligence gathering three-letter agency and stopped being the federal crime-fighting alpha-dog. Marsha was a gunslinger in the Miami Cartel days and when her squad was disbanded, she returned to her hometown in Philadelphia to quietly count the years to retirement on the nontraditional organized crime squad when a Russian gang enforcer decides to take over the entire Philly mob scene. That is how Odessa on the Delaware starts. At the end, Marsha is beginning to get her mojo back, but has a setback that sends her into the bottle and slumming on administrative leave in the Sunshine State, where Clearwater Blues is set. I take a real hard swing at the loopholes in gun laws, domestic violence, and non-existent mental health treatment in this country. Can she stop the next mass shooter headline?


She is then given a mission impossible-like assignment in Detroit and Detroit Wheels takes you on a thrill ride while the clock is ticking. A serial killer strikes only once a year on 9/11, his target Muslim women. Marsha puts together a sandlot team of investigators outside of normal channels in the race to prevent the next killing. Injured and exhausted, she accepts an assignment too soon after Detroit that deals with sex trafficking in Reading, PA. West Reading Traffic is the fourth book in the series and brings us back full circle with her co-protagonist in Odessa.


OBAAT: Any particular reason you chose a female protagonist?

JH: Marsha and a sportswriter turned crime beat writer appeared in Phantasy Baseball and carried over into Odessa. I found that I liked Marsha and her backstory made for a compelling, complex, and totally believable female investigator trying to make on her own it without a squad backing her up or in the shadow of a still male-dominated law enforcement culture.


OBAAT: What’s next on the agenda?

JH: Stew Menke, the sportswriter turned crime beat writer got his start in Vietnam as an Associated Press stringer. He and Tom “Doc” Barnes, a Navy corpsman, who later became the Philadelphia Phillies manager cemented a life-long friendship in the red clay of the first Marine platoon trench line on Hill 861 at Khe Sanh in January 1968. Dispatches from Hill 861 is slated for a May 2021 release. I will take you back to Marsha’s gunslinger days in Miami with a novella to become the prequel novella for her series.


Dana, your readers can get Odessa on the Delaware FREE with this link:

They can check out my website at or email me at



Thursday, November 12, 2020

From the Vault: Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?

 As with many, the election and post-election trauma has taken much of my attention of late, so I haven’t spent as much time thinking of a blog post as I like to. That’s okay, because I spent a lot of that time re-acquainting myself with PI fiction through several outstanding books (Behind the Wall of Sleep, Red Harvest, Jackrabbit Smile) and preparing to dip my toe back into Nick Forte country when I get a little time.


With that in mind, I’m going to open the vault for a post I wrote back in 2009 about how I feel about the PI genre when properly done. While dated (there are others that have earned mention should I ever update the post, and no one thinks of Reed Farrel Coleman as even a "relative" newcomer anymore), this still sums up my philosophy about PI stories and why, when well done, they are the highest form of crime fiction.


Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?


I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have read three books that reminded me why I got interested in crime fiction and writing in the first place: first person private investigator stories.

Libby Fischer Hellmann’s Easy Innocence takes the attitudes of an affluent suburb and shows consequences not often considered. Her detective, Georgia Davis, avoids the pitfalls of many female protagonists. She is not a man in a skirt, ready and willing to kick ass as necessary; neither is she dependent on either a big, strong man or divine intervention to get her out of tough spots. Best of all, she’s smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.

The Silent Hour, by Michael Koryta, is a cold-case story. Lincoln Perry has many of the characteristics of a stereotypical PI—former cop who left under a cloud, bends and breaks his own rules, trouble maintaining relationships—though Koryta never lets him fall off that edge. His problems are the problems anyone in his situation could have, and he’s anything but omnipotent. Perry takes a beating and keeps on ticking, learning about himself as the books progress.

Declan Hughes’s detective, Ed Loy, takes beatings that make what Perry endures seem like air kisses from a friendly but distant aunt. In All the Dead Voices, Ed inadvertently finds himself cleaning up leftovers from the Irish Troubles, caught between republican terror groups, drug gangs, and government agencies whose interests do not include what most would call a classic sense of justice.

What all three have in common—aside from tight plots and uniformly exceptional writing—is what makes the PI series the highest form of crime fiction; they’re primarily character studies of the hero. (Or heroine, in Georgia’s case.) A good series—as all of these are—works even better, allowing the character to evolve. Attitudes change, as do relationships. Physical and emotional trauma accumulates. The character may grow emotionally, or become embittered. What he deems worthy of description, and how it is described, matures.

For all the talk of the decline of PI fiction, the quantity of expert practitioners isn’t hurting. James Lee Burke and Robert Crais still have hop on their fastballs after twenty years. (Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is actually a cop, but the length of leash he is provided in New Iberia and his personal journey through the series make his stories read more like PI fiction than police procedurals.) Relative newcomers like Sean Chercover and Reed Farrell Coleman prove the talent pool is deep as ever. Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Kenzie-Gennaro novel is much anticipated.

The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure.

PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. A cop’s job is to catch the bad guy. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge of his pre-ordained failure: no matter what he discovers, things can never be put right. The dead are still gone. The cop can catch the killer and exact a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the necessary standard of illegality.

It’s no surprise so many of the “genre” writers who receive acclaim from the “literary” community come from detective fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Burke are all accepted as great writers, not subject to the backhanded acclaim of “great genre writer.” No one thought Lehane presumptuous when The Given Day looked into issues well beyond crime; he’d been doing it for years. Gone, Baby, Gone is as thought-provoking a book as one is likely to read.

Declan Hughes may be the foremost advocate of the virtues of detective fiction, not just in his novels, but in his public statements. If I had a transcript of his comments from Bouchercon 2008, I would have printed them here and saved you the trouble of reading my interpretation; his is clearer and more impassioned. Few books—of any genre, or of no genre—are more likely to make you wonder, “What would I do here?” or, more hauntingly, “What would I have done differently?” When done well, what more can anyone ask from a book?


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Favorite Reads


Time to catch up again with what I’ve read and enjoyed most since last I reported. “What makes it time?” you ask? When a blog post is due and I have no other topic. Still, it’s always good to make mention of books I’ve most enjoyed.


Behind the Wall of Sleep, James D. F. Hannah. Shamus winner, and well deserved. Hannah (if that is, in fact, his real name) knocked on the door a couple of years ago with She Talks to Angels, then kicked it down with BtWoS. I’ll be working my way through the rest of this series, as these two are as good an updating of the PI genre as has been done since Robert Parker in the 70s.


Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett. This is my third or fourth time for this one; I like it more with every reading. Hammett is one of the writers who prompted me to start a reminder file of who I need to read every year or two. He only wrote a handful of novels, but Red Harvest, The Glass Kay, and The Maltese Falcon may be the three most influential crime books ever written by the same author.


Trouble's Braids, Ray Banks. I will wash and wax the car of anyone who can explain to me why I can’t buy a Ray Banks book in this benighted country of ours; thank god for Kindle. No one is more consistent with characterization, action-packed yet believable plots, and sizzling dialog. Banks is on the aforementioned list as someone I make a point to read at least once a year.


Under a Raging Moon, Frank Zafiro. I’ve read a few of Zafiro’s collaborations, but this is the first of his solo efforts I’ve read. (FYI, he’s such a good collaborator the French would shave his head.) The first volume of his River City series, UaRM moved Zafiro (if that, in fact, is his real name. What is it with all these authors in WITSEC lately?) straight to the annual list so I can get through the entire series.