Thursday, February 23, 2023

High Concept

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently watched Oblivion, a 2013 film starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. It was an interesting idea: aliens from a dying planet invade Earth. They begin the assault by severely damaging the Moon, which releases havoc on Earth. Humans resort to nuclear weapons to win the war, which devastates the planet and forces an escape to Saturn’s moon, Titan. A small crew stays behind to prevent holdouts from the invading force from messing with the huge devices that are sucking up all the water on the planet for transport to Titan. (Yeah, I know, but it’s a science fiction movie, so an adequate quantity of disbelief suspension is required to commit to watching it in the first place.) As you may expect, there are several twists along the way, but I’m not here to provide plot spoilers, though I may spoil it for you in other ways.


Oblivion is not a waste of time. The production values are exceptional, and the special effects are believable. Tom Cruise does well, considering he doesn’t all that often have anyone to play off of, and Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, which means he’s outstanding. There are things that don’t work as well, but that’s also not why we’re here.


Why we’re here is to go over how Oblivion stands in for so many movies made in recent years, science fiction or otherwise. The film was clearly sold as a high concept, which is fine, as far as it goes. Execution and vision matter even more. What appeared to happen here was that, once greenlighted, someone decided the plot needed “more.” Unfortunately, the “more” turned out to be a mash-up of other famous sci-fi pics. It got so obvious TBS and I started calling them out to each other as they arose.


“This is a little like The Martian, but on Earth.”

“Don’t those drones remind you of Star Wars?”

“That’s got a Predator vibe.”

“Remind you of Aliens?”

“Right out of 2001.”


There were more. Those are what I remember after a night of cleansing sleep.


It occurred to me while writing this that it’s possible the studio muckety-mucks who sent notes might not be aware of these older pictures. I am always mindful of Robert B. Parker telling a story about pitching a Western to some young female executive who listened to the whole spiel, said she liked it, but wanted to know “Who’s this Wyatt Earp guy?”


I worked several years on and off on a Western I finally set aside because I decided it wasn’t much more than a retelling of favorite scenes from some of my favorite Westerns. I may have to consider sending that one out after all. Apparently originality isn’t as big a deal as creating the impression of originality long enough to get a contract.


Puts me in mind of an old Jerry Seinfeld line about relationships: Once you learn to fake sincerity, the rest is a breeze.



While this post underwent editing, we watched Den of Thieves, with Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber. The same issues I had with Oblivion applied here. “Reminds me of the shootout in Heat.” “This is him doing the Chinese acrobat bit from Ocean’s Eleven.” “That’s right out of Inside Man.” “Lifted from The Usual Suspects pretty much verbatim.” It’s a thing now.)

Thursday, February 16, 2023

A Brief Hiatus

 I finished the penultimate draft of the work in progress, which now has a title:


Off the Books


Thanks to The Beloved Spouse™ for that one, as the story is about work private investigator Nick Forte takes off-license and involves undocumented workers who are…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out what’s up with them.


I’m taking off the rest of February to let the book marinate and do some research to help me decide what to write next. I have more ideas right now than I have time to write them, and I learned from the abortive Western that I don’t do well if I let a book sit too long while working on other projects. Whatever I choose needs to be the priority. I can research and develop other ideas, but whatever story I choose to move forward with will become my more or less constant companion for close to a year. I need to choose wisely.


What ideas are jostling for position?

·       A three-book arc to conclude the Penns River series. Corruption and police culture—for both better and worse—will be prominent in these books, and I need to know more about both if I am to do them justice.

·       At least one, maybe two, possibly three Forte novels. I need more background on the core stories before deciding which I want to tackle.

·       Another Western, this time a “memoir” of a fictional character that roamed the West, traveling through famous places while not necessarily meeting the people who made them famous. The plan is for this to be an “as told to” book, with the “ghost” writer making occasional comments where the protagonist’s recollection may be a little hazy.

·       A book involving two new characters in a new universe. The high concept is “Hap and Leonard meet Terriers meet The Nice Guys.” The idea could lead to a new series, but after reading the list above I have no idea when I’d get to more than the one book.


I’ll begin the finishing process of Off the Books the first week of March, with an expected completion date around the middle of April. Since the next Penns River book (The Spread) comes out July 31—and I have four Fortes and Wild Bill that can be published whenever—I’ll have plenty of time to sort out my next project.


This is the primary benefit of retirement on my writing. Even though I don’t write any more in a day than I used to, more gets done. My imagination is also free to consider new things. It’s fun, though I know myself well enough not to indulge too many impulses, as I hate having things left partially finished.


Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

An Interview With Patrick H. Moore, Author of 27 Days

 Patrick H. Moore is a Los Angeles based Private Investigator and Sentencing Mitigation Specialist who has worked in virtually all areas including drug trafficking, sex crimes, crimes of violence, and white-collar fraud. Patrick holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from San Francisco State University where he graduated summa cum laude in 1990. Prior to moving to Los Angeles, he was lead vocalist and played rhythm guitar for Crash Carnival, a San Francisco rock ‘n roll band, and experienced the “naked lunch” of life on the streets for the better part of two decades.


Since February of 2013, Patrick has been running All Things Crime Blog, a true crime and crime fiction website, which is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) true crime blogs in the United States.


27 Days is Patrick’s second Nick Crane novel.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome to the blog, Patrick. It’s a pleasure to have you. Tell us a little about 27 Days.


Patrick H. Moore: 27 Days is my second published novel featuring Nick Crane as my PI protagonist.

The first Nick Crane story, Cicero’s Dead, is a relatively straightforward PI novel in which a lovely heiress named Jade Lamont hires Nick to find her troubled missing brother. It did fairly well on Amazon (110 reviews) and many readers enjoyed it, but my problem with it is that it breaks no new ground in the area of crime fiction. It was self-published by ‎Max Myers at U.S. iNDiE BOOKS.


I was pleased by the fact that Cicero’s Dead was well-received but troubled by what I saw as its lack of relevance in the age of Trump. This is what I set out to remedy in 27 Days. So I came up with a set of “what if’s.” What if Nick Crane brings a serial killer of women named Frank Constantine to justice only to discover seven years later that Mr. Constantine was a ranking member of a shadowy group of aristocratic alt-right domestic terrorists called “the principals.” And what if several members of the principals including the dread Marguerite Ferguson decide that Nick Crane is public enemy number one and set out to destroy him? And what if Marguerite’s team abduct and brainwash Nick’s business partner and closest friend Bobby Moore as a way to get to Nick? And what if the principals inform Nick that unless he surrenders to Marguerite in twenty-seven days, they will ship Bobby off to Scorpion Prison in Cairo where he will be murdered after being subjected to excruciating torture? Truly, Nick finds himself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.


Once I had my basic set-up in place, I decided to make Nick’s task as hard as possible. The U.S. is a big country. There are lots of places where the well-heeled principals could stash Bobby Moore. So that was my challenge, or, rather, that was Nick’s challenge––to locate Bobby Moore, which seemed damn near impossible, and then rescue him, which was even harder.


Nick Crane is a free-wheeling PI who has never hesitated to skirt the law when necessary. In 27 Days, however, he is approached by a young, idealistic female FBI agent named Carrie North who is itching to bring Marguerite to justice, not for the kidnapping but rather for conspiring to commit acts of domestic terrorism against the United States. Nick and Carrie are certainly an “odd couple” and they have their share of disagreements (some of which nearly culminate in pitched battles), but as the story progresses and the hourglass empties, they learn to like and trust one another.



OBAAT: This isn’t a typical P.I. story. It’s more like you put a P.I. story in a blender with a political thriller, which is something I would not have thought to do, so kudos for that. Was this a P.I. story that morphed into a thriller as you developed it, or did you have an idea for a thriller that you thought would be well served by making the protagonist a private investigator?


PHM: This is a great question, Dana! I think of 27 Days as combining aspects of a PI novel with aspects of a political thriller. My purpose in attempting to combine these elements was to create a compelling story with plenty of action and excitement that also had social relevance while still keeping my beloved Nick Crane intact as the protagonist. Psychologically, there was no way I could abandon Nick. And, I liked the idea of breaking new ground by combining a PI novel with a political thriller. Keep in mind, I’m not capable of writing a police procedural at this point, and I’m not very interested in writing murder mysteries. So, on balance, I would say that the hybrid form of 27 Days is largely the result of my desire to write a socially relevant thriller that did not hesitate to blend genres while keeping my protagonist intact.


(By the way, I think your recent police procedural White Out, which I read and greatly enjoyed, does a wonderful job in taking a police procedural and making it socially relevant by having your lawmen combat a gang of biker white supremacists. In his latest Franky Dast novel, The Long Way Out, Michael Wiley does something somewhat similar. Ostensibly a murder mystery, Mr. Wiley’s novel takes on the specter of racism in the South and the mistreatment of our immigrant population.)


OBAAT: Nick Crane is a great name for a P.I. (Of course, I’m predisposed to like PIs named “Nick.”) Where did you get the idea for him, along with his backstory? How did you choose the name?


PHM: I chose the name Nick Crane because I wanted a strong and perhaps somewhat traditional PI-type name for my protagonist. What I didn’t want was a “cute” and/or “creative” name. As I recall, Nick Crane was one of the first names that popped into my head as I was brainstorming. When I first started writing the first Nick Crane novel, Cicero’s Dead, I was very much a beginner in the area of reading and writing crime fiction. Other than the occasional crime novel here and there, I had really only read the Dennis Lehane Patrick Kenzie novels, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, and some of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. One thing that these three protagonists have in common is that they are seriously tough and courageous SOBs. In a sense, out of these three protagonists, Nick is perhaps most like Robicheaux or Patrick Kenzie in that he has a gentle and caring side in addition to his strong, masculine persona.


I’m originally from the Midwest, Wisconsin, to be exact, which is why Nick Crane also hails from the Midwest, in his case Northern Minnesota and the Iron Range. I chose to give him a troubled and painful past as a way of explaining why danger follows him like the bubonic plague. Let’s face it, the dude has issues and they show no sign of going away any time soon. 


Although only a small part of 27 Days takes place in LA, I made it Nick’s home base because PIs are often associated with Los Angeles and because LA is where I work as an investigator and sentencing mitigation specialist.


OBAAT: I’ve drifted away from this question over the years, but a story such as yours always makes me wonder if you outline, make it up as you go along, or use some middle course?


PHM: This is another great question, Dana! The simple answer is that I seem to be constitutionally incapable of coming up with the plot of a novel-length story ahead of time. I wish I could, but I just can’t do it. Because of this, it takes me forever to complete a novel. Sometimes, I go for weeks without a single decent idea regarding how to propel the storyline forward. I seem to do my most effective plotting while in the act of writing and rewriting. Characters, dialogue, and literary style are easier for me, but I find plotting to be extremely hard. I tend to believe that a first-rate crime novel/thriller requires four key ingredients: 1) strong, vivid characters; 2) lively, believable dialogue; 3) a compelling literary style (I like working in the first person); and 4) a kick-ass storyline.


OBAAT: As a professional investigator yourself, what things do you see in others’ P.I. novels that either drive you crazy or make you smile while thinking “He/She got that right.”


PHM: I would begin by saying that most PI novels and police procedurals do tend to get most things right. Generally speaking, we crime novelists work hard at our craft. We want to be as authentic as possible. If there’s one area where I think some of us sometimes fall short, and this goes for films and TV series as well as novels, it’s in the area of drugs, drug use, and how drugs affect people, especially when it comes to heroin. I don’t know how many times I’ve been reading a novel or story and the writer describes someone on heroin as having dilated pupils. Now the reality is that heroin and opiates in general make one’s pupils tiny, while methamphetamines and stimulants make one’s pupils huge. Every time I encounter this I sigh and think, ‘This author has no business writing about drugs and drug users. He or she has little knowledge in this area.’


My lack of expertise in the area of police work and police techniques is the major reason why I have not chosen to attempt to write a police procedural. I just know I would botch it terribly. Though, in recent months I’ve read several strong, well-written police procedurals (including yours, Dana) so perhaps one day I might try writing one.


OBAAT: You have an MFA from San Francisco State. Which got to you first, the desire to be a writer, or to be an investigator?


PHM: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about 15 years old. I was perhaps the slowest learner in history. My first novel took a full five years to write and it was flat-out awful. (Editor’s Note: Welcome to the club that includes damn near all of us.)  I cringe on those rare occasions when I pick it up and read a page or two. Until I turned 30, I worked in manufacturing in Silicon Valley by day and rambled around the streets by night. I also attempted to be a respectable autodidact, at which I failed miserably. Around my thirtieth birthday, several people I respected insisted that I go to college. I listened. They were right. In college, I worked hard and earned an AA, a BA, and an MA all in English Literature. I also took lots of creative writing classes, some of which were very helpful. I wrote a couple of novels during this period, one of which (a Vietnam story) I hope our publisher, Down & Out Books, will choose to publish someday.


I had no intention of becoming an actual crime writer until after I moved to LA and went to work as an investigator and sentencing mitigation specialist. This is where the pieces slowly fell into place and after a few years on the job, I was able to combine what I had learned during my misguided youth on the streets with what I was learning as an investigator. I’ve had some memorable clients who taught me a great deal by simply recounting their personal histories.




OBAAT: Your bio describes you as a “sentencing mitigation specialist.” I have an idea of what that means, but please lay it out for our readers.


PHM: As a “sentencing mitigation specialist,” my job is to help our clients, all of whom are facing felony charges––generally of the federal variety––get “soft landings” when they come before the judge for sentencing. Let me quickly outline the process: First, I interview my clients and their relevant family members thoroughly, sometimes for as much as 12 to 20 hours, depending on how much they have to say and how many family members I need to interview; second, I collect character reference letters written on my clients’ behalf; third, I fill out a bunch of bothersome forms and, more importantly, write an extensive Mitigation Letter addressed to the U.S. Probation Officer. The purpose of the Letter is to persuade the probation officer to recommend a sentence far below the advisory sentencing guidelines, based on both the client’s “history and personal characteristics” and whatever legal issues need to be mitigated. Fourth, I use the Mitigation Letter as a template for my ultimate task––writing a powerful and persuasive Sentencing Memorandum in which I try to convince the judge to give our client a break. More often than not, we are successful in this endeavor. A good result is getting our client a sentence of half or less than half of what he or she is facing under the advisory sentencing guidelines.


OBAAT: What’s next for you?


PHM: At the end of 27 Days, although safe for the moment, Nick Crane is hardly out of the woods. Marguerite Ferguson still wants his scalp and is determined to get it. Therefore, I’m currently writing the sequel to 27 Days in which Nick attempts to penetrate to the heart of the principals’ operation, to the “heart of the octopus,” if you will. Its working title is Giant Steps. As usual, at this stage of the process, I have only the vaguest sense of where this story will take us.


I’ve already written a prequel to 27 Days that still needs a little polishing but is nearly ready to go. Its title is Rogues and Patriots. This is the story of how and why Nick Crane was originally abducted by the principals. In it we meet Marguerite and Thomas Quincey and Desmond Cole and Nick’s part-time girlfriend, the striking Adara Ghaffari. My sense is that Rogues and Patriots should probably be published before Giant Steps, but we’ll see what Lance Wright at Down & Out Books thinks when the time comes.


In closing, I want to thank you, Dana, for taking the time to read 27 Days and for asking such thoughtful and interesting questions.





Thursday, February 2, 2023

Deadwood Revisited

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently completed our more or less annual viewing of Deadwood. We now know the show well enough to recite the lines along with the actors and can spare the attention to look for more subtle things: set dressing, how the actors use their eyes, how they play off each other when they are not speaking. It’s all fascinating and no one has ever done it better than David Milch and the cast and crew he assembled.


I could write a series of posts about Deadwood but, looking through the blog’s history, I have no material changes to what I said in 2015. (About which, pardon my puffery, Jim Beaver (Whitney Ellsworth in the series) commented, “Great piece.”)


I do have additional thoughts.


In 2015 I wrote: Probably the greatest praise I can give Deadwood is that it has made me re-examine my creative process. (Such as it is.) Since then I have become much more intimate with not only Milch’s process, but his attitude. I have

·       Watched, taken notes on, and distilled his series of informal talks titled “The Idea of the Writer.” They’re fascinating, if rambling, and I can’t recommend them highly enough for anyone interested in the creative process. All are available on YouTube.

·       Read Milch’s books: True Blue (with Bill Clark, about the first two seasons of NYPD Blue); Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills (companion volume to the series); and Life’s Work, his memoir.

·       Read The Deadwood Bible: A Lie Agreed On, by Matt Zoller Seitz, an exhaustive labor of love that details everything from Milch’s life and career to oral histories of the show’s production, cancelation, and resurrection as Deadwood: The Movie.

·       Seen the documentary Without a Net: Creating NYPD Blue, directed by Marc Ostend and executive produced by Milch’s wife, Rita. The film depicts and dissects the end of Milch’s tenure at NYPD Blue. Don’t let his wife’s involvement fool you. This is no puff piece.


Several changes resulted:

·       I interpreted the concept of resting transparently to suit my situation, using it daily when drafting and rewriting.

·       There are no problems, and nothing is ever “wrong.” There are things that need to be better.

·       The best time for research is not during the writing but before, and it is not too specific. The best research becomes part of you and is expressed more between the lines than in specific explanation. I always had some of that attitude; a future blog post will describe a renewed interest.

·       “Visions come to prepared spirits,” a quote from the German chemist August KekulĂ© after discovering the structure of the benzene molecule. (After 25 years’ work, the answer came to KekulĂ© in a dream.) Now I try never to rush an idea to fruition.

·       “The testifying to the going out in spirit by the act of imagination.” Milch believes nothing exists in a vacuum, and that we are all connected in some way. I’m not as sold as he is, but I have found the task of writing—and let’s face it, much as we love to write, doing it well is a task at times—much more palatable. The “going out in spirit” part has also made my life a better place, and probably better for those who interact with me.

·       “The artist’s job is to find imaginative associations in what is merely fanciful.” Our job as writers is to take personal experiences—things significant only to us—and find ways to give them meaning for our audience.

·       Milch never thinks about writing except when writing. My adjustment is that I never try to think about writing unless I’m writing. That doesn’t mean things never force themselves into my thoughts; those that do, are welcome. I rarely play music or listen to the radio in the car; in good weather I take walks. If something about the writing pops up uninvited, well, the least I can do is let it visit a bit.

·       Milch’s memoir is unsparing in its evaluation of his life. I have neither his demons nor his gifts. Maybe they go hand in glove, though I think those types of explanations are more excuses than reasons. I mention it here because it taught me to be honest with myself in all aspects of my life, and to understand that all I can do is the best I can. (See “going out in spirit” above.)


I set out to write about Deadwood and ended up writing about David Milch. (Again.) I don’t see any good way around that. Deadwood is Milch. To talk about the show without going into some detail about him is to miss the point of its creation.


We’ll watch Deadwood again.