Thursday, May 25, 2023

An Interview With Bill Rapp, Author of A Turkish Triangle

 Bill Rapp holds degrees from Notre Dame (B.A.), The University of Toronto (M.A.) and Vanderbilt (Ph. D.) and began his professional life teaching European History at Iowa State University. His 35 years U. S. Government service has taken him around the world, including to Berlin as the Wall fell.  Bill Rapp’s books include the mystery novels Angel in Black, A Pale RainBurning Altars, Berlin Breakdown, Tears of Innocence, and The Hapsburg Variation.


Bill is a member of The Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and The International Association of Crime Writers.


One Bite at a Time: Hi, Bill. Welcome to the blog. We’ve been friends for quite a while now thanks to the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, so it’s great to get you here. Your new book (released May 9 from Coffeetown Press) is A Turkish Triangle. What’s the quick description?


Bill Rapp: Hi, Dana, and first of all, thanks for inviting me to participate in your blog.  We have known each other for a while, and it sounds like you have a fascinating venue here.  As for A Turkish Triangle, this adventure finds Karl Baier in Turkey during the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  He’s been sent there to investigate the sudden deaths of three Soviet assets, whom the Agency has been running in Turkey.  While looking into the deaths, Baier comes to realize that the passing of the three assets is not the end of the story, something most would assume to be the case.  The Soviets discovered their betrayal and—as was often the case with the Soviets—the three men were eliminated.  Baier realizes that the story doesn’t end there, that this is actually a part of a longer and more ambitious scheme that goes well beyond the loss of three agents.  In fact, it is part of a broader scheme involving a number of Soviets, Turks, and even some Americans that could undermine not only the US position on the Cuban missiles, but also the US position in the Middle East and Europe.


OBAAT: Karl Baier has more going on than just being a CIA agent. What’s his backstory?

BR: Karl Baier comes from a family of German-Americans, his parents having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  They were active in the Social Democratic Party in Germany, something that landed many in the concentration camps with a host of others.  Baier has retained his sense of a strong German heritage, but he is also fully committed to the United States and its postwar role in the world.  That’s what brought him to the CIA.  Like many educated Americans, his focus overseas has been on Europe—and Germany, of course—but he is also learning that he has to become familiar with a world and his nation’s responsibilities well beyond the good old world of the European continent.  It is the front line in the Cold War, but plenty of other challenges are emerging.


OBAAT: This is going to sound odd, but as a child of the Cold War, I think of it as the golden age of espionage. You and I are about the same age, which means the events you write of generally took place when we were too young to pay much notice to such things. What attracts you to this period and these stories?

BR: Ah, this is where my training in and love for history comes in.  Finding the settings for these novels in some of the high points of the Cold War allows me to combine two of my passions—history and intelligence—into a single series.  But beyond that it is also a time of growth and learning for the United States and the CIA.  We had to learn and grow into our new responsibilities and leadership as a nation, but also as an agency, an evolution that was not without its share of mistakes.  Unfortunately.


OBAAT: How much of what’s in A Turkish Triangle – all your books, for that matter - is drawn from actual events?

BR: Well, the three deaths is certainly fictional.  But the Cuban missile crisis is not, of course.  And I tried to tie the events in the story to developments in that crisis, especially near the end when Baier and a KGB officer discuss the near miss at a nuclear war.  That really happened.  The other aspect that one could say is drawn from actual evets is the manner and outlook of Baier and many of his colleagues.  I try to give an authenticity to these stories based on what I perceived to be an Agency culture, its standards and challenges, and the strong espirit d’corps.  (I think my French is correct there.)


OBAAT: Who are your major influences as a writer?

BR: That’s actually a pretty long list, and it probably looks pretty eclectic to most.  I guess you could start with Henry James and Joseph Conrad, then move on to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway.  More recently, I would point to Eric Ambler, Charles McCarry, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald.  They all brought something unique and gifted to their prose and storytelling, which I found essential when searching for my own voice.


OBAAT: You started out writing private eye fiction, a genre near and dear to my heart. What appeals to you about PI stories?

BR: You know, I started reading detective fiction when I was in grad school and looking for something to read other than history books.  That’s when I discovered Chandler and MacDonald.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve recommended Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” or passages from MacDonald’s Lew Archer series to an aspiring writer.  I think that genre, when it reaches those heights is as literary as any other “serious” fiction.  At times, more so.  Eventually, I hope to get back to my Bill Habermann series, especially now that I’m back home in the Chicago area, where he worked.


OBAAT: What are you working on now?

BR: I figured it was about time for Karl Baier to do his tour in Vietnam.  In 1963/64 when I sent him there, it was our biggest deployment, at least until Iraq.  He would have been expected to do his part.  The challenge, of course, is to find a way to introduce some plausible skepticism into his mission without the benefit of hindsight that I have as an author.  But he will definitely sour on where US policy is going as we “Americanized” that war.  A major benefit I have, though, is that some of the academic studies on that war point to the skeptical and accurate CIA reporting and analysis about our predicament and the future prospects (or lack thereof) for our increasingly myopic and militarized course.  That gives me more to play with.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

An Interview with Sam Wiebe, Author of Sunset and Jericho

 I first met Sam Wiebe at a Shamus awards dinner, where his book The Last of the Independents was nominated. As nice a person as you’re likely to meet, Sam is among the foremost keepers of the P.I. flame in his generation. It’s a treat on two levels to see he has a new book out: the book will be outstanding, and I’ll have an excuse to ask him back on the blog.


Sam’s newest is Sunset and Jericho which debuted April 15.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Sam. Its always fun to talk with you. You were last on the blog in March of 2022 for Hell and Gone. Whats been happening with you since then?


Sam Wiebe: Sunset and Jericho has occupied most of that year, as well as a standalone crime novel I’ve been working on. Some family drama as well, the fallout from a relative who was robbed at gunpoint in her home. 2023 already feels like it’s been six years long!


OBAAT: The new Wakeland novel is Sunset and Jericho. That sounds like its a corner in Vancouver, though Im not ruling out the possibility its an Old Testament story in which Gloria Swanson figures prominently. Tell us about it.


SW: Sunset and Jericho is my favorite title I’ve come up with, and I think it fits the book, a modern day old school detective novel. It refers to two beaches in Vancouver, and the two bodies found on them that get the novel rolling.


OBAAT: Whats been going on with Wakeland and Chen since Hell and Gone, which was a trying time for them. (No spoilers, but you can tease.)


SW: Sunset and Jericho finds Wakeland pursuing a group of killers who, like him, are dismayed at the way the city seems to be changing, to only cater to the rich. What happens when you have more in common with the killers you’re chasing than with your wealthy clients?


Though Dave knows how they feel, he doesn’t give in to the same kind of violence. But someone close to him does.


OBAAT: You like to place Wakeland in crises of conscience. Id describe what he dealt with in Hell and Gone, but you wove it so inextricably into the story anything I say would be a spoiler. What do you look for when pulling things together, and does the crisis of conscience come from the story, or do you build the story around the conscience issues you want to explore?


SW: The story should take precedence at all times—a detective novel should be fun to read, should have great characters in dynamic and challenging situations. But I also like there to be something more—not a message, or some profound idea, but some record of how things were in 2023.


Hell and Gone was about dealing with violence in its immediate aftermath. Sunset and Jericho is about the long-term, simmering effects of rage and resentment, and what happens when those boil over.


OBAAT: Last year you mentioned David Milchs Idea of the Writer” lectures. I didnt mention it then, but I discovered those videos about the time the Deadwood movie came out. Watched them all, took notes, and compiled into a binder the bits that resonated most with me. (Bookmarked the videos in my browser, as well.) It changed my approach to writing for the better. The Beloved Spouse™ and I talk regularly about resting transparently and prepared spirits. What was your biggest takeaway from those videos? (Note to readers: They are available on YouTube.)


SW: Coincidentally, Milch hosted those talks during the last writer’s strike. I found them inspirational—you just don’t hear many people culling from both a deep vein of personal experience, as well as a long literary tradition.


The point I return to is simply that if you want to write, you should just do that, from a place of enjoyment and gratitude. Writing is hard work but it’s fucking fun.


OBAAT: Whats next on your agenda?

SW: I don’t know what the future holds for Wakeland (or his author). Giving as little away as I can, Sunset and Jericho provokes a crisis that might be an ending, or the start of a new chapter. I hope people come onboard—and Sunset and Jericho is the perfect book to do so.


Thanks, Dana!

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Escape to New York

 My memories of reading at Shade on April 23 are still vivid and nothing but pleasant. To give you an idea of what a great experience it was, let’s look at what we had to do to get there.


(Fair notice: Our train was scheduled to arrive at 3:52 for an event that began at 6:00. The cab ride to the hotel was 2.8 miles straight down 7th Avenue; the walk to Shade was five blocks. I figured two hours would be plenty of time, but I’ll accept responsibility for cutting things close.)


The Beloved Spouse™ and I decided to grab an early lunch, not knowing when we’d have a chance to eat again. Since we had to stop at Walgreen’s to pick up prescriptions, and there’s a Subway fifty yards away, we chose to get sandwiches. The sandwiches were good.


We both made pit stops before leaving for the train station. I needed to spend some time with myself (our euphemism for “dropping a deuce”), and did so without incident until I discovered there was no toilet paper. I had to dig paper towels that didn’t look too grotty from the trash can. Said paper towels were the brown kind that still have little chunks of wood in them. Big fun.


Standing on the platform, our train approaching, TBS remembered she left her prescriptions in the car. One of those prescriptions was for her restless leg medication. No one is sleeping tonight.


The train ride itself was not how I remembered them. (Granted, my most recent train trip was in May of 2019.) The ride was too bumpy to read, the seats were not quite uncomfortable, and the car was stuffy. The train was a few minutes late getting into the Baltimore Airport Station, then paused for close to half an hour outside of Newark to accommodate double tracking.


Penn Station’s platforms bore an unseemly resemblance to the crowd trying to catch the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975. The signage may be sufficient for those who pass through there regularly. We had to ask a knowledgeable-looking gentleman (looks can be deceiving) and a cop before we found 7th Avenue. (The cop was truly one of New York’s finest and got us oriented straightaway.)


Hitting 7th Avenue, I immediately learned two things.

1. Madison Square Garden is directly across the street from Penn Station.

2. A Knicks playoff game had just ended. The crowd outside the station made what we found inside seem like midnight at an assisted living facility.

What I thought would be an easy matter of grabbing a cab from an awaiting rank turned into me going into the street between cars to grab a cabbie’s attention.


Our driver knew about four words of English. “Where to?” came up first. TBS got in front and showed him. She had to point out our hotel on his phone GPS to make sure he didn’t take us there via Hoboken. (I already knew the route, so any turns would have been noticed, possibly causing an international incident, as my patience was already frayed.)


He took us to the hotel, which was unrecognizable, thanks to construction that obscured all identifying information. This was when we got the rest of our cabbie’s English: “Sixteen eighty.”


The time was 5:10.


The hotel staff could not have been nicer, nor more helpful when I wanted to verify my walking directions and where to get a cab the next morning. The walk to Shade was as expected, and seeing the sign over the door was as welcome a sight as when my covid tests started coming back negative last summer.


As noted before, the event was, for me, close to perfection. Outstanding venue, great readers, and a chance to see some dear friends. It went so well we decided to walk back to the hotel.


No, we did not get mugged. That part of Greenwich Village is probably as safe as any, there were still a goodly number of people about, and muggers will generally look elsewhere before tangling with a six-foot-plus, 220-pound man.


What we did see were copious numbers of plastic trash bags on the sidewalks; Monday must be trash day on Sullivan Street. Encountering the stray rat wasn’t a complete surprise, though it was a bit unnerving that he ran so close toward us. What was truly unexpected were the dozen or more that stampeded in our direction right behind him. I hadn’t seen that many rats move that quickly as a group since the movie Willard.


None of this detracted from the rush we got from the Shade reading, though I must admit, it’s going to take something else of that magnitude to get this small-town boy back to Manhattan.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Malice Domestic 35

 The (once again) annual Malice Domestic conference took place last weekend in North Bethesda* MD. (Up yours, covid.) Malice caters to traditional and cozy mysteries, and I say with little fear of contradiction I do not write either. With that in mind, people I trust said things were opening up a little and that I should give it a try.


That’s why I trust those people.


I’ll be honest: Malice is still not quite in my wheelhouse. The panels are geared for more traditional tastes, and only a handful of the people I typically hang with at conferences were there. With that out of the way, The Beloved Spouse™ and I are both glad we went.


Things got off to a less than auspicious start. I was sitting in the front row of the “Malice 101” session wearing my “What Would Al Swearengen Do?” tee shirt when one of the presenters politely tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “What’s a Swearengen?”


That tells you a lot about Malice. Nicer people cannot be found, though most do not share the tastes of those I usually pal around with. That’s on me, and I readily accept it.


A few highlights:


Gabrielle St. George is negotiating to have her books made into a TV series. Her protagonist is 53, with grown children. The TV folks told her the hard cutoff for female protags is 36. The character will be 36 in the TV show; how old she was when giving birth is still under negotiation. (I don’t want to put words in Gabrielle’s mouth, but my first thought was “Why in hell did they want to buy the rights if the first thing they wanted to do was fundamentally change the primary character?”)


Catriona McPherson is hilarious.


Lord knows Hank Phillippi Ryan doesn’t need me to pump up her career, but I have to say she might be the best moderator I’ve ever seen; certainly none better. Most of the notes I have from her “If It Bleeds, It Leads” panel are tips on how to better moderate panels. Examples:

·       Trim the bios down to almost nothing. Time is precious and everyone’s CVs are in the program.

·       Don’t be afraid to interrupt a panelist who is rambling. Grab onto something they said and deflect the conversation to another panelist.

·       Hank read the opening of each panelist’s book as a game to see if we could guess who wrote it. I’m thinking to do this first, in place of the bio, as a way to set the tone for that author’s work. (I won’t have no bios, but will maybe keep them to 50 words or fewer.)


With a Western on the horizon, I am already grateful to Allison Montclair (not his real name) for making me aware of Etymology Online


Gabriel Valjan’s panel on “Social Issues in Police Procedurals” skirted the swamp on trigger warnings. I hope to have more about that in a little while here on the blog.


My panel (Small Town Cops) was moderated by Marcy McCreary and included Sarah Bewley, Justin Kiska, and James L’Etoile. Marcy kept things moving and the group had good chemistry. It must have gone pretty well; I sold three books as a direct result.


No conference would be complete without the social element. Many thanks to Dale Phillips, Bruce Coffin, Avram Lavinsky, Hugh Lessig (and wife, whose name I did not get; sincere apologies), Alan Orloff, Art Taylor, Tara Laskowski, and several delightful women whose names I did not get because the combination of my eyesight, lack of ambient lighting, and the positioning of their badges would have required me to violate the conference code of conduct to read them.


(Special shout out to Neil Plakcy for being the first person, ever, to guess “W.W.E.L.D.?” means without seeing the clue on the back of the shirt.)


Next year’s conference schedule is still up in the air, but the good feelings we picked up at this year’s Malice Domestic made it more than likely we’ll be back.



If you’re in North Bethesda* and in the mood for a burger, BurgerFi is the place to go.


* = Rockville south of Randolph Road)