Thursday, June 29, 2023

How to Write an Action Scene

 The woman stood near the door, where she had gone to talk to the landlady. She was staring at the Frenchman and the Kid. I wasted precious minutes that seemed to run into hours trying to catch her eye. I finally got it.

I looked at the light-switch, only a foot from her. I looked at her. I looked at the switch again. At her. At the switch.

She got me. Her hand crept sideways along the wall.

I looked at the two principal players in this button-button game.

The Kid’s eyes were dead – and deadly – circles. Maurois’ one open eye was watery. He wouldn’t make the grade. He put a hand in his pocket and brought out the silk bag.

The woman’s brown fingers topped the light button. God knows she was nothing to gamble on, but I had no choice. I had to be in motion when the lights went. Big Chin would pump metal. I had to trust Ines not to balk. If she did, my name was Denis.*

Her nail whitened.

I went for Maurois.

Darkness – streaked with orange and blue – filled with noise.

My arms had Maurois. We crashed down on the dead Billie. I twisted around, kicking the Frenchman’s face. Loosened one arm. Caught one of his. His other hand gouged at my face. That told me the bag was in the one I held. Clawing fingers tore my mouth. I put my teeth in them and kept them there. One of my knees was on his face. I put my weight on it. My teeth still held his hand. Both of my hands were free to get the bag.

Not nice, this work, but effective.

The room was the inside of a black drum on which a giant was beating the long roll. Four guns worked together in a prolonged throbbing roar.

Maurois’ fingernails dug into my tongue. I had to open my mouth – let his hand escape. One of my hands found the bag. He wouldn’t let go. I screwed his thumb. He cried out. I had the bag.

I tried to leave him then. He grabbed my legs. I kicked at him – missed. He shuddered twice – and stopped moving. A flying bullet had hit him, I took it. Rolling over on the floor, snuggling close to him, I ran a hand over him. A hard bulge came under my hand. I put my hand in his pocket and took back my gun.

On hands and knees – one fist around my gun, the other clutching the silk sack of jewels – I turned to where the door to the next room should have been. A foot wrong, I corrected my course. As I went through the door, the racket in the room behind me stopped.


From “The Whosis Kid” by Dashiell Hammett

Black Mask Magazine

March 1925


(* - A nautical term for a pig; an insulting name.)

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Spring's Favorite Reads

 City Primeval, Elmore Leonard. It had been years since I read this. I’ve been meaning to get around to it and the impending release of FX’s Justified extension got me off my ass. A wonderful book, maybe Leonard’s best crime novel. It was also made to order for Raylan Givens to stand in for Ray Cruz. City Primeval shows all the things that made Leonard a legend, and should serve well in Graham Yost’s and Timothy Olyphant’s hands.


Because the Night, James D. F. Hannah. Hannah may have to make more room in his house for awards if he insists on writing books like this. He manages to pay homage to the PI tradition at the same time as breaking new ground, never allowing things to seem stale or asking us to suspend too much disbelief. Henry Malone and Woody are a pair worthy of the best PI/sidekick duos, and Crash is a brilliant addition to the series.


The Johnson County War, Bill O’Neal. Class warfare in America is nothing new. Rustling was a problem in 1892 Wyoming, but the big cattlemen felt as if all the government land was theirs by divine right and resented homesteaders and small ranchers who staked legal claims. The cattlemen’s methods became so overbearing juries refused to return rustling convictions. The big boys then hired gunmen from Texas to kill anyone they decided had to go, rustler or not. The locals fought back. This is a meticulously research and fascinating look at an episode many thought only happened in movies.


Safe and Sound, J.D. Rhoades. I’ve been reading his books for years, off and on, but a while back I noticed they were getting so good I needed to take a more comprehensive look. Turns out they were always that good. Safe and Sound is part of the Jack Keller series and has all the action one could want without ever putting a reader in a position of thinking “Oh, really?” Rhoades is now on the list of people I need to make sure do not fall through the cracks.


The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler. It’s The Big Sleep. Damn right I liked it. Again.


Sunset and Jericho, Sam Wiebe. The Wakeland series keeps getting better, and it was good to start with. This one deals with politics and money (hard to do a story about politics that doesn’t involve money these days) and, while a fascinating study of the pressures between the haves and have nots, it’s not soon going to show up on the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce’s reading list. Which is even more reason you should check it out.


Thursday, June 15, 2023

An Interview With James D. F. Hannah, Author of Because the Night

James D.F. Hannah is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Henry Malone series of private investigator novels, among other things. His story "No Man's Land" was selected for Best American Mystery and Suspense 2022, edited by Steph Cha and Jess Walter. Other short fiction has appeared in Playing Games, edited by Lawrence Block; Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression, edited by S.A. Cosby; Trouble No More; Rock and a Hard Place; Shotgun Honey; Crossing Genres; and The Anthology of Appalachian Writers.


He lives in Louisville, where the bourbon he hasn’t drunk yet is.


One Bite at a Time: Your upcoming Henry Malone novel, Because the Night, drops June 19 from Down & Out Books. I’ve seen an ARC and it’s likely to get another Shamus nomination. What’s it about?

James D.F. Hannah: Because the Night follows up the events of the previous Malone novel, Behind the Wall of Sleep, where Henry was offered a chance to run for sheriff by Wallace “Bada” Bingham, owner of the local strip club, The Cherry Bomb. While he’s in the midst of the campaign, he’s asked by a pregnant woman at an AA meeting if he’ll look for her boyfriend, an ex-con who’s gone missing. Henry finds out his missing person case overlaps with a homicide being investigated by Jackie Hall, a state police lieutenant and probably the last trooper in the state who still likes Henry. In the course of the investigation, Jackie’s nearly killed, and Henry goes seeking revenge. He gets caught in a series of betrayals where friends become enemies and he finds himself part of an unlikely alliance in an effort to catch the man who shot Jackie and to bring down a criminal empire.


OBAAT: A lot of books put me off because the protagonist consistently makes wrong decisions just to raise the stakes. Henry Malone makes as many unfortunate decisions as anyone, yet you manage to ground them in such a manner that I can always understand why he did it, even while recognizing this is likely to break bad for him. How do you keep from falling into the trap so many others do?

JDFH: I’ve joked that the Malone books are a series of Pinocchio stories, where the goal is for Henry to grow up and become a real man. Part of that growth is making mistakes. I’m obviously a huge fan of Robert B. Parker and the Spenser novels, but during the series, Spenser eventually became infallible. He was always the smartest, strongest, toughest guy. Thus, he had no growth; there was nowhere for him to go. For Henry to stay interesting for me, and I hope for the reader, he’s got to keep growing as a character, and in that comes making mistakes, but also in the pursuit of him doing the best he can. That’s always Henry’s goal, to be a better person, typically in spite of himself.


OBAAT: Henry Malone is a former West Virginia state trooper and a recovering alcoholic with a bad knee and nine fingers, yet I, who was none of the above, feel empathy for him, never sympathy. I know it’s no accident, but how do you pull that off?

JDFH: Henry’s not really in that Raymond Chandler model of “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” He’s very often an asshole, and he has a complicated series of relationships, ranging from Billy, his father, to Lily, his girlfriend, to Woody, his AA sponsor. Plus, Henry is a character of scale. He’s not Reacher or Jack Ryan—the guy you call to find a missing nuclear device and returns as a blank slate in the next book. When Henry finds himself in circumstances which require violence, he doesn’t become Rambo. He ends up damaged by these experiences, and they become part of his personal history, and they affect how he reacts to the world.


OBAAT: Why are the Malone stories set in West Virginia? Why not Kentucky or western Virginia or North Carolina or eastern Tennessee?

JDFH: Honestly, it was born out of necessity. I spent most of my first 40-plus years living in eastern Kentucky or southern West Virginia, with 16 years straight in the latter. I’d spent years trying to write a crime novel with no luck, because I thought they had to be set in a big city, and my metropolitan experience was, to be blunt, limited. So when it came time to start writing what became Midnight Lullaby, the first Malone novel, I decided I’d take the tropes I loved from PI fiction and just transplant them into West Virginia. And while I don’t live in West Virginia any longer, so much of it is just ingrained in me, and it’s easy to fall back into the rhythm of that storytelling and that environment.


OBAAT: Woody is not the typical psycho sidekick. He’s also a recovering alcoholic – Henry’s sponsor, in fact – and the voice of reason, right up until he dips into his substantial store of armaments and opens vats on whoop-ass on bad guys. What’s his backstory?

JDFH: Man, I wish I knew that myself. Woody started out as a one- or two-scene character in Midnight Lullaby, and the further I got into the book, the more I realized Henry needed someone to play off of, and Woody became an increasingly important character in the book. The benevolent sociopath is pretty stock in PI fiction since Parker introduced Hawk in Promised Land—you’ve got Robert Crais and Joe Pike, Walter Mosely and Mouse, S.A. Cosby and Skunk—but I wanted Woody to also function as a Jiminy Cricket (again with the Pinocchio references) who can be funny and earnest and balance against Henry’s abundance of bad ideas while also providing both a strong arm and those aforementioned armaments when needed. But outside of an anecdote he shares at the end of Complicated Shadows, Woody hasn’t offered much backstory, and I’m content with him staying mysterious. I’m sure at some point his past will come calling, and I’ll probably be as surprised as anyone.


OBAAT: Henry has two primary female influences in his life. Lily Wilder, the local high school principal; and Charlotte “Crash” Landing, the current sheriff, who he is running against for the office. Both are outstanding characters. (I confess to having a mini-crush on Crash, maybe because she is unattainable.) Both serve important roles in the story, yet neither reads like a character created to fill a role. Tell us a little about them.

JDFH: When I decided to give Henry a steady romantic relationship—the dating pool in Parker County is fairly small—I didn’t want that character to be Susan, Spenser’s partner, who became so perfect after a certain point that I dreaded when Parker would describe how slowly she ate. Lily couldn’t be around just to affirm Henry and his decisions, or to tell him how great he is, but she could tell him she loves him—the way a real partner would. She has her own interior life and her own opinions and no problem whatsoever in saying when Henry’s being an idiot.

Crash showed up in a non-Malone book, The Righteous Path, and I loved writing her. Since she became the acting sheriff at the end of that book, it made sense for her to play a role in these most recent Malone novels. She’s young, she’s smart, she’s grounded, and she’s very good at her job. She’s a wonderful contrast to Henry, and the dialogue exchanges between them are some of the most fun ones in the book.


OBAAT: What’s next?

JDFH: Right now I’m working on a standalone novel set during the week of the 1976 bicentennial. There’s a first draft completed, with a lot of revisions planned. I’m also hoping to explore Crash a little more in—fingers crossed—a series of short stories; we’ll see how that goes.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

An Interview with Dietrich Kalteis, Author of The Get

 Dietrich Kalteis is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author with nine novels and over fifty published short stories to his credit. “Credit” is the right word, as they are all excellent. I’m not typically someone who feels the need to read a book as soon as it comes out; Dietrich is on the short list pf those I bump to the top of the queue. As fine a friend as he is an author, Dietrch lives with his family on Canada’s West Coast.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog, Dietrich. It’s always a treat to have you, and not just because it typically means you have a new book out, though, of course, you do. What’s the skinny on The Get?


Dietrich Kalteis: Thanks for having me back, Dana. It’s always a pleasure. Here’s the premise: Lenny Ovitz has plenty of secrets. He works for a volatile crime boss, is drowning in debt to the wrong people, and he’s certain his soon-to-be ex is aiming to screw him over. Somebody is going to have to get whacked.


OBAAT: Lenny Ovitz has more irons in the fire than is prudent. How did he get spread so thin and what does that say about his personality?


DK: In Lenny’s line of work, taking chances is part of the game, and in order to get out of the protection racket, he’s got to take even bigger risks. Along with his partner, Gabe, they borrow a lot of money from a loan shark and buy a block of slum buildings which Lenny sees as a promising investment, one that will allow him to become legit. Unfortunately, his timing couldn’t be worse — his wife, Paulina, is about to ask for a divorce; and his partner, Gabe, is about to go down on a double homicide. Something that will definitely upset Lenny’s plans and put his cool to the test. 


OBAAT: Lenny’s wife, Paulina, is the object of his – well, certainly not affection. She’s also tired of his multi-layered duplicity? (Triplicity? Tetraplicity?) You don’t write female characters who sit back and take any more than they have do. What’s her backstory and what will that tell us about her?


DK: She’s smart and cultured, and she’s basically a good person. She’s made one big mistake in her life — Lenny. And that’s one faux pas she’s bound and determined to correct. And Lenny’s about to find out that her gentle nature has some teeth.


OBAAT: You’re back to writing historicals, this time in Toronto in the 60s. What led you to that place and time?


DK: I remember going to Kensington with my parents as a boy, all the sights and sounds of a place that were very different from anything I had ever experienced: open markets and food I had never seen before, meat and poultry hanging in the shop windows, people haggling and speaking all kinds of languages — not like anything this kid had ever seen at our local Loblaws. It felt like I was transported someplace else, and that always stayed with me. In coming up with the storyline for The Get, I knew Kensington would make the perfect setting. 


OBAAT: Last year we spoke a little about the influence Elmore Leonard has had on your (and my) writing; you referenced the “other authors who inspired and influenced me along the way.” Name a couple, and tell us how they influenced you.


DK: There are so many great authors writing today, present company included, but I’ve had some old favorites going way back. Elmore Leonard is definitely one. And there’s Charles Willeford, James Crumley, and George V Higgins on that list. Maybe I’m dating myself here, as they wrote mostly back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. The times they wrote about seemed simpler and they were all masters at creating settings, misfit characters, and writing dialogue too. And I really appreciated that each of them had an underlying sense of humor that always showed through in their writing.  


OBAAT: Fun question. Off the top of your head, what are your five favorite crime novels? Not necessarily the five best crime novels, but your favorites.


DK: Okay, I won’t pick any from the authors noted above, and although these are not all crime novels or hot off the press, they are the best novels that I’ve read so far this year: Slow Horses by Mick Herron, the first in the Slough House series. It was published by Soho Crime in 2010, and it’s about a group of screw-up MI5 agents trying to redeem themselves. It’s also a great Apple Original series into its second season. Then there’s 2022s Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy, a brilliant follow-up to The Passenger, both from Knopf. Thirdly, there’s Drive by James Sallis. It was published in 2006 by Harvest, and it’s a blast. I really enjoy reading Sallis. Published this year by Ecco, The Trackers by Charles Frazier is a tale about an artist trying to find a rich man’s wife. It’s set during the Great Depression, and it reads like a modern-day classic. To round out the list, I’ve picked Old Babes in the Woods, a new and charming collection of shorts by Margaret Atwood, from Doubleday.


OBAAT: Last question, as always. What does the next year portent for you?


DK: I’m putting the finishing touches to a new crime story, and I have another one complete and coming out next year from ECW Press, pub date unknown at this time. It’s called Crooked, and the story follows the real life and times of Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. 

Thursday, June 1, 2023


 Leaving oneself open to the possibilities of serendipitous happenstance, then embracing it when the opportunity presents, is key to enjoying life as we age.


Today’s case in point:


While gathering the ingredients to make chili, I discovered I had no celery. (Full recipe available upon request in comments.) I hadn’t planned on going to the store, and someone as OCD as I am can be does not like such abrupt schedule changes.


The Beloved Spouse™ most recently drove the car, which meant the radio was on. (I rarely listen to the radio when driving. I like the quiet time to shout at other drivers.) She tends to alternate between the local news and classical stations. My hand was already reaching for the Power button when I recognized Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.


This, I’ll listen to.


I considered staying in the car in the supermarket’s parking lot until the piece ended, but it was still early in the second movement and I had things to do. I waited until the trumpets played their melody, then ran in for my celery and a couple of donuts.


In the car the third movement had started. I was about to settle in when the man who’d been in front of me in line hollered for my attention. He’d locked his keys in his truck; could I give him a lift to his apartment? It’s just up the hill. Not much in the mood for the interruption – he’d already proven he’d chat with a rock – I also couldn’t leave a man with a portable oxygen tank stranded.


Fortunately I knew exactly where he lived; The Beloved Spouse™ and I considered getting my parents to move there when the stairs made their house too dangerous. (We failed, of course. My parents were even stubborner than I am.) I took him home and turned the radio back on about halfway into the exposition of the fourth movement. I took the scenic route home and sat in my parking spot an extra minute to hear the ending.


Gary Bird, my undergrad Music Lit teacher, said that Beethoven 5 was the most perfect piece of music ever written. He said the Ninth was a greater, but any change made to the Fifth would diminish it. I can’t argue with that, but, to me, Beethoven 5 is the greatest, and most perfect, piece of music ever written.


I am almost overcome with a sense of elation, often to the point of tears, when the brass enter with the main theme of the fourth movement. I was fortunate enough to perform the Fifth twice. Each time the music transcended the abilities of the community orchestras that took it on.


I would have missed it this time had I not needed celery, or been quicker to turn off the radio. Sometimes an unexpected interruption is exactly what we need.