Thursday, May 16, 2024

Why am I Not a Better Writer?

 No, this is not another of those whiny blogs about why I don’t sell more or Imposter Syndrome. This is a clear-eyed look at why I’m not a better writer. Or as good as I’d like to be, an examination all writers should make from time to time.


I know I write well. My range that the gamut from crime (police procedural) to crime (private investigator), but I am comfortable with my ability within that niche. I have an ear for dialog, create plots that make sense without being too obvious, and can be as funny as I need to be. I have developed a voice that well suits the kinds of stories I write.


So what is it I think I should be doing better, and why am I not doing it?


My background doesn’t help. Not that I was deprived of the things that make for a good writer. There were always plenty of books around the house, the high school library was well-stocked, and I was always encouraged to read, which I did voraciously.


It’s everything else. I grew up about twenty miles along the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh where the suburbs give way to the country. I guess demographers would call it the exurbs. My town was almost all white, heavily ethnic, and predominantly working class. I spent my summers playing ball almost every day with a crew that ebbed and flowed, but consisted of about a dozen kids; we could almost always find enough to get a game going.


We had the usual disagreements, but no one was beating hell out of anyone else, either. The best field for Whiffle ball was our backyard, which my mother loved, as she rarely had to worry about where my brother and I were or what we were up to; all she had to do was look out the bathroom window. She’d bring us cold drinks and occasionally cookies.


As an adult I dated a woman who said I grew up in the Cleaver family. That’s not accurate – things weren’t that insipid – but it’s close enough. My parents were social drinkers, and rarely drank much even then. My brother and I grew up at the tail end of the era of corporal punishment; neither of us was abused, either physically or emotionally, nor did we live in fear of either parent.


There were disagreements -  we’re talking about four intelligent, strong-willed people living in a small one-story house together for fifteen years before I left for college – but things blew over quickly. My brother and I are close, and we both remained close with our parents until they died on us.


The experiences I gained about the kinds of conflict that drives a story came after I left home, became an adult, and had to interact with the kinds of assholes everyone else gets to know early on. Sure, that’s been forty-some years now, but I was already a grown-ass man; these were not my formative years. The imprint is not as strong.


Would I trade my childhood to be a better writer? Not on your life.


My plots are a little linear, which is probably because I’m not as  right-brained as most writers. It’s close – I took a test once that came out 52 – 48 – but I like to know things are under control in my life. I don’t have to be the one who is in control,  but I need to know the situation is under control. Those two elements make it hard for me to come up with plot twist out of left field, no matter how well prepared.


I am also firmly rooted in the reality of what I can see, hear, otherwise sense, or can verify. My life has improved since I made a conscious decision many years ago to treat others better, so there’s a nagging feeling karma may have something going for it, but I am not at all a spiritual person. I like people to have reasons for what they do, even though I know they they don’t always. That’s not such a bad thing, except I write about the kinds of people Doctor Phil makes a living asking “Whut were you thanking?”


I’m working on it. I was going to write today about how the outline for the next Forte book came together, but I decided a couple of days ago it’s not as together as I thought it was; it needs a more of people doing things I wouldn’t do.


Stephen Johnson wrote a wonderful book titled, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. A key point is that decision scholars have discovered the best and most durable decisions are made by groups with as much diversity as can be gained, for one simple reason:


You can’t imagine what you can’t imagine.


And that simple sentence, more than anything, is why I’m not a better writer.


But I’m working on it.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Evil Empires

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I try to be good citizens. We vote. We pay our taxes. We never shirk summonses for jury duty. We set aside money each month for worthy causes. We make an effort.


But it gets harder all the time.


I think I’ve bought two things at Wal-Mart in the past twenty years. Even then it was because I needed something right now and couldn’t find it anywhere else. I am aware of Wal-Mart’s historical record with local businesses and their workforce and have little good to say about it.


But we buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, which is no better and might be worse.


We resolve to do more shopping elsewhere. We’ve begun to find things on Amazon, then look to see if they’re available locally, or online elsewhere. Not as convenient, but if it’s not too much more expensive we can’t afford it, or can’t live without it if it is, we’re walking away from Amazon as our go-to source for a lot of things.


But I’m a writer. I depend on Amazon for what passes as my career, especially now that I am self-publishing again.


Why I am returning to self-publishing is a post for another day; it’s a saga of its own. Accepting the premise that traditional publishing is not a good deal for me, here’s my conundrum:

·       Amazon makes it easy to create and sell my books. Hell, Amazon makes it possible to create and sell my books.

·       Much as I love small bookstores, they will not stock books unless the publisher accepts returns; they also do not typically host events for books they do not carry. (This is not limited to self-published authors. I had the same issue when I was under contract.) I can interview “real” authors and bring books to sell on consignment, or I can try to join a larger event. I did the latter several weeks ago. The bookstore not only did not promote the event, most of the employees didn’t know we were there, so no potential customers were directed around back where a dozen authors were eager to meet them. In fairness, they did pay promptly for the book I sold.


So Amazon is what I have left, despite its failures as a corporate citizen. Well, I guess I could write in a vacuum and deliver the results free as e-books to friends upon request. What would that involve?

·       Writing the book on Microsoft Word. (Or Google Docs or Apple Pages.)

·       Letting folks know about it through Facebook and The Social Media Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.

·       Sending electronic copies via G-Mail.


That leaves me to deal with some combination of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta, and whatever TSMPFKaT’s parent company is called, none of which are any better than Amazon.




The problem with trying to have a conscience is how much we are surrounded by people and entities that do not. Tech companies are the worst. No one starts a tech company to build an ongoing enterprise anymore. They start them to get enough of a niche for one of the giants to buy the company – or their company’s technology – so they can cash in. I have firsthand experience with this, so I’m well familiar with it. The situation is as likely to change as Joe Biden is likely to appoint Marjorie Taylor Greene to the post of NASA Administrator.


I enjoy telling stories. I enjoy the editing process. Writing posts about the craft on this blog. Doing what I can to promote others. Appearing at conferences and events. I don’t care that I don’t make any money from it. The entire process enriches my soul. It brings me joy.


Until, that is, something makes me look at the entities I have to work with for even my small niche. A more soul-sucking bunch of Midases for whom too much is never enough cannot be found outside of Nestle, the CEO of which believes water should be a commodity.


We’ve cut way back on our Amazon purchases. As for the writing, I guess this is going to be one of those situations where I need to have the serenity to accept something I cannot change. I’ll try to make up for it elsewhere.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

An Interview With Kevin Flynn, Author of Rock Creek

 Kevin Flynn is a life-long resident of the Washington, D.C. area, and served as a violent crime prosecutor in the city for more than 30 years. His non-fiction book Relentless Pursuit was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2007; Rock Creek is his first novel.  Kevin lives with his wife Patrice in Northern Virginia; their two children, Connor and Megan, are lawyers living in New York City. 


(Editor’s Note: One Bite ta a Time is experimenting with interviews that deal more with the writer than the book. For more information on Rock Creek as a story, here is the link the Amazon page.)   

 One Bite at a Time: What’s the deal with Shane Kinnock?

Kevin Flynn: As to the character himself: Shane is flawed and self-destructive but at the
same time brutally honest – both with himself and others – and dedicated to his job to the point of obsession. I never went through in real life what he went through in fictional life.  But his sensibilities are my sensibilities, and his voice is my voice.  As you’re no doubt well aware, writing fiction can be agonizing.  But it was a lot of fun to walk Shane into a scene and have him react to it verbally as I would.  He was always my anchor.

 As to the creation of the character: I was a violent crime prosecutor in DC for 35 years. That experience introduced me to a wide array of people, primarily victims of crime, perpetrators of  crime, and police officers. Those encounters were oftentimes intense, and fraught.  When I first turned to fiction I was twenty years into that job, and I had already developed a sense for the complexities of humanity that was deeper, I would submit, than is afforded by most occupations in life.  I knew in my heart that so-called heroes have flaws, and so-called villains have virtues. In creating the main characters in this book, especially Shane, I was committed to each of them being fully developed and not cardboard cutouts. Once I decided to put this story in 1952, and to have at its center a complicated protagonist with human failings, his backstory wrote itself: World War II combat veteran, returned home shellshocked, took a police job but plagued by his past, using drink to ease his pain, and at the same time trying to move forward, even incrementally.  And the vehicle of his redemption would be the case that is at the heart of the Rock Creek story.


OBAAT: Of all the possible topics to write about, what made you choose this one?

KF: So here’s the origin story.  I wrote a non-fiction book about one of my murder cases and it was published in 2007.  Shortly afterwards a friend – okay, my agent -- asked what my next book would be:  “You must have worked on a high-profile case that would be a natural basis for the next one.”  My first thought was, it took me 10 years to get this one out to the public, don’t push me to the next one.  But my second thought was:  In fact, I have worked on a case that drew national attention. A few years before, a government intern had been killed in D.C., her body found in Rock Creek Park. A Congressman, her former lover, was a suspect.  The catch was that  I couldn’t write about it. The case wasn’t in court yet. All the details of our investigation were confidential.  And I’d come to know the victim’s parents well, and didn’t want to write any factual account that would seem in any way to exploit their pain.   

 But I came to realize that if I took the basic facts of the case and reset it in the post-war period as fiction, I had an opportunity to write a far richer story.  I could concoct a backstory for the fictional victim that wouldn’t track that of the real-life victim, and at the same time create a  better whodunit with more distinctive characters and a much more original, revelatory account of the city and its people that I knew so well. 

So I went and ran with it.

 OBAAT: As a debut novelist you may be uniquely qualified to answer some questions for others hoping for publication. Let’s start with the road to getting Rock Creek published.

KF: Anyone who thinks that writing is easy isn't familiar with the lines of the Irish poet who said, "Better to get down on your marrow bones and scrub kitchen pavement." There's also some exhilaration in the process: a more modern writer has observed, "I hate writing, but I love having written." This novel took a particularly torturous path in getting to press. When I started writing it I had never written fiction, had never even taken a fiction writing course, of any kind.  And it showed.  The spine of the story is now as it was then, the characters were as well-developed, and it featured occasionally moving turns of phrase.  But in retrospect I can see it was often plodding, none of its scenes opened compellingly, and it lacked propulsive pace.  I couldn't even get my agent – the same one who had prompted me to go forward with this project to begin with – to put the book out the publishers. And as frustrating as that was, he was right: It wasn't ready. I did at least four more drafts – maybe five, I’ve lost count – before it met with his specs, and he put it out, with no bites. In 2019 he put me on a path that led to another agent who specialized in fiction, and ultimately a publisher bought it -- only to go into breach and leave a trail of abusive communications in his wake. Bottom line: I got my rights back, and the book is coming out in May 2024.  My story may be more strenuous than most, but my research of anecdotal experiences suggests that it’s not all that aberrational. 

 OBAAT: Did you hire an editor to review your manuscript before publishing?

KF: Yes.  I actually worked the process a bit in reverse.  Most published authors go the route of:  Write book, get agent, have book sold to publisher, publisher edits book.  My route was:  Write book, get editor, get agent, have book sold to publisher.  (Leaving out all of the rancorous after- business with the last publisher, which came to the water’s edge of litigation.) 

 In crass financial terms:  My specific story suggests that if an unknown writer has a book and has been unsuccessful in obtaining a notable agent – an essential part of the process of securing a contract from a notable publisher – he or she should retain an editor to polish their manuscript before sending it out again.

 But far more importantly, from an artistic point of view:  Every writer needs an editor, case closed.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had Max Perkins, and that’s just the most prominent of the examples that could be cited. 

 My humble opinion:  Anyone who’s writing for publication should be aspiring to be the best writer who’s ever written.   When Hemingway was asked about what his ambition was as a writer he responded with something along the lines of, “To be the heavyweight champion of the world, of course.”  And one last quote here – a long-lost post on Substack – “Good writing is in the writing, great writing is in the revising.”

 OBAAT: You are a relatively rare creature, a DC native with family roots in Washington. How did that affect the stimulus and writing of Rock Creek?

KF: I have to say that I quarrel a bit with the premise.  The common observation is that this is a transient area – and certainly the political class in D.C. proper is – but I would submit that the population of the DMV as a whole is no more transient than most U.S. urban areas are (outside the most provincial, my personal examples being Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston).  But I get the point.  And as to the question, did my status as a D.C. native affect the stimulus and writing of Rock Creek, the answer is:  in every way imaginable. 

 I wanted to write a book that combined the two parts of the D.C. that I knew from childhood

on – capital of the free world, and small town -- in a way that would introduce it to the public at large, or at least the reading public, so they would see it fresh.  I said earlier that when I embarked on fiction writing I was deficient in some ways, lack of formal training being most prominent.   But from trial lawyering I had one thing going for me, among others.  To try a case to a jury is to tell a story to them, a story that is tethered in truth and authenticity.  And every good story is grounded in a place, and I had the setting of Rock Creek nailed down before I even had characters to move about in it. 

 OBAAT: Which authors are the greatest influences on your work, and how or why have they been so influential?

KF: Here’s the incongruity.  I’ve written a book that’s characterized as a combination of mystery thriller and historical fiction.  But I’ve rarely if ever read mystery thrillers, and I’ve never read – at least in my living memory – any work of historical fiction. 

 As to historical fiction, there are classics out there – Memoirs of Hadrian, and going back aways, the Gore Vidal books and The Year of the French – haven’t gotten to them.  They all join my ranks of Great Books on My Bookshelf That Remain Unread.  I hope to someday read more in the genre, especially the Hadrian book.  But I can definitively say that they in no way influenced my writing of this book. 

 Likewise mystery thrillers, but for different reasons.  With my work life being what it was, I avoided mystery and crime books, not to mention all true crime TV series.  Put simply:  I was living it, why would I delve back into it when I got home?  Where was the escape in that? 

 On the positive side.  My primary writing activity for the last 35 years – notwithstanding the book that’s being published now, and the book that was published in 2007 – has been in writing opening statements and closing arguments as a prosecutor.  In that realm – the realm of making words flow and sentences that sing, in a way that move people – my influences have remained static through the years: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Camus, Roth. 

 OBAAT: What are you up to next?

KF: I don’t know.  








Thursday, April 25, 2024

Patrick H. Moore, Author of Rogues & Patriots

 Patrick H. Moore is an author and sentencing mitigation specialist from southern California whose third Nick Crane detective thriller, Rogues & Patriots, launched April 22 from Down & Out Books. Patrick was kind enough to sit for an interview to talk about a fascinating and timely subject for a novel or, in this case, a series.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog. It’s good to see you again.

Rogues & Patriots is the newest book in the Nick Crane thriller series. How much of it depends on events in the first novel?


Patrick H. Moore: Rogues & Patriots is actually the prequel to 27 Days. Thus, one could state accurately that the events in 27 Days are triggered by what takes place in Rogues & Patriots.


OBAAT: Rogues & Patriots is shown as the second “Nick Crane Thriller,” though it is the third book in which Crane is the protagonist. What’s different about the first book that it is not included with these two?


PHM: The first Nick Crane thriller, Cicero’s Dead, is a stand-alone. It was indie-published by U.S. Indie Books in the fall of 2014. Anyone who has read all three Nick Crane thrillers will observe that the character of Nick Crane has undergone a metamorphosis between 2014 and 2023 when 27 Days was published by Down & Out Books. Nick, in 27 Days and now Rogues & Patriots, has shed the more or less middle-class persona that he still carried in Cicero’s Dead. Nick, in his present incarnation, carries the darkness of the “school of hard knocks” that characterized his formative years. Although empathetic by nature, the current Nick is extremely tough and capable, which is necessary for his survival given the nefarious nature of his sworn enemies.


OBAAT: What is Crane’s background and what makes him well-suited for these kind of stories?


PHM: Nick Crane grew up in a single parent household in northern Minnesota on the edge of the Mesabi Range. His mother abandoned him and his little brother Rafer when Nick was three years old. His father Adam was a violent alcoholic. As Nick staggered through a most difficult childhood, he learned to defend himself from his father’s insane rages and slept with a hunting knife under his pillow. Because of his childhood, Nick developed a kind of chronic PTSD that leaves him permanently on “red alert,” which is the precise quality that enables him to survive the nasty scrapes he finds himself in.


OBAAT: The Principals are a nasty piece of work; you’re a professional investigator. How much of their philosophy and practices come from personal experience? If not much – and, frankly, I hope you haven’t had to deal with people like this – where did the clay from which you molded them come from?


PHM: This is a great question, Dana. In my work as an investigator and sentencing mitigation specialist, I’ve spent considerable time with literally hundreds of clients. And a fair percentage of them have been right wingers, but to my knowledge none of these folks were members of an alt-right organization with a vendetta against our immigrants and minorities. So where did the Principals come from? First, I wanted Nick Crane to be faced with nearly insurmountable odds and the Principals filled that bill. Second, I wanted Nick’s stories to be relevant to our current reality in which we, as a nation, are faced with an existential threat to our continued existence as a constitutional democracy. Thus, the Principals represent the monied right wing forces that are currently trying to undermine our nation’s traditional respect and tolerance for folks of diverse origin.


OBAAT: Last time you were here we spoke about your work as a sentencing mitigation specialist. In re-reading that interview it occurred to me this sounds like fascinating work that is rarely, if ever, tackled in fiction. Do you ever have thoughts about writing such a book?


PHM: As you point out, sentencing mitigation specialists are rarely, if ever, featured in crime fiction. This is probably for two reasons. First, very few folks even know that sentencing mitigation people exist. It’s kind of an LA thing. LA is where sentencing mitigation work appears to have originated and where it became popular. Second, due to attorney-client privilege, we mitigation people cannot reveal anything specific about our clients. We are privy to many fascinating stories, but with this privilege comes the responsibility of keeping everything on the down-low. That being said, it would certainly be possible to write a crime novel/thriller with a sentencing mitigation person as the protagonist. You and other readers will note that in Rogues & Patriots, Nick occasionally refers to cases in which he did mitigation work in conjunction with his attorney friend Jack Snow.


OBAAT: I didn’t get around to this last time, so I will now. Who or what are the greatest influences on your writing? Can be books, movies, TV, personal acquaintances, whatever.


PHM: My influences as a writer come from several directions. First, the decade or longer I spent on the streets as a young man made me very familiar with “street” and “thug” types and their often-questionable ways. Then, in my sentencing work I’ve met and worked with some of the toughest men anyone would ever want to encounter. For example, I had a client who “ran the yard” at one of our California state prisons. One day while I was interviewing him, he described how, as “yard boss,” he would give the orders when inmates needed to be “checked,” and how his lieutenants would take care of business and “drag the bodies out.” And, of course, I was influenced by countless crime writers including Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, and the dozens of other writers that I’ve read over the last decade including a Mr. Dana King.


OBAAT (blushes, draws circle in dirt with toe): Aw, shucks. Thank you. This leaves only the inevitable final question: What’s next on your agenda?


PHM: I’m currently working on Book III in the “Nick Crane vs. the Principals” series. It’s working title is Giant Steps and in it, Nick, working in conjunction with FBI agent Carrie North, will hopefully reach a point of safety in which the Principals are neutralized and/or defeated. After Giant Steps I may write Nick Crane stand-alone thrillers, but these plans are still in the early stages.  And, of course, I may ultimately conjure up a new protagonist if I decide to move in a different direction…



Thursday, April 18, 2024

Part Two of My Conversation With James D.F. Hannah

 Welcome back for the conclusion of my conversation with Shamus Award-winning author James D.F. Hannah. Latecomers can catch up with what happened last week here.

OBAAT: Interesting thing about your Lee Child “airport reads” comment. People tend to use that term as dismissive, but there’s a unique skill set to writing that kind of book and still have it hold the interest of people like us who expect more than a way to kill time. No less an authority than Leonard Bernstein, possibly the greatest musician this country ever produced, once said his greatest frustration was that he never wrote a hit song. He admired those who could crank them out and had nothing dismissive to say about their work. To me, if pure entertainment is something Bernstein held such respect for, I’m not going to knock it.

JDFH: What Bernstein did was obviously high art. It was important, and we assigned a particular value to it. But it was necessarily of greater value than a Top 40 song? The question becomes what do you value, doesn't it? Are we creating for the ages or are we filling the down time in other's lives? We study Shakespeare as a great artist, but we forget he wrote for the common man of his time, and filled his plays with not just monumental monologues and imagery, but also with dirty jokes and double entendres. Cornell Woolrich and Chester Himes were pulp novelists in their days, but now we discuss the themes and their importance to modern crime fiction.

As always, it goes back to Elmore Leonard, who wrote more effortlessly than almost any author. What's his quote? "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Leonard is one who straddles that line between pure entertainment and critical respect. Obviously no one's ever done this particular thing better than Leonard, though. No less than Martin Amis called Leonard "a literary genius," and I've always thought it was because he brought a great joy to the page. He loved entertaining people. He loved the way words could sing on a page. The rhythm of patter and the sudden burst of violence. There was never a greater message he was striving for than to keep you reading to the end of the page.

This could almost roll back to a conversation we've had, about politics inherent to various novel genres. There's the apocryphal quote by Samuel Goldwyn about movies and "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." What are your thoughts on the role of artistry and "messages"? 

OBAAT: Elmore Leonard was a genius at what he did so I’m going to set him aside here. I believe Goldwyn’s alleged comment is what someone would say who cared about the bottom line and nothing else; an MBA comment. We see it all the time in television. I’m old enough to remember when commercials fell between segments of programs; now it seems as though they drop in a little programming to fill the void between commercials. I’m sure it was always this way, but they’ve now dropped any pretense.

I turned off the movie Maestro half an hour in, in large part because it too overtly tried to be “artistic” to the detriment of telling a story. That doesn’t mean I don’t like a little art in my entertainment, but it needs to be subservient to the story. Clint Eastwood is a master at this. Unforgiven and Mystic River are great stories he tells with artistic directorial touches that never interfere with the enjoyment of those who aren’t interested in them.

Speaking of Mystic River, Dennis Lehane is the master of telling a story that has a message. In addition to Mystic River, The Given Day, and especially his newest, Small Mercies, there are definite messages that the reader can choose to ignore if all they care about is the story.

That’s the art of it: to send the message without writing a screed. My early Forte novels are entertainment built off premises I thought were worth exploring, even if the final product was different from the original intent; The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of was supposed to be about the memorabilia industry. Once I started writing Penns River I began to feel as though I needed to speak for towns like those I grew up in. I also knew that if the story alone wouldn’t hold readers’ attention, any point I wanted to make would be lost, so I tried to fit that aspect in between the lines as much as possible.

Now I’m more inclined to take a “message” and find a plot I can craft a story around to describe it. Bad Samaritan looks into misogyny and men’s rights activists; White Out deals with white supremacy; The Spread is built on the corrosive properties of the ever-increasing gambling culture; the new Forte, Off the Books, is largely about human trafficking. While not nearly as good as Lehane at this, I like to think if you asked someone what each of those books are about, most will describe the story, but some will mention the underlying message. That’s what I’m shooting for.

You’re no stranger to this. The Henry Malone books exist in a culture of poverty and institutional neglect that is often overlooked, and you do a wonderful job of creating imperfect yet empathetic characters. Is that what you set out to do, or do you find your just went to write a story and these qualities couldn’t help but come out?

JDFH: Eastwood is such a great reference point for this, because I've read a lot about his directorial style—basically keep the camera in focus and trust the actors to do their job—and his trust begins with the writers to deliver a story and strong characters. There are several anecdotes where he hired on to direct a movie and rather than film the script filtered through the notes of various executives, he went back to the writer's first draft, to the purest form of the vision, and that's what he made. 

As someone who just read Off the Books, I can see where there's a message in the book, but it never gets in the way of the story. I think that's important, because when creators in any medium forget the primary goal is to entertain, then you end up with something akin to those educational films from our youth, the ones that warned us about safe driving or the evils of drug use.

When I started work on Midnight Lullaby back in 2014 (Christ but has it actually been ten years?), what was important to me was putting on the page an Appalachian experience I understood. I was a journalist for many years in southern West Virginia, and I knew it was a complex region that couldn't be defined in broad strokes. Good, bad, or indifferent, Appalachia isn't just Hillbilly Elegy—a trash book that oversimplifies economic and cultural struggles in an area that has suffered at the hands of others while also being its own worst enemy. You're talking more than a century of complex factors that have played into Appalachia being what it is today, and I wanted whatever I put on the page to reflect that. Politics, economics, religion, all of these things have made Appalachia what it is today, and you have to be able to talk about that if you're going to talk about the region, the same way writers like S.A. Cosby or Eli Cranor or Attica Locke talk about the changing face of the rural south.

This said, yes, story is first and foremost in every book. But I never wanted the characters to be cookie-cutter; they're influenced by environment, but there's always more to people. Bobbi Fisher in Midnight Lullaby, the family of marijuana growers in Complicated Shadows, Crash in The Righteous Path and the later Malone books, the pregnant couple in Because the Night—they're all fighting to exist on their own terms, against a world that wants them to be nothing more than someone else's expectations.

Talking about not comparing yourself to other writers, but does anyone do this type of thing better than Daniel Woodrell? Books like Winter's Bone or Tomato Red are filled with heartbreaking characters trapped under generations of disadvantage, but they remain full-throated individuals with hopes and dreams and aspirations, who refuse to be explained away by others.

On a side note: If you haven't seen the movie American Fiction, I can't recommend it enough. It's very much about the tendency of culture to reduce people to stereotypes, and it tells this story while also exploring some fascinating family dynamics. Great, great stuff.

#  #  #

That was a lot more fun than I expected, and I expected a lot. Look for more of these in the future.







Thursday, April 11, 2024

A Conversation with James D.F. Hannah, Author of the Shamus-Winning Henry Malone Novels

 I’ve known Shamus Award winning author James D.F. Hannah since before I knew he was James D.F. Hannah. We’ve had many long-form conversations at conferences, sometimes alcohol-fueled, sometimes not. When I heard a comment of his on a podcast a while back I knew I needed to get into it with him. Since we weren’t going to see each other for a while, I started an e-mail thread that became more wide-ranging than I expected, much as our in-person conversations typically do. This week’s blog begins the conversation, which will conclude next week.

One Bite at a Time: Jimmy, thanks for stopping by. A few weeks ago you appeared on Terrence McCauley’s podcast Spies, Lies, & Private Eyes. The entire event is well worth our readers’ time, but you made a comment that particularly resonated with me when you compared the current thriller concept of constantly raising the stakes to the relatively lower stakes in your Henry Malone novels. I don’t have the exact quote, so forgive me if I don’t phrase it well, but the gist was that the average person rarely has to break government codes to defuse a bomb that will ignite a nuclear holocaust, so you don’t deal with things like that. Your stories may have what seem to be lower stakes, but they’re still life and death for those involved. Do I have that essentially right, and would you care to elaborate?

James D.F. Hannah: That's basically spot on. The books that interest me are never that near-operatic storytelling where the whole world is at risk, where there are biological weapons or computer codes or a billion dollars at stake—because how do you relate to that? My ideal stakes are finding out what a character will do for a few thousand dollars and a used car. What pressures can you put someone under that they'll do the worst for the least? 

Plus, I grew up in eastern Kentucky, reading Lawrence Block and Ed McBain and Robert Parker and Sue Grafton, and just the idea of a city felt exotic. But those writers really wrote about comparatively small stakes: Saving Paul Giacomin (Early Autumn), find a missing daughter (B Is for Burglar), or just maintaining a semblance of civilized order (basically all of the 87th Precinct novels). Plus, the main characters were relatable and human and (at least for a while for Parker and Spenser) fallible. As an early reader that felt like something I could attach to more than whatever was going on in most Ludlum novels.

But I know in your own work, you lean toward the relatable protagonist and the smaller stories that nonetheless are huge and vital to the characters. Your Penns River novels combine the scope of McBain's 87th Precinct books or Joseph Wambaugh's various California cop novels with the rhythms of a small town, so something about those smaller stakes draws you also, doesn't it?

OBAAT: Absolutely. I don’t think of my books – your books, all the books we’re talking about here – as having “smaller” stakes; I think of the stakes not being as broad in scope. Ludlum or Brad Thor may place thousands/millions/billions of lives at stake, but none of that matters to Mitch Fisher if Henry can’t find Mitch’s sister Bobbi.

And the motives of the grand stakes novels are typically…what? Millions or billions of dollars? Megalomaniacal impulses? Eeee-vil? (Bwahaha.) Bad things typically are done for relatively small or personal reasons, what Hannah Arendt called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

You and I agree, but we are clearly outliers; the big bucks are in potentially apocalyptic thrillers. That’s what people prefer to read, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. Do you have any ideas?

JDFH: The easy answer is escape. Consider Reacher, for example. He's this outsized piece of fantasy fulfillment, for both men and women. He's intelligent, he's the size of a semi, he's attached to nothing and yet also fiercely loyal, he doesn't talk much, and wherever he goes, there's trouble, and he's there to fix it. He makes someone like Spenser—once the high-water mark for an infallible protagonist—look like Kramer from Seinfeld. Plus, you can read a Reacher novel and enjoy it and almost immediately forget it and move on to something else. Nothing lingers from a Reacher novel, nor it is intended to.

And if it sounds like I'm picking on the Child brothers and Jack Reacher, I'm not, and even if I was, I'm sure they've made more than enough money to salve those particular wounds. I've enjoyed several Reacher books, and other writers working in that genre. These are termed "airport reads" for a reason. They're the books you gift your dad at Christmas. The stakes are big, and they're entertainment, and not meant to be much more than that. I never feel a need or desire to return to these books, to relive passages I enjoyed, or to savor the closing pages.

I can't say the same for books where the stakes are merely life or death for a handful of characters I've come to love over a few hundred pages. Think about Scudder's final confrontation with James Leo Motley in A Ticket To the Boneyard, or the revelations at the end of Ross Macdonald's The Chill. For something more recent, consider the gorgeous poignancy of the last chapters of S. A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears, or the utter heartbreak at the end of Ivy Pochoda's Sing Her Down. These are endings which hang with you because you feel the immediacy of their lives, where you understand big-ticket heroism is easy; it's tougher in the smaller strokes.

But I think a larger answer is also the Marvel problem—where every Marvel movie seemed to be about saving the world, or saving the universe, and after a while, once you can't raise the stakes any further, do the stakes even matter? You know they're saving the world in the end, so then what? 

Whereas for me, some of the most successful Marvel properties were the series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage. Here you had those street-level stakes. Okay, sure, eventually there were ninjas, but you had flawed and vulnerable characters who were broken and made mistakes. No, they weren't your next-door neighbor, but they were more relatable than a six-five slab of muscle with a buzz cut.

Or what about the Nolan Batman movies, and The Dark Knight? That movie works for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the point toward the end where the two boats are rigged with explosives and you see these characters wrestling with a decision. Sure, there's plenty of points where Batman has to save the city—he's always saving the city—but for me, the best storytelling wrestles with these ethical quandaries, and that's tougher to do on the larger scale.

Now, storytelling seems to be expected to always be those bigger stakes, and it doesn't leave much room for the smaller questions to be asked, but oftentimes, those are the things which make the story worth telling to begin with.

#  #  #

Come back next Friday for the second half of my conversation with James D.F. Hannah.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Dix-Neuf Deux


The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently discovered the French-Canadian series 19-2 and watched all thirty episodes in a week. (Full disclosure: Bruce Robbert Coffin told us about this show last July. It took until January for us to get around to it. That’s entirely on me.)


19-2 is the story of two patrol officers in Montreal; they ride in Car 19-2. Nick Berrof (Réal Bossé) is a bit of a cowboy who lost his partner to a serious brain injury in a shooting that occurred under suspicious circumstances. The bosses don’t like Berrof; some think he’s dirty. They partner him with an officer transferring in from the Quebec Provincial Police, Benoît Chartier (Claude Legault). Their relationship is problematic for multiple reasons which I’ll not go into as knowing too much will spoil the fun. Suffice to say they come to an understanding and the relationship grows.


I was never a cop but everything I’ve heard and have learned about street patrol and internal politics indicates 19-2 is as realistic a show as you’re going to find and is a sterling example of how realism, applied properly, does not make fiction any less compelling. Season 2 opens with Berrof and Chartier as first on scene at an active shooter event in a high school. I have never seen a more compelling episode of television.


There is plenty else to like. Unlike most American shows, these cops’ first impulse when arriving at a scene that does not lay out as they expected is to call for backup.  The friction between cops who want to do things right and those who expect their failings to be ignored is expertly examined. The storylines that deal with personal lives never become soap opera-ish and always have the ring of truth to them.


19-2 is also a wonderful example of how to be artistic in service of the story rather than being artistic just because the director knows how to do it. The school shooting episode is full of little things that put you right there. A later episode shows Berrof and Chartier approaching a house. The camera shifts to their backups as they seek another entry point; the two leads then appear in the foreground, out of focus at first, in an elegant way to show multiple things are happening without a lot of distracting jump cuts.


The show is in French—well, Canadian French, which the Francophone Sole Heir will tell you is not “real” French—with English subtitles; the subtitles are not always easy to read. That said, we discovered early on there was a parallel English version using different actors and we chose to stick with the French, as we had already come to identify with the actors and their characters. I don’t feel as though I missed anything by having to read the subtitles, as the photography allows ample time to also read the actors’ faces.


The only TV show I can think of that is on a level with 19-2 is The Wire, and you all know how I feel about The Wire. Placing 19-2 a notch above NYPD Blue is no slam to David Milch’s brilliant show. 19-2  is that good.


(We have since watched the entire series again after learning it was leaving Netflix later this month. The second time I took notes.)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Winter's Favorite Reads

 Brown’s Requiem, James Ellroy. His first novel and a first-rate debut. Fritz Brown has enough resemblance to a traditional private eye for readers not to be made uncomfortable by some of his unorthodox activities. Ellroy’s style is not the staccato, scandal rag voice of his more recent work, but it ain’t Chandler, either. I’ve been thinking about going back to his earlier works for years, but my dissatisfaction with his last couple of books put some urgency to the idea. I’m glad I did. I’ll mine this vein for a while now.


The Delta Star, Joseph Wambaugh. I know I’ve said this about several writers, but here I go again: Not his best, but Wambaugh is so good even a pedestrian effort by his standards is still better than ninety percent of what else is out there. No one has ever conveyed how cops think and react better.


The Detective Up Late, Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy is back, and the world is a better place for it. A Catholic detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles, Duffy is assailed and mistrusted from all directions and has to fight to carve out his own niches of justice, or as close as he is allowed to get. McKinty’s writing is as good as ever and several years away has not diminished his ability to make Duffy’s saga compelling. The book reads as if it could be the end of the series, though the door is ajar for more should the author feel the impulse. Let’s hope he does.


Baseball Obscura 2024, David Fleming. Fleming wrote for the Bill James web site until James shut it down last fall. Fleming responded with the closest thing I’ve seen to James’s Baseball Abstracts since James wrote the Baseball Abstracts. The writing and analysis are predominant over the numbers and Fleming’s writing is up to the task. Early editions had too many typos, but my understanding is that corrections have been underway. Probably not of much interest to those who are not seamheads, but there’s a lot here for those who are.


And Every Man Has to Die, Frank Zafiro. Book Four of the River City series, and Zafiro keeps right on rolling. Each book so far has looked at different aspects of the police by using different characters, so the setting is truly paramount here. All the books read well as standalones, though I am enjoying going through them in order for the context provided.


Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, Elizabeth Bruce. I’ve been a fan of Bruce’s writing since we were in a workshop together in 2002. Her novel, And Silent Left the Place, is among my favorites through several re-reads. Every story in this collection begins with “One dollar,” but where she goes from there is unique each time. Bruce has a gift for dialog and capturing emotions without beating the reader over the head to make sure they get it. A delightful and insightful collection.


Mucho Mojo, Joe Lansdale. The second Hap and Leonard has all the things people like me enjoy in Lansdale’s writing: humorous dialog, tongue-in-cheek descriptions, and plenty of action. The middle of this one is a little slow and I can live without some of the philosophical discussions the boys engage in, but this is a solid series I’m sure to return to.


The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley. This book gets better every time I read it. The story meanders and what the case is about doesn’t become clear until late, so if you like instant gratification, keep reading for the exquisite writing, which never becomes self-indulgent. The reveal of what’s been going on is jaw-dropping. Ross Macdonald never wrote a sicker family dynamic more beautifully.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

 Last weekend marked the annual Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in the Suffolk Conference Center at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront in Suffolk, Virginia. You should be able to retain the “Suffolk” part by now, so I’m going to refer to it as SMAF from here on.


This was my fourth SMAF, though the first two were virtual, thanks to the pandemic our president at the time assured us would only affect fifteen people, tops. The Beloved Spouse™ joined me last year when we were first able to attend in person and we both looked forward to this year’s event.


The previous organizer left for another job around the first of the year, but the transition was seamless and this year’s festival didn’t miss a step. It’s always a remarkably well-organized event, and no one takes better care of authors than the folks at SMAF. They order your books for you and donate any that don’t sell to local organizations. The swag they provide is also exceptional. The hotel couldn’t be more convenient—it’s in the same building—and the staff go out of their way to be helpful.


This year’s Special Guest Headliner (SGH to insiders) was Donna Andrews, so you know the opening interview, conducted by Art Taylor, was a lot of fun. This was followed by three hour-long panels:

Woman of the People: Inspiring Female Characters.

Nerve Shredders: Crime Fiction to Keep You Up At Night.

Cozy Does It: The Quirky Small Town Detective.


All three were first rate and ably led by Shawn Reilly Simmons, E. A. Aymar, and Grace Topping, respectively, though Mr. Aymar appeared to be emotionally, physically, and (especially) intellectually drained after his effort.


SMAF is not a conference so much as a true festival, where readers have an opportunity to meet authors informally and chat as much as they want, as the schedule is not such that everyone is kept running. A reception before the SGH interview allows folks who paid a premium to nosh while chatting with the authors, and these readers deserve great credit for their ability to suppress their revulsion over most authors’ hygiene and eating practices.


Everything wraps up at 6:00, after which the authors and their personal guests are treated to a dinner better than what is typically considered a banquet at most hotels. The bar remains open, is in “free,” until nine..


SMAF is a treat for both authors and readers. Interested authors can check them out online and ask to be included when invitations go out, usually late in the fall of the previous year.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Off the Books Available Today

Today is the “official” release date for the sixth Nick Forte novel, Off the Books. I say “official” because I could have made the book available anytime I wanted, it being self-published and all. I picked a date not quite at random, as I’ve been rebranding the previous Forte novels at a rate of one per month, generally on the third Friday, and saw no reason to change.


It's been six years since Bad Samaritan and Forte has not mellowed. The things he’s seen, the things he’s had to do—and let’s be honest, some of the things he’s chosen to do—have worn on him. The hardness at his core has become harder and he’s quicker to go to it, with daughter Caroline serving as the sole leavening influence in his life.


His detective agency has fallen apart in the aftermath of the events in Bad Samaritan and Forte keeps the lights on and the mortgage paid doing background checks out of his home office. He pays for the finer things in life by taking cash gigs for which there are no contracts and nothing to tie him to the job. These activities aren’t necessarily illegal—he’s not breaking legs or accepting contracts—but he spends much more time in the gray areas than he did before.


What bothers him most in his new arrangement are the people he works for. Respectable businesses require contracts and don’t want him to do anything that might sully their reputations. People less accountable with their money have their own motives for hiring Forte and may prefer not to have anything linking them to whatever needs to be done.


Allan Worthington wants his missing daughter found, but on the down low because the girl might be an embarrassment to his business associates. Donald Bower’s wife witnessed a fender bender in a small town that ended with a drunk driver brandishing a handgun; Bower wonders why the local police seem uninterested.


Forte travels to Lundy, Illinois to look into Bower’s case and stumbles onto something he didn’t expect and can’t ignore. (I’d tell you what it is but that’s kind of the key plot point in the story and it would be a spoiler. Even though I am not a financially motivated person, I would like to sell some of these books.)


He finds himself on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to fix this situation and making those responsible pay for what they’re doing. Forte being Forte, he sometimes has trouble prioritizing. Mayhem ensues.


How much mayhem? More than Forte bargained for, and he doesn’t always come out on top. Witness this excerpt:


This time it was five guys in civilian clothes waiting for me in my room. One in each chair, one in the hallway that led to the bathroom, one leaning against the wall nearest the door, and one stretched out on the bed with his hands behind his head like he was watching a ball game Sunday afternoon.

The one on the bed took charge. “Shut the door.”

Running wasn’t an option. I closed the door and positioned myself with my back to the corner.

Jefe sat up on the edge of the bed. A big man with a round, hard belly. His hair had receded back even with his ears to leave his forehead with a pronounced hat line. His hands were rough and callused. He wore a denim shirt outside his jeans over a gray tee. “You were told to stay out of Lundy.”

We wouldn’t be talking if they’d come to kill me. I was about to catch a beating sure as the sun was coming up over Indianapolis about now. The trick was not to provoke them and still hide the fact my sphincter was up around my Adam’s apple. “I’m not in Lundy.”

Jefe laughed. Said, “Pete” and the one nearest the door hit me under the floating ribs like he wanted to see his fist come out the other side.

No point pretending it didn’t hurt. Best I could hope for was to let on I’d seen worse and wasn’t about to roll up in a ball and cry for mommy.

They gave me all the time I needed to be able to speak. I put as much resonance into my voice as I could. “We’re all working men. I know you’re just doing your job here. So was I, and I’m about finished. Came back to get my stuff and go home. How about you rough me up a little so you can tell your boss you did and we’ll call it even?”

Jefe smiled again. I appreciate a good-natured heavy. “The only part about that you got right was when you said you were finished.”

“I said about finished.”

Jefe shook his head. “Trust me. You’re altogether finished.”

A gnawing doubt grew in the back of my mind. Maybe in Lundy they did bullshit with people they were about to kill. I’d been wrong before. “You won’t respect me if I roll over too easy.”

Someone had to say it. “We don’t respect you now, asshole.”

Jefe stood. “Let’s go outside.”

Deal breaker. Whatever was going to happen had to happen here, where there was a chance someone might notice. “Uh-uh. Say your piece, do what you’re gonna do, and we’ll go our separate ways. I’m not leaving with you.”

Jefe nodded. His colleagues each took a step my direction. I drew the .45 from its holster at the small of my back. “Here’s my counteroffer: you five go outside and hit the fucking road. I see you’re gone, I’ll load up the car and drive home.”

Jefe shook his head maybe half an inch in each direction. Said, “Boys” and the other four had guns in their hands faster than a teenage girl can whip out a cell phone.

This had to become personal for someone other than myself. I thumbed the .45 to full cock. Took a step toward the boss. Leveled the old Army Colt square between his eyes. “I can’t take everybody, but I can take you. How sure are you I won’t kill you with a reflex even if they get me with a head shot?”

He must have been pretty sure. I only had time to hear the sap swish through the air on its way to the back of my head before it dropped me through a hole in the floor I hadn’t seen before.


Off the Books is available on Amazon. Paperbacks are $8.99 and the e-book is $2.99. That’s not a typo. An honest-to-Bantam paperback original, six inches by nine, for only $8.99. I’ll still make a few bucks and you don’t have to take out a mortgage to read a story.


Who loves you, baby?