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.

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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.

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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.)