Category Archives: David Corbett

The Wildcard Tuesday New Year Interrogation

Zoë Sharp

The first moon of 2013

Welcome to the first Wildcard Tuesday blog of 2013, and an enormously Happy New Year to you all. For this I asked a few lighthearted questions of fellow ‘Rati past and present, and below are their answers. I hope you find them worthy of a giggle.

(As a small aside, I started off searching for sensible author pix, but what I’ve actually ended up going for are the silliest pix that came up on the first page of a Google Images search on that author’s name.)

ALLISON BRENNAN

Where did you choose to celebrate the holiday season this year?

Home, as usual.

What would have been your ideal location?

Home! (Though, I would have liked to have gone to Disneyland right after Christmas … maybe next year!)

What was the best—or worst—gift you’ve ever received?

My husband once gave me an electric grout cleaner. Needless to say, I never used it.

The best—or worst—meal or item of food you’ve been served—or served to others?

The absolute best Christmas dinner we’ve had was when I decided to cook prime rib instead of the standard turkey or ham. It was pricey, but oh-so-delicious! I think that was back in 1997 …

What’s your idea of the Christmas From Hell?

Traveling for Christmas.

Looking back, what was your favourite moment from 2012?

Watching my oldest daughter graduate from high school—and hearing her and the Seraphim Choir sing the National Anthem. They were amazing.

I’m not going to ask about New Year’s resolutions, but do you have one ambition, large or small, you’d like to achieve in 2013?

Walk daily, meet my deadlines, don’t sweat the small stuff.

And finally, what book(s) have you brought out this year?

Two Lucy Kincaid books from Minotaur/SMP—SILENCED and STALKED; a short story in the anthology LOVE IS MURDER; an indie published novella MURDER IN THE RIVER CITY.

And what’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

A Lucy Kincaid novella in March (RECKLESS), and two more book STOLEN and COLD SNAP. Plus a short story for the NINC anthology and maybe another indie novella. If I have time.

 

DAVID CORBETT

Where did you choose to celebrate the holiday season this year?

Home alone, if “choose” and “celebrate” are the correct verbs. Mette arrives on the 28th, so things should get merrier at that point.

What would have been your ideal location?

Buenos Aires. Ireland. A beach in Mexico.

What was the best—or worst—gift you’ve ever received?

Best gift I ever “received” was one I gave. As a gag gift I bought my late wife a red flannel union suit with a button seat flap that she absolutely loved. Slept in it all the time. Cozy as hell. Damn, she was happy.

The best—or worst—meal or item of food you’ve been served—or served to others?

When I was a kid one of my classmates’ families came over during the holidays and brought cookies that literally made me gag. I picked one up, sniffed it like a cocker spaniel, recoiled, and put it back. My brother started bellowing, “You touched it, you have to eat it.” Unfortunately, King Solomon (my father) agreed. I almost upchucked trying to get it down.

What’s your idea of the Christmas From Hell?

Oh, let’s not go there.

Looking back, what was your favourite moment from 2012?

A weekend in San Antonio for the wedding of one of Mette’s dearest friends, when I got introduced to the inner circle. Also, the moments when I read the cover quotes I received for THE ART OF CHARACTER. I was incredibly humbled and grateful so many writers I respect said so many kind and generous things.

One ambition, large or small, you’d like to achieve in 2013?

Make the new book a success, and wrap up the novel I’m working on to my own persnickety satisfaction.

And finally, what book(s) have you brought out this year?

Open Road Media and Mysterious Press re-issued all four of my novels in ebook format in 2012, with a brand new short story collection titled KILLING YOURSELF TO SURVIVE.

And what’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

The new book, THE ART OF CHARACTER, comes out on January 29th, 2013 from Penguin.

 

ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF

Where?

New Orleans.

Ideal location?

It’s hard to top New Orleans.

Best/worst gift?

Well, there’s this pretty spectacular amethyst necklace…

Best/worst food?

I’ve served many a bad meal to others. For everyone’s sake I stopped trying to cook long ago. Personally I don’t care much what food gets served, but I do remember one Christmas morning in London with blackberry jam on waffles and whisky for breakfast. The blackberry jam ended up all sorts of places and it was all very lovely.  I could do that again.

Christmas From Hell?

It’s hard to narrow that down, actually. Endless scenarios spring to mind. I hate being cold, though, so winter is perilous.

Favourite moment from 2012?

For public consumption, you mean? The general reader response to HUNTRESS MOON has been a real high.

One ambition in 2013?

I’d like to find a really wonderful place to live.

Books this year?

My crime thriller HUNTRESS MOON, a boxed set of three of my supernatural thrillers called HAUNTED, a novella called D-GIRL ON DOOMSDAY in an interconnected anthology with three other dark fantasy female author friends: APOCALYPSE: YEAR ZERO. And I got several backlist titles back and put them out as e books at wonderfully affordable prices: THE UNSEEN, BOOK OF SHADOWS, THE HARROWING and THE PRICE.

And for 2013?

The next book in my Huntress series comes out in late January:  BLOOD MOON. My next book in the paranormal Keepers series, KEEPER OF THE SHADOWS, comes out in May.

I’m selling my house in January and buying another as soon as possible, probably in California.

 

PD MARTIN

Where?

Every year we have Christmas Day at our home (in Melbourne) and then go down to the Mornington Peninsula (seaside) for most of January. It’s the hottest time of year here in Oz, so it’s great to be near the beach. We stay in a 1970s holiday house my grandparents bought in 1972, and given I spent summers down there as a kid it’s particularly special to now be going down there with my children.

Ideal location?

The Peninsula is pretty good 🙂 Although we’ve always said that one year we’ll do a white/winter Christmas in New York or something.

Best/worst gift ever received?

Best gift I ever received was actually for my birthday this year—my Kindle. I’m a complete convert to the point where I can’t imagine ever reading a ‘real’ book again. I prefer the Kindle reading experience for some reason.

Best meal?

I am biased, but I make a mean Tira Misu. I got the recipe from a chef and it’s divine! And great because you make it a day or two before, so it’s one thing to cross off the food preparation list early.

Christmas From Hell?

Mmm….I guess having to run around. You know, multiple visits. We do that a bit on Christmas Eve, but I enjoy the fact that then on Christmas Day we just kick back. We start with oysters at midday, then it’s prawns (yes, on the BBQ), then an Asian style salmon fillet dish then Tira Misu (at about 4pm). Then a movie!

Favourite moment from 2012?

That’s easy for me—picking up our son, Liam, from Korea and making our family of three a family of four 🙂

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I’ve got a few books I’d like to finish. And hey, a best seller or a lotto win wouldn’t go astray either.

Book(s) this year?

THE MISSING (two short stories), WHEN JUSTICE FAILS (two short true-crime pieces), HELL’S FURY (new book in spy thriller series), and two novels for younger readers that I’ve released under the pen name Pippa Dee—GROUNDED SPIRITS and THE WANDERER.

What’s next?

Probably what I’ve been doing the past few months—juggling motherhood and writing…and feeling like I’m going to crack under the pressure! 

 

JT ELLISON

Where?

Nashville and Florida.

Ideal location?

A family trip to Italy would have been fun.

Best gift you’ve ever received?

I got engaged during Christmas 1994, so that ranks up there….

Worst meal?

Italy, Cinque Terre, a large full fish the size of a cat, with its baleful eye staring up at me… I swear the thing was still breathing. Ugh! 

Christmas From Hell?

There’s no such thing. I love Christmas.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Seeing my DH in his gorgeous new kilt for the first time. *fans self*

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I want to learn how to paint. In oil, large canvas abstracts. 

Book(s) last year?

A DEEPER DARKNESS, EDGE OF BLACK, STORM SEASON

And for 2013?

Writing, writing and more writing. Deadline January 30!

 

 MARTYN WAITES (half of Tania Carver)

Where?

At my in-laws. The kids wanted to go to see all their cousins. They love a big family get together. As for me, I’m pretty bah humbug about it. I don’t care where I go or what I do or whether I get any presents or not. As long as I get to see Doctor Who, I’m happy.

Ideal location?

Somewhere abroad. Morocco would be good. If they were showing Doctor Who.

Best/worst gift ever received?

I’ve been lucky enough to get plenty of presents. I can’t think of specifics in terms of best or worst, but for me the worst kind of gift is the thoughtless kind that someone has put no effort, time or care into. The best ones are the ones you absolutely want. Even if you don’t know you do until you get them. I was lucky enough to get one of those this Christmas.

Best/worst meal?

At Christmas? It’s all the same. I’m not a fan of Christmas dinner. Or any roast dinner for that matter. I eat it, but that’s because it’s what you do at Christmas. Like getting into water and swimming. The best meal I was ever served was at a Persian restaurant in Birmingham in 1988. It involved chicken and pomegranates and I’ve never tasted anything like it to this day. The restaurant disappeared soon afterwards in a kind of Brigadoon fashion and I sometimes wonder whether I actually went there. As for bad food . . . loads. In fact, it probably outnumbers the good food. That’s why I try to remember the good ones.

Christmas From Hell?

Being forced to spend time with people I hate. That goes for the rest of the year as well. And not seeing Doctor Who.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Well, I wrote about my favourite cultural things on the last Murderati post—Y Niwl and the Hammer films retrospective—so they would be there in a big way. But other than that, it was something very small and personal that I’m afraid I couldn’t share and that I doubt anyone would be particularly interested in.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I do. I can’t say anything about it in case I jinx it, but it will be the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition. Or at least I hope it will.

Book(s) this year?

CHOKED, the fourth Tania Carver book came out in September in the UK. THE CREEPER, the second one, came out in the States. There have been other editions round the world and I think Russia finally got round to publishing my 2006 novel, THE MERCY SEAT.

And 2013?

Finishing the new Tania, THE DOLL’S HOUSE, which I’m uncharacteristically quite pleased with. Although it could all go horribly wrong. And then there’s the afore(not)mentioned secret project . . .

 

GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD

Where?

At the family’s new home in Glassell Park, which we moved into in October.

Ideal location?

At the family’s new home in Aspen, Colorado, which doesn’t exist.

Best/worst gift ever received?

The best was a dictionary.  It was given to me many years ago by a wonderful woman who at the time was my mother-in-law to be.  She knew I was an aspiring writer and gifted me accordingly, which, oddly enough, no one in my immediate family had ever thought to attempt before.  I still own that dictionary, too.

Don’t get me started on the worst gifts I’ve ever received.

Best/worst food?

The best, far and away, is the egg nog my godfather makes over the holidays. It tastes great and man, does it have a kick to it.

Never been given a fruitcake as a gift, and I pray I never am.

Christmas From Hell?

I think I actually experienced it last year.  Attended the worst Catholic midnight Mass possible: cornball music, pointless sermon, and theatre lighting (the service was being video-taped) that would make a mole cover its eyes.  Awful.

Favourite moment from 2012?

The family’s spring break vacation in the Galapagos.  Unbelievable!

One ambition for 2013?

Completion of a manuscript that a conventional publisher buys for a tidy sum.

Book(s) last year?

Didn’t have a book published this year, though my Aaron Gunner novels were re-released as e-books by Mysterious Press/Open Road.

And for the early part of 2013?

Early?  Maybe my first book for middle-graders, which my agent is shopping now.  Later in the year?  With the grace of God, a publication deal for my first Aaron Gunner novel in almost 10 years.

 

STEPHEN JAY SCHWARTZ

Where?

Stayed at home with the wife and kids—enjoyed the beach and the beautiful Southern California weather.  Played Scrabble and hung out in cafés.  Enjoyed a big meal of matzoh ball soup and tofurky.

Ideal location?

Ireland.  Clifton or Dingle, to be precise.

Best/worst gift ever received?

I haven’t paid attention to holiday gifts for a long time.  I think the worst gift I ever got was for my bar mitzvah—it was a belt buckle.  No, actually, perhaps the worst was the beer stein my father gave me for my high school graduation.  This, instead of the car I had my eyes on.

Best/worst item of food?

Probably that tofurky we had last week.

Christmas From Hell?

Again, tofurky takes the price.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Seeing my son come back healthy and happy after a two-month hospital stay in Wisconsin.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

Main ambition—work to live a creative life, 24/7.

Book(s) this year?

Move along, nothing to see here.

What’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

Move along, nothing to see here either…

 

BRETT BATTLES

Where?

The first half I spent in a hot, tropical location with my feet in the water, a beer nearby, and a Kindle in my hand; the second half at home in L.A. with my kids, my parents, and my sister and her kids.

Ideal location?

Nailed it this year.

Best gift ever received?

This year I got the complete set of Calvin & Hobbs from my parents. It was perfect!

Best food?

I made a pretty awesome ham this year that was juicy and delicious. Hmmm, I’m craving leftovers right now!

Christmas From Hell?

Not being able to spend time with my family.

Favourite moment from 2012?

It was a pretty good year all around, so one event…? Going to San Diego for a week with my kids and parents was pretty damn fun!

One ambition for 2013?

Just more of the same … write, travel, and spend time with friends and family.

Book(s) last year?

2012: THE DESTROYED (Quinn #5), PALE HORSE (Project Eden #3), THE COLLECTED (Quinn #6), and ASHES (Project #Eden #4)

And for 2013?

At least four more novels (hopefully five), including a secret collaboration I can’t quite talk about yet.

 

TESS GERRITSEN

Where?

At home. With family.

Ideal location?

Exactly the same place.

Worst gift you’ve ever received?

An orange pantsuit.  I mean, really. My husband has not bought me anything orange ever since. (I’m guessing it didn’t look like this, then, Tess? ZS)

Best/worst meal?

For Christmas?  Not one bad meal sticks out.  On Christmas, everything tastes wonderful.

Christmas From Hell?

Being stuck in an airport. Far from family.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Standing on the Great Wall of China, with my husband and sons.

One ambition, for 2013?

To finally plant a vegetable garden that the deer can’t demolish.

Book(s) out last year?

LAST TO DIE was published this past summer.

And what’s on the cards for 2013?

Early 2013, I am headed to the Amazon River.

 

PARI NOSKIN TAICHERT

Where?

At home in peace. No requirements, no expectations. I just let myself be.

Ideal location?

The only other place I can imagine being this calm and relaxed would be Antibes . . .

Best gift?

Probably the best gift I’ve received so far is an essay my younger teen wrote about a difficult incident we shared last year and how it has taught her empathy. Made me cry, it touched my heart so.

Best/worst meal?

The best meal remains one brunch I had in Puerto Rico: fresh flying fish brought in that morning from a catch in Barbados, steamed bread fruit, Barbadian yellow hot sauce, fresh mangos picked minutes before from a tree just steps from where we ate.

Christmas From Hell?

I think it would be one filled with efforts to make it perfect, so many efforts that they’d hit the tipping point and tumble down to the other side of happiness.

Favourite moment from 2012?

The one where I finally realized I’m going to be all right, that the trials of this last year may continue . . . but they’re not going to pull me down into the depths of despair anymore.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

Yes.

1. I’d like to e-publish the book that “almost” sold to NYC. It’s the first in a new series and I’d like my character to meet readers and vice versa.

2. To continue to explore my creativity in whatever ways it’s now manifesting, to give myself permission to let it fly.

Book(s) last year?

Nothing in 2012. I’ve been in hibernation for many reasons including the whole copyright issue and the divorce.

And for 2013?

To begin writing again and to enjoy it . . .

 

ZOË SHARP

As for me, I also spent Christmas this year with my family, which was where I wanted to be.

My ideal would probably have been a ski-in/ski-out chalet somewhere with plenty of snow. Not necessarily for skiing, but definitely for sculpting. I never did get to finish that Sphinx …

As for my ambitions for 2013, to find a life/work balance and to continue to improve my craft.

And books? In 2012 I brought out two e-boxed sets of the first six Charlie Fox novels, plus several short stories, and of course, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten.

In 2013, DIE EASY is hot off the press in the States. I’m also editing two new projects—a supernatural thriller called CARNIFEX, and a standalone crime thriller called THE BLOOD WHISPERER, as well as working on the first in a new trilogy, the first in what I hope will be a new series, a novella project I can’t say too much about yet, and—of course—Charlie Fox book eleven. That should keep me going for a bit 🙂

So, it only remains for me to wish you all an incredibly Happy New Year, and to thank you for your comments and your feedback during 2012.

An Interview with the Inimitable Tony Broadbent

By David Corbett

I first met Tony Broadbent at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera, California. I wondered who this handsome, smart, dapper, witty, self-effacing, charming, utterly intimidating Brit could be.

I wanted to hate him—how could he be so goddamn brilliant—effortlessly so—at absolutely everything? But as I quickly learned, hating Tony Broadbent is just not an option. Fortunately, befriending him proved much easier than I’d imagined.

Tony’s the author of three of the most intriguing, suspenseful, and beautifully written thrillers I’ve ever read, all of which take place in post-war London:

The Smoke (named by Booklist as both one of the best first novels and one of the two best historical novels of 2002)

Spectres in the Smoke (Winner of the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award, named by Booklist as one of the best spy novels of 2006, and named an IMBA “Killer Book” for November 2005)

Shadows in the Smoke (just published—distinctions pending)

(Note: As those of you acquainted with Tony’s work well know, “The Smoke” is a nickname for London.)

Not surprisingly, Tony’s work has garnered exceptional praise. For a full sampling, visit his website. But to give you a modest taste:

The Smoke takes its time concentrating on its main suspense story; after all, there are so many dark alleys and byways in London to explore (the great crumbling theaters, fry shops like The Victory Cafe, where customers can still get “a good nosh”) that the novel is easily diverted from its spy-vs.-spy machinations. Not a problem. Jethro’s illicit adventures are entertaining, but this is one of those mysteries whose distinctive sense of place lingers long after plot details have faded. —The Washington Post

Broadbent honors—with understated admiration and moments of high-quality local humor—the spirit of London’s (postwar) inhabitants. Cary Grant could have played Jethro perfectly. —Chicago Tribune

Tony studied art in London—for a taste of his artwork, check out his covers (below), all of which he designed—then he worked as copywriter and creative director at some of the best advertising agencies in London, New York, and San Francisco, before opening his own agency. He’s now a consulting brand strategist, planner, and ideator (whatever the hell that is) for clients in the U.S. and Europe.

So—let the Q&A commence:

David: Every time I hear you discuss your books, I’m impressed by the personal connection you have with the material, especially the setting: Post WW2 London. Victory seldom looked so harsh and hollow. And yet you bring the time and place to life in a way that testifies to an incredible vigor of spirit—and earthy wit. Could you speak for just a moment on why you chose this particular time in English history, why it affects you so deeply, and why it’s so important to you to convey it to readers with the richness of atmosphere and detail that you do?

Tony: Firstly—thanks very much—David—for the opportunity to hang out—as they say—with the Murderati.

The Jesuit credo: ‘Give me a boy till he’s seven and I’ll make you the man’ holds true for the country and times we’re born into. And if I can misquote Graham Greene—‘England very much made me.’ I was born mid-century—not long after the end of World War Two—an event that radically changed the political map of the world and its peoples and led to the Cold War. Those events of sixty plus years ago still directly influence events today.

The Second World War—and its aftermath—was very much a time of heroes; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It’s been hailed as “the Greatest Generation”—and quite rightly so in my opinion—and we continue to owe them a huge debt. They’d won the War, but then had to survive the peace.

In England, the government was forced to introduce severe austerity measures that went on well into the Fifties. Bread was rationed—and it hadn’t once been on ration during the war—as too were almost all consumables—foodstuffs, beer, clothing, furniture, motorcars, and petrol (gas). Meat was on ration until 1956. Sweets (chocolate and candy) came off ration in 1953 as ‘gift’ to the nation’s children to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—after which they put it back on ration for another three years. (Probably the reason why so many of my generation still have sweet-tooth cravings.) All of which led to a British mind-set that harked back more to the ‘Thirties’ than the future. And which—in many ways—gave rise to the ‘angry young men’ movement of late-Fifties British theatre and literature and film and—in all probability—the teenage yearning for and addiction to rock ‘n’ roll and ultimately the explosion of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. 

And as with everyone else in postwar Britain, I was steeped from birth in the mythology of the times. So writing The Smoke novels not only gave me the opportunity to go back and explore the country—and the city—that made and formed me—it’s allowed me to appreciate it all the more.

As for that ‘postwar’ London of bombed-out broken buildings and bombsites—it was all still there—well into the Sixties. And when I was nipper—a very young kid—my father would take me up to London—for the fun of it. (He loved the city.) So I actually visited many of the areas I write about—Church Street and Petticoat Lane (street markets) in particular—and actually saw Jack Spot—‘Spottsy’—one of the Lords of The Underworld—on Church Street. And I suppose our ‘body memories’—the sights, sounds, and smells of time and place—never really leave us—not if we’ve truly loved them in the first place.

 

David: Each of the books explores a distinct aspect of post-war austerity, adversity, and survival. You’ve tackled the threat of Communism, the surprising rise of post-war fascism (and the ties between British Royals and the Nazis), the rise of organized crime amid the bombsites and ashes. Is there a historical arc intended in the books? Or are there at least certain historical or societal events or changes you find particularly compelling, and use for your stories?

Tony: The arc of The Smoke novels—publishers willing—stretches from the late Forties through to end of the Fifties. Postwar Britain seemed immeasurably grey and forever frozen in black and white—and not only because of newsreels and newspaper photographs of the period. The actor Terence Stamp—who grew up in postwar London’s East End—once said that it was only when The Beatles burst onto the scene in 1962 that the whole of England—London particularly—seemed to erupt into Technicolor.

So the stories—all of them based in ‘The Smoke’ (Cockney slang for London Town)—and most all of them steeped in London’s criminal underworld—take the reader from the wartime government directive of ’make do and mend’ all the way to the emergence of the consumer society. And along the way—as background—I touch upon various key UK events; everything from the surprising and very alarming resurgence of Fascism (in response to Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government), the 1948 London Olympics, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, to Cold War espionage, the Deadly Fog of 1952, the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, and the Suez crisis of 1956.

David: You’re not just a master of setting and milieu. The other brilliant creation in the series is its hero, the cockney cat-burglar (or “creeper”) commandeered by MI-5, Jethro—Last Name Unknown. In him you’ve given us a completely British creation who nonetheless adheres to the Chandlerian diktat: He walks the mean streets but is not himself mean. Where in the smithy of your soul did you find him?

Tony: There’s that old saw, to ‘always write what you know about.’ So I peopled The Smoke with people, places, and events I knew of or had heard of or read about. Jethro—the Cockney cat burglar and jewel thief—is based on the father of an old friend of mine­­­—who I never ever met—but who was an honest to goodness London cat burglar. And as my ‘old china’ (Cockney rhyming slang: old china = old china plate = mate) had a career in the London theatre, I put the two together—added a dash of one or two of my favorite British actors and—‘voila’—I came up with our Jethro.

I also cast my own dad as a character—cast a wonderful old teacher of mine as another—and based another key recurring character on a friend from my days at art college. Later, when I found out the father of a writer friend of mine had served in the OSS and then CIA during and after the War—I had him as one of the main characters in Spectres In The Smoke. The reason? They’re all heroes in my book—which is why I also have Ian Fleming and David Niven—two other particular heroes of mine—in major walk-on parts. Then I have them all meet up—back in London—back when they were all in their prime.

So all the characters—Jethro especially—are amalgams of characters witnessed—real or imagined. I’m a child of my times and thus I’m very much a child of mass media—books, comic-books, pop-songs, radio, television, films. And so Jethro is a reflection of those times—and if not exactly a working class kitchen-sink hero—even though one reviewer likened him to a proto-Bond—he’s not a ‘clubland’ hero, either. I hope he’s someone you’d like to have a drink with—spend some time with —in a pub or on a long walk.

David: You’re justly praised for your command of cockney slang—and feel free to riff on that if you’d like—but I think your style in general is simply marvelous. I always sink in to your books because you draw me in so completely with the world you create through language. Your voice is unique and yet natural. You trained in the visual arts and in music—Little Known Fact: You design your own covers—where did you develop such an engaging prose style?

Tony: Thanks David—that’s very kind of you to say so. Language—voice—is very much a part of time and place and so as much as I can I try to follow the rhythms and patterns of London itself—very much a character in the stories—but I also then try to make it all very accessible—rather than merely a dry historical tract—by adding copious dashes of humor and—dare I say it—humanity.

I write in first person—and refer to the stories as it were told by Jethro as ‘Creeping Narratives—(in this case ‘creeping’ referring to the Cockney slang for burglary)—even so, the pacing is measured in that I only ever reveal what Jethro would actually know at any one time. So fast food it isn’t.

When I write—I always hear Jethro in the voice of Michael Caine—born and bred in London—and one of Britain’s finest film actors—and very much a man who oozes humanity and humor. Though the younger Murderati out there will perhaps know him best as Alfred the butler in the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ film trilogy starring Christian Bale as the caped crusader (Again—our heroes are ever important—regardless of how they might kit themselves out)—Caine has made some truly wonderful films over the years. All I have to do is read some lines of narrative in Caine’s (younger, Cockney) voice and I’m away and running, so to speak.

Cockney or Rhyming Slang evolved in the East End of London over hundreds of years—its natural habitat, the docks, the markets, the streets, the theatres, the taverns and pubs. It’s thought to have originated from the soldiers and seamen—and thieves—who frequented London’s vast docklands and the waves of immigrants—Russian, Jewish, French-Huguenots, Irish and Chinese amongst others—all of whom at one time or another have called the East End of the city, home.

Slang—usually defined as colloquial alternatives to standard language—is probably as old as human speech—and on the surface it might appear as being little more than linguistic playfulness—but Cockney Rhyming Slang and its sub-set, ‘back-slang’— “rouf”; “neves”; “yob”—was originally a ‘secret’ language that intentionally excluded the uninitiated and was as exclusive a London club as any to be found in Pall Mall or St James’s. Much the same could also be said for polari—the secret language of London’s gay community when homosexuality was strictly forbidden by law and subject to swingeing prison sentences.

David: What comes next for Jethro—and you?

Tony: The next book in the series is called Skylon In The Smoke—and follows hard on from events in Shadows In The Smoke. It sees the start of a major power shift in London’s Underworld—witnesses the Festival of Britain—and touches upon MI5 and the emerging dark and murky world of the postwar atomic spies. And all before Jethro even has a chance to put on his turtles (a little more Cockney rhyming slang: turtles = turtledoves = gloves) to go do a bit of burglary.

 

David: One last question. I mentioned music in a preceding question. You had something of a career in music as a youth in London, and you’ve written a book with a unique look into the Beatles. Could you share a little about either of these endeavors—or, happily, both?

Tony: Again it was more a function of the times—than true musical ambition or design. The Beatles opened up the door for many a lad in Britain in the Sixties. I just jumped through the opening with a guitar in my hand, along with almost everyone else I knew. And was lucky enough to witness—up close—the early days of some now legendary bands. Also, being in a rock’n’roll band and playing rhythm and blues was a great way to meet girls or ‘birds’ as they were called back then. All wonderfully captured in the words of the great Bob Dylan—“The times they are a’changing.”

We had no idea—of course—of the true extent of any changes and absolutely no way of knowing the long term effects we might have on society or even on ourselves—but to be a teenager—back then—and share in the music—somehow made you feel you were connected to every other teenager in the world—language or culture didn’t seem to matter at all. It was the attitude—the hope—that ‘a way’ was opening for something really new—something that would be better for everyone. It truly seemed to be a magical time.

As I mentioned before—it’s all to do with the teenage yearning for meaning that for me—in my youth—was all part of the ‘pop’ culture explosion—in popular music, the arts, fashion—even sexuality—of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. A little of which I’ve tried to explore in the mystery novel I’ve just completed that revolves (at thirty-three-and-a-third) around the early days of The Beatles—and others—in the Liverpool, Hamburg and London of yesterday.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros—any questions for the Inimitable Mr. Broadbent–Art? Music? History? Cockney Slang?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I asked Tony to name the hero for this post but he graciously declined, deferring to my judgment. And following along in that spirit of generoisty, I’ve chosen an hour-long concert by Elbow, a British act that whose lyrical genius and melodic inventiveness calls to mind that former UK vanguard Tony remembers so fondly above.

(Note: I owe my introduction to Elbow to frequent Murderati contributor Gordon Harries, who also introduced me to Richard Hawley, who makes a featured appearance on the following video, joing Elbow for “The Fix is In”):

Caring to Care

By David Corbett

Breaking News: I’ve just learned my interview with Mysterious Press’s Rob Hart is packaged with Otto Penzler’s interview with Nelson DeMille on a just available FREE podcast through iTunes. Just go to the iTunes store, search for Mytserious Podcast, look for the MP logo among the offerings, and there it will be.

This time of year is often called the Season of Caring—the better to distinguish it, I suppose, from the rest of the year, aka the Season of Sneering Unconcern. (Or: the Season of Scaring.)

Caring has been on my mind not just because of the season, though. Two recent articles in the New York Times had me thinking a bit more deeply than usual about the whole issue of caring—how much we can, for how long, and why we often try not to.

In her piece titled How to Live Without Irony, Christy Wampole argued that the current zeitgeist, especially among millennials, requires an almost kneejerk rejection of caring, or at least seeming to care.

 

She blames some of this on the obsession with digital technology, which overwhelms slower, more demanding, more human connections.

But there’s also the lingering fear of finding one’s passions and desires wanting. Christy admits when it comes to gifts, she’d rather give a kitschy knick-knack, good for a moment’s laugh, than try for something meaningful and have the recipient disappointed.

In this view, irony is the terror of the pain that accompanies being authentic, imperfect, human. It’s a kind of armor against shame.

I learned to care when I stopped trying to be the smartest guy in the room—or the class clown—and realized I actually wanted a meaningful connection with someone else. It truly hit home in my marriage—no more so than when Terri got sick and passed away. (Or, as one of Christy’s friends put it: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”)

And yet a lack of irony can be just as self-defensive and false. Tyrants lack irony, zealots lack irony. For them the hyper-sincerity of unquestioned belief is the armor against shame.

Regardless of the emotional spectrum—dour with power or hip and flip—it’s genuine connection with others, the ability to care and accept the pain of loss and rejection and error, which proves to be the most difficult thing.

The second article I read that had a real impact—“New Love: A Short Shelf Life” by Sonya Lyubomirsky—concerned what’s known as hedonic adaptation—or, more colorfully, the hedonic treadmill. (No, it won’t firm up your thighs.)

Hedonic adaptation is the now widely accepted and broadly verified phenomenon by which we naturally “normalize” experiences of profound joy or bliss or excitement after a certain period of time. Sexual passion for a loved one normally lasts about two years, for example. A new toy may lose its fascination well before nightfall on Christmas Day.

Being happy, it turns out, is a lot like being tall. After about age thirteen, the fix is in. Your general state of personal happiness is largely hard-wired.

And this is significant to the extent we pursue caring because of the joy it brings us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think caring born of fondness is more likely to survive than concern born of moral obligation. But maybe I’m wrong.

To truly care deeply one has to crawl out of the foxhole of the ego and both see someone else clearly, as best you can, and allow yourself to be seen. It’s simple to state. Why is it so hard to do?

Why are we so beholden to an idea of ourselves? Our persona, our identity, our ego—call it whatever you want—it’s the collection of tactics, impressions, and feelings that make up who I usually consider myself to be. It’s the machine that allows me to go out in public and not be afraid I’ve got my fly down—or toothpaste on my chin.

And yet few experiences are as rewarding as when you find someone who lets you put down that mask. It may well be that there’s just another mask waiting, a slightly deeper one perhaps. There may not be a ‘true self,” just one “personality” after another, like the layers of an onion.

But there’s one bit of advice I got in my early twenties that’s as true as anything else I’ve ever learned: You don’t know yourself by yourself.

This can lead down a false path as well, of course. We all know people who “live for others,” and who seemingly would collapse into an empty husk if left alone. Solitude is maddening for such a person, a haunting scream of emptiness. It’s not that they’re lonely. They’re afraid, without someone else there as echo, that they cease to exist.

I guess I’m looking for a golden mean, on the one hand rooted to some core sense of who I am, and on the other open to the kind of change meaningful connection offers. Because if we’re not going to allow others to affect us, to make us feel and worry and laugh and give—to make us care—why bother? And caring changes us.

Sartre had it exactly backwards—hell isn’t other people, it’s ourselves. It’s being locked in the isolation of “personality.” (Interestingly, Sartre himself came to this same conclusion after the war, and devoted himself to political and social engagement.)

The truth is hard, not because it’s complicated but exactly the opposite. Human truth is simple, which is what makes it maddening. We want to love and be loved. We want to care. If it weren’t so sneakily difficult due to the habit of ego and the pieties of selfishness, we wouldn’t restrict that caring to a mere one month per year.

I could connect all of this to the writing of our characters, but this post is already far too long. Maybe I’ll get to that next year. (Oh please don’t, I hear you cry.)

Meanwhile: Who is it in your life that most instinctively arouses your impulse to care?

How has your connection to that person grown over the years?

How has the manner of your caring, or the things you care about, changed with that connection?

Happy Holidays everyone—I’ll see you next Tuesday for Wildcard Tuesday

with the British/American thriller writer Tony Broadbent,

and again the day after Christmas.

Merry Merry, Don’t Be Scary.

* * * *

Wait! It wouldn’t be Christmas without blatant self-promotion:

My short story, “A Boy and a Girl,” is the featured offering in the sweetly named Out of the Gutter 8, edited by the inimitable Joe Clifford. It’s available in Kindle edition now, with print versions forthcoming.

Also, as mentioned last time, I’m teaching a ten-week online course through UCLA Extension beginning on January 16th. The course is titled The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters, and covers the art of characterization from conception of the character through development and execution on the page.

Last, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have re-issued my third and fourth novels — Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running, respectively—in ebook format. Follow the links to purchase the titles.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: It’s time for those Christmas Classics, and the chestnuts haven’t roasted till Robert Earl Keene, Jr. sings “Merry Christmas from the Family:”

Cover Quotes – Credible Praise or Irredeemable Corruption?

By David Corbett

First, some business to square away – I’m teaching a couple of courses I’d like everyone to know about. If you or someone you know would like to register, follow the links I provide below.

The first is an in-person weekend class and workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera on December 1st & 2nd. The class is titled Character Spines and Story Lines, and will focus on how to integrate character with story to create focused, compelling, character-driven plots.

The second is a ten-week online course, beginning January 16th, offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It’s titled The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters, and covers the art of characterization from conception of the character through development and execution on the page.

Also, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have re-issued my third and fourth novels — Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running, respectively — in ebook format with, imho, killer new covers:

 

 

They’ve also created a swift little video for the rollout, in which I characteristically talk far too quickly about nothing much:

Follow the links to purchase the titles, and remember there are two days left of the special November promotion in which The Devil’s Redhead (and 99 other stellar titles) are all available for $3.99 or less (TDR is a lean, mean $2.99).

* * * * *

Now, to our regularly schedule programming:

I had a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. I got to meet my girlfriend Mette’s parents for the first time – they spend much of the year abroad, living for several months in Bergen, Norway, another several in Izmir, Turkey – and spent several restful days at a lakeside cottage in the Putnam Valley (not far from Sleepy Hollow), eating sumptuous meals, hiking in the woods, and listening to vinyl on our host’s knockout stereo (his record collection ranged from Bowie to Herbie Hancock to Fela to Sonny Boy Williamson to, well, you get the picture).

I also received from my editor at Penguin, Tara Singh, a jpeg for the finalized cover up my upcoming book, The Art of Character:

Oops. My apologies. I tried to post the cover, but I only have a pdf file,

and apparently I need a jpeg or similar file. I’m going to try something here — let’s see if it works. If not, sorry.

 

The cover was completed after I was able to scrabble together some blurbs from assorted friends, colleagues, comrades in arms. Given the rather ragged path to publication this poor little book has endured – I’m on my third editor, for example – I was given a very narrow time window (two weeks) to gather these quotes, which all but guaranteed that we’d come up short-handed.

All the writers I know are super-busy, and asking for a quote in such a short time frame was almost embarrassing. Many of the writers I asked simply couldn’t oblige, but luckily there were a significant, generous few who were able to take the time and respond.

As you know, this past year there was a rather heated debate over the use of “sock puppets” to praise one’s own work and, in extreme cases, attack the work of others. Alexandra and Martyn both posted blogs here on the topic. And the resulting discussion all around the web brought into high relief the entire issue of garnering favorable opinion for one’s work – whether in the form of friends writing Amazon reviews, writing reviews oneself under pseudonyms, or good old-fashioned, genuine third-party praise.

Barry Eisler, in addressing the sock puppet phenomenon, put it in the context of acquiring blurbs, a system he considers “irredeemably corrupt.” I’m not quite as jaundiced as Barry, but I’m no fool. I realize that many cover quotes are written as personal favors or as a kind of quid pro quo for kindnesses or acts of generosity provided elsewhere. I also know they don’t always reflect a genuine knowledge of the work. As Robert B. Parker famously remarked: “I’ll blurb the book or read it, not both.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

I think most people understand all this. Readers don’t take cover quotes as gospel any more than they read Yelp reviews without a certain reasonable skepticism. Ultimately, we evaluate several reviews and/or blurbs, “weigh the source,” glimpse at the book ourselves, and form our own opinion.

That said, I was absolutely overwhelmed with the generosity, kindness, and respect my fellow writers showed my humble little book. My editor was frankly stunned – and ecstatic. Here’s a sample:

“David Corbett has written a wise, inspiring love letter to all the imaginary creatures inside our minds—so we might conjure them whole on the page. I predict that massively underscored copies of The Art of Character will rest close at hand on writers’ desks for many years to come.”  —Cheryl Strayed, Best Selling Author of Wild

“I once made the mistake of writing a story with David Corbett. The man smoked me. He can delineate the character and personality of an accordion in three strokes. I didn’t even know accordions had character. This act of generosity and wisdom from a very good writer will help anyone who is staring at a blank page, any day, any time. Highly recommended.”  —Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Finalist and Bestselling Author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

“Corbett’s The Art of Character is no “how to” book or “writing by numbers” manual.  It is a writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul.”  —Elizabeth Brundage, Best Selling Author of A Stranger Like You

Indispensable. Few are the writer’s guides that are written as beautifully, cogently, and intelligently as a well-wrought novel. This is one of those books.”  —Megan Abbott, Edgar-Winning author of The End of Everything

“David Corbett’s The Art of Character belongs on every writer’s shelf beside Elizabeth George’s Write Away and Stephen King’s On Writing. An invaluable resource for both the novice and the experienced hand, it’s as much fun to read as a great novel.”  —Deborah Crombie, New York Times best-selling author of Water Like a Stone

“The topic of character development begins and ends with David Corbett’s The Art of Character. This is the book on the subject, destined to stand among the writings of John Gardner, Joseph Campbell, and the others of that select few whose work is fundamental to understanding the craft of storytelling.”  —Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria

“David Corbett’s The Art of Character offers a deep inquiry into the creation of character for the novice writer, with valuable nuggets of wisdom for the seasoned storyteller. If you are a writer, it should be on your desk.”  —Jacqueline Winspear, National Best Selling Author of A Lesson in Secrets

“Clear-headed and confident, David Corbett takes us through the steps of characterization in a manner that resists formula while at the same time demystifying a process that has likely daunted every writer since Homer. “  —Robin Hemley, Award-Winning Author of Turning Life into Fiction

“David Corbett has combined his unique talents as a gifted writer and an extraordinary teacher to create a superb resource on character development. Deftly crafted and impeccably researched, The Art of Character is a thoughtful and insightful book that is immensely readable and practical.”  —Sheldon Siegel. New York Times Best Selling Author of Perfect Alibi

 “It is rare to find the deep philosophical questions of literature (and life) met with such straight-forward and inspiring instruction. But David Corbett is that writer, and The Art of Character is that book.”  -—Robert Mailer Anderson, author “Boonville”

“This fine book is about as thorough an examination of character and what it means in all sorts of imaginative writing as you’re likely to find anywhere.”  —Robert Bausch, Prize-Winning Author of Out of Season

Yes, they all could be lying, or exaggerating, or simply doing me a good turn. But I think, when readers look inside the cover, they’ll be able to determine for themselves whether the praise was warranted or not. In the meantime, I’m basking in the glow – and feeling very fortunate indeed.

So, Muderateros – how do you appraise the value of cover quotes on a book you’re thinking of buying? Do you agree with Barry Eisler that the system is so ridden with underhandedness as to be worthless? Or does the opinion of a writer you admire still carry weight?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I mentioned that I got to listen to Fela this weekend at my lakeside hideaway. For those of you unacquainted with this African megastar-hero’s work, this is an excellent introduction – “Zombie,” from 1976:

 

The Movie in Your Mind

By David Corbett

I spent last weekend attending the 2012 Noircon, the biannual lovefest to all things noir devised and convened by Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan in Philadelphia. 

I love this festival, which is far more intimate and writer-centric than most others I’ve attended. The participants largely form a congress of equals, and there is never a great divide between the contributions of the various panelists and the comments from the floor. It’s a smart group, widely read and not shy, and I always come away learning more that I could have imagined.

This year was particularly exceptional, with what at times seemed to be a continuous string of highlights. That said, one presentation stood out for me—the keynote talk by Robert Olen Butler.

Butler’s a gracious, witty, generous man with a knife-like body and a steel-trap mind. An astonishing talent, he’s written thirteen novels, six story collections, nine screenplays, an essential guide to writing (From Where You Dream—trust me, read it), and has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship in addition to an almost unseemly bundle of other awards and distinctions.

Why, I hear you ask, is such a literary hotshot slumming at Noircon?

Well that’s an interesting question, one ironically answered by Otto Penzler the day before Butler spoke. Otto explained how, after studying English and American Literature at the University of Michigan, he discovered crime fiction and promptly realized that its best practitioners owe apologies to no one.

Butler agrees, not just in theory. His most recent novel, The Hot Country, is a historical thriller set in Mexico in 1914, combining intrigue from both that country’s revolution and the worldwide cataclysm routinely known as World War I. The plan is for nine more novels in the series, all to be published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

But what Butler chose to discuss at Noircon was craft—specifically, the way in which fiction mimics the cinematic portrayal of events in the mind. (His remarks, I now know, were a distillation of his chapter, “Cinema of the Mind,” within From Where You Dream.)

The American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, Butler informed us, once remarked that he owed everything he knew about cinematic technique to Charles Dickens—who died years before the advent of film.

By way of example, Butler turned to the following passage from Great Expectations, which appears shortly after the narrator, Pip, sets the stage, identifying himself and his family, then continues:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

Butler called our attention to several techniques here, all of which have cinematic elements, and there are two particular points that stuck with me, involving the first and the third paragraphs.

Butler noted that the first paragraph serves as what in film is routinely called the establishment shot—setting the story in its initial setting. We start at a distance in a long shot then move in to the nettles of the churchyard and the headstones in arresting close-up, then look out across the landscape again, as though to put those deaths in perspective.

That perspective is not local. Dickens moves beyond the “low leaden line” of the river to : “the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing … the sea.” A great many writers might leave that phrase out. Such an omission, he argued, would be a mistake, for the establishment shot doesn’t just lay out the scenery. This crucial phrase broadens not just the physical landscape but the thematic one, extending our view not just to the immediate environs but to the world at large, setting the stage for so much of the story to come, and hinting at its universality.

And then, with incredible boldness, Dickens snaps us back again to “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry,” the narrator himself, Pip. This movement in and out creates a marvelous sense of the larger savage world and the small scared soul that form the essential focus of the tale, and do it subtly with this implicit, cinematic movement in and out of the action.

Similarly, the third paragraph might readily find itself in many a writer’s Dead Darling file—another error. It’s not just the unnerving description of Magwitch we’d lose. Note the suspense that builds by separating “I’ll cut your throat” from “‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror.” Note also how that tension is created and how it builds. There are no independent verbs in the main clauses of any of the sentences, for the desired effect is one of attenuation—Pip staring in terror at the man emerging before him—and verbs in grammatical structure are the device for conveying movement in time. Omit them, and you’re standing stock still.

The next example was one with which more of the crowd was familiar, the first few paragraphs from the second chapter Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

A telephone-bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:

“Hello?…Yes, speaking…Dead?…Yes…Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the phone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco.

Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sitting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into the curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth.

He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money in his pockets.

As with the Dickens example, the main focus again resided on the creation of a series of mental images that form a vivid film-like sequence, visually clear in our minds, even including camera angles—the ceiling light shot from below, followed by the close up of the rolling of the cigarette, both mimicking Spade’s own focus.

But there’s more than that, too. Once again, suspense gets created through the use of detail an impatient writer might discard—or never visualize to begin with. Spade rolls himself a smoke right after learning his partner, Miles Archer, has been killed. We don’t know as yet for sure that the two o’clock phone call concerned Archer, and it’s not until later we’ll learn Spade was sleeping with Archer’s wife. Instead we get this enigmatic, slow-motion rolling of a cigarette. Its intrusion into the scene piques our interest, precisely because it doesn’t quite fit. It suggests without stating outright that Spade has something serious on his mind, and yet in the casualness of the activity we also sense no great alarm. There’s even a hint of relief.

Note: Interestingly, the day before, Lawrence Block had remarked that Hammett, sensing that his literary success might well depend on his novels being made into films, deliberately limited his descriptions to only what could be seen and heard. This wasn’t, as many have believed, a nod to Hemingwayesque technique. It was a professional calculation.

In the Q&A that followed his talk, Butler noted that as a teacher in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, he encounters some of the best aspirants to literary fame to emerge from the various MFA programs across the country. And all too often, “They know the second through tenth most important things about writing, but they don’t know the first.” The first, he explained, was that stories are about yearning.

He suggested that genre writers often understand this point well—if they sometimes have an insufficient grasp of the next nine most important things about their craft—because genre often has the yearning built into the premise of the form. Crime fiction is driven by the search for justice, romance novels by the craving for love, science fiction by the need to humanize technology, etc.

His talk burned a nasty little hole in my brain, and as soon as I could I got my hands on a copy of From Where You Dream and I’ve been devouring it ever since.

So, Murderateros — how does the cinema of the mind guide you in your writing? Do you take time to envision camera angles? Do you consider tempo in your descriptions? Do you play with quick alteration betweeen and long shots and close ups to create a dramatic effect between thematic or narrative extremes?

* * * * *

There were a great many other excellent presentations at Noircon, including but not limited to:

            —Well-deserved awards bestowed on Lawrence Block and Otto Penzler, with interviews of both men, giving Block a chance to, among other things, recount his days as a writer of lesbian romance novels, and Otto an opportunity to discuss how obscenely cheap real estate was when he bought his first store in Manhattan.

            —A panel on music with SJ Rozan and John Wesley Harding (who writes crime fiction under the pen name Wesley Stace), complete with songs.

            —A wickedly lurid, funny, and confessional true crime panel with Megan Abbott, Allison Gaylin, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya.

            —A blackly comic panel of cautionary tales from Hollywood featuring Lawrence Block, Duane Swierczynski, Anthony Bruno, and Ed Pettit.

            —And last but not least, a panel on burlesque and noir, with Lulu Lollipop, Frank De Blasé, Timaree Schmit, and Susana Mayer.

As I said, I had a gas, and I fully intend to return in two years. Even without Lulu Lollipop.

* * * * *

Blatant Self-Promotion Segment: For all the month of November, Open Road Media/Mysterious Press is featuring 100 titles for less than $3.99, including The Devil’s Redhead at a nifty $2.99.

If you haven’t yet read it, pick it up. If you have, share it with a friend. (Or an enemy. I can live with that.)

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In tribute to John Wesley Harding, who so graciously regaled us with song, here’s “Ordinary Weekend,” which he wrote after reading Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. (In his performance for us, he remarked somewhat sheepishly he should have practiced, and ended up forgetting several verses, only to offer some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: He said years of performance had made him utterly un-selfconscious about fucking up. Not that anyone cared. We were enthralled):

 

Masterpiece or Mishmash? Talking Cloud Atlas

By David Corbett

There’s an old saying: Critics are the kind of people who go out after a battle’s been fought and shoot the wounded.

That little chestnut came back with a vengeance when I read some of the reviews for Cloud Atlas.

Briefly #1: If you’re unacquainted with the novel by David Mitchell on which the film is based, or the basic outline of the six nested stories that make up the narrative, this summary by Wikipedia is serviceable.

Briefly #2: I was amazed by the film, touched to the point of tears more than once. I left the theater in a kind of marvelous daze, like I was walking on fog, something that rarely happens at the movies any more.

Apparently, this isn’t the consensus view, at least among the illuminati.

I may be one of the few people on earth who went into the theater expecting next to nothing. I’d not seen a trailer, I’d read no reviews, imbibed no other media hype, and I’d not yet managed to read the book. (I intend to correct that last limitation as soon as I can.)

My sole pre-viewing opinion came from a writer friend, Tom Barbash, who’d seen an advance screening and said the film rivaled Citizen Kane in its importance to American cinema—this from a Stegner fellow and Stanford professor who didn’t merely love the book, he read it four times.

But after viewing the film—more on that in a moment (don’t worry, no spoilers)—I was hungry for more information, especially when a friend informed me the reviews were “all over the map”—a phrase, interestingly, often used to describe the film.

And so I went to the ever-informative Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic websites to see what the wise ones were saying.

I’m sorry I bothered. I compare the experience to overhearing a circle of gossips carp and snipe about what’s oh so obviously hideous about your sweetheart.

On reflection, I too can see many less-than-successful aspects of the film. But I found little merit delving in to the orgy of self-congratulatory bile that in too many cases tried to pass itself off as legitimate criticism.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I see movies and books from the inside, looking at what was attempted, not just what’s there. I’ve learned to both enjoy the decor while also checking out the plumbing. And I was seduced by the ambition of Cloud Atlas. More than once, I sat there wondering: How are they getting away with this?

Clearly, many believed they got away with little or nothing. And they can’t say it spitefully enough.

Some of this I suspect is the usual professionalized envy that too often masquerades as criticism. Some of it is political—the Wachowskis are deemed “radical.” Some of it is the kneejerk railing against anything ambitious as “pretentious” or “pompous”—an opinion often expressed in flamingly pompous fashion.

But what I experienced over and over and over again while watching this film was the magic of the movies. I had a blast. There’s a just a visual, experiential joy to the film that I found not just inviting or seductive or infectious but engulfing.

The actors play multiple roles, crossing gender and color lines and playing a variety of ages. Is the makeup unconvincing in places? I’m enthusiastic, not blind.

Are some of the performances overly broad? You mean as in opera? So?

Is the theme delivered in ham-handed fashion or in leaden dialog?

At times. And I don’t minimize this fault. If you need to announce your theme, you’re doing something wrong. But the theme was also brought home so often by the visuals and the structure that I decided to overlook this limitation. Yes, I think the theme the filmmakers chose to emphasize is a bit simplistic, and that oversimplification created a somewhat cartoonish evil—The weak are meat, and the strong will eat—opposed by a less cartoonish but still unconvincing good—boundaries are illusions, we are all one. But the interplay of this theme in its various manifestations—some witty, some tragic, some melodramatic, some potboilerish, some hip—helped mitigate the simplicity by adding texture and contrast.

Is the movie as subtle, thematically suggestive or structurally ambitious as the book? Oh, please.

This last question seems to go to the heart of some of the most withering criticism. In just the sections I’ve managed to read so far, the prize of subtlety so clearly belongs to the book as to render the question irrelevant.

This isn’t the book. It doesn’t try to be, nor should it.

It’s a big budget ($100 million) film that needs to do well in many markets to earn back its investment. That means it has to honor the intent of the original while also playing to the cheap seats, not just here but around the world. For my money, it does so not just well, but marvelously.

However, despite earning a ten-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, it appears to be stalling at the domestic box office. The middling reviews are creating a downward drag; those who might have gone to see it are reconsidering. (How can I shout this loudly enough: Screw the reviews, go see it for yourself!)

Argo stole this past weekend’s top receipts, and Those in the Know opine that Cloud Atlas may continue languishing and lose out not just in receipts but at the Oscars to Argo, The Hobbit, and other weighty fall fare.

That’s a shame. Because I think it’s pretty cool that a literary novel can be turned into a great visual feast and a daring cinematic event that also induces that childlike wonder that reminds us of why we go to the movies.

And I think some of the criticism against Cloud Atlas results precisely from the fact it’s not as much of a “film” as some wanted, but rather a movie.

And that’s what I call shooting the wounded.

* * * * *

So, my readers: If you’ve seen the film, feel free to chime in.

If you haven’t, what criticism have you read lately that raised your hackles—or resonated with the truth?

Do you believe in a clear bright line between “movies” and “films”?

* * * * *

This is a repeat of information I provided yesterday concerning my upcoming class through LitReactor, starting Thursday. We still have a few seats available so sign up now.

NEW ONLINE 4-WEEK CLASS — BEGINNING NOVEMBER 1ST!

The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense, and Structure

in Detective, Crime, and Thriller Stories

Online at Litreactor

Building on my preceding course, The Character of Crime, I move from the Who of crime writing to the Where, What and How. (The prior class is not a prerequisite for this course. The subject matter to be covered here stands alone.)

In this 4-week course and workshop, you’ll learn the crucial role of setting in crime stories—perhaps the most setting-dependent genre in literature. You’ll learn how to let suspense emerge not from coincidence but as a natural extension of character, context, and conflict. Last, you’ll learn how to construct the “spine” of your story through structure, finishing up with an examination of the unique plot elements that characterize stories in the detective, crime, and thriller sub-genres.

SIGN UP HERE

The Classes:

Week 1 — Setting: How to Ground your Theme, Characters, and Structure in Place

Whether your story takes place in a pastoral village or a skyscraper jungle, how people live in a specific place and time will define the nature and limits of what’s deemed a crime, who gets called a criminal, and what stands for justice.

Week 2 — Techniques of Suspense: Character, Conflict, and Context—not Coincidence

The trick is always to make the reader keep turning pages. Creating suspense always requires a bit of legerdemain, but to do it well, you need to look deep inside your story, not rely on chance.

Week 3 — Structure: Letting the Conflict Shape Your Story

Three-Act structure too often strands the writer in a meandering second act. By understanding structure as an outgrowth of character, plot points become meaningful events in your story’s growing conflict, not just turnstiles in the plot.

Week 4 — Structural Beats for Specific Sub-genre Types: Detective, Crime, Thriller

Each sub-genre has its own unique thematic emphasis, and that’s reflected in the nature of the adversaries and the conflict they generate. Those variations result in unique structural emphases and expectations.

SIGN UP NOW!

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: One of the themes of Cloud Music concerns the seemingly recurring, perhaps even eternal nature of certain patterns of behavior–and musical refrains. My vote for timeless, in the realm of music at least:

 

Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials Project

By David Corbett

Note: In one of those timing anomolies we encounter from time to time, my current rendezvous with Wildcard Tuesday falls one day before my usually scheduled blog posting.

So I’ll be up here tomorrow as well. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)


I had the good fortune to attend a City Arts & Lectures interview with Jonathan Lethem last Thursday, with author Robert Mailer Anderson providing the Q’s for Lethem’s A’s.

It’s evenings like this that remind you just how little you’re accomplishing.

On the plus side, I was dazzled.

Lethem has such a fundamentally curious, protean, sprawling mind that he managed to discuss everything from his passion for music—the one art form to which he can truly surrender as a pure fan, since he has no talent in that realm—to life with his painter father, the death of his mother when he was thirteen, and the enduring influence of Raymond Chandler and Don DeLillo on his writing.

But what really intrigued me was his Promiscuous Materials Project. This is where he offers certain of his stories to screenwriters and dramatists at a nominal ($1) fee to adapt as they wish. (He does the same for certain song lyrics he’s written over the years, offering them basically gratis to songwriters.)

He admits to being influenced by Open Source Theory, the Free Culture Movement, and Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.

But the real impetus for this particular promiscuity came when both a filmmaker and a dramatist simultaneously sought the rights to adapt his novel Fortress of Solitude.

Normally, multiple adaptations are impractical, especially in film, given the need to secure all rights to attract investors. But Lethem did everything he could to make sure both artists had a chance to proceed. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

But he’d been similarly approached by multiple parties for some of his shorter work, and the idea of multiple versions of his stories, like different cover versions of a song, intrigued him so much he decided to put some of his stories out there to see what happened.

Due to contractual obligations with his publishers, he doesn’t allow the stories to be used as the basis for other written projects, i.e., as the source for other stories or novels.

But by making the stories available in this way, for films or stage performances, he hopes not only that more people will read the actual stories, but that those stories will acquire innumerable new lives in whatever artistic form their new creators see fit.

This is part of a larger movement, much of it currently restricted to digital or web-based art. But with Facebook entering the publishing world—with text available for open social comment and in some cases even revision—the world of the story as we know it is changing rapidly. The individual storyteller is leaving his solitary garret to become part of a virtual tribe, with the word on the page never fixed, but open to constant reworking, not just by the artist but the reader.

This is no doubt perplexing to many, terrifying to some, and appalling to not a few. Some may think it’s nothing but a vanity project. It smacks of piracy, and I’m sure some people fear it’s one more step toward the total impoverishment of working artists. It challenges our notions of individual responsibility, talent, and imagination. It’s also, apparently, inevitable in one form or another in arts across the board.

So, dear readers—what say you on promiscuous literature? An intriguing creative frontier, or the edge of the pit of doom?

* * * * *

Time for a little promotion. I’m teaching another online class through LitReactor, starting Thursday. We still have a few seats available so sign up now.

Here’s the skinny:

NEW ONLINE 4-WEEK CLASS — BEGINNING NOVEMBER 1ST!

The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense, and Structure

in Detective, Crime, and Thriller Stories

Online at Litreactor

Building on my preceding course, The Character of Crime, I move from the Who of crime writing to the Where, What and How. (The prior class is not a prerequisite for this course. The subject matter to be covered here stands alone.)

In this 4-week course and workshop, you’ll learn the crucial role of setting in crime stories—perhaps the most setting-dependent genre in literature. You’ll learn how to let suspense emerge not from coincidence but as a natural extension of character, context, and conflict. Last, you’ll learn how to construct the “spine” of your story through structure, finishing up with an examination of the unique plot elements that characterize stories in the detective, crime, and thriller sub-genres.

SIGN UP HERE 

The Classes:

Week 1 — Setting: How to Ground your Theme, Characters, and Structure in Place

Whether your story takes place in a pastoral village or a skyscraper jungle, how people live in a specific place and time will define the nature and limits of what’s deemed a crime, who gets called a criminal, and what stands for justice.

Week 2 — Techniques of Suspense: Character, Conflict, and Context—not Coincidence

The trick is always to make the reader keep turning pages. Creating suspense always requires a bit of legerdemain, but to do it well, you need to look deep inside your story, not rely on chance.

Week 3 — Structure: Letting the Conflict Shape Your Story

Three-Act structure too often strands the writer in a meandering second act. By understanding structure as an outgrowth of character, plot points become meaningful events in your story’s growing conflict, not just turnstiles in the plot.

Week 4 — Structural Beats for Specific Sub-genre Types: Detective, Crime, Thriller

Each sub-genre has its own unique thematic emphasis, and that’s reflected in the nature of the adversaries and the conflict they generate. Those variations result in unique structural emphases and expectations.

SIGN UP NOW!

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: On the subject of the inevitability of change, here’s They Might Be Giants, with their anthem to impermanence, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”:

 

The Pleasures of Re-reading Mystic River

By David Corbett

When I was trying to learn how to write, I took a course from Tom Jenks, formerly with Scribner’s (where he was responsible for editing Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden for posthumous publication) and currently the main force behind Narrative magazine.

One of the most important things I learned from Tom was that it was better to go back and re-read books that had a profound effect on you, or which you considered particularly excellent, instructive, or inspiring, than to be broadly read. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart, particularly since my writing career has so profoundly curtailed my time to read for pleasure.

It’s good to know that when I do read for the sheer enjoyment of it, I’m going to read something I know will scratch that particular itch.

One such book I picked up again recently was Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. This was my first re-reading, and I was amazed at how much more I enjoyed it the second time through. I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading to see how Lehane did certain things, and how many he did well.

His pacing is both leisurely and taut, not easy to do. You never feel rushed but you never feel like you’re meandering, either.

His prose evokes a profound emotional connection and also provides a vivid pictorial image without being showy.

His command of setting is as deft as Richard Price’s—high praise. I was awestruck by how intimately he knew these neighborhoods, and captured them for the reader. I know, he grew up near there, but familiarity isn’t enough. You’ve got to know what to include, what to leave out, and in both cases why.

His female characters are fascinating and rendered beautifully on the page.

His understanding of cops and how they work—more importantly, how they think and talk—is unparalleled.

And these last two points are part of a larger one: I don’t know a writer who captures the inner life of his characters as vividly, intimately, and movingly as Lehane does here. This skill isn’t prized the way it used to be. Screenwriting, an affliction a great many of us now suffer from, has taught us to emphasize what can be seen and heard, not thought or felt—or worse, explained.

There’s a lot to be said for that approach. Dramatic writing, relying on what characters do and say, benefits from the power it brings to the depiction of conflict.

But there are moments in Mystic River when a character is alone with his or her own mind and heart that are simply some of the most moving I’ve come across on the page in quite some time.

They’re the kind of moments that are all but impossible to capture on film, which is one of the reasons I’ve always found the film version of Mystic River wanting. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie. But I didn’t love it the way I loved the book.

So much of the pleasure of the book resides inside the character’s skulls, which is invisible to the camera. In particular, I thought the women characters were robbed of the subtle interiority that made them so compelling on the page.

That also contributes to another problem I have with the film, one that the story mage John Truby discussed in an online essay discussing story structure in which he used Mystic River, Intolerable Cruelty, and Runaway Jury as his examples.

His chief complaint about Mystic River’s screenplay goes as follows:

Mystic River uses the classic technique of showing the three lead characters as boys, when one of them is molested. The rest of the story therefore has to turn on how one boy’s ghost haunts all the boys as adults. But this central connection is never made. Yes, the molested boy, Dave, is a broken man. But the other two, Sean and Jimmy, seem to be no different than they were as kids. And Dave’s horror has no real effect on them as adults.

In the book, we see more clearly how Dave’s molestation has affected both Sean and Jimmy.

One of the most moving scenes in the first part of the book—a scene I’d largely forgotten until I re-read it—portrays Jimmy’s profound isolation and his yearning for female affection, not just from his fragile, troubled mother, but from his teacher who lavishes attention on Dave when he reappears after his abduction.

Jimmy’s the toughest of the three friends, which is what makes his longing so interesting. His desire for this kind of attention is so profound he fantasizes that it was him, not Dave, who got into the strangers’ car that day. That need for female validation defines Jimmy’s capacity for staying straight as an adult, and it explains why his daughter’s murder so deeply unhinges him. More importantly, it provides the connection of shame and perverse envy that links Jimmy’s youthful longing with the vengeful hatred he feels toward Dave as an adult.

As for Sean, he was the one who got out. His dad was a foreman at the Coleman candy plant, responsible for firing Jimmy’s dad, and Sean has never looked back after leaving East Buckingham. But that superiority was built on circumstance, not character. And the issue of luck plays out to tragic consequences when he’s unable to solve the murder of Jimmy’s daughter in time. It was luck that kept him out of that car as a boy, luck that got him out of East Bucky—and now, thirty years later, luck that draws him back in and, this time, turns against him.

It’s an old complaint, a great book ill served by its film adaptation. But I didn’t appreciation exactly why I so preferred the book until I went back and read through those pages again. 

But then, I forget a lot of things these days.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros—what book(s) do you re-read, for inspiration, education, or just the sheer pleasure of it?

* * * * *

Also, a little publicity for a new 4-week online course I’ll be teaching next month through LitReactor, called:

The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense and Structure in Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Stories

I’m expanding from the Who of crime to the What, Where, and How, with detailed lectures and manuscript review of student projects.

If you or someone you know might be interested, find out more here.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: The inmates (male and female) of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, the Philippines, doing their astonishing dance routine to Psy’s Gangam Style:

 

And the Nominee Is: Books to Die For

By David Corbett 

Due to numerous ungodly demands, I’m unable to do justice to a new post this week, but in celebration of the award nominations — including the Edgar and the Agatha to date — being extended to Books to Die For, the compendium edited by John Connelly and Declan Burke, I thought I’d offer it again. For those of you who haven’t yet picked up this book, it really is an indispensable guide to crime fiction by the women and men who love it so much they write it.

Last year, John Connolly asked if I wanted to take part in an anthology he and Declan Burke were planning, with the invaluable aid of Assistant Editor (and esteemed Answer Girl) Ellen Clair Lamb.

The premise: Ask some of the best crime writers in the world today what book within the genre—whether a classic, a modern masterpiece, an overlooked gem, or a long-forgotten pulp—most influenced them, inspired them, or otherwise led them to want to shove a copy into the hands of every unsuspecting reader they came across.

Compensation: A pittance, or a bottle of whiskey—Midleton Very Rare Blended Irish Whiskey, to be exact.

Guess what my answer was—both as to whether I wished to join the scrum and what form of compensation I preferred.

Turns out, I was in excellent company.

The result: Books to Die For, a compendium (love that word) of almost 120 pieces from writers around the world that hit bookstores in the U.S. yesterday. (It came out in the U.K. last month.) 

It’s truly a must-read for the crime aficionado on your Christmas list—or, as John and Dec put it perfectly in a word of appreciation sent out to the contributors:

Quite frankly, we don’t think there has ever been a line-up quite so starry in any previously published anthology, and the quality of the contributions was exceptionally high. In the end, the book functions not only as a reading guide, but as an overview of the genre.

That’s an understatement. Treated to my own copy, I’ve been reading the entries and marveling at the books chosen, the insights and historical perspective provided (the books are arranged chronologically), as well as the personal statements of awe and fascination and devotion—even envy.

To give you some idea of who some of the contributors are, just check out this list of those attending the promotional event at Bouchercon (Friday afternoon at 4:00 in Grand Ballroom A of the Cleveland Marriott Renaissance):

Linwood Barclay, Mark Billingham, Cara Black, Lee Child, Reed Farrel Coleman, Max Allan Collins, Michael Connelly, Thomas H. Cook, Deborah Crombie, Joseph Finder, Meg Gardiner, Alison Gaylin, Charlaine Harris, Erin Hart, Peter James, Laurie R. King, Michael Koryta, Bill Loehfelm, Val McDermid, John McFetridge, Stuart Neville, Sara Paretsky, Michael Robotham, S.J. Rozan, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Kelli Stanley, Martyn Waites, and F. Paul Wilson.

And that list neglects Elmore Leonard and Joseph Wambaugh and Marcia Muller and Rita Mae Brown and George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter and Laura Lippman and Jeffery Deaver and Bill Pronzini and Tana French and Louise Penny and Ian Rankin and Jo Nesbo and Megan Abbott and Sara Gran and John Harvey and Ken Bruen and Minette Walters and Kathy Reichs and Scott Phillips and Joe Lansdale and Chuck Hogan and Lisa Lutz and Patricia Cornwell and Eddie Muller and Meg Gardiner and Adrian McKinty and Margaret Maron and James Sallis and …

For a complete list of contributors and the books they chose, as well as Bonus Materials from some of us who had other books we wanted to champion but space would not permit—the book already clocks in at an impressive 730 pages—check out the Books2Die4 website.

Some of the entries are gems of critical appreciation. Some read like fan letters. Every single one I’ve read so far has taught me something I didn’t know.

Karin Slaughter selected Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter and makes an airtight case that the overlooked Victor—a woman writing voluminously in the mid-to-late nineteenth century—was far more influential to the subsequent development of the genre than Edgar Allan Poe:

Victor’s novels were not driven to immediate climax, but filled with reversals, twists, and misdirections that both prolonged the denouement and arguably made the climax that much more rewarding. Victor didn’t just set out the facts of the crime: she explored social mores, distinguishing between the upper and middle classes with a subtle reference to clothing or manner. She described atmosphere and scenery in careful detail, giving her stories an air of grounded reality. The characters in Victor’s books were not cynical about crime. They felt loss and tragedy to their very core. For these reasons and more, it seems that the Victor formula, not Poe’s, is the convention to which modern crime fiction more closely hews.

Megan Abbott makes a similar argument for Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place—“the most influential novel you’ve never read”—a serial killer tale from the murderer’s point of view that preceded Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me by five years.

Hughes hoists her killer on the autopsy table, still breathing, and shows us everything he doesn’t want to see about himself: the twin arteries of masculine neurosis and sexual panic that drive his crimes. It turns out that Hughes is up to much more than telling a killer’s tale. Through her dissection, In A Lonely Place says more about gender trouble and sexual paranoia in post-World War II America than perhaps any other American novel.

Two of my favorite entries were written by my fellow Murderateros Martyn Waites and Gar Anthony Haywood.

Martyn selected Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a book he routinely recommended to the inmates he tutored at one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It’s the first Socrates Fortlow novel from Walter Mosley, a series often overshadowed by the Easy Rawlins monolith. When my late wife read this book, she forced it on me with the same enthusiasm Martyn does, saying, “This isn’t like a crime novel. It’s like a myth.” Here’s how Martyn puts it:

It’s no accident that this lead character has been given the name of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy. Written in the aftermath of the L.A. riots and the Rodney King beating, this hulking ex-con becomes a contemporary inquisitor, asking difficult moral questions of a society that has retained a dogmatic grip on the letter of the law but has lost purchase of its fair and compassionate spirit.

Gar selected Richard Price’s Clockers, a book I often go back and re-read. Gar’s entry brings in his father, and I always enjoy reading Gar discuss his dad. It turns out that Gar lent his father a number of top-tier crime novels, but only one “blew him completely away.”

“This guy’s the real deal,” he told me when I asked him what he thought. And coming from my father—a man of few words if ever there was one—this was high praise, indeed…. Reading it from a writer’s perspective, you’re immediately struck by the vast array of skills Price has on display: plotting that moves at optimum speed, characters that live and breathe, dialogue devoid of a single false note. And this last is no exaggeration: every word of every line Price’s people speak in Clockers rings true. Every one.

My own pick was James Crumley’s The Wrong Case, and it pairs with Dennis Lehane’s appreciation of The Last Good Kiss. Of Crumley’s ability to make even the absurd seem not just believable but necessary, I wrote:

He set a tone that kept you off-balance, a tone that blended a kind of sly irony with heartsick desperation, an understanding that the battle for the good is fought by ingeniously flawed men doing the ridiculous in the service of some angry, inscrutable truth.

The anthology is full of gems, each only a few pages long, so it’s easy to wrap one up in a brief sitting and move on to the next, or wait to savor it later.

Speaking of savoring it later: I haven’t tried the whiskey yet, saving it for some special occasion over the holidays. But it’s from County Cork, where William Augustus Corbett and his bride, Katie, spent their lives before sailing to America in 1882. That alone bears promise.

So, Murderateros: If asked to name just one book in the genre that had an overwhelming impact on you, which one would you choose—more importantly, why? (Feel free to add your remarks to those of others on the book’s website.)

Final Note: John will be touring to promote the book, and a select group of booksellers will have copies signed by various contributors. For where to find John or one of those copies, go here.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In one of my very first author appearances (with Laurie King and Michael Connelly), I was asked a question similar to the one asked of me by John and Dec for Books to Die For. But I didn’t name a book or a writer. I admitted that I was probably far more influenced by this man than anyone I’d ever read, specifically this song:

 

It’s All About Me

 

By David Corbett

For my last two postings (not counting September 11th), I’ve tried to lighten things up a bit. Now I’m going to do something even more unusual, at least for me: blatant self-promotion (aka BSP).

Gar has previously written here about how uncomfortable the old hard sell makes him. I read his remarks and felt an implicit and profound simpatico. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the Catholic upbringing that Gar and I share, but asking people to give me something, no matter how understandable—or necessary—feels like the coarsest type of vanity.

Worse, it feels like begging.

Alex has made the excellent counterpoint that without promotion—indeed, aggressive and smart and relentless promotion—your chances of finding a readership that can sustain you professionally are akin to those of capturing the Higgs boson in a Klein bottle (or words to that effect).

As much as I concede the wisdom in Alex’s remarks, I still feel a little soiled by the whole thing, and somehow suspect my conscience is wagging its finger at me. Better poor and proud, I can hear it say, than rich and self-aggrandizing. But, of course, my conscience doesn’t have a mortgage to pay.

So—I embark upon the following two entreaties with considerable ambivalence.

(Not that you care, I realize, but I thought if I started with a little self-abnegation the rest of this would be easier to plod through. Because that’s the true subtext of all self-promotion, whether it’s a breeze or makes your skin crawl: It’s all about me.)

 

So, first, I’ve launched my own manuscript review and editing service. I dove into this end of the pool after being approached by an agent and several students to look at works-in-progress and give my best advice on what works, what doesn’t—only to discover I’m rather good at it.

It’s a natural extension of my teaching, which I love, and allows me to delve more deeply with individual writers into the whole of their manuscripts.

The best part is providing these writers with confirmation of just where their strengths and weaknesses lie, for I’m often just an external voice echoing what they themselves already know: This is excellent, this needs work, this can be cut, etc.

(And nothing is more gratifying than offering a suggestion and having a writer’s eyes light up as she says: Of course! Often, it’s just the slightest refocusing of a theme or plot point that can turn confusion into clarity.)

I provide four levels of service, from review of a synopsis to a full line edit of the complete manuscript, with two mid-level approaches also available. For full details, go here.

I’ve been told by others in the field I’m ridiculously cheap. So, sign up before I wise up.

Second, for those of you who don’t already know, my story collection, Killing Yourself to Survive, is now available in a variety of ebook formats at the insanely hospitable price of $2.99 through Open Road Media and Mysterious Press (also the publishers of fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood, Martyn Waites, and Ken Bruen).

I’m known more for my novels than for my stories, though one offering in this collection—“Pretty Little Parasite,” from Las Vegas Noir—was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories 2009.

 

For a bit of a teaser:

            One hand on her hip, the other lofting her cocktail tray, Sam Pitney scanned the gaming floor from the Roundup’s mezzanine, dressed in her cowgirl outfit and fresh from a bracing toot in the ladies. Stream-of-nothingness mode, mid-shift, slow night, only the blow keeping her vertical—and she had this odd craving for some stir-fry—she stared out at the flagging crowd and manically finger-brushed the outcrop of blond bangs showing beneath her tipped-back hat.

            Maybe it was seeing her own reflection fragmented in dozens of angled mirrors to the left and right and even overhead, or the sight of the usual trudge of losers wandering the noisy maze-like neon, clutching change buckets, chip trays, chain-smoking (still legal, this was the `80s), hoping for one good score to recoup a little dignity—whatever the reason, she found herself revisiting a TV program from a few nights back, about Auschwitz, Dachau, one of those places. Men and women and children and even poor helpless babies cradled by their mothers, stripped naked then marched into giant shower rooms, only to notice too late—doors slamming, bolts thrown, gas soon hissing from the showerheads: a smell like almonds, the voice on the program said.

            Sam found herself wondering—no particular reason—what it would be like if the doors to the casino suddenly rumbled shut, trapping everybody inside.


A second story—“It Can Happen,” from San Francisco Noir—was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story of 2004:

            Lorene took up position bedside and crossed her arms. She was a pretty, short, ample, strong woman. “Don’t make me go off on you.”

            Pilgrim tilted his head to see her, eyes glazed. Every ten minutes or so, someone needed to wipe the fluid away. It was a new problem, the tear ducts. Three years now since the accident, reduced to deadweight from the neck down, followed by organs failing, musty skin, powdery hair, his body in a slow but inexorable race with his mind to the grave. He was forty-three years old.

            In a scratchy whisper, he said, “I got my eyes and ears out there.”

            “Corella?” Their daughter. Corella the Giver, Lorene called her, not kindly.

            “You been buying things,” he said.

            “Furniture a crime now?”

            “Things you can’t afford, not by the wildest stretch—”

            “Ain’t your business, Pilgrim. My home, we’re talkin’ about.” She pressed her finger against her breastbone. “Mine.”

            Lorene lived in a renovated Queen Anne Victorian in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, hardly an exclusive area but grand next to Hunter’s Point, where Pilgrim remained, living in the same house he’d lived in on a warehouseman’s salary, barely more than a shack.

            Pilgrim bought the Excelsior house after his accident, when he came into his money through the legal settlement. He was broadsided by a semi when his brakes failed, a design defect on his lightweight pickup. Lorene stood by him till the money came through then filed for divorce, saying she was still young. She needed a real husband.

            Actually, the word she used was “functional.”

 

A third story, “The Axiom of Choice,” appeared in The Strand.


It was discussed in an online forum titled Mathematical Fictions that focuses on narrative works that deal with mathematics or mathematicians. (I’m oddly proud of this, for reasons which escape me.) I also think the story is one of my best, and is one of my few attempts at first person narration:

            As I sat here waiting, wondering how to explain things, I caught myself remembering something often said about set theory. I teach mathematics at the college, I’m sure you know that already. It’s sometimes described—set theory, I mean, excuse me—it’s oftentimes described as a field in which nothing is self-evident: True statements are often paradoxical and plausible ones are false. I can imagine you describing your own line of work much the same way. If not, by the time I’m finished here, I suspect you will.

            I see by your ring you’re married. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that marriage, like life itself, is never quite what one expects. I’ve even heard it said that, sooner or later, one’s wife becomes a sister or an enemy. I’m sure for a great many men that’s true. I’d put it differently. Again, if I can borrow a phrase from my area of expertise, I suppose I might say of Veronica’s essential nature—her soul for lack of a better term—what Descartes said of infinity: It’s something I could recognize but not comprehend.

            Now, I can imagine you thinking, given what you saw in our bedroom, that such a statement reveals a profound bitterness, even hatred. I assure you that’s not the case. But there’s no getting inside another person, no rummaging around inside a wife’s or a lover’s psyche the way you might dig through a drawer. The gulf between me and my wife, her and Aydin—that’s the name of the young man whose body you found beside my wife’s: Aydin Donnelly, he was my student—the gulf between any two people may feel negligible at times, intimacy being the intoxicant it is, but the chasm remains unbridgeable. It has nothing to do with facts—my God, who has a greater accumulation of facts than a married couple? No, I’m not speaking out of bitterness. On the contrary, I feel humbled by this observation. What I mean to say is this: If you simply bother to reflect on the matter seriously, or just open your eyes, absolutely everything, even oneself—and especially one’s wife—remains mysterious.

So if you’ve got three shmazolies to spare, give these stories a spin. Guaranteed to keep you turning those digital pages.

There. I’m finished now. Time for:

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Meet the Korean hip-hop sensation PSY. You want to talk about successful promotion? Who doesn’t envy someone who can claim more than 194,665,000 hits on his YouTube video?

 

 

Page 2 of 712345...Last »