Over at Facebook, folks are winding down Doppelganger Week, which called on Facebook users to change their profile picture to a celebrity they’ve been said to resemble.
As it turns out, I’ve been said to resemble a broad array of celebrities. When I was in college, my father (around the same time he said my two sisters looked like Jessica Lange and Kim Basinger, respectively), maintained that I looked “just like” these knockouts:
Apparently age has treated me well, however. More recently, I’ve been compared to these women:
Um, yeah… right. Although I’m much happier to be compared to Kate Hudson or that actress who temporarily ruined Law & Order than either of the Rosies, I conclude from this mish mash of non-matching faces that I may not have a celebrity doppelganger. But, lucky for me, other writers do.
You see, much like my father, I also have a tendency to swear that people look “just like” someone else. I can’t run into Andrew Gross, for example, without reminding him he looks like that totally hot kid on Weeds.
And poor Michael Koryta has surely lost count of the times I’ve pointed out his resemblance to David Duchovny.
Marcus Sakey‘s probably sick of hearing that he looks like Starsky.
The late JD Salinger bore a strong resemblance to George Gershwin.
And Barry Eisler might as well change his last name to Baldwin.
It turns out some writers have lookalikes I hadn’t thought of. Jason Pinter also played Doppelganger Week, posting a photo of Al Gore. Now, Jason, can you say “Lockbox?”
Laura Lippman tells me she’s often compared to Susan Dey. No surprise there, right?
But I was beyond amused to hear that in profile, she’s a dead ringer for a fellow journalist who loved Underdog, Sweet Polly Purebred.
With some writers, the identification of a lookalike’s a little more challenging. And, boy, do I like a challenge.
With someone like James Born, for example, it depends which photograph you select. In some pictures he looks a lot like that writer who once said I looked like Rosie O’Donnell.
But in other pictures, Jim, I’ve got to say it, you look more like MacGyver.
In my constant quest to identify lookalikes, I have an irritating tendency to tell friends they look like X and Y had a baby. Harlan Coben, for example, looks like the offspring of Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci.
And Victor Gischler could be the long-lost love child of Meat Loaf and Mario Batali. (Wow, that sentence actually made me hungry.)
So here’s today’s challenge: Who are the other doppelgangers? Do you have one, and this a good thing or bad? And which other writers have lookalikes that I’ve missed? Psychic gold stars for those who include links to photos!
I promise this next sentence is an honest intro to today’s post, not just BSP: This weekend I officially joined the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and became President of the New York chapter. (Pause for applause.)
In preparation for the annual MWA board funfest (aka orientation day), the unparalleled Margery Flax requested a biography to distribute to fellow board members. I sent her the usual jacket copy:
A formal deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School and lives in New York City. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series, which includes the novels Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case. Most recently, she published Angel’s Tip, her second thriller featuring Ellie Hatcher.
Her response was polite, quick, and resoundingly clear, something like, “Are you sure that’s all you want to include? This is usually a longer fun one, only for internal board distribution.”
In other words, Yawn, Snore, Zzzz….
I can take a hint, so I gave it another try. Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn’t met me yet some sense of who I am and where I’ve been. Margery’s assurance that this was purely internal was freeing.
After I submitted my specially-designated “MWA board bio,” I couldn’t stop thinking about the sterileness of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality. As writers, we’re committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz…..
I’ve spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to “identify” the authors they consistently enjoyed. After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind’s eye. To read books without knowing an author’s age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations.
Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I’ve come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors. The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors. I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I’ll admit that I read them differently — and more richly — now. I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman’s most leisurely paragraphs. I hear Michael Connelly’s quiet voice in Bosch. I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones’s behalf that she’s a “dork.” And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell.
But I didn’t get any of that from the book jackets.
As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web. We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher’s, something like “kicking it old school.” The fact that it’s corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she’d say such a thing. And if the reader “got” Ellie or anything about my work, he’d know that’s — ahem — just how we roll.)
So as we’re knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios. The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting. And so, even though Margery promised to keep this unsanitized bio a secret, I’ve decided to blast it out to the world:
Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.
Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK. Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.
From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west. Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California. Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read “Atheism, Communism, Free Love,” and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.
From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched “The Player” one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.
Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career. (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.) As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.
When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain. She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think “It Takes Two” by DJ Rob Bass, “Smooth Criminal” by Alien Art Farm, and “Planet Claire” by the B-52’s). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable. She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF. She likes to drink wine and cook.
She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook. She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.
Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer. She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.
What do you think? Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps? Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase? Would it change how we read? If you’re a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say? And if you’re a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?
P.S. As a follow up to my last post about my sometimes odd marketing attempts, I brought a video today for Show and Tell. Not the usual literal movie trailer, the clip is intended to evoke the themes, setting, and tone of my new book, 212, out in March. It also allowed me to bop around to Lady GaGa for countless hours and tally it mentally as work-related. What do you think?
…You take them both, and there you have … the facts of life. (Sorry, I suffer from a condition scientists have labeled theme-song-monkish-itis, the only symptom of which is an insistence upon finishing a song lyric, especially when it comes from a 1980’s sitcom featuring Tootie, Cloris Leachman,* and, at one time, George Clooney.)
Ahem, onto my post:
My girlfriends and I were on our fourth round of contract rummy on Thursday afternoon when one of them fiddled with her phone and declared, “Hey! RJ Julia is tweeting about you!” Once I recovered from a momentary hallucination that I was famous, I asked for details. Imagine my delight when I learned that RJ Julia, a fabulous independent bookseller in Madison, Connecticut, had tweeted: “Best freebie in an ARC mailing: a cute package of Nutella w/Alafair Burke’s newest.”
As I’ve previously mentioned, I am not one of those authors with marketing savvy. Case in point: For Bouchercon a few years ago, I had bookmarks made for the giveaway table that featured these three fabulous photographs of my beautiful dude, The Duffer. The text read, “The Duffer says Read Alafair Burke.” I was very proud of myself.
Lee Child, unmatched for kindness, yet unflinchingly honest, took one look at my handiwork and declared me unfit for self-promotion. For the life of me, I couldn’t see the problem. Who, after all, could resist the Duffer? “No one,” he explained, “and that’s the problem. These sweet people who like mysteries about puppies and kittens will think you’re right up their alley. Then they’ll read your violent, profanity-laden books and hate you for putting them through it.”
So much for my creative printing efforts. Now my cards and bookmarks bear the typical book jacket images.
Contrast my high-effort bookmarks with the more recent, low-effort Nutella giveaway. A few weeks ago I was in the Continental club at Newark airport, toasting a stale bagel, when I spotted a bowl full of these:
Not quite as adorable as a french bulldog who resembles Stacy Keach, but still pretty cute, right? As it turns out, my character Ellie Hatcher keeps a jar of Nutella and a spoon in her top desk drawer. The galleys of 212 were due to be sent out to independent booksellers at the end of the year. Lightbulb over the head, etc.
Truth be told, I didn’t think of these tasty little treats as marketing – just a shared chuckle with the independent booksellers who have helped me over the years. But I’ll take the shout out from RJ Julia as proof that, as marketing goes, this at least wasn’t an “epic fail,” as my nephew says.
The experience got me thinking about the little and big things we do to try to promote our work. My high-cost, high-effort bookmarks apparently weren’t right; a snack-size trinket I first spotted in the Newark airport earned me some Twitter action.
As publishers cut back on advertising dollars and tour budgets, we’re all looking for personalized ways to thank our most supportive readers and booksellers while searching for a new audience as well. Are you willing to share stories of your efforts, either successful or failed, high-cost or low? Readers and booksellers: What efforts have you seen from authors, both good and bad?
(And, uh, speaking of marketing, if you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Facebook, MySpace, and/or Twitter.)
* Lest you ever doubted Cloris Leachman’s comic talents, watch this (but only if you don’t mind “blue”).
We’re going to be on a minimal posting schedule through the New Year. Not a complete hiatus, but semi-regular postings, since many of us are traveling and trying to get a real break from the Interwebs. We’ll be back at full force January 2.
We truly appreciate that you take the time to stop by, to participate, to be a part of this fabulous community all year long. We value your input so much that we thought we’d throw the field open to you.
If you comment over the next week, you’ll be entered into our Festivus Contest!
And what, pray tell, may the glorious prize be for commenting? Why, a package of signed Murderati books, of course!
14 books from 14 authors.
Now that’s a deal.
Here’s what we want to know:
(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)
What are you doing for the holidays?
What are you reading?
What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?
What questions do you have for any or all of us?
We wish you and your families the very best of holiday joy!
My friends over at Crimespree Magazine* recently asked me to compile a list of favorite TV shows and films of 2009, whether current to the year or viewed on DVD. My number of visits to the theater this year was in the single digits, and some were wasted on duds like Men Who Stare at Goats (waste of George Clooney) and 2012 (waste of John Cusack), so the list is dominated by TV shows.
Nevertheless, I thought I’d share an expanded list here in the hopes of learning about your favorites as well. Maybe my list will change after I finally see The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, An Education, Zombieland, and all the other films I missed, but here’s where the tally stands today.
Dexter – In the event you’re still catching up on DVD, DVR, hulu, or on-demand,** I won’t spoil the fun by mentioning the scene that pushed this to the ultra tippy top of my list, but John Lithgow was deliciously, disturbingly evil, and the show’s writers have proven they will take risks to ensure that every season surprises and surpasses.
Up – As much as I’ve loved other animated features, this is the first one that made me laugh, sob, and wish (and momentarily believe) that the chubby little cubscout was a real, live boy so I could adopt him. Extra points for bringing back the wonderful Ed Asner.
Up in the Air – It’s pure coincidence that my two favorite films of the year both involve the word Up. This is the kind of movie they just don’t make any more: good, solid, simple grown-up story telling. George Clooney has never seemed so real. (Can I adopt him, too, but in a different way?)
30 Rock – I cherish my twenty-four-ish minutes each week with the folks at TGS. Tina Fey recently told Entertainment Weekly that, other than her choice to have a child, asking Alec Baldwin to take the role of Jack Donaghy was her best decision. I’ve never met her daughter, but I have to think she’s at best at close second. Incidentally, I want to adopt Tina Fey, too, to be my BFF. In my dreams, we write a TV pilot together. “Want to go to there.”
Glee – The dry humor of Jane Lynch and the earnestness of high school chorus geeks, wrapped together in one big snarky, happy bundle. It’s as if the TV gods came together to create a show specifically for me. I love the show so much I based my criminal law students’ final exam on a heist pulled off by Mr. Shuester, Rachel, Flnn & Quinn. Poor Sue Sylvester perished after taking a hit to the noggin with a Cheerios trophy. Now if only the actual show could incorporate a mystery arc.
Battlestar Galactica – I was slow to come to this series because I still tell myself I don’t like sci-fi. Well, if loving this is wrong, I don’t want to be right. We watched the entire series in a matter of months and now wish we could lobotomize the BSG-parts of our brains so we could experience it all over again. (Special shout-out to friend and author Lisa Unger for finally getting me on the BSG train.)
The Hangover – I must have a sixteen-year-old boy hiding among my multiple Sybil-esque personalities, because I swear I could not stop laughing when I saw this movie. Granted, I can no longer remember why I was giggling so incessantly, but I also can’t remember why I had so much fun on that one spring break, but I’m nevertheless convinced I enjoyed myself.
The Shield – The series finale was simultaneously shocking and unflinchingly human. This show consistently proved how well the medium of television can explore character. Never seen it? You don’t know what you’re missing. Start with Season 1 on DVD.
Fantastic Mr. Fox – This was the most creative work I’ve seen in a long time. The adaptation of the classic books to a contemporary film, the visual choices, the familiar Wes Anderson vibe in a new medium: I loved it all. Added bonus: Another win in the George Clooney column (officially getting him out of my mental doghouse for that horrible Goats movie).
Lost – Polar bears, time travel, numerology, the mystical Jacob? It really is enough to make even a writer’s head hurt. But that image of Juliet peering up at Sawyer, managing to say, “I love you, James. I love you so much,” was enough to remind even the craftiest, puzzle-solving viewer that the secrets of the island don’t ultimately matter. The show is about people. (Check out the video from 2:42 if you have any doubts.)
Tie: Modern Family or Community. Too soon to tell here, but I’m cautiously optimistic that one of these two new sit-coms will eventually fill the gaping hole left in my comedic existence since the demise of the sublime Arrested Development.
There you go, just in time for some last-minute DVD purchases for the holidays.
So, come on, let me have it: What did I miss?
*Crimespree is the Entertainment Weekly of the crime fiction scene. If you’re a ‘Rati reader, you’ll probably love it. Find out more here.
Unless you’ve been in a stuffing-induced food coma since Thanksgiving, you’ve probably heard that Tiger Woods was in the news lately for more than just his game. Given my obsessions with golf, celebrities, and secrets, I can’t resist sharing a few random thoughts I had on the matter.
When the story (insert virtual air quotes for those of you disgusted by the news coverage) first broke, I tried to convince myself I had high-minded reasons for following it. At first, I feared for Tiger’s well-being after the initial reports of serious injuries. Then as a former domestic violence prosecutor, I wondered whether Florida law enforcement was seriously considering investigating Tiger’s wife as some reports suggested.
But there’s also the voyeurism. We all know (I hope) that we don’t really know celebrities, only the public images that publicists and managers have carefully crafted for us. But despite that cognitive understanding, consistent and prolonged exposure to those public faces sometimes creates sticky impressions of familiarity. After more than two decades of nightly Letterman monologues, I confess that David Letterman seemed like a known quantity. And after countless golf tournaments and Nike ads, so did Tiger.
Now I know.
But I’ve been thinking less about Tiger than about his women.
Rachel Uchitel, the woman first named by the National Enquirer, has seen more than an average person’s media coverage, as photographs online track her journey from grieving 9-11 widow to healing new bride to red-velvet-rope vixen.
Who is the woman behind all of these faces?
And then there’s Tiger’s wife, Elin Nordegren, who went from swimsuit model to au pair to marriage and motherhood.
I’ve seen countless images of her biting her nails at the 18th green, smiling at her husband, and holding the babies, but I’ve never heard her voice. Who would have suspected that quiet, smiling, waif of a woman had it in her to (allegedly) take a pitching wedge to the windows of a Cadillac Escalade?
My guess is she’ll stand by her man, at least in the short-term, but we’ll all be wondering whether it’s out of love or savviness. With Tiger struggling to hold onto his commercial endorsements, reporters claim Elin’s out to revise her pre-nup. Ten years of marriage no longer required. 55 million dollars instead of 20. Perhaps clauses that penalize further “transgressions”?* Jewelry, candy, and flowers just aren’t going to cut it.
We love to fret about the public fascination with celebrity scandals, but I have to confess that I get it. When I was a prosecutor, my daily work let me peer behind the facade to reveal the secrets people carry. Celebrity scandals satisfy that same itch – the realization (and validation) that everyone makes mistakes, no one is what he seems, and we all have multiple personas. That perfect son, husband, and father might be an insatiable dog on his trips to Vegas. That scantily clad hostess at the nightclub might have lost someone she loved to tragedy. And that quiet wife in the background might just be a hundred solid pounds of fortitude.
Thanks for tolerating my Tiger talk. Is anyone else willing to out themselves as a celebrity watcher? What seemingly superficial stories have kept you riveted and why?
*I found no comfort in the company I was keeping by following this story when I learned the following (pathetic) tidbit: After Tiger’s public admission of “transgressions,” online searches for the definition of that word topped Google’s search list.
We’ve had discussions here about music – whether we listen when we write, what we listen to, and, most recently from JD, the hassle of obtaining permission rights for lyrics. But I recently thought about music from a new perspective last week when I had a group of my criminal law students to our apartment for a pizza party. For the evening’s music, I compiled a playlist of crime-related songs.
The idea started as a joke in class. To study accomplice liability, our class discusses State v. Ochoa, a case in which defendants are convicted as accomplices for the murder of a sheriff because they assaulted a deputy at the scene who might otherwise have come to the sheriff’s rescue. After the first couple mentions of the man who “shot the sheriff,” I noticed a few snickers. Better to clear the air, I figured. “How many of you found yourself singing I Shot the Sheriff when reading this case?”* Lots of hands. “Bob Marley or Eric Clapton?” More Marley than Clapton. Good students, I thought. “Might have to add that to the pizza party playlist.”
So I did. And then my OCD kicked in and I couldn’t stop. Who knew there were so many songs related to crime? Okay, so maybe the connection’s a little loose on some of these, but whatevs. It was a fun project. Here’s the list.
Smooth Criminal – Alien Ant Farm (Michael Jackson works too.)
Gimme Shelter – Patti Smith (ditto, Stones. I like covers.)
Rehab – Amy Winehouse
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
Chain Of Fools – Aretha Franklin
Panic – The Smiths
99 Problems – Jay-Z
Psycho Killer – Talking Heads
One Way Or Another – Blondie
Wanted Dead Or Alive – Bon Jovi
I Fought The Law – The Clash
Human Nature – Michael Jackson
Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
I Confess – The English Beat
Criminal – Fiona Apple
Born to Run – Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Save your noise, Springsteen fans. I said I like covers.)
I Shot the Sheriff – Bob Marley (Even I won’t take Clapton over Marley.)
Lust For Life – Iggy Pop (a lyrical stretch, I know, but it’s Iggy.)
Town Called Malice – The Jam
When You Were Young – The Killers
Let’s Go Crazy – Prince
F*** the Police – NWA
I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones
Jailhouse – Sublime
Shoplifters Of The World Unite – The Smiths
Ball And Chain- Social Distortion
187um – Dr. Dre
Burning Down The House – Talking Heads
Call Me – Blondie
She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult
I’m Your Villain – Franz Ferdinand
So, which are your favorites? What have I missed? What other songs should be here based on titles, lyrics, or band names?
*Needless to say, my law school classes are not like those you may have seen in Paper Chase or Legally Blonde.
Thanks to some truly memorable writing by a guy called Thomas Harris, and some wicked good acting by a dude called Anthony Hopkins, many of us picture this guy when we think “serial killer.”
Or if we take our models from the real world, we might conjure up images of these fellows.
The paradigmatic “serial killer,” as we tend to use that term, is, by definition, both evil and genius. We know he is evil because he not only takes life, but does so repeatedly and often methodically. We know he must be genius because he is able to get away with his acts, repeatedly and methodically. Ted Bundy convinced grown women to get in a car with him. Charles Manson controlled his own cult. The Zodiac Killer was never caught. And Hannibal Lecter? Well, he managed to outwit even Clarice Starling. How wiley is that?
But I spent some time last week thinking about our fascination with the particular type of romanticized evil epitomized by the pop culture figure of the serial killer. My thoughts were first sparked by this season’s insanely delicious performance by John Lithgow on Dexter, based on the groundbreaking novels by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter himself was a terrific twist on the usual serial killer depiction: He only kills people who deserve it. And, in some ways, the killer portrayed by Lithgow checks off all the usual boxes: methodical, intelligent, manipulative – check, check, and check.
Except … he’s also married. And he sings loudly and earnestly at church. And he wears goofy shirts. And he gets angry when a new acquaintance lingers too long near his dead sister’s ashes. And he totally wigs out when he hits a deer with his creepy kidnapper van. And he looks like this.
Not wiley. Not genius. Just a little off. And kind of dorky.
I was also thinking about serial killers when I dusted off an old war story for my criminal law students this week. When I was a young Deputy District Attorney in Portland, I prosecuted a guy called Sebastian Shaw. The facts? He threw an onion at his sister with such force that it, in her words to the police, “exploded.” (No offense to my siblings, but you all did way worse to me, and I never called the cops.)
In all honesty, I might have only pushed the necessary papers on the case had it not been for persistent phone calls from a friend of the defendant’s family (coincidentally, a writer you’ve probably heard of). She warned me and anyone who would listen that Shaw was dangerous. We had to do something. To the best of my recollection, Shaw was convicted of assault and received what was probably a typical sentence for the crime of injuring another person.
I moved on to the next case (or hundreds) and never thought of it again until the First Assistant called several months later, asking for information about a guy called Sebastian Shaw. “Oh yeah,” I said, “the exploding onion case.” I could tell from the First Assistant’s response that my levity was misplaced. (I know. It probably still is.)
You see, Shaw had been stopped by police in a car that happened to have the following items in the trunk: a blindfold, plastic zip ties, duct tape, mace, a knife, a lead weight in the end of a sock, ski masks, latex gloves, and pornographic magazines. That’s all the police needed to know to conclude that Shaw was up to no good. But it wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fortunately, Shaw smoked. And littered. After he flicked a cigarette butt to the ground outside a grocery store, police linked him through DNA evidence to a rape and two unsolved murders. The last time I checked, Shaw claimed to have killed ten or fifteen people, and law enforcement continued to connect him to bodies.
It wasn’t until after he’d been identified as a serial rapist and murderer that all the stories started to come together. The threat to his roommate’s life during an argument about the dishes. The eerie statements that had gotten him suspended from his cable company job. The outburst at his co-workers when he was a security guard. And don’t forget about the exploding onion.
All that time, all those stories. Apparently his family suspected something was deeply wrong. But I imagine that, to the people who had only superficial encounters with him, Sebastian Shaw seemed sad. Bizarre. Pathetic. Lonely. A loser.
Not evil. Not wiley. Not genius.
Now police in Cleveland have found eleven bodies in the home of this man, who had lived with his stepmother and did not drive. Sad. Pathetic. Not wiley or genius.
All of these stories were bouncing against each other in the pinball machine I call my brain when I asked my Facebook pals what I should blog about. I got some great suggestions that I may use later, but one stood out when my friend, Steve, said, “How about the banality of evil?”
It shouldn’t have taken Steve’s suggestion for me to tie John Lithgow to Sebastian Shaw to Anthony Sowell in Cleveland. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, terrified of a murderer who called himself BTK. Bind. Torture. Kill. Thirty years without capture. Evil. Wiley. Genius.
But then they caught him because he was stupid enough to send police a CD-rom initialized with his full name. In his job enforcing low-level code violations in his tiny little town, he was known to measure grass with a ruler. Not wiley. Not genius. Just a sad loser. But still evil to the core.
So if evil doesn’t usually come in a super-smart, fava-bean eating package, why are we so fascinated with the prevailing paradigm? Maybe it’s simply because characters like Hannibal Lecter make for much better fiction than overweight landscaping police. But I suspect our preferences run deeper. We want to believe that evil is both recognizable and rare, not the nondescript guy in the next office.
If you’re fascinated by real-life serial killers, which ones fascinate you and why? And, as a reader (and perhaps writer), how do you respond to fictional portrayals of evil? Which ones stick with you?
When writers say they don’t read book reviews, they’re usually referring to their own. Not me. Whether I should or not, I do read reviews of my own books. I don’t, however, read book reviews generally. I peruse the New York Times Sunday Book Review, as well as the book sections of the magazines to which I subscribe. I also find myself really enjoying Huffington Post’s new book section. But I wouldn’t say I make a point to have my finger on the pulse of critical response.
Perhaps the casualness of my book review browsing explains why I spotted a common thread among three reviews I happened to read last week. My brow first furrowed when Entertainment Weekly panned Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons as a novel that “read like it had been scribbled during a red-eye from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.” Those were some hard words to handle, coming as they did from my pop-culture bible about my crime-writing God. Apparently also for book blogger Sarah Weinman, who tweeted, “What bug crawled up [the reviewer’s] butt?” Can’t we all just get along?
It turns out the reviewers were just firing up their keyboards. The following Monday came Janet Maslin’s review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Maslin treats Ehrenreich’s thesis as “the makings of a tight, incisive essay,” then dismisses the admittedly “short book” as still “padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking,” with a central point “that’s as obvious on this book’s last page as it was on the first.”
But Michiko Kakutani wasn’t going to let her colleague take the week’s prize for creative dissing. Her review of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is so scathing I felt myself wincing with every new phrase. Just a few? “Tedious, overstuffed.” “Insipid, cartoon version.” “Sorely tries the reader’s patience.” “The characters turns out to be an annoying and tiresome lot.” And finally, “lame and unsatisfying.”
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t yet another writer railing against a bad review. Nor is it a claim that reviewers should only review books they enjoy. Nor is it a general indictment of the enterprise of reviewing. Nor am I claiming that the above reviewers were inaccurate.
Instead, I find myself asking questions: If a reviewer concludes that a book stinks, what is the appropriate tone for the resulting review? Does the reviewer do enough by saying the book is (to their mind) bad, or does colorful condemnation help make the point? Do scathing one-liners make for more effective — or at least more readable — reviews, or are they just unnecessary snark?
I ask because it seems to me the few bad reviews I read (hopefully not mine, fingers crossed) seem to be getting snarkier. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Like I said, I don’t scour book reviews, so my sample size is woefully unscientific. And if you listen to Brad Meltzer, stinging reviews are nothing new.
But it would make sense if reviewers were getting meaner. With newspapers struggling generally, and book reviews taking a disproportionate hit, reviewers and their editors might reason that readers would rather see blood shed on the page. And if their main competitors are websites and blogs, well… let’s just say there’s no shortage of churlish comments online.
Author who read a bad review? Or reviewer who read a bad book?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are reviews getting snarkier? Should they? And, best of all, what are some of the harshest reviews you’ve ever read (or received)?
I’ll start. (1) Maybe. (2) Honestly not sure. (I know, I’m very decisive today.) (3) The Independent (UK) on my debut novel, Judgment Calls: “Does the name Burke ring any bells? Why, it’s James Lee’s daughter and she’s written a legal thriller about as thrilling as a trip to the dentist. Dull as ditchwater, in fact. She’s a former assistant DA in Portland, and if I was [sic] her, I’d have stuck to the day job. Me, I’ll stick to her daddy’s books.” Nice.
This Friday is October 16, significant to many people, I’m sure, for a variety of reasons. Odds being what they are, someone reading this is probably having an anniversary. Or a birthday. Or a new book published.
According to the handy dandy Interwebs, this Friday will mark a number of important historical events: the guillotining of Marie Antoinette in 1793, the births of Oscar Wilde and Eugene O’Neill, n 1854 and 1888, respectively, the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the launch of Ross Perot’s infomercial in 1992.
But I have my eye on this Friday for two reasons. First, it’s the Friday of Bouchercon weekend. There’s no shortage of terrific programming for the weekend, and Friday is chock full of good stuff: 2009 Anthony nominees for short story, like Sean Chercover and Jane Cleland, discuss their work; panels on setting, plotting, and noir (oh my!); talk of police procedurals, PI novels, series characters, and women in the genre; and, of course, Michael Koryta’s interview of guest of honor (and god of writing) Michael Connelly.
So much for a photo with both Michaels at the same time
I think I just felt a tear roll down my right cheek. Why? Because I won’t be in Indianapolis. Nope, no Bouchercon for me this year. Why not? Because the second reason I’ve been eyeballing the approach of October 16, 2009, is that it marks the fortieth anniversary of my birth. I believe that makes it my fortieth birthday.
When I first realized last winter that Bouchercon fell on my birthday, I assumed I’d go. Given the timing of the annual conference, I’ve had Bouchercon birthdays before. I spent my 33rd at that memorable hotel in Las Vegas. My editor took me off-site to see Tom Jones where I was not the only birthday girl, but was apparently the only one who held on to her lingerie.
But as early 2009 whizzed by and my travel plans went left unmade, I realized I was procrastinating for a reason. I was trying to guess how I’d feel on the big day. I was imagining my own future state of mind. Stupid idea. Speculating about the future is risky. Understanding one’s current mood and its relationship to external factors is also imprecise. Throwing the two together was…well, stupid.
Several months ago, past-me imagined future-me on October 16, 2009, and did not like what she saw: Me wandering around alone at Bouchercon; sitting at my signing table, saying goodbye to the last person in my modest line as the crowd waiting to see the author next to me tried to mask its pity; sobbing into my martini at the bar as I realized I was officially half way to eighty, well over a third of the way to dead.
Turns out past-me sucks at both remembering the past and predicting the future.
As Bouchercon approaches, I find myself recalling not those past moments of humble pie (almost) every rookie writer experiences at Bouchercon — meandering around with a hotel map and a conference brochure as the seasoned vets exchange enthusiastic and kissy welcomes and hold court at the bar. Instead, my mind is flooded with good memories of friendships formed and a love of writing shared: the Reacher Creature parties; that amazing panel in 2006 with Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, and fellow Ratis, Cornelia Read and Zoe Sharp; the night these guys became my pals and we smiled like people in a toothpaste ad:
Bouchercon Chicago with Ben Rehder, James Born, and Barry Eisler And, although October 16 is still a few days off, it looks like past-me also got the future wrong. I don’t feel like crap about 40 after all. I have an amazing husband and two kickass jobs. I get love from good friends and my awesome dog. I ran twenty-five miles last week, which I couldn’t do when I was 30. Or 20. And I live (and get to write about) the coolest city in the world.
If I cried at the Bouchercon bar about entering a fifth decade of this life I’ve got, I’d deserve to get my butt kicked.
Yet for reasons I had months ago, I won’t be in Indianapolis. I’ll be having a different kind of fun: that husband and a few of the good friends I mentioned will be hanging out at a beach house, frying a turkey. Today’s me predicts Friday-me will have a fabulous time.
But I’ll miss you folks who are going to Bouchercon. I hope you’ll use the comments to remember the past or predict the future. What are some of your favorite Bouchercon memories or most anticipated Bouchercon events? Feel free to throw in some birthday chat as well. You never know…Friday-me might need the encouragement after all.