Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fifty, Work Avoidance, and Bad Boy Boogie

by Holly West

My husband turns fifty next week and I'm throwing him a birthday party this weekend. I'm not sure why I'm so stressed out about it, but I am. Planning the party, not the turning fifty--although it seems impossible that he's reached that age. Lately, I've felt haunted by the passage of time, but that's a subject of another post, or the theme of a future novel, perhaps.

Stressed or not, party planning is a terrific form of writing avoidance. How can I sit down and do my work (editing, at this point) when I've got a menu to create? Shopping to do? A house to decorate at the last minute so that all my guests will be impressed by my interior design prowess?

Just typing that last paragraph makes me feel anxious.

This week's post will therefore be brief, but I want to point out two things:

1) The new Writer Types podcast is out and it's full of good things.

2) Thomas Pluck's latest novel, BAD BOY BOOGIE (Down & Out), dropped yesterday and it's a dad-gum-doozie (see what I kinda did there)? I was fortunate to read an early draft of the book, which I loved, and now, reading it in its final form, I can't say enough how impressed by it. When Jay Desmarteux exits prison after serving twenty-five years for killing a vicious school bully, he steps into a world that has, in many ways, left him behind. His parents have disappeared, his friends are reluctant to engage with him, and the local bigwigs want him out of town. A Louisiana native, Jay's got no love for his adopted New Jersey home town (unless you count his childhood sweetheart, Ramona) but he's got debts to settle before he'll head south. What follows is a complex story that's heartbreaking, violent, subtly funny, and above all, well-told.

In Desmarteaux, Pluck has succeeded in creating a nuanced character that is both naive and yet incredibly street smart. While Desmarteux has experienced some of the worst life has to offer and done things that are morally hard to reconcile, the twenty-five years he's spent in prison makes him a bit wide-eyed and innocent as he re-discovers life on the outside. This contrast is key to getting the reader to take his side. Like his protagonist, Pluck doesn't pull punches--there is nothing watered down here. And speaking as a writer, I admire and applaud Pluck for, as they say, going there. BAD BOY BOOGIE showcases in wonderful detail Thomas Pluck's talent for observing life and distilling it into a terrific story with a cast of memorable characters.

Note: In keeping with my promise to rate and review every book I read this year, I've cross-posted this text to relevant websites.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Who Cares About the Motive?

Some time ago, I read an article (I don't even recall where) that talked about the question of motive in contemporary crime fiction.  We all know the familiar adage: means, motive and opportunity are needed to prove guilt in a criminal trial, and a mystery writer plotting out a story or novel must supply all three for the narrative's  murderer. For a killing to occur, real or fictional, the culprit has to have the tools to commit the crime (the weapon), a reason strong enough to take another person's life, and an unhindered chance to put into action the intent to kill. In countless mystery stories and novels, one or more killings occur, and the detective proceeds to investigate by sniffing out clues that will lead to knowledge about these three things. As the investigator checks out suspects, he or she eliminates those who may fit the profile for one or two of these points, but not all three. The person who matches up to all three, of course, is the killer. But the article I read asked how accurate this picture is in today's world of forensics. Do police, when investigating a murder, really care all that much about the motive? To the contemporary police, the weapon used remains important (as a way to link the suspected killer to the crime) and the relevance of opportunity will never go away unless one day people are able to be in two places at the same time. But what's the big deal about motive?

If a married woman is killed, for example, then, yes, the first person the police will look at is the husband (statistics dictate this approach). But even in a case like this, what really do the police need to know: why the husband wanted his wife dead, or whether any blood, skin, bodily fluids, etc. provide a DNA match with the husband? If the police find that the blood spatter at the crime scene contains the husband's DNA and nobody else's (and assuming there's no other reason for his blood to be there), they have their murderer. Case pretty much closed, based on forensics. Whether the husband killed his wife for her money, in a jealous rage, because he has a lover he wants to be with, or for any other reason is of secondary importance. Finding out the why serves as nothing more than icing on the cake.

This is the way nearly every episode of CSI and its offshoots (and its many TV show descendants) proceed. The standard forensics team is all about science, following the evidence, and whatever motive they give the viewer comes at the end. There are CSI episodes, for example, and good ones, where the team never gets to the bottom of understanding the killer's motive. But it doesn't matter. They know without doubt they have the right person based on the physical evidence. And, as this article I read noted (and with which I agreed), there is something about this development in investigative technique that seems to make the mystery writer's job harder. Like in real life, a crime on the page can occur where no physical evidence is left behind, and there as always finding a motive to link a specific person to the victim remains of major importance. But with forensics teams able to use tiny fibers of hair as decisive evidence nowadays, it's less and less common that no physical evidence is left at crime scenes. So the crime writer faces a choice: keep concocting mysteries where physical evidence plays no part or (not quite plausibly) a minor part, or write mysteries whose solutions hinge in large part on forensics.

The problem here is that not everyone writing wants to present the minutiae of forensics. CSI may have been a superb show, but I have a hunch that most writers would rather watch that kind of mystery than write one like it.  Most writers, I suspect, are more interested in people — psychology and motive — than in CSI-type science.  To avoid this dilemma, one can always write crime stories from the criminal's point of view,  and here motive and psychology remain paramount. Ditto for whydunnits, where the emphasis is not on who committed the crime but on why the perpetrator did what he or she did. Maybe that's why, over time, whydunnits have become more and more popular. With investigative science central to solving crimes, the whydunnit gives writers a way to explore human motivation without having to make the science a centerpiece. But for those still writing whodunnits of any kind, the challenge is there. How much do you focus on your killer's motive, and if you do, how do you do it while trying to create a world the reader believes?

I don't even write whodunnits (Or, anyway, I haven't written one yet.  In the future, who knows?), but as a crime fiction fan I find the question worth thinking about.  Funny, science is under attack in the real world, at least in certain quarters, but in mystery fiction, it gets more and more important all the time

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rob Pierce, Postcards from Oakland

Rob Pierce, author of the novel UNCLE DUST, the novella VERN in the HEAT, and the short story collection THE THINGS I LOVE WILL KILL ME YET, delivers his latest novel WITH the RIGHT ENEMIES. He is one of the best crime writers on the scene. A personal favorite.
Like good bourbon, Rob Pierce’s stories are a complex blend of rich flavors. His dark humor emerges even in brutal, tense moments and many readers consider his dialogue to be the highlight of his literary crime tales. It pops on the page, sharp and clean, explaining what you need to know while complimenting the building atmosphere.

            ‘“And,’ she went on, ‘you always drank, but now you’re always drunk.’

            ‘You used to drink with me.’

            ‘You’re drunk and you’re dark. I don’t want to go there.’

            I nodded at her scotch glass. ‘You gonna go there?”’

(from UNCLE DUST by Rob Pierce, All Due Respect Books, 2015)

His characters are multi-faceted, at times heart-breaking and soaked in the imperfect human condition and at times despicable. His collection of professional criminals with random pockets of kindness, so intrigued readers, Rob was repeatedly asked to write sequels and follow-ups.

Rob has a way with setting, as well. In UNCLE DUST, WITH the RIGHT ENEMIES and VERN in the HEAT, the reader is introduced to Oakland, California not just as a setting but as a fully fleshed-out character.

As S.W. Lauden, author of CROSSWISE and the upcoming CROSSED BONES, said, “Pierce once again does a fantastic job of painting a unique picture of Oakland through the eyes of career criminals.”

Recently, though nearly 3,000 miles apart, Rob and I had drinks, his bourbon, mine Nyquil (cough, cough) and “talked” about the sunny side of the bay.
(Interview conducted over email. Some answers have been edited.)

Your recent release, WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES, is a follow up to your acclaimed debut novel, UNCLE DUST. Both stories, as well as your book VERN IN THE HEAT, are contemporary Crime-Noir tales taking place, mainly, in Oakland. Other than being your hometown, how does Oakland inspire your work?

Well, there's a lot of crime here. Saw a nearly successful drive-by in my driveway. So there's violence, and there are seedy aspects, and that stuff isn't always hard to find. It's also pretty easy to see the economic conditions that lead to a lot of crime, especially when you know a lot of these kids come from homes where the parents aren't educated. And in a lot of cases it's one parent, who may well have to work a ton as well as raise kids and try to keep it all together. Or they're not living with either parent.

I tend to write about criminals who are just guys doing their jobs as far as they're concerned, and I think it's important in telling these stories to give the reader some background.

Would these stories differ if we picked the characters up and dropped them in, say, Washington D.C.?

I don't know that there'd be a lot of change so long as we're dealing with another city with similar problems. If you tried to put these characters in Kansas, that's a whole other thing. But anywhere with chunks of urban decay, economic and educational problems, and a large illegal drug market? A lot of big cities have those issues - gangs, prostitution, gambling (the traditional gang favorites). But I don't know the details of those other cities.

Your characters do a fair amount of "business management" in local bars and diners. What are your favorite establishments in Oakland?

I drink near work, which is in Berkeley. If I'm close to home I tend to drink at home. Although there is a place in Oakland that sells a burger that's half beef, half bacon, and they have a good beer selection and a full bar. It's called The Telegraph. They also host readings.

Is it easy for you to find inspiration?

Hell, I sometimes take a longer route to work because I get story ideas driving through downtown Oakland.

In THE THINGS I LOVE WILL KILL Me YET, your collection of short stories released this past summer, you explore various settings. Most interestingly, Thanksgiving, 1963. The setting for this story is key. Tell us about why this tale had to take place in Texas.

That's my favorite of my short stories. Pulp Modern had a JFK assassination issue. I rarely write for concept issues, but that's a subject I'm interested in. And I've read a decent amount about it, theories, and the James Ellroy books in particular, and although I haven't read him on it, DeLillo's covered that turf too, so I knew all those angles were already taken. So, I was thinking about it, and I wondered what it would be like to be a Texan during the JFK assassination. Specifically, to be in Dallas. Then I upped the ante by making my protagonist a gun dealer. I mean, this was a Dallas assassination that put a Texan in the presidency. I tried to put myself in the shoes of that particular Texan under those circumstances.

What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2017 and beyond?

I don't know what else might get published this year. I'm currently working on a novel about a struggling career criminal whose marriage is in even worse shape than his career. The working title is Tommy Shakes, and I'll finish a draft probably in the next couple months. When I'm done with the novel I'll probably work on some shorter pieces until I get my book length energy back.

Of more interest to people who've read my earlier books, I have a general idea for a novel about what happens next after WITH the RIGHT ENEMIES. That book will also incorporate elements of VERN in the HEAT and is tentatively titled KEENE FOR BLOOD. I'm not that interested in writing a series that focuses on one character throughout, but I have several characters I'd like to go back to and develop further. Other characters may be peripheral throughout. As long as they're alive, they could show up in the next book.

Mr. Pierce is also editor of Swill Magazine, an editorial consultant with All Due Respect Books, and co-editor at Flash Fiction Offensive, Rob has been nominated for a Derringer Award for short crime fiction. He lives and will probably die in Oakland, California.

Check out all of Rob’s great work.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

It's Gotta Be Rock 'n' Roll Music, If You Wanna Dance With Me

Everything's got to come from somewhere. Rock 'n' roll came from Chuck Berry.

 Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

He talked to Rolling Stone in 1969 about rock's role. “Like any music, it brings you together, because if two people like the same music, they can be standing beside each other shaking and they wind up dancing, and that’s a matter of communication ... so I say it's a means of communication, more so than other music, to the kids.”

Johnny B. Goode, 1958

Reelin' and Rockin', 1972

Nadine, 1987

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Thrill of the Book Hunt

Scott D. Parker

I can still remember the telephone number of my childhood home. Can you?

It’s a funny thing, memorizing telephone numbers. Back in the day, you had either to memorize a number someone gave you or write it down on whatever slip of paper was handy. Now, all you have to do is talk to your smartphone and it’ll do the work for you. Create a contact, type in the name, and, from then on, all you have to do is say “Call Tom Bombadil” and the smartphone does the rest.
You don’t even have to memorize the number anymore. Some might say that’s progress. It is, to some extent. Some might say that something so mundane as memorizing phone numbers can be eliminated from our daily mental lives in favor of something more important. Like watching TV, right?

Back in the day—I’m forty eight now—when there was a disagreement on the playground over the air date of the Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” there was only a few ways to resolve the conflict: either have a copy of Starlog #1—which listed all the episodes and air dates—or a copy of James Blish’s book. Or have someone old enough to remember, but the chances that they would would be next to nil. Nowadays, all you have to do to remember an air date, the singer of this song that just came on the radio but you can’t for the life of you remember who sang it, or the number of quarts in five gallons of gasoline is pull out your cell phone and look it up. Google is fantastic.

But Google is also a crutch. I’ve taken a new tactic when it comes to things I certainly should know or remember but the answer is not coming to me: wait five minutes. Chances are there are two things at work here. One, you probably don’t need the information Right-This-Minute so you can afford to wait. Two, the answer, most likely, will come to you in those five minutes. Then, you’ve avoided the Google crutch and exercised your brain. Win win.

How does this relate to books? I enjoy frequenting used bookstores and I do it regularly. In the age of the internet, I can type in the title of a particular novel that I want to read and locate a copy within seconds. Then, if I truly want the title, I can most likely buy it. Wait a few days and viola! The novel is in my hands. That is immensely cool.

But part of the fun of buying used books is the hunt itself. In the late 70s and early 80s, I searched for the Star Trek Log books by Alan Dean Foster. I ended up finding one on a vacation to Boise, Idaho. The thrill of the find was in almost equal proportion to the concept that I traveled half a continent to find it. I’ve got a low-burn search for all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam books. I don’t have all thirty yet, but I’m getting there. For the longest time, I vaguely remembered from the early 80s. The cover was unique. It showed an image of a rocket being launched but instead of an American flag, it had a Confederate flag. I wanted to find that book.

And I did. In 2001 in Portland, Oregon. The find was accompanied with an incredible thrill of a hunt completed.

The thrill of the book hunt. There’s something to that.

There’s more. A few times, there have been in my hands a book I more or less want to read, but I know that if I take it home that very day, it would just sit there, unread, for weeks or months or years. The key there is “more or less.” If I truly want the book, I buy it. But if I’m wishy-washy, I’ve put it back back on the bookstore shelf, confident that I’ll find it again. Or maybe it was that I wanted the hunt again.

Have y’all ever resisted the urge to click on the internet and just buy a book rather than scour used bookstores? Certainly I’m not the only one who enjoys the book hunt, am I?

What is your favorite book hunt story?

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day Tips

There are only a few things you should never do on St. Patrick's Day, and I'm here to make sure you know  them.

1) Don't drive drunk. You're a grown adult.
2) Don't participate in shitty Irish stereotypes.
3) Don't drink green beer. Seriously, it's whatever the bar's cheapest beer is, with food coloring. Why?
4) Don't rob a bank dressed as a leprechaun.

You heard me.

What the hell is going on here?

Perhaps he felt it was a convenient disguise, and that people wouldn't necessarily balk when seeing a grown man in a short-pants green suit and a top hat. Besides, the fake beard would make for an easy-to-ditch facial disguise. What he didn't count on, I guess, is that people notice giant leprechauns running around, even on St. Patrick's Day.

The police were able to get  a clear picture of his day, I suppose by asking "Did anyone see a giant leprechaun?" And the story doesn't  have a happy ending, either. He and his getaway driver put up chase, but eventually had the ditch their car and run. Details are a little hazy after that, but neither made it out alive.

If you have to choose between drinking green beer like an asshole and robbing a bank dressed like an asshole, I guess drink the beer. But better to do neither.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Perseverance, NaNoWriMo, and the Bad Boy Boogie

I first heard of NaNoWriMo in 2010, and I thought it was crazy. For one, it sounded like Mork from Ork. Nannoo Nannoo? NaNoWriMo?
Secondly, a whole novel in a month? Many have been written in as little or even less time. But those writers were pros, not first time novelists. I chickened out that time, but when November 2011 came around a lot had changed in my life. I was married, and my wife Sarah gave me the kick in the ass required:
"You're always talking about writing that book."
Put up or shut up, Tommy boy.

I hadn't written since college. Shortly after graduated, I'd had a story accepted by Pulphouse Magazine, which promptly folded, and I let that minor setback consume me. That story didn't get published until three years later, in the now-defunct Blue Murder, and the costly and time-consuming process of mailing printed manuscripts, and the rejections, deterred  me from writing. I didn't have the perseverance required. The online crime fiction community brought me back when I discovered flash fiction. A thousand words? Easy enough! I had a knack for it, and a dozen or so publications later and it was November again, with the Big Idea for a novel crowding my head, something I called In the Garage after the Weezer song about a social outcast's hideaway.

Two months later that became a 115,000 word novel called Beat the Jinx (I had just read Josh Bazell's over the top and enjoyable as hell novel Beat the Reaper and felt the nod was a touch of good luck). But good luck it wasn't Beat the Jinx was a big old mess, with a Mary Sue protagonist, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Friday, a confusing combination of revenge story and caper for its plot, and the most interesting character was relegated to sidekick. That version become a "drawer novel" that won't see the light of day, but I took what worked and wrote it into an action-oriented crime drama that drew on my literary heroes James Lee Burke and Richard Stark. Two different ends of the crime spectrum, one lyrical and romantic, the other fiercely driven.

Several drafts later, that book became Bad Boy Boogie, which Down & Out Books is publishing next week. The "exciting" character is Jay Desmarteaux, a Louisiana transplant lost in New Jersey, who has no idea why his parents moved there when he was a child, who joins a group of misfits who suffer the torments of a brutal bully who thanks to small-town politics and corruption can get away with his cruel misdeeds. Until Jay shows up and gives his friends some spine.

The bully is dealt with harshly and only one of them is punished. The outsider, young Jay Desmarteaux, caught in the "superpredator" days when prosecutors sentenced juveniles to Life Without Parole to show that they were tough on crime. Twenty-five years later, the Supreme Court handed down the Miller decision that labeled such sentencing as cruel and unusual punishment. And Jay, who spent his time preparing for a life in prison, is released to find his family gone, his former friends hostile, and someone who keeps trying to put him in the ground. The trail will take him through seedy Newark strip clubs, the Jersey docks still controlled by the mob, and the sheltered castles of political New Jersey power before he finds the truth of his past and why he was the one left swinging, when he stood up for his friends.

My previous novel Blade of Dishonor took 6 months from first draft to final manuscript from my editor. This one took nearly five years. I had found the perseverance I needed. Why?

Bad Boy Boogie was a book I had to write.

Like I say in the dedication, it's a true story but the names have been changed to protect the guilty. That's something Bon Scott mutters on an early AC/DC album, and it fit. So many parts of this book draw from events I experienced, knew from my town and family's history, or had heard whispers of over the years. It's about what some did to get what they have and what they will do to keep it. About growing up working class in the suburb that produced Martha Stewart, clawing your way from nothing and fighting to hang onto the scraps that your betters don't think you earned.

Bad Boy Boogie is out on March 20th, available from local bookstores and the usual retailers.