Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Long and Short of It

Guest Post by Angel Luis Colón

I’m an ex-marathon runner—meaning I have run marathons, plural.

Yes, I am bragging a little.

I’ve probably peaked at coming in 12,000th place at the finish line or wherever, so it’s not like I’m a pro, but in long distance running there’s some great knowledge that’s entirely applicable to writing: short runs help make the long runs better.

Seriously. You TOO can be the Prefontaine of writing. Well, I can't
help with the bitchin' facial hair. You're on your own with that.

I’ve recently come off putting together another novel while my last one’s being shopped by my agent and my brain is pink slurry. Most folks understand novel writing is tough. It takes a lot out of you and sometimes it feels like a hellish slog—like running a marathon (see what I did there?). And after you’re “done”, whether you’re waiting to reread with fresh eyes or have a friend or editor going through that manuscript, the last thing you should do is sit around staring at your dainty fingers. Unless your day job is hand modeling, then I guess you need to get on that manicuring tip ASAP.

Otherwise? You should be writing, damn it.

But Angel, my fingers, they are cramped and beaten from the keyboard slapping! I will never be generic pair of hands #3 in that Tostitos commercial!

Indeed, imaginary failure of a hand model I am addressing, indeed, but you know what? It’s no excuse.

Now is the time to write a short. Be it flash or the standard short story, this is a chance to work a whole different set of writing muscles. Remember, you just wrapped up plotting 60K or more words—connected a skeleton of intrigue and back story, synced chapter 1 with your denouement on page 354, added whole heaps of background for that fella who was only supposed to be around for six pages but took over the back half of the novel. Think about all that space this novel’s taking up. It’s not too dissimilar to the Monday after a 20 mile training run. Your legs are lead, your core (JESUS CHRIST, YOUR CORE) feels like you’ve been taking blows from Tyson, and you can’t lift your arms over your head. Is it the brightest idea to go out and do 21 miles right after?

That’s a lot of work, but a whole different way of writing. Shorts don’t require all that constant effort. And please, I am in no way demeaning the effort it takes to condense an entire story into 6,000 words or, yikes, 700, but there’s something nice about feeling “done” in a quick turnaround. A short is quite literally running a tempo 5K or a 40 minute fartlek (if you Google the latter, spell it right—don’t go blaming me for what turns up if you’re not paying attention).

I also find jumping back to shorts helps my brain dump out all the gunk that novel writing’s occupied through the weeks/months. It provides me with clarity and less pressure. It gives me something to do while I wait for edits or hear word back on whether I wasted my time on 300 pages of gibberish. What’s better: finishing stories and sending them out to publications! Even if you get bad news, it’s an opportunity to further refine those unused muscles. Bonus: when you’re back to the novel and worried you’re still a talentless hack, the occasional short story acceptance does wonders to breathe a little extra life into you. You don’t have to look very far to see a lot of the writers in the crime community not only came from writing shorts but still thrive there. Look on the back cover of any issue of Thuglit, All Due Respect, or even Ellery Queen and you’ll see the names of critically acclaimed novelists with work they put together in the ‘downtime’. Because ‘downtime’ doesn’t mean writing stops. Writing never stops.

The other perk in jumping back to short form: refining your craft. It sort of goes hand in hand with working on running mechanics. You take the chance to try new things out and see what works and what doesn’t. This goes back to my earlier point that writing short pieces is in no way a simple task. Nothing gets you thinking about word economy like going from the infinite space of the novel to the 2x2 jail cell of flash fiction. Can you fit a three act structure into 700 words? CAN YOU?

Um…got any tips? Because that’s not easy.

All the effort you’ll go through with shorter fiction will help you in editing phase and with later long form projects. You’ll learn to get to the damn point and do it in a way that manages to maintain attention instead of droning on and on about frivolous details that will remain frivolous no matter how much you try jamming them in to pad your word count.

And you don’t have to limit yourself to short stories. Blog, write a review on Goodreads or Amazon, hell, do a guest post somewhere people may actually read the lunatic ramblings you’ve put together about the craft of writing. Man, if you’re the masochistic type, why not craft a workout plan where you’ll write out the dreaded 1, 5, and 10 page synopses? Disclaimer: I take no responsibility in what may happen if you actually attempt writing three synopses of various lengths at one time, but I will pray for you and your loved ones.

There are a lot of options and in the long term, all excellent for your work on that big novel. You’ll find that slapping out 250, 500, 1000 words becomes easier, which will help you handle trimming 15,000 words from 100,000 or adding 25,000 to 55,000. Like in running, there is never a mile that should be considered a waste—even if it’s an ugly one.

Angel Luis Colón is the author of THE FURY OF BLACKY JAGUAR. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Derringer and has won an award or two. His nonfiction has appeared in The LA Review of Books, The Life Sentence, and My Bookish Ways. He’s also an editor at Shotgun Honey, home of some of the finest hardboiled flash fiction on the Internet. Find out more or ignore him on Twitter under the handle @GoshDarnMyLife.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spanglish, hyperviolence, and positionality: on writing Zero Saints

Guest Post by Gabino Iglesias

Scott's Note: Today we've got Gabino Iglesias guest posting.  Does Gabino even need an introduction?  I don't think so. Certainly not in the indie crime fiction world.  He happens to have a new novel out, Zero Saints, a barrio noir, and the accolades have been rolling in. I started it yesterday - I'm two chapters in - and I'm kind of annoyed that I'll have to spend a whole day at work today before I can get back to it.  

Anyhow, without any more delay, here's Gabino...

“I didn’t hear those pinches cabrones coming.” That’s the opening line of Zero Saints. The second it was written, I knew I’d started down a weird path and there was no coming back, but that knowledge did nothing to minimize my insecurities or cut down on the number of times I thought about the reasons behind my choice to write a novel in Spanglish. However, I stuck with it. Why? Because we’re living in a great time in publishing, a time in which positionality is being acknowledged in all the right ways, supported by the best indie presses, and accepted as natural by most intelligent readers.

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” Those words by Junot Díaz encouraged me to keep at it whenever I’d start fearing I was going overboard with the Spanish. Thankfully, by the time those thoughts arrived, I’d already decided that my commitment to crime fiction with a message was stronger than my desire to write something that would appeal to most readers. Counterintuitive as it sounds, my commitment stemmed from my appreciation of the times we’re living and the opportunities we have as authors of these times.

Yeah, I know that sounds pretentious as fuck, so let me clarify: I wanted to write an entertaining novel about decapitations, a desperate man trying to battle a really strong, almost inhuman evil, a Russian hitman, magic tattoos, and an unblinking visionero. That being said, I wanted that narrative to carry something heavier than entertainment value. I wanted the novel to explore life after crossing the la frontera. I wanted the novel to be about syncretism, superstition, fear, love, weirdness, hybrid cultures. and a plethora of elements that are part of my immediate reality or my childhood, and Spanglish was part of that. Code switching is part of my everyday life, and writing something that reflected that was something I simply had to do.

The best thing about sticking with it and dropping all those prayers in Spanish is that I feel Zero Saints joins a truly outstanding group of novels that put positionality at the forefront without sacrificing anything. We’re living, and reading, in a time when I can enjoy Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay and see the similarities between someone who belongs to no nation and someone who’s too dark to be white and too light skinned to be black. Life in those interstitial spaces is a unifying theme for many, and when you mix it with the basic elements of crime fiction, you get novels that work on a multiplicity of levels. Furthermore, I can read this novel while having Scott Adlerberg’s next novel in the pile and still celebrating the fact that my hermano Grant Wamack will has joined the Broken River Books roster and will give us his crime debut in 2016. This is diversity. This is great fiction. This is why Zero Saints feels right.

Most folks think of positionality in fiction as something that stands aggressively against the narratives offered by straight white males. They’re wrong. Many of my favorite authors (i.e. Jeremy Robert Johnson, J. David Osborne, Cameron Pierce, Brian Allen Carr, ect.) are straight white dudes. I love what they do. Positionality is something else; the realization that the “I” needs to be hidden sometimes and allowed to take over at others. Positionality is saying that homosexual (and straight!) authors shouldn’t be fearful of writing homosexual characters. Positionality is allowing someone like me to write a novel in Spanglish because that's my reality. Positionality is accepting that a brutally honest book about African Americans in this country will have a healthy dose of racism. Positionality is allowing authors to speak their truths through fiction and accepting it as a unique thing that doesn’t necessarily stand in opposition to another.

A novel is a weird thing that’s born out of our desire to tell stories and then acquires some baggage along the way. At the end of the day, once it’s been polished, it should be whatever the author wants it to be. In my case, Zero Saints is a chunk of reality wrapped in a lot of weirdness and religion and sprinkled with the kind of hyperviolence I’ve come to love in neo-noir. It’s also a narrative that takes advantage of the fact that there are brave indie presses out there willing to put out a book with Santa Muerte, Changó, and Niño Fidencio all thrown into the same universe, just like in real life. That diversity is where I stand, es lo que soy. That rich, beautiful, multicultural mess is what I celebrate and where I stand. The fact that I’ve been given a chance to share all of it is something I’m truly grateful for and clear proof that women, the LGBTQ community, and POC are finally getting a chance to write whatever the hell they want. Yeah, it’s a good time for positionality. Let yours shine. 

You can pick up Zero Saints right here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Best Mysteries of 2015

by Kristi Belcamino

I sort of snickered writing the headline because who I am to say ... but hey, this is my opinion, and I hope you find something you like in the bunch.

The reason I only name eight books—instead of say, ten— is because I have two books out this year, my two best books yet, but I think it would be totally obnoxious to list them as nine and ten, but you can imagine them there in those empty spots if you read them and liked them. Ha. Talk about passive aggressive, right?

But in all seriousness, I think the competition for best mystery book in 2015 is FIERCE and the number of books I've been able to read so far this year has been woefully inadequate. so I know there are many more contenders for this list.

Here is my list, but PLEASE leave your choices or recommendations for me to read in the comments! Thanks!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Week 3

Scott D. Parker

Like Week 2, Week 3 just kept the momentum going. I actually increased the word count over Week 2 but still didn’t match Week 1.

Week 1    16087
Week 2    12096
Week 3    15769

I'm up to 43,952 words. I did a quick comparison of the novel I wrote back in August and realized I reached 50K in that novel in 22 days. I have to write 6,048 words tomorrow (i.e., today when you’re reading this) in order to match that record. That’s not going to happen. After I do tomorrow’s word count, I’ll be preparing for a speech I’m giving at church on Sunday and starting the Great Star Wars Re-watch ahead of the new Star Wars movie next month. But, unlike the August Novel which took me until the middle of September to complete, I aim to finish this book by month's end. It'll definitely be north of 50,000. I just don't know by how much.

The neatest thing I did this week was visit Bayou Bend yesterday. A few scenes of this second Gordon Gardner book take place at the Ima Hogg (yes, real name) manor in the heart of Houston. It’s now a museum and open every day except Monday. I spoke to a librarian and she gave me the titles of a few books I can use for research. I’ll be returning next week to tour the entire property and bring some good historical research to the novel.

The biggest writing challenge this week was having to brainstorm part of the middle section in which I find myself. I’m an outliner, but I also allow the nuances of storytelling to steer me along my pre-determined course. That happened this week. I spent almost all my daytime writing time doing the brainstorming, leaving me to start the daily writing after 9pm. That is not my standard operating procedure, but I got it done. Much happier writing at 5am than 9 or 10pm.

How are your NaNoWriMo projects going?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Ramblers, Let's Get Ramblin'

The first scene in From Dusk Till Dawn is a Ranger and a cashier talking the absolute worst shit you can imagine about a disabled kid. It's cringeworthy and terrible - and quite fucking perfect because when George Clooney pops out of the background and puts a gun to the cashier's head, the viewer doesn't mind one bit. Within seconds the liquor store explodes in an intense gunfight, and you don't even realize you're not rooting for the victims until the Gecko Brothers walk out of the burning building arguing like an old married couple.

I tell people all the time "From Dusk Till Dawn changed my life,"and they think I'm joking. I saw this movie for the first time with my parents, and none of us knew what was coming. I vividly remember both of them cursing my uncle's name for recommending "this stupid fucking movie."

I was exhilarated.

I was thirteen and had never seen anything like any of it. Forget the twist - the raw, unadulterated violence of it, the so-cool-it's-fucking-cold characterization of Seth Gecko, and the terrible unease I felt every time Richie had a scene - it was an awakening. I'd been writing for years at this point, something that had been encouraged by family and teachers, a lauded nascent talent, but I didn't even realize anti-heroes were a thing. To be honest, I didn't realize it when I watched the movie the first time or the fiftieth time. I was along for the ride and the only thinking I had time for was making a list of every Tarantino and Rodriguez film ever made so I could walk down to the video store and rent them (on VHS for 99 cents).

As I've grown up, watching the film over and over again, it's struck me that the real strength in this film is how it makes you love The Gecko Brothers despite them being two of the worst, despicable criminals to grace the screen. Is it controversial to say that no one sympathizes with a rapist? Probably not. But somehow you don't mind rooting for Richie, because the film manages to make you view him through his brother's eyes - is he fucked up? Sick? Wrong? Yeah, but Seth loves him. How much does the viewer have to love Seth to give a fuck about that?

It comes drips and drops. Of course, Seth is fucking cool. Everybody likes a cool criminal. He appeals to the part of all of us that wants to take whatever we want and ignore the needs of anyone but ourselves. Most works of fiction can get a long way on that alone, but if you're going to love him enough to love his brother, there's more work to be done. Seth doesn't want to kill you, but he will - even so, when he opens the door in the hotel room and sees what Richie has done to their hostage his horror is palpable. Seconds later, when he's shaking Richie, hitting his head against the wall, the horror is replaced by true helplessness. As we travel through Texas with the brothers we get to know Seth better. He won't kill unless he has to, he lives by his word, he loves his brother.

The genius part of this characterization, though, is how the film quietly shows everyone around Seth to be much, much worse than he is. The Texas Ranger and cashier come first, but then there is the news reporter grinning like an idiot as she reports on the body count they've racked up. At the Titty Twister, he reflexively knocks out the bouncer who comments on his young hostage's body. Seth may be a real mean motor-scooter, but he's a product of his fucked up world. When it comes time to lay it down and fight for survival, he doesn't let Jacob and his family down - he gladly joins up.

What makes Seth so relatable, so easy to root for, is the idea that he might not be that much worse than anyone else - he's just better at being bad. I mean, what's the big loss if he has to take out a couple assholes just as bad as he is?

A friend (Tony McMillen) once pointed out that From Dusk Till Dawn was just a new (and incredibly fucked) way of telling the story told in Of Mice and Men - El Rey is "the fat of the land", Seth and Richie the George and Lenny - cursed to be tied to one another on their ill-fated journey. Everybody's retelling an old story - Tarantino just added vampires.

There is something truly special about making people who are easy to hate easy to root for. FDTD makes it happen in the first seven minutes.

So yeah, I tell people the movie changed my life because instead of writing poorly realized love stories or Hardy Boys style adventures I was writing alternate endings to the Geckos story, hiding them behind passwords on my DOS word processor. Somewhere along the line I started writing my own characters, and while they may not be as cool as Seth Gecko, I hope they're at least half as tortured, one tenth as sympathetic in light of how terrible my characters tend to be.

Psychos don't explode when they're hit by sunlight, I don't give a fuck how crazy they are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Meet the Baddest Citizen - Interview with S.W. Lauden

by Holly West

By now, you've probably heard of S.W. Lauden. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, dropped on November 3 and people are digging it. I dug it myself. But prior to publication of the novel, he made a name for himself around town by writing bad ass short fiction and blogging, interviewing and promoting other authors. He even interviewed me once, announcing that mine was "probably" the first historical fiction book he'd ever read.

Now it's Steve's turn to wear the princess tiara. He was kind enough to stop by the blog today to answer my insightful questions. Here we go!

HW: Your debut, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION (BCC), is fast-paced, creepy and atmospheric straight out of the gate. Greg Salem, a cop/surfer/punk rock singer, is under investigation for a shooting in the line of duty when his best friend is murdered. In the book, Greg’s past intersects with his present as he searches for the killer. The murder aside, it reminded me of the different phases of my own life over the years—how they overlap and intersect, and how they’ve contributed to who I am now. To an extent, is Greg’s story a reflection of your own life?

SWL: Thanks for having me, Holly! BCC isn't autobiographical, but it's absolutely informed by my own experiences. Like Greg, I spent the early part of my life chasing a career in music, which meant doing a lot of side hustles in order to eat and live indoors. Mostly slinging food and drinks, but I also worked as a journalist here and there.

Once I stopped pursuing music as a career (what's Einstein's definition of insanity again?), I started sifting through the ashes a little. I discovered that I hadn't been particularly successful at any one thing, but I had done some pretty interesting things—at least according to me. That kind of reckoning is really what Greg is dealing with in this book. He's haunted by his past, conflicted about choices he's made and forced to make some tough decisions about his future. It just so happens that he is surrounded by part-time punks, thugs, drug addicts and murderers. Once I had worked through those internal struggles and external influences for him, I knew that I had a book I could relate to and could get excited about writing.

HW: Having lived in South Bay for a couple of years in the early 90s, I can say you captured the feel of the area remarkably well, noting, of course, that it’s changed quite a bit in the last twenty years. What inspired you to write about this location and how did it inform the plot?

SWL: Growing up near the coast in SoCal was amazing, but my life has taken me in different directions since high school and college. After twenty years of mostly living inland I feel like a tourist whenever I visit my old stomping grounds these days. From that perspective, it allows me to compare the blue-collar beach towns of my childhood—filtered through my faulty, romantic memories—with the exclusive, high-end communities many of them have become.

Unlike me, Greg never really left his hometown so he's forced to experience those dichotomies on a daily basis. He's a SoCal native who feels like he's living behind enemy lines, but he's also a punk musician who grew up to be a cop. So I couldn't imagine setting this particular story anywhere else, although in my head The Bay Cities is a fictionalized combination of several SoCal towns including the South Bay, Santa Barbara, Venice, Silverlake and Los Feliz.

HW: BCC has been out for about a week now (two weeks when this interview posts). Tell me, is being a published author all it’s cracked up to be?

SWL: I think that my experiences in the music business—for better or worse—really prepared me for being a "published author". There's always a big difference between the dream and the reality. That said, publishing a book has been a lifelong dream and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I actually did it. So, for the time being, it's pretty mind-blowing. Is there anything better than killing yourself for something you love so much? Ask me again in a couple of years. For now, I'm pretty stoked.

HW: You recently wrote a blog post about being surprised to learn that BCC was, in fact, a mystery, as opposed to a straight crime novel. Brings a (modified) quote from the film Withnail and I to mind: “I’ve written a mystery by mistake!”

SWL: First of all, thank you for reminding me of Withnail and I. What a fantastic movie. I don't remember that specific quote, but the first time I watched it was in a tour van as my band drove across England on a club tour. Our roadie was a really cool English dude who was blown away (gobsmacked?) that we hadn't seen it. I was really hung over that day, like most days back then, and almost threw up because I was laughing so hard. Good times!

Anyway, I knew that murder was going to be a main plot device in BCC from the beginning, but I was honestly more concerned with the character development and their motivations. What I didn't know when I started writing it was that there were so many sub genres within the greater crime/mystery world. Looking back I feel lucky because my ignorance, at least at the onset of this project, kept me from being beholden to any particular genre. More than anything, I wanted BCC to have the energy, intensity and darkness that I've always loved about my favorite punk songs.

HW: Anyway, I think that’s kind of hilarious since I’ve had a similar reaction to people assuming my books are cozies because they’re historical mysteries (which I realize is somewhat different than your situation but overall it’s about genre and our perceptions of it). It’s not that I have a problem with cozies, it’s that readers have certain expectations about the label and my books don’t meet them. I don’t want anyone to be disappointed or offended.

I personally consider mysteries crime novels in the general sense so I refer to myself as a crime fiction writer. If the conversation goes further I say I write hardboiled historical mysteries.

All this to ask: How do you really feel about the fact that you wrote a mystery and not, as you say, a crime novel? Does it even matter? Also, can you ever see yourself writing a cozy?

SWL: Genre matters to me more as a reader than as a writer. I like to have a general sense of what I'm getting into when I choose a book. Of course, it's also fun to be surprised. I thought I was digging into some literary fiction when I picked up Robin Sloan's MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but it ended up being one of the best mysteries I have read in the last few years.

Could I write a cozy? I honestly have to say that it looks much harder than what I currently do. I'm no expert, but anything with that many specific rules seems like it would be difficult for a writer like me. So instead of giving you a straight answer, I'll just quote Romeo Void: "Never say never."

HW: Obligatory geeky writer question: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

For BCC, I started with a plot that I quickly abandoned. My novella, CROSSWISE (coming from Down & Out Books in March, 2016), started as a short story that just didn't want to end. So...I guess I'm a "plotty pants." Is that a thing?

HW: You’ve quickly become known in writing circles as an indie publishing advocate. Is that by accident or design?

SWL: I have always been a fan of Indie music, and I think that transferred over to Indie publishing once I started exploring this world. I love the DIY aesthetic in general, and find it hard not to root for anybody who decides to go their own way instead of seeking out, or waiting around for, the approval of perceived gatekeepers. I also respect writers who take chances, push boundaries and generally make decisions that the mainstream may not fully understand or embrace. Hell, I don't always understand what they're trying to do, but I try my best to support it. Call it a punk rock hangover.

But just as with music, I'm definitely not somebody who scoffs at mainstream success. Get in my car sometime and you'll be treated to anything from Taylor Swift and The Rolling Stones to Ty Segall, Black Flag and Thao Nguyen. Likewise, I'm perfectly content reading HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY KIDNAP STRANGERS by Max Booth III and DIRTBAGS by Eryk Pruitt back-to-back with ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins.

All excellent books, by the way. And they all started out the same way, as far as I know—with somebody sitting down in front of a computer and making shit up. From there it's up to the market to decide. Mostly, I would encourage people who think they want to do it to just go ahead and do it. Start a band, write a book, create a podcast, shoot a movie, go to clown school—whatever. Get weird.

HW: You’ve written quite a few flash fiction and short pieces that are published online. Tell me your favorite, why it’s your favorite, and provide a link.

SWL: Interesting question. I think the answer would vary wildly depending on when you ask, but at this exact moment I would pick "Fix Me." It’s about a bicyclist getting chased by a muscle car through some of my favorite East LA neighborhoods. My violent little love letter to Los Angeles.

I submitted it to a contest for Criminal Element earlier this year and was thrilled when it won. Then a friend who is a director approached me about turning it into a short film. We have been going back and forth on ideas for adapting the script, which has lately allowed me to consider the story from a different perspective. I always try to picture the scenes that I am writing—taking into account the peripheral action that's indirectly influencing the outcomes—but writing for a visual medium is something else all together.

HW: What’s up next for you?

SWL: Late lunch. And maybe a mani/pedi, if I think my boss won't notice that I'm gone for two hours...

I already mentioned that my novella, CROSSWISE, is coming out next year. That one's about an ex-NYPD cop who chases his coke-addict girlfriend to her hometown in Florida. She leaves him shortly after he gets a job as head of security at a sprawling retirement community filled with a colorful cast of septuagenarian characters. He's sad, drunk and lonely until the murders start.

I'm also writing the second Greg Salem novel. BCC was always meant to be the first installment in a three-book series. I'm a little over half way through book two and I have to say it's been fun reconnecting with some of the characters again. It's sort of like a high school reunion, only with a lot more violence.

S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What's Old is New

by Scott Adlerberg

History is cyclical, is one way of looking at things.  Another is to use a familiar phrase like, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

With these thoughts in mind, and considering the current state of affairs involving what's called the Western world and the Islamic world, it's interesting to look at a short suspense novel that dramatizes the conflict in an entertaining but serious way. The book's author is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, and the book is The Tragedy of the Korosko.  Serialized in Strand Magazine from May through December of 1897, the narrative was published as a novel in 1898.

The plot involves a group of Western tourists taking a Nile holiday cruise in North Africa.  This is the time when the British, of course, are the region's colonial power.  The nationalities represented by the tourists are English, Irish, French, and American.  Their trip starts from the village of Shellal, just south of Aswan, Egypt, and it is bound for Wadi Hafa in the Sudan.  The third person narration describes the travelers as a "merry party, for most of them had traveled up together from Cairo to Aswan, and even Anglo-Saxon ice thaws rapidly upon the Nile".  As colonials abroad, Westerners traveling with their late nineteenth century sense of entitlement, who see large patches of the world as their playpen, why shouldn't they be merry?  Except that their trip gets rudely interrupted when a group of Dervish fighters on camels take them all hostage in the desert.  The Dervishes are Islamists, absolute religious zealots, and their leader tells the hostages they must convert to Islam. If they don't, they may be killed. Alternatively, they may be sold into slavery when the troop gets to Khartoum.  In any event the hostages are in deep trouble, and what follows, in Victorian-era style, is an exciting yarn of pursuit and tension as the British army takes up the chase in the desert and tries to rescue the hostages before the kidnappers get them to Khartoum.

There's no question this book is of its time.  Conan Doyle has no qualms about standing up for British imperialism, and for the most part, the Westerners are the victims in the story, the Islamists the villains.  And Doyle can't but help throw a few barbs the Frenchman's way, creating a character who criticizes the British for their expansionist policies.  But it's remarkable how much the overall thrust of the book mirrors the contemporary world.  Doyle wrote the book when many Europeans clearly felt a fear and distrust of Islam, and though the narrative moves fast, Doyle touches on topics as relevant now as they were then: East versus West, Judeo-Christian civilization versus Islamic, the Middle East as danger zone, hostage-taking, religious fanaticism, terror.  There's even a section spoken by a British character that reads, "It's my opinion that we have been the police of the world long enough...We policed the seas for pirates and slavers.  Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilization. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jihad in the Sudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right.  And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals.  We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it?"  Cut out "Great Britain," paste in a certain other country, and does any of this language sound familiar?

The Tragedy of the Korosko has brisk prose and impeccable craftsmanship.  You'd expect nothing less from Conan Doyle, a writer who didn't know how to write a boring line.  You can read the book in one or two sittings, and it's well worth a look both as a snapshot of its time and as an early consideration of a conflict that hasn't changed all that much in over a century.  Question though: when you read a novel like this that seems at once ripped from the headlines of its long ago era and, in its essence, not far removed from today's headlines, do you get depressed at the lack of so-called progress?  I don't know. Some people might. Depends on the person.  But I find that whenever I'm silly enough to think that there's something particularly special or horrific about this age, a good historical story sets me right. It reminds me of the obvious - that, technology aside, nothing much concerning people has changed greatly since...whenever.  Not to minimize horrible actions and events, but I find that a little historical perspective always helps me tune out the shouting, hysteria, and overstatement that fill the air these days.